They All Go Into the Dark: The Necessity of Evolution in MMA

Brett PuddyCorrespondent ISeptember 25, 2008

While MMA has gained legions of fans over the past few years, some of us are able to recall the earliest days of the sport; the days when less than stellar fighters attempted to display their skills in martial arts as diverse as ninjitsu, pit fighting (thank you, Tank Abbot), and, of course, everyone’s favorite—sumo wrestling.

These fighters, many of whom gave up their MMA careers after only a few losses, helped future generations to understand that certain fighting styles simply aren’t viable in the world of MMA.

One would think (at least we did in the earlier days of MMA) that a gigantic sumo wrestler would manhandle his smaller opponent, or that a self-professed ninja (Scott Morris, you clown) would dismantle whoever was foolish enough to cross his path. Alas, was anyone ever so young?

It quickly became apparent to fighters that if you wanted to succeed in MMA you had to have a ground game. Early UFC combatant Ken Shamrock definitely had submission skills, but when confronted with the devastating submission prowess of Royce Gracie, Shamrock looked like a rank amateur.

Suddenly, every fighter in America who wasn’t adamant about being a wrestler became obsessed with learning the secrets of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Within no time, Brazilian jiu-jitsu became the first line of defense and offense for fighters looking to improve their skills on the ground. Ground fighting, and by extension submission based grappling, became the means by which the majority of early MMA fights were won.

For you doubters, the truth of the previous statement is clearly witnessed by the fact that the main events for UFC’s I-VI were won by fighters using BJJ based submissions. It wasn’t until UFC VII, and the introduction of lethal striker Marco Ruas, that the merits of striking came to be more fully appreciated.

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Yet, after his meteoric rise to greatness, Ruas disappeared back into the shadows, leaving MMA to be dominated by a series of fighters whose background was in wrestling, among them Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, Randy Couture, and Tito Ortiz.

In the ensuing years, a silent war would be waged in MMA; a war in which grapplers battled strikers for supremacy of a sport that was experiencing exponential growth. In the UFC, high caliber strikers like Chuck Liddell showed the MMA world that a fighter didn’t have to have submissions, or even a ground game, to be successful. Similarly, Liddell’s pro-striking template would be mirrored by Wanderlei Silva and Quinton Jackson, both of whom scored monstrous knockouts against their opponents in Japan’s PRIDE organization.

For years, no single fighter (other than Fedor Emelianenko, who was still fighting exclusively in Japan and was essentially unknown in America) was able to grow significantly in each aspect of their MMA game.

Sure there were great strikers (Liddell) and excellent grapplers (Hughes), but none of them seemed to have the complete package. If they excelled in one aspect of fighting, they were deficient in another.

Then, in January 2004, at UFC 46, astrange thing happened. The world was introduced to a fighter by the name of Georges St. Pierre; a fighter who was more well rounded than any UFC competitor before him. Strong, fast, and extremely agile, St. Pierre used his outstanding striking skills and top level ground game to cruise to a unanimous decision victory over a far more experienced Karo Parisyan. While many were unaware at the time that a new era had begun in MMA, there were those who saw St. Pierre for exactly what he was: the future of the sport.

With the introduction of GSP, the fighting world witnessed an entirely new breed of athlete, one that had evolved to the point where he excelled not only at striking and grappling, but also had the endurance to finish a match without completely exhausting himself. (For an excellent example of how poor cardiovascular conditioning can influence the outcome of a match, see Mark Coleman vs. Maurice Smith at UFC 14).

Yet, the phenomenal thing about GSP is not that he is a tremendous athlete; the UFC, Affliction, DREAM, and even Elite XC are rife with incredibly talented athletes. Rather, its GSP’s (and those like him) ability to continuously evolve as a fighter that sets him apart from the more one dimensional crowd of common brawlers.

From the moment he stepped into the octagon, GSP has continued to evolve as a fighter. Not content to simply rely on his natural athletic ability, St. Pierre is constantly learning new skills and improving each aspect of his fighting game by training with a variety of world renowned coaches and sparring partners, among them Renzo Gracie, the Brazilian Top Team, Greg Jackson, Nate Marquardt, David Loiseau, and Keith Jardine.

It is this willingness to learn coupled with the desire to grow and change as a fighter that which has allowed GSP to demolish nearly every competitor he has faced in the UFC. While an early loss to Matt Hughes (via submission, if you can imagine that) seemed like a mortal blow to GSP’s championship dreams, St. Pierre learned from his mistakes and destroyed Hughes at UFC 79, winning, ironically enough, via armbar (the same hold with which Hughes defeated him with three years before).

St. Pierre’s second stumbling block came in the form of a tenacious Matt Serra, who surprised GSP with a flurry of punches that left him semiconscious on the canvas, as well as the formerUFC welterweight champion.

Yet, in keeping with his fierce work ethic and willingness to acquire new skills, St. Pierre avenged his second loss in Montreal, at UFC 83, by dominating Serra as few other have.

Still, despite his reputation as the number one welterweight in the world, GSP is not the sole model for fighters who are interested in evolving. Another outstanding example of how evolution equals success can be witnessed in the form of Anderson “The Spider” Silva. A powerful striker (just ask Rich Franklin) and master of numerous submissions (ask Dan Henderson), Silva has evolved to such an extent that he has not lost a match (by anything other than disqualification) in nearly four years. Before Silva dehumanized Franklin at UFC 64, Silva was considered by many to be a very good, but not necessarily great, fighter.

