UFC Fight Night 36 Ex Post Facto: Machida, Mousasi, and the Brutal Chess Match

February 17, 2014

Machida vs MousasiIn watching UFC Fight Night 36, one can’t help but notice the staggering disparity between the number of finishes versus the decision tally. There were two finishes – a submission by Charles Oliveira and a knockout by Erick Silva – compared to 10 decisions.

If you don’t have UFC Fight Pass, this probably wasn’t all too bad for you because the two finishes came on the televised main card, after a preliminary card that had all of its fights go the distance. And if you were on Twitter at all during the prelims, you probably saw the #NoFinishFebruary hashtag floating around out there.

Social media slammed UFC Fight Night 36. This fight card, combined with the previous card, UFC 169, totaled 24 fights where 20 of those bouts went to the judges to decide the fates of the fighters. You never want to leave in their hands, right? But the reason for not wanting to go to the judges in today’s MMA era extends beyond preventing the sense of being robbed by a judge; nowadays it’s about avoiding a public shaming.

Today’s MMA fan base eats up the sport for their enjoyment, and the word “decision” is like a garnish no one wants on their plate. Yet, without said garnish, the recipe has no balance.

It started with Georges St-Pierre and his consistent habit of fighting for 25 minutes towards decision wins from 2007 to when he stepped away from fighting (retirement?) in 2013. GSP was hammered and criticized in that run, which included, much like UFC Fight Night 36, two finishes to 10 decisions.

Out came the pitchforks.

GSP, however, built a reputation of putting the fight exactly where he wanted and not giving in to his opponent’s game plan, a trait few know how to accomplish and even fewer have mastered. It’s basically a technique like any other in martial arts, only it’s more cerebral than brutal.

Another guy who’s been on the receiving end of criticism for his strategy is Saturday night’s main-event winner, Lyoto Machida. He, in typical Machida fashion, worked to stay around the outside and move laterally to avoid strikes. The stat sheet might show that Mousasi landed more significant and total strikes, according to FightMetric, but the tempo of the fight was solely controlled by Machida.

For Mousasi, it’s safe to say that he put up a fairly competitive offense against a guy that moves far better than a majority of the UFC middleweights. Machida is a fencer, jumping in and out of striking range, lunging forward when the moment is right. Nearly every moment that happened, Mousasi made sure to hit him where it counted. His only problem was that Machida dealt it out just as much, while at the same time dictating the tempo.

Statistics like strikes, knockouts and TKOs don’t tell the entire tale of a fight. Although they can surely assist with determining who was the better man or woman in the cage during the fight in question, they can’t be the absolute metric.

The two implemented their strategies like generals on the battlefield, cautiously observing their opposition in an effort to find the weak spot and opportune time to strike. No field general with any sense would throw his entire arsenal all at one time, as is the case with Machida and Mousasi. Those who consistently throw all their resources in at once, always looking for a first-round finish through taking their opponent’s head off don’t last long in this game.

But let’s not give the impression that Machida and Mousasi don’t go for finishes. It’s not that they didn’t try to knock each other out on Saturday night; it’s that their opponents are good enough not to get caught.

Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, like Machida, applied a game plan that worked for him during Saturday’s co-main event. Despite being outstruck in the second round, Souza controlled a majority of the fight and continued his process of establishing himself as one of the UFC’s upper-tier middleweights.

Shocker: Jacare won a decision.

With the dust settling, both Machida and Souza are calling for title shots in their next fights. But with middleweight champion Chris Weidman gearing up for a defense of his title against Vitor Belfort in May, Machida and Souza might have to wait in the wings for an opportunity at the gold.

While Weidman and Belfort settle their differences and recover from the war they’ll engage in this May, the better opportunity for Machida and Souza would be in fighting each other. That fight’s result would present the MMA world with a clear No. 1 contender, and the timing would land the winner a title fight some time in the late summer or early fall.

Since technique is so vital to their in-cage approaches, it’s likely that the Machida-Souza match may play out the same way Machida and Mousasi did: two chess players looking to king the other. If that’s the case, expect another 25 minutes of strategy mistaken for a snooze fest.

Another decision, another chess match, and that’s just fine.

(Follow @Erik_Fontanez on Twitter)

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