There is a saying that goes, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," and I believe this is truer in MMA than in any other sport. We have seen some of the sports greatest fighters fall to competition that most would rule out completely. Fighters study opponents to learn their movement, habits, technical deficiencies, and strong points. They glean ideas from their own past experiences, thus strengthening their own weaknesses. Many pick out specific camps to learn the proper skills to neutralize their opponents with different techniques and develop game-plans for the likely outcomes of the fight to come. However, these same men who put in countless hours of effort into the proper strategy often see themselves rattled by the unexpected, when they're seemingly lower caliber opponent shocks the world with an upset victory. In this article I will be focusing on my three favorite (and in my opinion some of the most devastating) upsets in MMA's recent years.
The fights I put my focus on are Tyson Griffin vs. Takanori Gomi at UFC Live: Jones vs. Matyushenko, Fabricio Werdum vs. Junior dos Santos at UFC 90, and of course Fedor Emelianenko vs. Fabricio Werdum at Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Werdum. These three fights, in my opinion, best illustrate how the best strategies don't always end up being the best decisions. DISCLAIMER: This article offers no excuses for the following men. Far be it from me to start any commotion in my first article. All I seek to do here is show the logic behind the decisions made in these fights, and how I believe they were sound choices that were ultimately countered by a better prepared opponent.
Undoubtably, Tyson Griffin is one of the UFC's most talented and entertaining fighters. At only 26 years of age he has amassed an impressive record. In the UFC alone he holds 5 Fight of the Night honors and a Submission of the Night victory. He holds knock out victories over Hermes Franca, Duane Ludwig, Urijah Faber (his first career loss). Coming into his fight with Gomi, Griffin had only lost by decision to extremely talented opponents in fairly competitive fights. Gomi on the other hand had just been completely dismantled by Kenny Florian en route to a submission loss via rear naked choke. Known for his punching power, Gomi failed to achieve any real success on his feat were Florian dominated him with quick jabs, hard body shots and solid footwork. Two fights prior to that, he was submitted by Satoru Kitaoka by achilles hold in just over 90 seconds. Taking into account Griffin and Gomi's last fights, two things seemed clear: Griffin's hands had improved while Gomi's were lacking and Griffin's ground game was still to be reckoned with while Gomi's was shaky at best. Looking further into the matter, at one point in Griffin's fight against Frankie Edgar, Griffin had Edgar locked in a solid kneebar similar to the position Gomi found himself in against Kitaoka. Griffin started the fight smart, landing some crisp punches on Gomi. His stance was low in what I took as a sign that he was planning on opening up Gomi with shots to prepare for a takedown where Griffin would be in his element. Gomi landed some hard lefts to the body, but Griffin was well prepared for the southpaw's vicious left hand. Suddenly, amidst throwing a leg kick Tyson was caught with a sledgehammer of a right hook that dropped him flat on his face. Gomi followed up with some short lefts to his downed opponent to seal the deal. By all means, Griffin had a solid strategy going into this fight. He was well prepared to fight a south paw, he was using his striking to create openings, his stance was low in anticipation of the shoot, but in the end he suffered the fate of many MMA practitioners; he was punched in the face really hard, by a man who punched really hard.
