Quick followup to the Crocop post:
I’ve read in a bunch of places the suggestion that Mirko should go to 205 to revitalize his career. This, to me, illustrates the fundamental lack of depth in the analysis many fans do. Mirko is a 35 year old kickboxer from Europe with little wrestling background who’s expressed reservations recently about the damage done to his body and his own desire to continue competing. Does this man really sound like a good candidate to begin doing serious weight cutting for the first time in his professional career? And even if he could make 205, does that really help him all that much competitively? He’d be larger or equal in size to his opposition which would probably help insulate him somewhat from the bullying he’s been subject to in the octagon so far, but his major issue right now is a lack of quickness leading to an inability to pull the trigger effectively on his most devastating strikes. If anything moving down into a much deeper division full of naturally quicker fighters, many of whom are more skilled and thus often more defensively responsible, will exacerbate those problems. Maybe Crocop could be effective-ish at that weight against top 15-20 guys, maybe not, but it’s in no way an obvious slam-dunk move to recapture his glory days.
Even if he did decide to rededicate himself to fighting and try 205, time works against him. Athletically he is where he is and will slip farther as time passes, and he likely can’t learn to improve his other skills fast enough to compensate (he hasn’t been able to so far). It’ll take time for his body to adjust to 205, more time to build up a resume at that weight, more time still to win over a crowd which has known him mostly as a damp squib, and given his age and UFC track record he’s always one win away from stalling back into his current position. If he goes down to 205 and beats an unknown, then beats Krysztof Soszynski, then loses a close decision to Tito Ortiz (just throwing names out there), what has he accomplished? He’d be a 36 or 37 year old journeyman at that point rather than a 35 year old journeyman. The experience would do nothing for his legacy, and if it was only about money then he’d be in DREAM right now smashing unknowns as a special attraction.
Every UFC there’s a fight with a definitive finish, and afterwards there’s God knows how many people lining up to get off some variation of the phrase: This Guy Sucks. It’s depressing stuff to read and if I’ve been hard on boxing of late I can always say this: one thing boxing fans right now have over MMA fans on average is the ability to analyze fights and fighters along multiple axes. There’s something to be said for 100 years of the influence of the idea that styles make fights. Let me describe what I mean using a specific example: Mirko Crocop.
Does Crocop suck now? Depends how you mean it. If, say, I went into MMA and you saw me fight, you’d say I sucked. I’m decently strong but have no cardio and move like an anesthetized rhino, and I barely know what I’m doing at all. If someone asked you why I sucked and you said I just did, you’d be right- I’d be so awful everywhere that it would be impossible and pointless to analyze in any depth. If you say Crocop sucks and someone asks you why, and your answer is “he just does”, that by contrast is a bit silly: when a hall of fame caliber fighter who was clearly one of the three best heavyweights of his era and maybe of all time becomes a guy who can’t really compete with top-ten contenders, fans who are serious about understanding what they’re watching should be able to say in some detail why this has happened. “He sucks now” tells us nothing beyond his most recent results; it’s got no predictive value as to whether a comeback is possible or if a fighter is simply done, or if he needs new training, or if he needs to stay away from a certain style of opponent, etc. If we want to break this down there’s several areas the basic question needs to be divided into, and I’d propose these three as the best broad areas: skills, athleticism, and other.
I’ve heard it proposed (the Tough Talk podcast post-UFC 103 wrapup show as an example) that the issue with Crocop is one primarily of skills- that he’s still essentially the same guy he was at the start of his career, a kickboxer who’s learned just about enough takedown defense and ground skills to let him use his major skill against most opponents. This, in Mirko’s case, is half-true; he’s clearly still the same basic sort of fighter he used to be, as opposed to a Georges St. Pierre who’s radically changed and improved his skill set as his career has progressed. But for this to explain Crocop’s relative decline several things also have to be true: that he’s as good as he ever was at his major skills (and therefore that those actual disciplines haven’t really evolved), that no other issues are sufficient to explain the decline, and that opponents are starting to take advantage of his relative skills deficits to beat him. There are some fighters for who this is in fact a reasonable explanation: Houston Alexander is as good a boxer-striker as he ever was, boxing has not really evolved, Alexander appears to be athletically similar to the guy he was when he was KO’ing Jardine and Sakara- but he’s never improved his ground skills and fighters have found him out and used that weakness to beat him over and over again. But this does not appear to be the case with Crocop; he was in his prime a terrifying standup striker who liked to keep the fight on the feet, and he’s been the same fighter in terms of skills in all of his recent losses as Junior Dos Santos and Gabrial Gonzaga KO’d him standing and Overeem and Kongo beat him up. People haven’t found a weakness in Crocop’s skills to take advantage of; they’re beating him in those areas in which he’s at his best. He still throws the same viciously hard and accurate head kicks and strong straight punches, he just doesn’t get the same results with them. Why?
