The sport of Mixed Martial Arts began as a concept that pit practitioners of different forms of martial arts against each other. Eventually in the United States, this led to fighters starting to cross-train in other forms of martial arts to help defend against certain techniques or simply add it to their repertoire. The UFC and MMA have grown a lot from the early UFC events (we aren’t going to touch Japan, different beast entirely), to where MMA has almost become a style of its own, just as it has become a sport of its own.
At UFC 136 there were two championship fights, and both showed different displays of striking prowess, with one fight ending in a decision and one fight ending in a knockout. What I find interesting to take away from the event is how Dana White was quick to declare Frankie Edgar as the best “Boxer” in the UFC and how quickly fans and media followed suit, with many declaring Frankie one of the elite strikers in the MMA world. I have to admit that I was taken aback, as after watching the Jose Aldo fight and how it was an impressive display of striking, I did not feel the same thing about the Edgar fight. The only difference to the naked eye was that the Edgar fight finished with a knockout, while Aldo took Florian to a decision.
What needs to be established first and foremost is that knockouts happen in combat sports, and a knockout does not always mean a superior display of “striking.” Fighters like Joey Beltran and Leonard Garcia are fighters who primarily like to strike in their recent fights and put on strike-heavy fights at UFC 136, but I’m not sure I’d rate either as a very good striker. Beltran holds eleven wins by knockout and Garcia has three, and both men are quick to turn fights into brawls that showcase a lot of heart and wild punches, but that does not make for a good striker, and I feel like many understand this concept in these scenarios. People like watching Leonard Garcia fight, but not many will say he is a great technical striker.
What needs to be established next is that “Boxing,” “Muay Thai” and “Kickboxing” are not lone attributes in a fighter’s toolbox. They are not videogame-like attributes that are assigned and can simply be explained as, “they have good Boxing.” Many have been lauding over Frankie Edgar’s boxing skills through simple phrases like, “Frankie Edgar’s Boxing is Great,” or “Frankie Edgar has the best Boxing in MMA.”
Boxing, Muay Thai, Kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, Judo and everything else in the MMA universe are sports and styles unto themselves, and include many, many facets to them. Frankie Edgar knows how to move out of harm’s way and not get hit and he also has very sound technique when it comes to throwing his strikes. On the other side of the coin, he drops his left hand a lot or doesn’t keep it in tight near his chest to defend his chin, leaving him open to take damage from time to time, while his head is also mostly stationary. Another thing to note is that he also tends to focus on the head when he strikes, rarely changing levels.
A good example that many people can relate to is in the film “The Fighter” where Mark Wahlberg portrays legendary boxer Mickey Ward, the scene where he breaks down one of his favorite strategies to Charlene at the bar; “Head, Body, Head, Body.” He explains the tactic as not only a damaging one, but one that confuses the opponent and makes them always moving their guard, thus making it easier to find or create an opening to land a more powerful shot.
So when I hear that Frankie Edgar is the best “Boxer” in the UFC, my confusion should be clear. There are some boxing skills and techniques that Edgar does extremely well, while there are others that he quite simply under-utilizes or is not good at, such as changing levels or piecing together more complex combinations and of course, defending and moving his head.
Jose Aldo is a different story. The fight with Florian took a fighter who was being spoken about on the mythical “Pound for Pound list” that Dana White will reference, to a fighter that many found themselves doubting if he belongs on said list. It has little to do with skill, technique or even performance, but that he never found the right opening to knock his last two opponent’s out. Aldo lost his “pound for pound” spot and the discussion about his title fight with Kenny Florian has been quiet and dismissive by many of the fans and media.
Dana White went as far as to say he’d like to see Frankie Edgar move down to fight Jose Aldo for the Featherweight Championship, which is a switch stance from when all of the talk surrounding Aldo was about him being unstoppable and possibly moving up to Lightweight to challenge for that title.
Kenny Florian is no joke of a fighter, and possesses a lot of strong skills in the stand up department as well as good skills to work with on the ground. Aldo did not rush out and go for a quick knockout over Florian, as Florian is a step up in competition from fighters like Chris Mickle and Cub Swanson in the WEC. Rushing in against Florian could possibly leave a fatal opening for Florian to do some damage with, which Aldo does not want to test. On top of that, Florian began aggressive looking for takedowns on the champion, pushing the pace early on.
The mark of a good champion is adjusting a game plan to suit the conditions in the ring, which meant Aldo saw one of Florian’s most useful tools being his lead leg and began to hack away at it with his much vaunted leg kicks. The same leg kicks that left Urijah Faber hobbling and unable to mount anything in the way of offense, that is what he threw at Florian. Then, like any sound strategist and intelligent striker, Aldo got into a rhythm and began throwing the leg kicks in a series. On top of doing damage, he was lulling Florian into trying to find a way to counter the series of leg kicks. This led to Aldo having done enough damage to where when he landed a lone leg kick as Florian was moving to defend it, dropping his hands and widening his stance to brace for it and causing him to buckle. As soon as he buckled Aldo was waiting for him with a left hook followed by a right cross, both of which connected and sent Florian reeling.
That illustrates a great, intelligent combination of strikes that utilizes changing levels and using a striking rhythm to set up that combination. Aldo continued to pull off similar combinations, such as using feints to throw Florian off and come around the other side, using a jab while stepping back to keep Florian at bay for a high kick, using misdirection with punches such as throwing what looked to be a body shot but changed trajectory and landed flush on Florian’s chin, and my favorite of using a right flying knee to get Florian to back up and lower his defenses before landing a right hand on Florian.
On top of that, the damage he did to the lead leg meant that Florian had a hard time landing takedowns and Aldo was able to reverse some and end up on top of Florian or keep the fight standing. All of this I found impressive and a striking display unlike you are bound to see in just about any other UFC fight, and while Frankie Edgar pulled off an impressive knockout victory, in the end the knockout wasn’t going to sway me on what was the more impressive display of striking skills.
Jose Aldo had an impressive display, but I’d also be hard pressed to say, “Jose Aldo has great Muay Thai/Kickboxing” because it was not a Muay Thai or Kickboxing fight and his striking skills are all very different and independent from each other. The sport of MMA is how you tie everything together to be a complete fighter, so unless there is another fighter who comes into the UFC with a lone discipline skillset, I’d like to see the “this fighter has awesome ____” talking point retired or at least reflected upon more.
I’d also like for the fans and members of the media to do some critical thinking of their own. Dana White’s job is to sell his fighters as the best in the world, including ones like Frankie Edgar who are not likely to be doing big PPV buyrates and build the illusion for fans. Just because Dana White declares a fighter in a certain position or possessing of a certain skill does not mean that you cannot question it or at least reflect on it and come to your own conclusion.