Pace is a killer and at its best it is a surprisingly subtle one.
It is not the punches stemming from the whirling dervish in front of a fighter which catch him unaware. No, they are ever present and easy enough to weather. It is the soul-sapping fatigue which sneaks up on him, accompanied by that terrible sense of urgency.
Every moment that his opponent is doing more, even with little effect, the fighter is falling behind. A ticking clock has been set on his performance. He must somehow find an opening in that cloud of offense and land the counter which will end the fight.
But everything that he believes or has been told about aggression−how it opens a fighter up to easy counters—suddenly seems to have been a lie. If he defends himself, he falls further behind. If he opens up to attack, he is holding a door open in the storm.
The greatest fighters of every generation have hit the same wall at some point in their career. A skilled, powerful veteran can be in with a man with half as much power and a quarter of the skill, but can be brought down by the brutal and unrelenting grind of the bout.
The fighter with pace has a weapon which no level of technical skill can negate. When a fighter is in with a Cain Velasquez, a Sean Sherk, a Ricky Hatton, a Nick Diaz or a Henry Armstrong, it is a case of getting the job done early or finding a way to keep them off for the entire fight.
Every professional fighter in the world makes it habit to prepare to fight for the full scheduled length of their bout, to bank on an early knockout would be foolhardy. Benson Henderson regularly describes his preparation for a "25-minute controlled explosion."
Every fighter, however, inevitably prepares to fight the full length of their bout in the style which comes to them the easiest. Preparing for 25 minutes as Anderson Silva or Lyoto Machida is not preparing for 25 minutes as Cain Velasquez or Sean Sherk.
To put it another way, some of the finest technicians have been relatively inactive fighters in the ring. There is a difference between the 70-plus punches a round that Roberto Duran threw against Sugar Ray Leonard in their first bout, and the sub-30 punch rounds that Bernard Hopkins often has.
Equally, there is a difference between the 60 strikes over 25 minutes that Anderson Silva attempted against Demian Maia, and the 339 strikes and 33 takedowns that Cain Velasquez attempted against Junior dos Santos in their second bout.
Obviously they are very different fighters who were matched against very different opponents. Anderson is a more accurate striker, while Cain is a volume striker. The key word though is attempted. We remember Dos Santos being taken down over and over in that bout, but Cain was working at only a 33 percent success rate for his takedowns.
Often in the fight world, in a bout between two good technicians, both will become less active, thinking of each punch thrown or takedown attempted as an opening given to the opponent.
What is admirable is the fighter who makes the realization that landing a perfect counter is hard. Landing a perfect counter while being swarmed on with offense and dropping rounds is even harder.
Velasquez was absolutely willing to look like a fool on the first two takedowns he attempted in the bout. Diving for Dos Santos' leg and clinging onto the low single as Dos Santos worked out of the attempts. The important thing to note is that takedown defense in the opening round is not indicative of how the wrestling will look throughout a fight.
Too many fighters are put off by the stuffing of a shot, when in actuality they should consider the effort that the other fighter has to expend to prevent the takedown.
I wrote an article before the second Velasquez versus Dos Santos bout in which I outlined how Cain's plodding approach on the feet and bolt upright stance made him easy to hit on the way in. What happened in the rematch was that Cain's constant threatening of the takedown and level changes actually served as effective head movement in their own way, mitigating Dos Santos' counters.
Furthermore Cain's constant aggression forced Dos Santos to look for counters which just weren't as easily available.
Dos Santos, despite having much better cardio than most heavyweights in MMA (though that is also true of many chain smokers), is a controlled and thoughtful fighter who excels in measured, technical fights. In Dos Santos' bout with Mark Hunt—which everyone should have seen by now because it was magnificent—Dos Santos was troubled by Hunt's counters early, but sussed Hunt out and began dropping the hammer on him to pick up a late stoppage.
Hunt obliged Dos Santos by allowing him time and space to work his man out. Measured exchanges against a better boxer really do just give him time to work. What Velasquez did so well against Dos Santos was to force his hand.
Dos Santos was working in small windows between takedown attempts and began looking for counters which just weren't there, allowing Cain to beat him up even more on the feet. The most underlined case of this came near the end of the first round as Dos Santos looked to land a counter jab while retreating which only served to give Velasquez a cross counter.
The true downside of constant, swarming pressure is that it is an all in game. Every round must be fought as intensely as the rounds before it, there is no taking a break for a round because that is giving the opponent time to recover from any effect the assault might have had.
A boxer can throw sixty punches a round and find nothing but his opponent's forearms for the first six rounds. If he changes strategy he has simply exerted a great deal of energy and not reaped many of the benefits. In the UFC it is similar with the many wrestlers who refuse to attempt another takedown after their first is stuffed.
Not many will admit it, but Sean Sherk had the tools to give BJ Penn fits, but he attempted a takedown, failed and then decided to box with Penn for the rest of the bout. Knowing Penn's reputation for fading, and that his wrestling and cardio were his greatest strengths, Sherk should have been jumping on legs constantly but instead threw his title away.
There is a wonderful tale from Ricky Hatton's corner when he was fighting Luis Collazo which sums up the draining effect which high pace can have even on the guy driving it. Like many great boxing quips it could be entirely fictional but it sums up the game nicely.
Reportedly Hatton made a remark to the effect that he was struggling to find the mark much against the wily southpaw. One of his seconds responded "Keep swinging Ricky, maybe t'breeze will give him hypothermia."
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.