For my money a lot of it is the second area of import- athleticism. Crocop is 35 and fighting is a younger man’s game, and for all that people love to cite Randy Couture fighting at 46 as an argument against age being a factor, the reality of the matter is that the reason everyone cites Couture is partly because there’s not a lot of other similar examples and partly for another reason to be noted below. Couture is an outlier, and citing a special case as evidence for a general rule is wholly unconvincing. Crocop is not Couture; people age in the ring at different rates for different reasons, and Crocop at 35 is an old fighter in my opinion. Go back and watch some of Mirko’s PRIDE fights: for the most part he’s the exact same fighter throwing the exact same kicks and punches, except that he’s throwing them all noticeably faster and more often and seemingly with more power behind them. They’re not more technically perfect shots, not straighter or more well-placed on the temple or behind the ear or on the chin- they just get there faster and harder and more often. Despite the advances in training and nutrition and other consideration in all sports world wide it is still the case that most athletes begin their decline athletically in their early 30’s and often still experience a noticeable and dramatic falloff in their mid 30’s. Some manage to make up for this with advances in other skill areas (think Michael Owen’s improved finishing or Michael Jordan’s fallaway jumper) but the majority do not, and it appears that Crocop falls into the latter category. In theory perhaps he could have become a great wrestler or jiujitsu fighter to compensate; realistically the chances of him reinventing himself in his mid-30’s was always slim, and such cases should be looked on as impressive because of their rareness and not expected. Not everyone is gifted with the potential to be world class in all things, and even in boxing- a relatively simpler sport- there’s not an enormous body of fighters who began their career as one thing and ended it as another.
There’s also the third area which has important bearing on the explanation for Crocop’s decline: Other. It’s a catch-all category which for Mirko includes things like transitioning to the cage and to a drug-tested environment, and might for other fighters include dramatic step-ups in quality from smaller promotions or exposure to a new type of opponent or changing camps or all sorts of varied life experiences of the kind that can impact anyone’s job performance. Simple confidence can mean everything. I personally have no doubt that this is a huge part of what’s happened with Mirko- he’s fighting in a cage which allows clinch-fighting of a kind which he clearly has trouble with and which ruined him against Kongo, without accusing him of anything it’s clear that transitioning to commission oversight has affected nearly all the ex-PRIDE fighters, and all of a sudden Crocop is facing in UFC a long string of fighters who have a size advantage on him alongside world-class athleticism for the weight. His last 3 UFC losses were to fighters who were seemingly taller and weighed in heavier than him, and who as his athleticism declined were quicker as well. That’s a horrible combination for anyone to face and it shouldn’t be surprising that Mirko’s struggled against it. All of this doesn’t even take into account factors which have a major impact but are often forgotten, like the difference between PRIDE throwing together cards often late in the promotional cycle vs. UFC’s scheduling of fights months in advance allowing fighters to peak on a certain day, or PRIDE’s habit of giving star fighters easy fights against weak opponents. I don’t expect to see Mirko Crocop vs. Dos Caras Jr. or Yuji Nagata or any other pro wrestler in UFC anytime soon.
In addition there’s the issue of how these factors interrelate. Randy Couture is an extreme outlier; but the closest things to him are fighters like Matt Lindland (39) or Dan Henderson (39), all three of whom share a background as world-class or near world class wrestlers. I firmly believe that of all the various background a fighter can bring to MMA wrestling is the one which will allow a fighter to go the longest for many reasons: because it reduces punishment taken, because it instills truly incredible physical discipline, conditioning and work ethic, and because it’s reliant less on physical quickness than on strength and timing, sense of balance, knowledge of leverage and positioning, etc. than any striking skill. If a wrestler still has the quickness to close with you and the strength to manipulate your posture he can still beat you and potentially look dominant in doing so. Wrestlers rarely have that fall-off-the-cliff moment the way strikers do, the way Chuck Liddell and Mirko and Wanderlei Silva have had several times over each. Cropcop at this point retains a lot of his power and physical strength the way wrestlers do- but because he’s not a wrestler the relative utility of that aspect of athleticism is reduced, as he doesn’t have the skills or size required to impose that strength on opponents. Randy Couture could potentially have taken Dos Santos down, held him there and pummeled him to win rounds using strength- as the boxing truism has it, the last thing to go is power. Indeed, even Crocop was able to hit Dos Santos hard enough to cut him and swell his face up; the power in the hands at least is still there. But because quickness goes first and Crocop’s style of skills depends on quickness he no longer can hit the openings he sees with consistency. His athleticism has declined as is natural; his skills unfortunately require a feature role for the aspects of athleticism which decline first.
