UFC Fight Night 78 Post-fight patterns: The power of cage time

TUF Latin America II! It was approximately seven ice ages long, but if you managed to make it through, there was a pretty awesome…

By: Phil Mackenzie | 8 years ago
UFC Fight Night 78 Post-fight patterns: The power of cage time
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

TUF Latin America II! It was approximately seven ice ages long, but if you managed to make it through, there was a pretty awesome fight at the end.

Neil Magny pulled off the upset on Saturday. Even if you thought he was going to win, the fight didn’t go as you might have expected. It was the third straight fight that Magny has taken where he was nominally at a grappling disadvantage, and that his main path to victory was in keeping the fight on the feet, utilizing distance and volume. Instead, as against Erick Silva, he went to his perennially underrated grappling game.

As the out-fighter in the match-up he disrupted Gastelum’s rhythm with peppery combinations, but mostly he won the fight from the clinch and on the ground. As we mentioned in our preview, tall fighters tend to focus on the double collar, but Magny is a little more like Jon Jones, using his height advantage to break the opponent’s posture from above by pressing his upper body down onto them, or stretching them vertically by driving his shoulder into their armpit while holding onto his favored bodylock.

A notorious gym rat and one of the busiest fighters around, Magny has developed a number of tricks purpose-built to his frame. A favourite of mine was a sequence where he pushed Gastelum back while holding the front headlock, and then reached his leg back and sneaked in an outside trip on the younger fighter. You can only really do this if you’re taller than your opponent.

Ever since Gastelum won the Ultimate Fighter, where he largely won off his preternatural knack for taking the back and choking opponents, his best skill has been his scrambling and wrestling. Magny was outwrestling and outscrambling him. Distracted by his own attempts to control Magny’s upper body, Gastelum began to consistently lose the underhook battle. At one point, Gastelum hit a gorgeous arm-drag, and Magny immediately attacked the back and swept him.

It wasn’t that long ago that Magny was getting dominated by Demian Maia, something which a lot of people thought might have been the end of an improbable run… but he’s made his UFC career through organic, in-cage growth, and moving on from setbacks like that.

Essentially, whether consciously or not, every fight functions on at least two levels for the fighter in question-

  • Whether they win it or not
  • How what happens affects their development moving forward.
Sparring and training are one thing, but even if you get blown out of the water, having a real grappling match with someone like Demian Maia can be a learning experience you don’t get anywhere else.

Other examples: Johnny Case had a razor close fight against Yan Cabral a couple of weeks ago. He almost lost, but he’s unlikely to fight a better pure grappler any time soon, and that’s valuable experience and confidence. On the weekend’s card, Perez and Fili were both coming off losses where they refused to concede ground to their more specialized opponents and got tapped out. However, Perez’s grappling and his ability to mix it up were what eventually won him the fight against Taylor Lapilus. Sometimes in-cage development is painful, risky and filled with setbacks, but it’s something which has allowed Neil Magny to claw his way into the top 10.

Holm holding back

The idea of balancing short-term vs long-term came up more recently, when Holly Holm upset Rousey, and her camp claimed that she was “holding back” in her prior, less-impressive UFC wins.

It ignited a little bit of speculation, as these things do. Maybe the Preacher’s Daughter had been playing the long con; maybe she’d been sandbagging in a close fight with Raquel Pennington, or the clearer but still underwhelming win over Marion Reneau, to somehow trick Rousey into letting her guard down.

This is obviously nuts, whatever her trainers say. No-one deliberately tries to win a split decision in a sport as unpredictable and unforgiving as MMA. The idea that Holm could have hit her opponents harder, or that she tailed off on her workrate in order to make Rousey underestimate her is crazy.

However, there’s probably a grain of truth in there, in that Holm and the Jackson-Wink team were likely stressing long-term development over short-term benefits. They were never just looking at how she could best win, but were balancing her chances against the long-term changes she needed to beat Rousey. This is something which happens to all dominant champions – Johny Hendricks’ camp talked about how they’d been preparing for GSP for years before they actually got to him. Werdum mentioned the same thing with respect to Velasquez.

This was clear even before the Rousey fight.

Whether rigorously managing distance against fighters where a little more aggression would probably help, or attacking superior grapplers on the mat, sometimes the story of a single fight feeds into the development of a career as a whole.

Rediscovering aggression

One of the reasons why aggression is so prized in developing fighters is because it’s something which is hard to teach, and something which inevitably fades over time. This is just how people are and how they work. Whether you want it to or not, the wonderful learning machine that is your brain will start to figure out that it doesn’t want you to go into certain situations because bad things will happen. Even Diego had his moments in the fight with Lamas where he looked cautious or tentative.

Gastelum has always been more of a game-day performer than a gym workhorse. Despite being notorious for weight issues and not taking camps seriously, he generally keeps a ferocious pace. However, Gastelum’s level of aggression has dropped a bit in recent fights. Discounting his performance against the ghost of Nate Marquardt, it felt a bit like his offensive focus had declined against Tyron Woodley. Against Magny, once again the Gastelum who had pressured Rick Story didn’t look to be there.

Kelvin came in on what he said was the best camp of his career; had watched his weight; was training with the elite at King’s MMA. Master Cordeiro is amazing at teaching controlled aggression, but his team is closer to a “break’n’build”, strategic development gym than a “polishing”, tactical one, and  it seemed like Gastelum was still in the breakdown stage, and still a little tentative. Between rounds, Cordeiro was keyed in on what needed to be done.

“We don’t have to wait for him to go first. He’s scared of your hands. You don’t have to wait for him. Don’t respect him moving forward, you go forward… you saw his movement, his jab… if you have contact, counter him! Don’t let him throw 1,2,3 and 4! Don’t! One, OK! Two, too much!”

Cordeiro wanted Gastelum to force Magny back, and to interrupt him before he could get off the pattering combos which the taller fighter was using; throwing the counters on a trigger as soon as Magny touched him.

Gastelum did. He hit Magny with a concise left hand on a break and then as Magny stepped back, he leaped forward with a right hook and put him down. The limescale crusting his pressure game seemed to fall away, and he surged. Even if Magny had been on short notice, Gastelum still never would have been expected to dominate the late going the way he did. Towards the end of the fight, at the tail-end of a disappointing year, it seemed like Gastelum was finally realizing who he was.He still lost, just about, but if there’s anyone to show him the value of a loss, and the way you can build off what happens in a cage, it might be Neil Magny.

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Phil Mackenzie
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