“Styles make fights.” That has long been the go-to phrase when analyzing a fight and its likely outcome, whether it be in the build-up to an event or once the fights have completed. However, this is a generic phrase that does not accurately depict how a fight will play out, or more importantly, why a fight will play out as it does.

There is a long list of fights you can look at on paper and say that one fighter has a distinct advantage over the other in one area, when in reality this apparent difference in skill level does not materialize in the actual fight.

How could it be that a fighter who is universally considered to be far superior in one aspect of mixed martial arts not be able to apply this during the fight itself?

“Competitive sports are played mainly on a five-and-a-half inch court, the space between your ears,” legendary golfer Bobby Jones once said.

It is not so much about the style of the fighter that dictates how the fight goes, but moreso the mentality of that fighter and the application of their particular style. Some fighters have the ability to push ahead in the face of adversity in order to take the fight to where they theoretically would have the advantage. Others simply do not.

This point was evidenced clearly throughout the card in Boston this past weekend.

Urijah Faber remained calm despite finding himself on the bottom with his opponent in full mount, possibly the worst position in all of MMA. Faber kept himself in the fight and turned the tables to dominate the remainder of the contest.

Another great example of this mentality is Chael Sonnen. Regardless of the weapons his opponents possess on the feet, he wades through any initial attacks and goes for their legs from the very get-go. He knows he may face a knee on the way in, but he presses ahead, safe in the knowledge that his best chance of winning is to utilize his positional dominance on the mat.

Sadly, this quality is not evident in all fighters, even at the highest levels of the sport. Some become discouraged or simply don’t have the instinct to utilize their skills inside the cage.

Case in point, Uriah Hall. Hall was regarded as an animal inside The Ultimate Fighter house, but since leaving the reality show, he does not seem at ease inside the cage and does not have the mental abilities to differentiate friend from foe. He has said he found it difficult to face Kelvin Gastelum in the TUF finale and, likewise, was all too keen to engage in the friendly touching of gloves with John Howard, but less so to trust his abilities and really go after Howard.

Of Hall, UFC President Dana White said it best during the post-fight media scrum: “He’s got speed, he’s got power, he’s unbelievable. He doesn’t have what it mentally takes to fight here.”

In all areas of sport, there are tales of those who had the ability but mentally were not up to the task when the pressure was on. This can apply even moreso to combat sports, due to the heightened danger that comes when a mistake is made and also because, as Dana White all too often points out, MMA is not baseball. You don’t have another 100 games that year. You can be forced to think about that one mistake for months before getting a chance at redemption.

As in all walks of life, a fear of failure can be paralyzing, even for the most skilled of fighters. For this reason, there are great sparring partners all over the globe who never venture out of the safe confines of their own gym.

Mike Pyle was identified as one who struggles on fight night to replicate the form shown inside the gym, as confirmed by Matt Brown himself in the post-fight press conference—albeit we will take his post-fight comments that Pyle is “better than GSP” with a pinch of salt.

Indeed, the mental frailties of MMA fighters have been exposed numerous times in the past. The Ultimate Fighter became a showcase for this on a number of occasions. Be it Chris Leben’s breakdown on the initial season of the show, Junie Browning’s subsequent drunken antics or Noah Inhofer’s paranoia regarding his other half causing him to go home early.

These issues are by no means restricted to the confines of The Ultimate Fighter house. Whether it be Dennis Hallman’s sad personal breakdown prior to his UFC fight with Brad Tavares or the more prominent issues of Jason “Mayhem” Miller and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, MMA fighters have certainly seemed susceptible to letting factors outside of the fighting itself get in the way of their actual career.

It seems the current crop of mixed martial artists still contains the odd throwback type of fighter who is in the sport not because of a long affinity for the martial arts, but because it keeps their mental fragilities at bay, even if only in the short term.

As the evolution of the sport continues, it is likely that the differences between the very top-level fighters will become smaller and smaller. It is when these differences in skill level are at their smallest that the mental capabilities of each fighter will truly come to the forefront.

Each fighter will be required to place absolute trust in their skills and their ability to implement those skills effectively to stifle their opponent, à la Georges St-Pierre.

As with any other sport, sports psychology will be of increased significance to allow fighters to not only reach their peak from a mental point of view (as well as the physical), but also to ensure that they do not suffer from a lack of identity once their career is over.

Therefore, whilst the skill set of each competitor is a vital consideration when analyzing the likely outcomes of fights, perhaps more important is the mental stability of each fighter. Unfortunately, that is something that cannot be quantified or placed on a tale of the tape.

Photo: Uriah Hall (R) battles John Howard (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer
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Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.