MMA Champion vs. Challenger: Who Is Responsible to Make It a Fight?
In MMA, just as in other sports, there are rankings and a universal goal. That goal is to rise through the rankings and take your team/yourself to the top and succeed over the rest of the competition. For MMA, it is the championship title. Donning the straps of metal that everyone else strives for, the champion’s road to victory is far from over once they attain the belt.
The true worth of a champion, or to be considered a champion at all, is based on many different factors and subjective criteria. However, many agree upon the idea that in order to be called a true champion, you must defend you title. Just winning it isn’t enough, but defending it and holding onto it marks the true test of a fighter’s resolve and abilities.
The UFC, the premiere organization pioneering MMA into the mainstream and beyond, puts on many major shows throughout the year. It is typical that a PPV event will be headlined by a championship fight, or on rare occasion, two.
Watching a title fight is a special event, but during the fight, which fighter is more responsible for making it a fight? Which corner is more important in regards to making it live up to the expectations of the fans?
One of the most recent and prominent examples to use is the bout between Anderson Silva vs. Demian Maia at UFC 112. Silva, who is famously known for his unorthodox and exciting fights, put on the most criticized and unexpected performances of his career.
The fight started just as any other, but quickly turned into Silva showcasing his superiority to Maia. While it can be argued if his actions were disrespectful in nature, there is no denying his dominance was astounding. The first two rounds were a show of Silva clowning his opponent, and baiting him to engage. Maia, however, did not respond.
The fourth and fifth round came, which consisted primarily of Silva and Maia squaring off, but neither really engaging. Maia became more aggressive than the first three rounds, but still sat back. Silva proceeded to run around and throw small feints, which then resulted in the referee giving him a warning.
The fight ultimately went to a decision in favor of the champ, but left a bad taste in the UFC’s and the fans’ mouths. Dana White was outraged and didn’t understand why Silva didn’t just go for a finish when he clearly was the better fighter that night. A sentiment that is related to Mike Tyson going out and finishing his opponents quickly and decisively, White seemed to expect the same from Silva.
It is historically Silva’s biggest criticism, and the biggest blemish on his career. But while Silva was berated for his fight, there was little to no attention for Maia.
This leads to the question, who in that fight should be held more responsible?
Some feel the champion has a duty to go out there and show why he/she is the champion, and others feel that the challenger should go out there and show why they deserve to be champion. This is a polarizing argument, but one worth looking at and considering from different perspectives.
What is the champion’s job? Is it to get a win, no matter by what means? Is it to showoff and make sure the fight is “exciting”? Is it to look for only a finish? Is it to put on dominating performances that resemble the road to their title attaining? It maybe some or none of these, but the goal is to still have the belt at the end of the fight.
In Silva’s case, the frustration stems from fans that watched a fighter be so dominant and clearly better, but still didn’t put his opponent away. Fans watched Silva and enjoyed his antics for the first two rounds, but the moment the third round came, they were ready to see Silva wrap it up. Silva did not deliver, and did not seem to really try to. This led to some fallout of fans, anger from UFC brass, and what ultimately led him to his biggest rival, Chael Sonnen.
Silva held his responsibility up until the third or fourth round, but disappointed some people’s expectations as the fight drew on.
On the other hand, what is the challenger’s job? Is it to prove he can match the skills of the champ? Is it to get a finish? Is it to engage the champion constantly?
A criticism of Maia could come in the form of disapproval of his course of actions. Maia, who was given/earned the opportunity to dethrone Silva, used his 25 minutes of chance to stand back and not engage. Initially, Maia had attempted takedowns, since he understood his biggest chance was on the ground. When those didn’t work, he was left worried and at the mercy of the champ.
While Maia isn’t usually criticized for his performance that night, one might question if it was Maia’s responsibility to go out there and take it to the champ, moreso than he did. Is it Maia’s job, as the challenger, to go and prove why he is champion material?
On the same note, should a challenger just be looking to squeeze by a win by any means, or should they be trying to really take the belt away in a dominating fashion? Maia might have been trying this with his takedowns, but once it was apparent they would not be efficient against Silva, Maia’s gameplan came to a halt.
One can also ask what Maia should/could have done from that point, after realizing his tactics were futile. Should he have gone at Silva swinging? Should he have charged in with strikes and looked to setup a takedown from a closer range? One can assume he did not do these things in worry of being counterstriked by a man who is famous for it and deadly at it.
But in a relevant case, when Tim Boetsch fought Yushin Okami, there was a desperation that led to a big payoff. Boetsch was being beaten and outpointed, and went into the third round knowing he could not win a decision. If he wanted to win, he had to finish Okami. He came out the aggressor and threw a flurry of punches, which led to his TKO victory and a great comeback.
In relating to Maia’s case, Maia knew early on that his methods would not work. Should he have engaged more? If he had, and Silva did use it to his advantage and finished him, the fight would have been one of Silva’s star performances. So did some of that responsibility fall of Maia?
Of course it isn’t Maia’s job to put himself in a dangerous situation purposefully, but the point is that either fighter could have taken different actions that would have resulted in a “good fight," not just one or the other.
In the fight between Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit, there was great debate over if Condit had done enough to win, if his method of winning led to a tainted victory, and in general was his sticking to his gameplan the right move? Some thought Diaz had clearly won, while others didn’t see him really trying to finish Condit. Both men were in situations where they were fighting for a belt, but which corner should have done something different?
With Silva and Maia, the same question is asked. Who should have done more? Who should have been expected to do more? Or was this all just an inevitable stalemate where Silva did not want to risk going to the ground, and Maia didn’t want to risk engaging and being counterpunched?
If Maia had came out and mixed things up to try to finish, maybe he could have caught Silva. One punch is all it takes. Or if he had put pressure on him, it could have led to a ground war, where Maia could have submitted the champ.
There are many “what ifs” in any previous fight, but it is good to look at them from different perspectives. Silva could have tried to finish more, and Maia could have engaged more. Regardless if someone agrees with one, both, or neither, it’s a debate that won’t likely ever be resolved; but as fans it is beneficial to reflect beyond initial judgment and look at controversy from different angles.
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