In For The Kill or Play The Percentages?

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Earlier this week, UFC lightweight challenger Anthony Pettis had a dig at champion Benson Henderson, saying that he’s learned to win by winning rounds, rather than looking to finish fights, as Pettis prefers to do. We’ve also had a Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell stating that he could have kept fighting if he’d been willing to play it safe, but chose to go out on his shield instead.

Given that more than a few fighters who are on impressive championship runs – Benson Henderson, Georges St-Pierre, Dominick Cruz, Demetrious Johnson – tend to win their championship fights via decision (they’ve all shown an ability to finish before their current run) but many fighters and most fans crave the definitive satisfaction of a stoppage, what’s the right angle to take?

In For The Kill

Going for a stoppage has obvious advantages and disadvantages. For one thing, a stoppage win is inevitably a lot less controversial and debatable than a win that is awarded by the oft inconsistent and/or incomprehensible will of the judges.

An aggressive stance is also much more likely to win you fans (hence better sponsorship and career opportunities) as well as putting you in the running for an ‘of the night’ bonus, which as we’ve seen can make all the difference between a payday that’s not really enough or one that’s like winning the lottery…

However, as Bruce Lee would tell us ‘your attack allows me to intercept your attack’ and going for a finish by putting more weight into a punch, throwing a few more blows before circling away or sacrificing position by going for a 50/50 submission can so often lead to a mistake or a punishing counter attack by a top notch opponent.

How many times have we seen someone pressing forward being caught with an incisive counter punch, their takedown countered by a guillotine, their momentum being turned into a match turning throw or their submission failing to come off and them ending up in a worse position than when they started?

In short, going for the biggest reward also imposes the biggest risks.

Play The Percentages

On the other hand, you don’t tend to win fans by grinding out decision victories – see the torn fan opinion on the likes of Jon Fitch, the persistent criticism of GSP and Henderson for not winning in style.

Of course, you can win fans in other ways, specifically by being an entertaining personality (see Sonnen, Chael P. or Barnett, Josh) outside the Octagon, but attempting to be a mouthy heel can be a risky proposition on it’s own and if you fail to entertain in the Octagon, you could quickly become Jacob Volkmann.

Nobody wants that.

Playing the percentages to win rounds doesn’t just mean grinding out wrestling based victories, it can also mean an intelligent use of boxing and movement to out strike an opponent with exposing yourself to undue danger, at the cost of a decreasing likelihood of a knockout punch – this approach has worked well for Dominick Cruz, Frankie Edgar and on occasion, GSP.

It’s no coincidence that half the UFC’s champions, and a high proportion of those possessing gold throughout the sport tend to adopt more cautious approaches. Usually as a champion, you tend to have more experience (especially at the elite level) than you’re challenger and its a truism that a champion needs to be beaten. Split decision wins over a champion lead to rematches while opening yourself to a stoppage may not. Hence, as a champion it’s a better long term decision to play it safe.

It’s also true, in almost all sports that well matched competitors tend to cancel each other out, and this manifests in MMA as fighters being so concerned about not exposing themselves to their opponents acknowledged skills that they limit their own attacking adventures.

A great many fans and media types and let’s be honest, Dana fucking White have a go at fighters who don’t take risks (relatively speaking of course, these are folks who willingly step into a cage with a highly trained opponent who is looking to knock them out in the name of sport – the concept of risk becomes a little fuzzy at that point) and as such don’t tend to provide as much excitement or explosive finishes as their more reckless peers.

I don’t really agree, just like I don’t agree with folks criticising a winning football team who play defensive, possession football rather than risky attacking football. Who cares so long as you win the title (or whatever your realistic goal is)?

Sure, attractive winning play is preferable, but would you accept your team losing because the manager decided he’d rather be pretty than effective? Oh hell no!

My vote…

I’m going to sit on the fence a little here.

Like most folks, I love knockouts, crazy submissions and back and forth wars where both fighters leave it all (and a few pints of blood) in the cage but I can’t demonise someone for utilising a tactic that might not make me cheer, but is damned effective.

That’s sports. It’s not about aesthetics, it’s about winning. If it was about aesthetics, MMA would either be dance or pro wrestling…

That said, it’s advisable for fighters who are not yet at the pinnacle to make themselves stand out – it pays better and it might just get you a title shot on fewer wins than being pragmatic might.

Champions… I can’t really expect them to unnecessarily risk their top billing by striving to entertain at the expense of their carefully devised winning strategy.

So if you’re not the guy (or girl) in your weight class, try and show us something awesome, because we’ll remember you for it, forgive your losses all the easier and demand title shots for you when your streak isn’t as hot at someone else’s…

If you’re the champ, well you’ve got to the top of the maintain, it’s up to the next challenger or the next or the next to drag you out of your safety zone and into a fight.

Oh and whatever path you choose, complacency is not an option. Just ask Anderson Silva…

I’d love to hear your take on this…

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