Fighting Hard vs. Fighting Smart: Finding the Balance and why Aggression Matters in the Sport

Posted on September 27, 2010

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Two very different fights in two different weight classes at UFC 119 last Saturday night had two very different outcomes. Yet, they both displayed one central theme that is continually debated in the fight community: fighting hard vs. fighting smart.

Smack dab in the middle of the pay-per-view portion of the card was the Welterweight bout between Matt Serra and Chris Lytle. The fight did not have any great implications for the division, save for perhaps giving Lytle an extra boost in his quest to climb back towards relevancy at 170. It was an entertaining fight to say the least, but you’d be hard pressed to say that either fighter fought smart. Lytle dominated the first two rounds, but still went out in the third swinging wildly and taking chances that, against a fighter still in his prime, would have cost him dearly. His opponent, Matt Serra, also put on an entertaining and gutsy performance, but did so at the expense of giving himself a chance to win. He curiously went for the body in the first round, then spent the rest of it slugging it out with Lytle when he would have been much better suited (and may have had a chance of winning it) taking Lytle to the ground. Matt Serra has his strengths as a fighter, but he opted against them so that he could put on a better show.

In contrast was the main event of the evening, a heavyweight bout between Frank Mir and Mirko Cro Cop with much greater implications for both fighters; arguably, a loss for either meant far more than a win. As such, they gave each other a lot of relative distance and respect. They fought safely, with Mir trying to neutralize Cro Cop with clinches against the fence while former knockout artist Cro Cop gingerly spent three rounds feeling out his opponent and trying to find his distance. The result was an atrociously boring and regrettable main event, which considering it ended on a flash knockout via a hard left knee from Mir is saying quite a bit.

In the fight between Serra and Lytle, we saw two men fighting to put on a show that entertained the crowd but could have easily put either out of title contention permanently and, in the case of Matt Serra, most likely did. By contrast, Frank Mir and Mirko Cro Cop fought so tentatively and with such little aggression that even in victory Mir lost, both in terms of his viability as a future contender and in a “knockout of the night” bonus that Dana White withheld as punishment for his performance.

So the question remains: is there a balance to be found between putting on an entertaining fight and fighting smart?

The answer, of course, is yes. How to do that is another matter entirely and not nearly as easy to ascertain.

It may seem at times that the culture of the sport is derivative to it being taken seriously. I’ve written in the past of my frustration with fans, fighters, pundits, and promoters that deride wrestlers for fighting strategically and cry for rule changes to prevent wrestlers from finding success in the sport. In my opinion it’s a ridiculous attitude akinto saying a team in the NFL that gets to the Super Bowl based on superior defense is somehow less of a team, or that the sport needs rule changes so that we see the equivalent of Arena Football every Sunday in the Fall. Yet it’s clear that even the UFC favors fighters who put on gutsy and entertaining performances, even at the detriment of their success within a given weight division. Chris Leben is the perfect example of a fighter who could likely lose (and has lost) three or four consecutive fights and still maintain some semblance of job security.

The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that aggression does matter in MMA, and not just in terms of entertaining fans. There are practical considerations as well.

A fighter’s only going to get so far if he’s unable to finish fights. If a fighter is always working towards a decision win, sooner or later s/he is going to get caught. In the best case scenario, a fighter will get caught near or at the top of his/her weight class and be seen as a gatekeeper, but not a future champion. In a worst case scenario, a fighter will put together a few wins and then lose to an opponent near the bottom or the middle of a weight division, and find him/herself perpetually having to climb back up the ladder. It happens far too often, where fighters are either perpetual gatekeepers or only get so far before getting knocked back down and having to do it all over again.

Nobody wants to be either fighter. In this sport, the goal is to be a champion. And the only way to do that is to get aggressive.

And although it’s often forgotten when fans talk about stats from FightMetric and the amount of strikes landed as opposed to strikes thrown, there are clearly stated criteria in judging as defined by the Unified Rules of MMA established in 1997 by the New Jersey State Athletic Commission. One of those criteria is, in fact, aggression. So conceivably, you could land more shots than your opponent, but if you’re pedaling backwards the entire round and doing stalling while your opponent is constantly pushing forward and setting the pace, you’re likely to (and rightfully should) lose that round.

For those still wondering how BJ Penn lost that first fight to Frankie Edgar, there’s your answer.

Any way you slice it, a fighter needs to be aggressive in order to succeed in the sport. This doesn’t mean that a fighter should go out and swing wildly with his eyes closed. It does, however, mean that whether it’s from a judge’s scorecard or an inevitable right hook, fighting safe is going to catch up with a fighter sooner or later and stall their progress.

Be aggressive, but find that balance so you’re still fighting smart. It’s the only way to become a champion.

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