“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu
(Matthew Polly is our resident big deal writer, having written books about his time immersed in MMA culture and a Shaolin Temple. Now he writes for us, which I assume means his next book is going to be about Asperger Syndrome. You can read more of his Fightlinker stuff here or check out his website here!)
In combat sports, fighting styles exist in a tension between what is legal and what is considered moral, between what is effective and what is considered aesthetically pleasing. Early UFC wrestlers like Dan Severn and Marc Coleman quickly realized that ground and pound was a highly effective strategy, especially against Gracie submission grappling. But in a culture steeped in boxing, it was considered barbaric to hit a man when he was down. What would the Marquess of Queensbery think? So old boxers led the charge to get MMA banned in 47 states.
It was a close call, but as we all know MMA won that fight and American cultural norms changed. It is now okay, even cool to some, for Dan Henderson to jump into the air and deliver a forearm shiver to the semi-conscious chin of Michael Bisping. But even within the Unified Rules of MMA, the tension between what is effective and what is considered moral and aesthetic exists and as MMA has evolved the fans have become as rigid as old boxers. It was inevitable. You can change the norms but you can’t escape them. And fighters violate those norms at their own peril.
Which is a long-winded way to get to the split decision between Gray Maynard and Clay Guida. People often forget that a MMA fight is judged not only by effective aggressiveness but also effective defense, which can be defined as “avoiding being stuck, taken down, or reversed while countering with offensive attacks.” Guida didn’t just run like Kalib Starnes; he avoided being struck while countering. According to Fightmetric, Guida, while landing slightly fewer strikes, was actually the far busier fighter. In total strikes, it was 52 of 229 for Maynard and 49 of 327 for Guida. With a hundred more strikes thrown, you can see how one of the judges might have scored it for Guida.
The problem was Guida looked ugly and cowardly while effectively defending himself. He violated our aesthetic and cultural norms about how a fighter should behave in the cage. Worse, he violated how we expect Clay Guida to fight. Dana White described Guida as a guy whose style is to wear his opponent down and take him out or “he goes out on his shield.” Guida’s 180-degree reversal in style surprised his opponent (generally a good thing) but it also shocked the audience, the referee (who gave him a rare warning against timidity), two out of three judges, and Dana White (“the fight sucked”) to the point that we felt cheated.
Guida and his camp made the mistake of conflating the tactic of Hit and Run into their entire strategy for winning the fight. If he had hit and run for the first two or three rounds to frustrate Gray, which he did, and then had switched back to his standard hyper-aggressive smothering style in the later rounds, he might not have won but at least he would have had a chance. His team took a win-win situation (even if he had lost he still would have gotten another fight as long as he was aggressive) and turned it into a lose-lose. By violating MMA’s collective aesthetic and cultural norms, he lost both the match and the patronage of Dana White. A very bad career strategy.