Looking at TJ Dillashaw's Title Win And The Evolution of MMA
Posted by Robert Winfree on 05.30.2014
In the wake of TJ Dillashaw's upset win over Renan Barao at UFC 173, 411's Robert Winfree examines where MMA has evolved to, where it might go and what it might look like!
Hello everyone, nice to see you back and getting Locked in the Guillotine again. I'd encourage you to check out the 411 Ground and Pound radio show, hosted on the Radulich in broadcasting network. It goes live every Sunday at 8pm eastern time. The network is home to a variety of great podcasts, give them a listen while you read this, or go about your daily lives. There are many worse ways to kill time.
Last Saturday those who watched UFC 173 saw one of the more substantial upsets in the, somewhat brief history, of MMA. TJ Dillashaw spent four and a half rounds beating up Renan Barao en route to finishing him with strikes in the fifth round. Dillashaw was nearly an 8-1 underdog, Renan Barao was on an unbeaten streak longer than many careers and hadn't come close to losing in his entire tenure with Zuffa. The performance, combined with Joe Rogan's cheer leading from commentary, was incredibly frustrating to watch to anyone who is familiar with truly high level striking. I cringed inwardly every time Rogan would exclaim that Dillashaw looked like a world class kick boxer, simply because it's not true. The volume of things Dillashaw did wrong, from a pure striking perspective, was quite lengthy. He constantly crossed his feet while moving, his hands were almost never in proper guard position, his head movement was almost non-existent, on frequent occasions he would begin combinations with an uppercut from the rear hand, and he was generally open to counter strikes. Renan Barao couldn't capitalize on any of these mistakes, but if you put that same performance from Dillashaw in a ring with a truly world class kick boxer he would be massacred. Yet Dillashaw was wildly successful. Is Renan Barao just not as good as we all thought? Is Dillashaw that much better than he's shown in his career up to this point?
This happened a lot during the main event of UFC 173
The answer is, a little bit of both. The reason for that is two fold, MMA is still evolving and truly high level MMA is still something of a mystery. While all encompassing fighting has a history dating back to the ancient Greek art of pankration, it hasn't been seen much over the last couple hundred years or so. While boxing has undergone a couple of different rule changes, wrestling developed into three distinct styles, karate (used here as a catchall phrase as opposed to specifically referencing the Japanese based martial art) had multiple disciplines that were taught only to family members and close associations of the family, Brazilian jiujitsu started up as an offshoot of the ancient discipline of judo, the notion of complete fighting was essentially relegated to arguments about which discipline was superior or how certainly rules restricted the best elements of other disciplines. In boxing you could only punch, in wrestling, judo, and jiujitsu you couldn't strike, western kick boxing didn't allow the use of elbow strikes while muy thai promoted both elbow and knee strikes as well as fighting from the clinch position. All the disparate disciplines that have come to, relatively recently, form MMA have rich traditions, decades and decades of analysis, stylistic evolutions, and thousands of people devoting time and energy to crafting the perfect execution within each discipline. MMA, as we understand it, isn't even legal in all fifty states here in the United States of America. Even within the Zuffa era of the UFC we have seen remarkable evolution, just a few years ago a fighter obtaining full mount was a virtual death sentence and if you could move your opponent into the fence on the ground, you did so. Today we regularly see fighters escape being mounted and taking your opponent down against the fence is more inefficient than getting them on their back in the middle of the cage. Who knows where the sport will move on to in the next five to ten years, because it's come a long way in the prior ten years.
Unfortunately while the sport and its participants and coaches evolve, we are left with what MMA is right now. Right now MMA is a horribly patched together quilt of various styles and philosophies. How valuable is a takedown? If in top position, is side control or half guard better? Should you use a high volume of strikes or wing power shots to the head of your opponent when striking? Is a leg kick worth throwing? Is being on top in full guard more valuable than being on bottom and working for an attack or a sweep? Fighters, coaches, even MMA judges, don't have a cohesive grasp on these issues. The result is a very uneven and at times highly frustrating presentation. MMA has become something of a refuge for people who have reached the ceiling of a particular discipline. A kick boxer who can't cut it at the top of that discipline will transition to MMA. A wrestler who couldn't compete internationally, or in some cases at the collegiate level, has reached the end of the road with that skill set and can either coach or try his hand at MMA. Even those who find success internationally can't do so forever, and are presented with the same options, coach or try fighting. Precious few have the aptitude or inclination to move from legitimate competition to the entertainment ranks of professional wrestling. We also have an entire generation of fighters who grew up idolizing Chuck Liddell and his myriad of bad habits. There's a reason Liddell lost five of his last six fights, four of those by (T)KO, people had figured out the holes in his striking game, plus years of fighting a style that allowed him to be hit in the head caught up with him. We are only now starting to see fighters enter MMA who aren't transitioning from another discipline, and even some of them present bad habits.
An object lesson about starting a combination with an uppercut from the rear hand
MMA is a complex and evolving animal, the traditional boxing stance doesn't work, your lead leg is wide open for either a single leg takedown or to be kicked out from under you. Muy Thai clinch work can be exploited by a wrestler who knows how to pummel through to a traditional greco clinch. Many traditional jiujitsu techniques off of your back are inefficient because of time constraints, and the fact that you will constantly get punched in the face. A wrestler with no idea how to set up takedowns in a real fight will find themselves wasting tons of energy shooting from the outside and getting punched in the face along the way. We have seen perhaps as few as two or three fighters who were able to take the best elements from the disparate schools of thought and weave them into something approaching high level MMA. Anderson Silva was able to cut through competition with precision striking and a violent killer instinct, but he struggled with powerful wrestlers and keeping proper defensive posture. Fedor Emelianenko dominated every bit of competition he faced for over a decade, yet couldn't seem to throw a straight punch or use defensive head movement. Jon Jones has displayed creative violence and an ability to beat his opponent anywhere, yet by his own admission is newer to the jiujitsu game and can't seem to circle instead of backing up in a straight line. The closest we've come to seeing all encompassing MMA is Georges St-Pierre. GSP was able to seemingly effortlessly move from grappling to striking, mix striking techniques from different disciplines, and win a fight wherever it was taking place. The biggest criticisms of St-Pierre were a somewhat questionable chin and low finishing rate, but from a technical stand point, what St-Pierre did during his career is what high level MMA is likely going to resemble if it keeps evolving.
The most complete fighter in MMA history?
Last Saturday TJ Dillashaw comprehensively defeated Renan Barao to become the UFC bantamweight champion. He did it while violating a slew of technical standards for striking. But it worked. Has Dillashaw found a formula that more fighters will be adopting? Was Barao just not technically sound enough with some of those striking fundamentals to take advantage of the openings presented? I don't know, but I do want to see what happens next.
Robert Winfree is a libra, long time contributor in the MMA zone of 411mania.com, host of the 411 Ground and Pound radio show every Sunday at 8pm eastern time, and current live coverage guru of 411mania.com