By annihilating Franklin, Silva not only changed peoples’ perceptions of what a proficient striker was capable of but also introduced American MMA fans to the wonders of the Thai clinch.

Yet, perhaps the best evidence of Silva’s ability to evolve as a fighter can be witnessed by his recent change in weight class. Bored with the competition at the 185 pound weight level, Silva recently tested himself in the waters of the light heavyweights and has done quite well, winning an effortless knockout victory over a fighter who refuses to evolve, James “The Sandman” Irvin.

While it might not have been seen as a significant moment in the annals of MMA history, Silva’s fight with Irvin was important in that it clearly illustrated how the constantly evolving fighter will always defeat the fighter who is content to stay the same. Gone are the days when a fighter could solely rely on his striking or grappling skills.

Knockout artists like James Irvin, Houston Alexander, Phil Baroni, Brian Stann, Mirko Filipovic, and even “The Iceman” Chuck Liddell are virtually obsolete in the sport of MMA. Liddell’s recent losses to Keith Jardine and Rashad Evans, both of whom have improved with each outing in the UFC, tend to confirm the fact that even the best strikers need to evolve before they are consumed by those members of the fighting species who are willing to change with the times.

Yet, lest it seem as if strikers are being unfairly criticized, let us now turn our attention to those grapplers who can’t, or won’t, evolve. Among the names on this inauspicious list you will find former champions Matt Hughes, Tito Ortiz, and Royce Gracie. While it is anathema in some circles to criticize such legends, it should be noted that each of the previously mentioned fighters have become victims of their own success.   

Hughes, with his brawny farm boy strength and background in collegiate wrestling, was able to easily defeat his opponents with ground-and-pound tactics…that is until he met Georges St. Pierre for the second time. Having improved every aspect of his MMA game, St. Pierre quickly defeated Hughes, who was still attempting to employ the same tired ground-and-pound technique he used in his first meeting with GSP.

Since his loss to the Canadian phenom, Hughes has fallen on hard times, losing yet again to St. Pierreby submission and by TKO to rising star Thiago Alves. Hughes’ lackluster showing against Alves, a well rounded fighter known for his punching power, is yet more proof that fighters who refuse to evolve will inevitably be left behind by those who continue to grow and change on a fight-by-fight basis.

Ironically, it was Matt Hughes, a less than multifaceted fighter, that exposed Royce Gracie to the world as a one dimensional fluke who, without his gi, was really quite harmless. Now, before you start sending me death threats, just hear me out.

First of all, those opponents that Gracie dismantled in the early days of the UFC wouldn’t even cut it as Kimbo Slice’s training partners. With the exception of Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock, all of Gracie’s UFC wins were against competitors who were either inexperienced or had no business at all calling themselves fighters (see 51 year old Ron van Clief for more details).

With no striking ability whatsoever, Gracie relied (and still relies) solely on his submission skills, which, while impressive, were not being tested against top-level competition. Once MMA made the transfer to no gi rules, Gracie became a fish out of water. Without his gi, which he often used as a weapon against his opponents, Gracie had to count on his own physical strength to hold his adversary in place while grappling. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, Matt Hughes was far stronger than anyone he had faced since fighting Dan “The Beast” Severn. 

Unlike the jiu-jitsu master, Hughes didn’t need a gi to help hold Gracie down while he beat him unmercifully, forcing the referee to save Gracie from certain doom. Unwilling to admit that any other style of fighting could be superior to Gracie jiu-jitsu, Royce has been passed over by the new influx of MMA fighters; many of whom fondly remember him as an innovator, but no longer take him seriously as a competitor.

Dissimilar from Gracie and Hughes, both of whom have failed to modify their training regimen to fit the era in which they are fighting, Tito Ortiz’ fall from greatness is directly attributable to his status as a celebrity. Beloved by the media for his brash antics, Ortiz was among the first MMA fighters to achieve notoriety outside the octagon. While his early victories over top notch fighters like Wanderlei Silva proved that he was a force to be reckoned with, it was Ortiz’ five successful light-heavyweight title defenses that solidified his status as a great champion.

Yet, sadly, in recent years, success has proven to be a distraction for Ortiz who has not won a fight against a worthy opponent since his victory over Forrest Griffin at UFC 59 (those two wins against a washed up Ken Shamrock do not count).

Distracted by his forays into the more financially lucrative arena of television entertainment (Ortiz most notably appeared on Donald Trump’s highly rated program Celebrity Apprentice, before which he briefly dabbled in professional wrestling), Ortiz holds a record of 0-2-1 in his last three fights.

In his most recent outing against the highly evolved Lyoto Machida, Ortiz looked like a different fighter; a fighter who no longer hungers for the glorious thrill of victory. At odds with UFC kingpin Dana White, Tito Ortiz is currently a free agent with an uncertain future in MMA. While there is no question that he will be signed by another promotion (most likely Elite XC or Affliction), what remains unknown is whether or not we will ever again see the Tito Ortiz of old.

It is a hard fact of life that things inevitably change. Nowhere is this maxim more true than in the sport of MMA; a sport that is changing so rapidly that those who wish to succeed are forced to make a choice: evolve or die.

While not every fighter who evolves will experience success, history has already proven that those that do evolve dramatically improve their chances of having a long and fruitful career. Sadly, for those who choose tradition over change there is not much of a future and, in time, they will all go down into the dark.