So does Mirko suck? No, he doesn’t, but he’s declined from being a top-3 heavyweight to a top-15 or 20 heavyweight and it’s not clear that he has any serious option to reverse that fall-off. Given his size and the stage of his career and relevant athletic decline there’s little chance of his developing the skills required to make the most out of what he retains athletically; and while he’s still a skilled and powerful kickboxer who can do damage, he can’t do enough damage against the suddenly larger, quicker and better trained opposition he faces in UFC to win consistently and compete at the world class level. Moreover his confidence appears shot after coming up short in 3 of his 5 UFC bouts and that combined with size disadvantages has resulted in him being pushed around the cage on his back foot or crushed up against it in the clinch, being bullied and losing rounds. Going backwards he’s more hittable as many strikers are and he appears to be seeing openings he can’t capitalize on anymore which is a sure sign of reduced reaction time and quickness. He still throws the left high kick, but now it whizzes by just short or is checked or takes long enough to get off that by the time it arrives the opponent is already gone. He doesn’t stalk much anymore and seems content to try to be a counter-striker; his legs are slow, his movement labored. He can beat many fighters still because he’s declining from such a height, but because of the specific reasons for his decline it’s very difficult to see a road back for him. As a title contender in UFC, he’s done.
The decline of Crocop isn’t the result of any one factor and the state he finds himself in isn’t subject to summation in one phrase; he deserves better than to be described with a curt and rude dismissal. For my part I’d like to see him retire as he seems like a man with other things going on in life who seems likely to be hurt by the decline of his overall ability, but if he decides to continue we as fans can at least put in the effort to really understand what we’re seeing on some kind of a serious level. And Crocop is but one example; you could write something at least this detailed and in-depth for any world class fighter coming off of a definitive loss, and if I have time I may do just that for Rich Franklin later this week or next. The point is that there’s a lot to dig into in determining just where any fighter stands relative to the competition, and the sorts of concerns laid out above are only the tip of the iceberg. Fighting sports are complicated; if they weren’t they wouldn’t be half as interesting.
EDIT: some telling recent quotes from Crocop after the fight. It certainly sounds like he’s looking at retirement and if so, I and I’m sure every other MMA fan wishes him the best. The two things he focused on really tell the tale I think: a worn out body and a worn down drive.
UFC seems to have staged an accidental theme card with this one, as UFC 103 features the returns of Vitor Belfort, Frank Trigg, Hermes Franca, Vladimir Matyushenko and Mirko Crocop (on a serious full time basis), 4 of the 5 of whom are in featured matches on the televised portion of the card including in both of the top two bouts. It’s an ambitious move by UFC likely motivated partly by when people were ready to fight, but which all the same shows confidence that the name UFC itself will be sufficient to draw a solid buyrate- even opposed by a major boxing show, and despite the probable unfamiliarity of current casual audiences with some of these fighters. Whether or not that contention proves correct will be very interesting; I’m predicting 400,000 buys for this show which I would regard as a solid success though not a home run. I’ve not seen the countdown show which is reportedly excellent, which usually helps and may with luck boost the final number even higher. UFC 102 was reported in the 420,000 range, with what was regarded as a weaker countdown show, but a stronger main event.
* Catchweight (195 lb) bout: Rich Franklin vs. Vitor Belfort
There are many great quests in the world of popular entertainment: Dragon Quest, Team Quest, Quest for Fire, Prime Minister’s Quest-ion Time and so forth; but few can match the Quest For Old Vitor for the passion and persistence involved. They say, in days of yore, that the man stood nearly ten feet tall as a demi-God in stature, that his blows could smite the heavens themselves, and mighty Achilles and brave Heracles fled at the first note of his roaring. Or maybe they just said he knocked a bunch of dudes out quick, I forget. Either way Old Vitor is one of the great myths of modern MMA, a half-remembered creature from another era (and another weight class) whose achievements have grown with time and the telling to such a stature that they’ve even survived years of butt-scoot losses and gassed-out suspicions of quitting. Hope springs eternal as they say, and Current Vitor does just enough of an impression of his predecessor for fans to hang their yearning on. His last fight, a 0:37 second oblastication of Matt Lindland, was just that sort of performance. But (and there’s always a but with Vitor), here’s the rub: 37 seconds tells you very little and often hides more than it reveals, especially in this sport. Vitor’s got heavy hands and quick ones, and always did; it’s one of the things Old and New Vitor share, and when big men throw hands in little gloves anything can happen. Old Vitor once beat Randy Couture in in 49 seconds with a punch. 49 seconds! Randy Couture! It’s less impressive when you remember that fight was a cut stoppage and Randy destroyed Vitor over more than 23 minutes of their other two fights, finishing him twice.
