One of the main components of any MMA fight these days is the game plan or strategy. Long gone are the days in which fighters would just be able to train without much thought of what they would need to do inside the Octagon to get the win.

Head coaches are often given the task of devising a structure to their fighters’ training camps to ensure that by the time the fight comes around it won’t feel like they are implementing a predefined game plan, but it will feel like second nature.

In this feature, we will look to identify the underdog in an upcoming bout and examine what is required of that underdog in order to overcome the odds and predictions and get the all-important “W” in the win column. The point, then, is to step into the shoes of a head coach to break down the fight and provide a game plan for the underdog.

This week’s subject is Jimi Manuwa, who squares off with Alexander Gustafsson at UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Manuwa on March 8 from The O2 Arena in London.

This is seen as the first fight card of any note to take place on UFC Fight Pass, the UFC’s subscription service. The event this past weekend in China aired on the service, but, in the eyes of many, cards like this one in London are the standard in terms of quality that we can expect to see from Fight Pass on a more regular basis.

The whole card is, in many ways, typical for a UFC fight card in England, with perhaps the exception being the inclusion of Gustafsson on the card. Overall, there is a smattering of homegrown fighters looking to rise through the ranks, along with a mix of fighters just on the periphery of a title shot in their respective divisions to add international appeal.

It is perhaps odd that Gustafsson is set to headline the show given his recent title challenge against Jon Jones, which was much closer than anyone anticipated and one that some thought the Swede might have won.

Almost six months removed from that title fight, the public interest in a rematch with Jones is still prominent. It is this interest that has caused many to question why Gustafsson has been sidelined to the relative doldrums of UFC Fight Pass, instead of receiving a showcase on a much larger stage. There is understandable skepticism that UFC Fight Pass will give him the promotional push to secure more interest when and if an eventual rematch does materialize.

To many, it seems as though Gustafsson is losing out on an opportunity to exploit the increased interest by fighting on a subscription service for which only the truly dedicated fans will sign up and pay. In addition to this downside for Gustafsson, his opponent is not currently ranked within the top 10. From a commercial standpoint, there is not a whole lot that Gustafsson stands to gain, even if he were to walk away from The O2 arena with a victory.

His opponent, meanwhile, has entered the UFC with a real bang. Manuwa debuted with the UFC in September of 2012 with a perfect record and the prestige of never having gone to the judges. Ordinarily for any fighter, and particularly one from the United Kingdom, you would expect that record to be tested to its limits with the gulf in class of opponents between the UFC and the organizations below. However, this has not proved to be the case so far for Manuwa, who has continued his impressive streak inside the Octagon with three wins in three outings.

Perhaps more impressive is that Manuwa’s three victories in the UFC have come due to injury or retirement. In all of his UFC wins, Manuwa has simply been too much for his opponent, to the extent that they simply cannot continue. To have one or two retirement victories on your record is unusual, but to have three in a row is practically unheard of and highlights the kind of power that Manuwa possesses.

The Breakdown

In his last fight against Jones, Gustafsson showed his progression as a MMA fighter. The days of him being smothered by strong wrestlers, such as Phil Davis, are long gone. Instead, it was Gustafsson who looked to take down Jones initially, in a move that surprised everyone, including Jones.

The fight with Jones is perhaps the only benchmark that Manuwa can use to prepare for Gustafsson ahead of March 8. The progression and skills shown in that fight really show where the Swede is currently at with his MMA game. His footwork was pinpoint, his striking was crisp and his strength was comparable to Jones throughout. During the 25 minutes, Gustafsson needed to show everything he had and more. This will need to be Manuwa’s point of reference with a disregard for what the Swede had shown previously, as it is simply no longer relevant.

In all of Manuwa’s fights, there is a clear desire for the Brit to keep the fight on the feet and rely on his finishing power to do the rest. If nothing else, his time in the Octagon is evidence enough that if he catches you, you will feel it and he will keep coming for you until you can no longer stand and/or continue.

The Strategy

For some fighters, fighting in their home town would produce a rush of adrenaline and make them want to prove to their local supporters how tough they are by standing and trading, regardless of whether that is their best chance of victory.

However, that is Manuwa’s style regardless of where the fight takes place. The key to him upsetting the odds in a major way on Saturday is for him to keep the fight standing and catch Gustafsson clean and regularly to wear down his sizable opponent.

If it were any other fighter going up against Gustafsson this weekend, the strategy might well be to try to take down Gustafsson to see how much he has improved since his loss to Davis in similar fashion. For Manuwa, though, his interests are best served by keeping the fight where he feels most comfortable and looking for the combinations to derail the potential rematch with Jones that many are already planning on for later in the year.

The odds are stacked against Manuwa, and the UFC may already be planning on the rematch between Gustafsson and Jones, but anyone competing at light heavyweight has the ability to end a fight in an instant and this is exaggerated even more so in the case of Manuwa.

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.