Monday, February 4, 2008

Lesnar Knee-Barred: Reflections on UFC 81

As the hulking figure Brock Lesnar stepped into the Octagon Saturday night to square off with veteran Frank Mir, the energy in the arena was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Lesnar strolled into the Mandalay Bay arena with an aura of invincibility, while crowds greeted him with enthusiastic cheers and jeers. But the room went electric when Lesnar stripped off his shirt and unveiled his massive physique. Lesnar is so large that when he strolled into the Octagon, he made it look small! It seemed like even the crowd was stunned by the enormity of the man as he circled around the ring. His incredible size, intimidating stare, and palpable self-confidence seemed to send shockwaves through the arena. It wasn’t quite a modern day David-vs-Goliath battle, but with the hype and the energy created by the face off between the hulking Lesnar and the smaller Mir (6’3” and 255lbs.) it certainly had a similar feel to it. From all indications, it seemed like the deck was heavily stacked in Lesnar’s favor: the texters had him favored by a long shot to win, and the tale of the tape was certainly in his favor. Fortunately for Mir though, victory is not determined by, odds-makers, texters, press releases and media hype, or even the size and muscularity of a contestant, rather, victory is something that is earned after the opening bell rings.

As the fight opened up and Lesnar charged out to engage Mir, I must admit I was thoroughly impressed with Lesnar’s speed and agility. He easily flipped Mir over and put him on the ground, and then proceeded to reign down vicious blows on Mir’s head. I thought the fight might even be stopped within the first few seconds because the blows were so fast and furious. With those famed XXX sized hands, it looked like two jack-hammers were pounding away at Mir’s head. Then referee Steve Mazzagatti, temporarily stopped the momentum, calling a halt to the beating in order to deduct a point from Lesnar, who had inadvertently struck the back of Mir’s head. The fight resumed much as it had begun with Lesnar taking Mir to the ground and then hammering away again. But something happened. Maybe Lesnar grew too confident in his ability to ground and pound Mir to victory or Mir summoned some deep inner strength, but suddenly Mir grabbed Lesnar’s ankle and applied a knee bar to Lesnar so fast that if you had blinked for a moment you would have missed it. Suddenly Lesnar’s enormous hands, which had been hammering Mir’s face into the canvas, were now patting Mir on the behind as he tapped out in submission. Incredibly the 90-second whirlwind concluded with Mir as the victor.

After taking a day to digest the events of Saturday, I began to reflect on what happened and to ask what it all meant. Here are just a few of my thoughts about what we learned from the Lesnar-Mir showdown on Saturday night:

1. Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Prov. 16:18). Well, we didn’t learn that for the first time Saturday, but we did have it confirmed one more time as we witnessed the events surrounding the fight. I couldn’t help but cringe as I heard Lesnar talk in pre-fight interviews about how he was going to mop the floor with the whole heavy-weight division, and yet, he had only one fight under his belt. I am sure its just part of his shtick carried over from the WWE but the difference is, WWE is theatre and UFC is a real brawl. Lesnar’s demeanor in the pre-fight interviews as well as his larger than life persona projected in his march toward and then entry into the Octagon gushed with hubris. It all portrayed an air of inevitability. One couldn’t help but get the impression that Lesnar was marching into a coronation ceremony where the heavy-weight crown was going to be placed on his head, and he would be declared the unbeatable champion simply on account of showing up. What an amazing fall though. I don’t know if Lesnar is proud and arrogant. I don’t know if the whole thing was just a show for the fans. But, what I thought I saw was overweening pride. I thought I saw someone who looked like he believed the hype and press reviews, and believed in the air of inevitability. I wonder if that didn’t ultimately sink so far into his head that he lost sight of the fact that he was fighting a dangerous, veteran, professional fighter who had the skills and experience to hand him a humbling defeat. It seems to me that a lesson is to be learned here: don’t believe the hype about yourself. One of the first rules of martial arts that I learned years ago and have tried to always respect is that you must never underestimate an opponent or overestimate yourself. When pride leads a fighter to violate that rule, too often, bad things happen.

2. UFC fighters are bona fide professionals. I realize this is an obvious point, but I don’t think people appreciate it enough. It’s hard to figure out just why that is so. Perhaps its because guys all have pride and egos, and no guy wants to admit that some other guy can kick his ass. It just goes against the male wiring to be honest about that. Many of us want to think that we are the next Rocky just waiting for the big break. I have seen this many times in gyms where I have trained. A guy trains for a couple of months and declares that he is going to go pro. That is absurd. These guys who fight in the UFC and other top notch fighting organizations are serious athletes, with tremendous skills, who train 2-3 hours per day, every day. Training is all they do. Probably over 95% of the guys who roll in your local gym do not have the athletic capability or technical skills to compete at an elite, professional level. To think that you can do that after a few months or even a year of training is as about as foolish as thinking that because you like to play pick-up basketball a few times a week, that you can star in the NBA. Undoubtedly, in the case of Lesnar, he does have the athletic tools to compete at this level. Given his NCAA wrestling experience, his incredible physique, his love for training, and the coaches and team he has surrounded himself with, he will bring his game up to the UFC level eventually, but don’t look for it to happen overnight. It takes a ton of effort and a lot of years of hard training to acquire the technical proficiency to reach UFC level fighting ability. The UFC is no place for amateurs who are looking for a new challenge.

3. BJJ and submission grappling are on the rise again in the UFC. Notice that both of the heavyweight fights were won by submission, and that two other televised matches ended with submissions. Consider also, that in both of the victories, by Minotauro and Mir, they were both getting badly hammered by powerful strikes and yet were able to tip the balance toward victory through the use of submissions. I believe this bodes well for the UFC. It has troubled me somewhat that the UFC in recent years has been weighted more and more heavily toward striking. I know that striking is exciting, and that its what the fans want to see, but striking alone is not a complete fight game. The novelty of the UFC has always been that it’s a realistic way to establish who the best fighter is, not the best boxer, kick boxer, or even submission specialist; its supposed to be about who is the best fighter. I am excited to see a shifting of the balance back toward the grappling and submission specialists because it forces all competitors to keep sharpening every area of the game. I am also excited about it because it represents hope for the little guy. No less of a man that Prof. Jigoro Kano the founder of Judo, believed that leveling an uneven playing field was the genius and promise of a martial discipline such as Judo. He loved to promote the art of Judo by saying that a small man could beat a much larger man if he mastered the principle of kuzushi, and learned how to off-balance the larger opponent and use his mass and momentum to throw him, and then submit him. I believe that is what we saw in UFC 81. Two hulking men, got defeated by much smaller, but wily opponents who used superior technical skill and experience to triumph over brawn. That is awesome!


vht said...

Great piece! Any upcoming writing on the Super Bowl?

"The first will be last and the last will be first."

Oscar said...

Absolutely entertainting and informative piece. Great writing. You actually got me more interested in the sport. However, that was 2008 (I believe?). I am a late comer to this post. Do you still feel the same way about the UFC?