If Vitor is a mystery Rich Franklin is anything but. Where Vitor has fought all over the place, Franklin has fought only in UFC since 2005. Where Vitor has lost to people he never should have and beaten people he never should have, Franklin has been entirely consistent in losing to only 3 people in his whole career (Lyoto Machida, Anderson Silva and Dan Henderson) at least two and probably all three of whom will be the equivalent of first-ballot hall of famers. Where Vitor has bounced around in 3 different weight classes, Franklin has stayed solid at 185 until forced to move up by age and inability to beat Anderson Silva. Where Vitor’s physical gifts are undeniable but his dedication, mental toughness and conditioning (and conditioning… methods….) are suspect, Franklin has taken a solid but not overwhelming amount of natural talent and married it to an unbending and ruthlessly dedicated conditioning and training program. Franklin is the prize in hand; Vitor is what’s behind door number two. With Rich Franklin you know precisely what you’re getting right down to the gameplan, and it’s a fighter who’s good enough to beat all but the very, very, VERY best in the world: solid standup which can be a bit sloppy at times but is varied and powerful, good clinch work, decent wrestling and solid grappling particularly defensively, excellent cardio, and high-level cage awareness and calm during the fight. The last time we saw Rich Franklin in the cage, he calmly and methodically broke down one of the most feared strikers of all time, Wanderlei Silva, over a period of 15 minutes to win a deserved and impressive decision. He fought through some punches which stunned him, didn’t get rattled in hard exchanges, paced himself, and never deviated from his plan. It was a professional performance at the highest level.
Of course, Old Vitor knocked out Wanderlei in 44 seconds.
Some spells are very hard to break, and I’m picking Vitor to win by decision. Franklin is the safe pick and the logical pick but Vitor strikes me as, on his day, the kind of striker with whom Franklin has a lot of trouble, varied and physically superior. If Belfort has 2 rounds of his best work available he should win this, and I’m betting that in his first match back in the UFC, in a main event, he will. Prepare to say you told me so.
* Heavyweight bout: Mirko Filipović vs. Junior dos Santos
And speaking of quick KO wins and who knows what they mean, here’s the guy who made Fabricio Werdum’s ears wiggle in 91 seconds last October. Mike Coughlin mentioned on his 5 Star Radio podcast that unlike the Old Vitor/new vitor dichotomy, Cro Cop’s deal is a more straight forward he’s got it/he’s lost it question, one we really don’t have an answer to right now. He beat Mostapha Al-Turk; great. Lovely! But two fights before that he was getting pounded by Notastar Overeem only to be saved because Overeem was overcome by an insatiable desire to cockpunch poor Cro Cop, and that last time the big man really looked like a killer was just over three years ago in PRIDE at the Openweight Grand Prix. Meanwhile in his two UFC fights so far Dos Santos has looked sensational, and he does represent a first-rate camp; there’s a pedigree there. All the same, he’s fought less than 3 minutes in the Octagon.
I really want to say that Mirko wins this with a decapitating Cro-Kick; it would be wonderful to see him still have enough of it to stage a real UFC run. But I have to go with Dos Santos here, for this reason: Crocop does not like being backed up, does not like it at all; and so far what we’ve seen of Dos Santos has been an aggressive but disciplined striker who goes after opponents and tries to take them out, a fighter who puts physical and mental pressure on the opposition. If Dos Santos can do that I don’t think he’ll give Crocop time to set and get off his most devastating shots, and Dos Santos has excellent handspeed and (so far) the gas to throw many shots in a reasonable defensively responsible manner. If he keeps that up, moves in and pressures CroCop, he can simply outwork a man 10 years older than him who’s a pick-his-spots stalker by inclination. It would be a gameplan not entirely dissimilar to what Cheick Kongo used, although Dos Santos has so far not shown the clinchwork and leg kicks to completely replicate that performance. It should be noted here, I’m a newer MMA fan; I missed a lot of Mirko as the wrath of God in PRIDE, so for me it’s probably easier (though not necessarily more correct) to see Crocop as a fighter whose physical decline prevents him from executing as he once did.
X-factor here: Dos Santos has never fought anyone with the legend and mystique of Cropcop before. He’s only 25; there is a chance that he may simply seize up mentally and go into vapor lock, unable to execute. It happened famously with GSP against Matt Hughes and while I have no idea if Dos Santos is that sort of fighter, it’s always a concern in these kinds of matchups. If he starts the fight out throwing aimless jabs on the outside instead of imposing himself physically, it’s a very bad sign. He’d better gameplan as well because if he circles to his right into the CroKick, that’s trouble.