This next fight saw a similar outcome to that of Gomi vs. Griffin, albeit for different reasons. This is the tale of Fabricio Werdum and the right hand of Junior dos Santos. Fabricio Werdum in my opinion is one of MMA’s most underappreciated fighters. He’s had impressive victories over Alistair Overeem, Akeksander Emelianenko, Gabriel Gonzaga, Brandon Vera, and Antonio Silva. Most UFC fans discount Werdum’s worth because of his brutal loss to Junior dos Santos at UFC 90, but they fail to realize the circumstances that played into that loss. Junior dos Santos entered this fight as a relative unknown who was only one fight out of a submission loss to an underwhelming fighter by the name of Joaquim Ferreira. Ferreira’s jiu jitsu credentials pale in comparison to Werdum’s so he did the reasonable thing to do when he faced dos Santos. He came out tentative throwing the occasional leg kicks. When dos Santos got close he clinched and tried for the take down. When that failed, he tried to use his recent Chute Boxe trained striking skills to take the fight to dos Santos. With the backing of a camp that produced the Rua brothers, Gabriel Gonzaga, Thiago Silva, Anderson Silva, and Wanderlei Silva, that probably seemed like a great idea. While dos Santos motioned to throw a left jab, Werdum threw a counter overhand right; a move that made total sense. What he failed to realize was that dos Santos' movement had set him up for the perfect uppercut. With Werdum's momentum drawing pulling his head downward and dos Santos' entire body mass forcing his right arm upward, the two points inevitably collided. Thus reducing Werdum into a motionless lump, crumpled in the center of the Octagon. Werdum's strategy in the fight was reasonable. Throw leg kicks to slow his target down, initiate the takedown, if that fails then try to strike. Unfortunately, "Cigano" was prepared to counter that effort with all his fight. Mind you, this was the fight that put dos Santos’ power on the map in the first place and the uppercut is not regularly seen in most MMA fights (not to say it is a rare punch but it is certainly seen more often in dirty boxing). Werdum didn't show any weakness, but a failed calculation on his behalf and a successful one on behalf of his opponent.
Yes yes yes, I know what you're thinking,"What does this have to do with Fedor?" This means that Fedor was heading into a fight against an accomplished fighter who’s only errors thus far in his career were timidity (in Werdum's lackluster/viciously booed performance against Andrei Arlovski at UFC 70) and allowing himself to be punched in the face by the monster that is Junior dos Santos. So like Werdum in his fight against dos Santos, Fedor did what was logical. He pushed the pace to play off of Werdum's tentative nature. When he opened up with a combo, Fedor even threw an uppercut into the flurry. When this paid off and he had dropped Werdum as dos Santos had, he followed him to the ground. Most people wouldn't follow as successful of a jiu-jitsu practitioner to the ground, but this is Fedor we're talking about. If you take a look back to his first fight with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (I believe it was the first fight, correct me if I'm wrong), Fedor had amazing success on the ground to such an extent that he easily shrugged off a triangle and shoulder triangle attempt against the accomplished "Big Nog". To top that off, Nogueira also held a decisive unanimous decision over Werdum at Pride Fighting Critical Countdown Absolute. So by all means it made sense for him to follow Werdum to the ground after he had punished him in the standing game. Once on the ground Fedor found himself wrapped attempt up in a triangle attempt, which he pounded himself out of. Then to surprise of everyone in the HP Pavilion that night (maybe everyone outside of myself and King Mo who I had talked to before hand), Fedor was caught in a triangle-armbar and was promptly submitted. Fedor's game-plan, like Werdum's and Griffin's, made sense but was inevitably flawed. What he failed to account for was the amount of sweat present in the Nogueira fight which allowed him to make such a slippery escape; he also seemed ill-prepared to fight against submissions in a cage scenario (this was only his second fight to not be held in a traditional ring), thus allowing Werdum to gain even more of a positioning advantage once the hold was sunk in. Though Fedor wasn't floored by a punch or kick, he was strangled and had his limbs nearly broken by a man who makes his living teaching others how to strangle and break limbs.
The overall point to this article is that the road to defeat is paved with sound decision making. When it comes down to it, the sport of mixed martial arts, is so flexible that any strategy can turn out to be a bad one on any given night. When it comes down to it, the best fighters backed by the soundest strategies will fail. MMA is often dependent on a split second. Nascar drivers lose races by the fraction of an inch, kickers miss short range field goals, Michael Jordan has missed a free throw. Does this mean the second place driver is incompetent? Does this mean the kicker can't kick? Does this mean Michael Jordan can't shoot? No, all it means is that one decision made in one second, one gust of wind, and one miscalculation can lead to failure. These losses don't prove that these fighters are not quality fighters, these fights prove that sometimes the best thing doesn't always yield the best outcomes.