The Evolution of MMA

“It’s an area of such intensive selection pressure” – Cameron Boyle (BSc Zoology) 

There is no space for ineffectiveness in MMA. Either a technique works, or it doesn’t. The same can be said of an evolutionary trait: if it’s useful, it will stick around, if not, it will disappear from the gene pool, fast. 

Fighters are constantly adapting, learning, taking what is useful, discarding what is not. There isn’t the luxury to hold on to techniques which aren’t effective. If you do, you’ll lose. 

In Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein’s book A Hunter Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century, a passage reads as follows: 

“The second type of trade-off is design constraint. Unlike allocation trade-offs, design constraint trade-offs are insensitive to supplementation – you cannot just add more of something to solve the problem. For instance, robustness (broadly: being big-boned and muscular) is valuable, as is locomotor efficiency, but you can’t maximise both … Similarly, if you’re a bird (or a bat or an airplane), you can fly with speed, or agility, but you will be middlingly fast and manoeuvrable if you try to maximise both. Some other bird will be faster, a third more agile – but you, you will be a generalist which is its own kind of success.”

Similar constraints apply to mixed martial artists. Conor McGregor is known for his lightning speed and knock-out power. This is a huge advantage, especially in the first two rounds. But as we saw in his fights against Nate Diaz and Khabib Nurmagomedov, he slows significantly in the 3rd, 4th and 5th. His fast-twitch muscle fibres are an asset early, but become a hindrance later in the fight.

Nate Diaz makes the opposite trade-off. He sacrifices power for longevity. Of his 19 pro wins, only 4 have come from KO/TKO, 15 by submission – often because his opponents become exhausted and shoot a panicked takedown. 

The same trade-offs can be seen in styles of fighting. An upright Muay-Thai stance is great for blocking leg-kicks, but susceptible to double-leg takedowns. A wide karate stance is much better for defending against takedowns, but more susceptible to the leg-kick. There are drawbacks to every strategy; a hole in everyone’s game. 

There are some seeming exceptions to the rule. Kamaru Usman, the current Welterweight champion, looks invincible at time of writing. He’s never been taken down and was the first person ever to knock out Jorge Masvidal – a striking expert. 

Kamaru Usman becomes the first fighter to ever knock-out Jorge Masvidal at UFC 261

Jon Jones has a similar air of invincibility. He out-wrestles Olympic wrestlers, out-strikes world-class strikers. The only hole in his game is the local police force. 

But you could describe both of these athletes as generalists. They’ve chosen to be good at everything, in doing-so they must have made some trade-offs. Maybe there are holes in Usman’s game we just haven’t seen exploited yet. Jon Jones didn’t deal well with Reyes’ footwork. 

MMA has evolved rapidly and significantly since its conception in the late 90s. The octagon is a completely unforgiving environment where advantages are quickly capitalised on, and weaknesses mercilessly exploited. You must evolve.

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