* Welterweight bout: Martin Kampmann vs. Paul Daley
European kickboxing explosion! As you might expect when one of the fighters is nicknamed “Semtex”. On the feet either man can win; on the ground, well, Semtex has been defused 5 times in the grappling, the same number of Kampmann’s 15 wins which have come by that method. I’ll take Kampmann here in what should be an excellent fight, on the theory that if he gets in trouble standing or needs a breather when hurt he can get it down and control things. Daley’s only KO loss was a medical stoppage due to an injury, so I suspect he’ll hang around to lose a competitive decision. This one could be hard to score with Daley controlling standing exchanges and Kampmann controlling on the ground in even measure.
* Welterweight bout: Josh Koscheck vs. Frank Trigg
Like smashing two mirrors together. Both were top level amateur wrestlers, both are decent strikers who’ve improved noticeably over the course of their careers, both tend to portray themselves as loudmouthed dickheads for promotional purposes, both need to stay the fuck away from Georges St. Pierre. Koscheck is younger, maybe a little stronger, probably has the better submission defense; on the other hand he’s coming off the first legit KO of his career, and there’s times when that messes with a fighter’s psyche. Some decide to go back to basics which for Koscheck will be his wrestling- ordinary a good idea especially since Koscheck has developed some worryingly Wangtastic tendencies of late, but Trigg may still have the skills and athleticism (and size, given his fights at 185) to nullify that. Then what? If Koscheck can pass that mental test however, I think this fight is his- if it turns into a kickboxing match then I think he’s got a power advantage, one of the few things which separates the two men. My hunch is that Koscheck cracks Trigg pretty good in an exchange at some point, follows him down, and gets a RNC for the win. Call it 3rd round. For Trigg to win he has to hope that Koscheck hasn’t been training his wrestling as much of late, and that he can get in and shoot to take the fight down, and control from the top. That, or the inevitable puncher’s chance. The faster the pace, the more it probably favors the younger man.
* Lightweight bout: Tyson Griffin vs. Hermes Franca
Y’know, if Tyson Griffin could finish people at the world class level he’d be a superstar by now. At age 25 he’s won 5 fight of the night awards (and a submission of the night) in 8 UFC fights, and has wins over the likes of Marcus Aurilio, Gleison Tibau, Tiago Tavares, Clay Guida, Duane Ludwig, and Urijah Faber. His only losses are to Frankie Edgar and Sean Sherk, not exactly scrubs, and both of those were close and competitive decisions. Hermes Franca is a very good fighter, but he’s also the kind of guy who Griffin more or less runs right over at this stage of his career as Griffin is younger and likely to be stronger, faster, and have better cardio. As much as Griffin has troubles finishing people at times, he’s also never been finished. Another 3 round decision win looks likely here though Franca might gas and be finished late. Expect a furious pace and a fun fight.
* Lightweight bout: Efrain Escudero vs. Cole Miller
Always tough to pick against an undefeated fighter, but I think Miller’s more advanced at this stage of his career and should be able to get the win here.
* Middleweight bout: Drew McFedries vs. Tomasz Drwal
Never been much of a Drew McFedries fan; he’s good at what he’s good at, but bad at covering up what he’s bad at, and thus easy to exploit. Drwal’s the pick.
* Lightweight bout: Jim Miller vs. Steve Lopez
Miller, in what appears to be a keep busy fight.
* Lightweight bout: Rafaello Oliveira vs. Nik Lentz
Olivera’s got a decent rep and Lentz is a late replacement, so I’ll take the Brazilian.
* Welterweight bout: Rick Story vs. Brian Foster
Story, seems a higher caliber wrestler and a guy with his head screwed on tighter (and yes, this far down the card my research is largely wikipedia-based).
* Light Heavyweight bout: Eliot Marshall vs. Jason Brilz
Not sure Eliot’s solved his big wrestler issue yet. I’ll take Brilz.
* Light Heavyweight bout: Vladimir Matyushenko vs. Igor Pokrajac
Matyushenko is ancient, but historically he’s a class above the level Pokrajac has competed at so far. Matyshenko is the pick.
* Lightweight bout: Rob Emerson vs. Rafael dos Anjos
I like Rob Emerson, and I hope they don’t cut him when Dos Anjos wins a decision.
All in all, I expect this to be one of those little UFC cards where the lack of big names creates low expectations, but the fights themselves leave everyone who does watch happy by the end of the night.