When Thomas Almeida and Cody Garbandt meet in the main event of UFC Fight Night 88 in Las Vegas, they will do so as two of the most exciting prospects in one of MMA’s most exciting divisions. Almeida in particular has earned the reputation. Over the course of four and a half years, “Tominhas” has compiled a record of 21 wins without a single loss. All but two of those wins came via finish, and 16 of those finishes occurred in the very first round.
As Almeida climbs the bantamweight ranks, his competition becomes more experienced, and more dangerous. No longer fighting on the Brazilian regional circuit, Almeida has already learned a few hard lessons. Wrestler Tim Gorman proved a surprisingly difficult test in Almeida’s UFC debut, changing the landscape of Almeida’s face with a stiff jab even as the Brazilian ran ahead on the scorecards. In July of 2015, veteran bruiser Brad Pickett floored Almeida twice before succumbing to his power in the second round.
Thomas Almeida had a tough time with Brad Pickett – Photo by Joe Camporeale|USA Today Sports
Fighter development is a nebulous thing. We often think of fighters as commodities, objects that can be deliberately molded and changed over time. The influence of a good team and smart matchmaking cannot be discounted, but the truth is that fighters are human beings, possessing all the flaws and shortcomings inherent to our kind.
A truly promising prospect is a double-edged sword. Most of the best prospects end up dominating their opponents as they make their run to the elite. Then, once they’ve arrived, they are faced with the uncomfortable reality that such tactics won’t work all the time against the new class of opponent.
This is the reason behind the so-called “prospect loss.” If a young fighter is properly tested, this kind of defeat is a virtual inevitability. Sage Northcutt enjoyed a string of quick and easy finishes before he was submitted by the durable and crafty Bryan Barberena. Alexander Gustafsson was a young knockout artist with a rapidly improving grappling game when he learned the risks of rolling with a superior wrestler in Phil Davis. Even the great Georges St-Pierre succumbed to the veteran savvy of Matt Hughes, after dominating the rest of the welterweight division so thoroughly that he was rushed into a title shot.
Typically these are valuable lessons for the losers. St-Pierre returned to become the greatest fighter in the history of MMA. Gustafsson went on to establish himself as a top light heavyweight and twice brushed fingertips with the belt. And Northcutt committed to training full-time at Tristar MMA after falling to Barberena–working with one of the best teams on the planet, he will almost certainly employ a more measured approach in his next fight.
Thomas Almeida got lucky. His first big test was the fight with Pickett, and he managed to claw his way back from the brink after being staggered several times in the opening minutes of the bout. The lesson seems to have stuck, too. Almeida’s next fight was against underrated scrapper Anthony Birchak, a heavy-handed wrestler willing to trade blows in the pocket. Instead of wading in and forcing the action as he had against Pickett, Almeida was patient. He found his distance and countered Birchak’s rushes. He even backed off after stinging Birchak with his trademark overhand elbow when it became apparent that Birchak was still wary enough to fire back. Rather than trying to force the fight into the shape he wanted, Almeida convinced Birchak to tie his own noose. And the knockout materialized as a result.
Optimistic fans would view this as an incontrovertible change for the better. Almeida learned from his mistakes, and put himself back on the right track.
But for how long?
A fighter’s mentality is cyclical. In the world of combat sports, is is said that a fighter is only as good as his last fight. This is typically understood to mean that fans have short memories; they fail to understand that styles make fights, and write off skilled fighters after unexpected losses–or put too much faith in young fighters after marquee wins.
But fighters are people too. And their minds work in much the same way. A devastating loss, or even a string of pedestrian ones can shatter the confidence of even the toughest pug. On the other hand, a big win can bolster the ego. Each victory builds the fighter’s self assurance, piece upon piece–until the structure becomes too tall for its own good, and a stiff breeze sends it tumbling to the ground.
We see this all the time on the championship scale. Recently Fabricio Werdum all but threw away his UFC title by rushing recklessly after challenger Stipe Miocic, apparently absorbed in the belief that he could not be knocked out–until he was.
The sport of boxing has provided countless examples of this pattern. George Foreman was riding high when he met Muhammad Ali in Zaire in October of 1974. He had just knocked out Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, the last two men to beat Ali. He seemed unstoppable. He felt unstoppable. And he poured out his energy so vigorously in the effort to stop Ali that he succumbed to exhaustion in the eighth round, and was dispatched.
Muhammad Ali let George Foreman dig his own grave in Zaire – Photo by Barry Jarvinian|Getty Images
Wilfredo Gomez was an undefeated force of nature with a 97 percent knockout ratio when he stepped into the ring to face Salvador Sanchez in August 1981. Despite moving up in weight for the fight, Gomez had a miserable time cutting the last four pounds to make the featherweight limit. Overconfident and underprepared, he was knocked down thirty seconds into the first round, before falling to a flurry of punches in the eighth.
The phenomenon is not limited to champions and challengers, however. Young fighters like Almeida also grow overbold in the afterglow of their victories. This may have happened to Almeida when he faced Pickett. But remember, a fighter is only as good as his last fight. As the memory of that first test fades, so too does the important lesson it bestowed.
Muhammad Ali was not the last opponent with whom George Foreman brawled. Wilfredo Gomez compiled a nine-fight winning streak after the Sanchez loss, only to brawl with Azumah Nelson and suffer another devastating knockout, despite leading on two of the judges’ cards. And then there’s Werdum. Six fights removed from an embarrassing loss to Alistair Overeem, he nonetheless fought Miocic with unwarranted bravado, and possibly less than optimal preparation, and paid the price.
As for prospects, Warlley Alves seemed to have learned his lesson after squeaking by with a narrow victory over Alan Jouban, much in the same way that Almeida struggled to overcome Pickett. But it only took two more victories for Alves to go back to his brawling ways against Bryan Barberena, the same man who bested Sage Northcutt. Alves suffered a similar fate.
Such is the poison of dominance.
Should Thomas Almeida wallop Cody Garbrandt on Sunday, the cautiously aggressive approach that led him to victory over Birchak may well evaporate. There is also the chance that, still exhilarated by his most recent success, Almeida forgets the method behind it and ends up on the wrong end of Garbrandt’s venomous punches. Or, he could fight well and just get caught. The fight game is funny like that.
Fortunately, Almeida is only 24 years old, with less than half a decade of combat under his belt. Lessons may be learned and forgotten, but Almeida has more than enough time for the warnings to set in, however many it takes. Already he seems to be building a deeper defense to complement his aggressive striking, and the quality of his experience thus far cannot be discounted.
There is a reason, though, why I hesitate to place too much belief in Almeida just yet. He looks like a world-beater, like the next big thing. Like a future champion. But I’ve watched too many ups and downs in the ring and cage to forget the narrowness of the path dominant young fighters like Almeida walk. I know that a fighter is not necessarily as good as his last fight.
But does Thomas Almeida know that?
For a technical analysis of Almeida vs Garbrandt and the rest of the stacked Fight Night 88 card, check out this week’s episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.
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