We’ve seen it in every sport. One side achieves an advantage early in the event and, rather than going for the kill, seems to rest on its laurels in an effort to maintain the advantage until the end of the contest. Sometimes it works, and the opposition is unable to overcome the early deficit. Other times, however, the attempt to maintain an advantage rather than expand upon it results in the opposition mounting enough of a comeback to win. Regardless of the outcome, when it becomes apparent that a player or a team or a fighter is competing to not lose rather than to win, the quality of the event itself is lowered considerably.

During UFC 156, fans had the opportunity to see both kinds of fighting. Some fighters were looking for a win as quickly as possible and by any means necessary. Others seemed content to fight at a slower pace and hope for the advantage on the scorecards. Let’s take a moment to analyze a few of Saturday’s fights and compare some of the the fighters’ varying demonstrated intensity with their varying levels of success.

Perhaps the most obvious example of a fighter truly going for the win at UFC 156 was Tyron Woodley. He clocked Jay Hieron with a punch very early and immediately pounced. He ended up finishing Hieron in 36 seconds and gave his career a major boost in the process. Demian Maia was trying to choke Jon Fitch from the moment the bell rang. He repeatedly dragged Fitch to the ground and worked extensively to secure a submission for the fight’s duration. Maia, despite his vigorous efforts, would not finish Fitch, but dominated the entire fight en route to a unanimous decision. Dustin Kimura was similarly busy on the ground in his fight against Chico Camus, but unlike Maia was able to cinch up a rear-naked choke in round three.

There were other fights, though, where at least one of the people involved seemed more concerned with not losing. First, Alistair Overeem stood right in front of Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva with his hands at his hips and then chose to take Silva down in round two, rather than unleash the striking onslaught that made him one of the most feared fighters on the planet. Overeem said before the fight that he felt the contest was a warm-up before his inevitable heavyweight title shot, and in the cage he looked a far cry from the wrecking machine who ended Brock Lesnar’s career. Eventually, Overeem’s strategy went bad, and he ended up laid out on the canvas after Silva scored with a series of heavy punches.

The very next fight was similarly bereft of explosiveness, as Rashad Evans and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira spent 15 minutes trading jabs and straight punches, with neither really putting together any significant offense. It could be argued that, as the more highly ranked fighter, the onus was on Evans to put Nogueira away en route to a fight against a champion or fellow title contender. Instead, Evans’ most memorable moment of the fight was the single takedown he scored in round one. He spent the rest of the fight avoiding Nogueira’s boxing with moderate but apparently insufficient success and found himself on the losing end of a decision.

Many fans expected the night’s main event to end with a memorable stoppage. After all, this was a superfight between UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo and former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. And when Aldo seemed to get the better of the striking exchanges early in the fight—bloodying Edgar’s face and damaging his lead leg—it seemed like only a matter of time before the champion would put his gritty challenger away. Unfortunately, Aldo slowed his pace considerably sometime during round three and allowed Edgar to gain back some of his lost momentum. Aldo would still escape with the decision and that was enough, but one can’t help wondering if Aldo could have finished Edgar if he had made an honest attempt to do so for the entire fight.

UFC fans have high expectations for their pay-per-view cards, and with good reason. If they’re going to continue to pay $45 or $55 every month or so, they should be duly compensated for their loyalty. Needless to say, the performances turned in by Overeem, Evans and Aldo likely did not inspire a ton of confidence in many of the event’s viewers, but let’s also look at these fights from their perspectives. How much more motivation did they have to win than they did to not lose?

For Overeem, a win was seen as a foregone conclusion up until Silva began landing bombs in the third round. Winning the fight against Silva would have meant a title shot that pretty much everyone expected him to get anyway. In other words, winning against Silva would have left Overeem in the exact same spot he was in before the fight. Losing the fight, however, will be potentially much more devastating to Overeem’s career. Fairly or not, Silva was seen as a fighter far below Overeem’s status, and the loss almost certainly drops the former Strikeforce heavyweight champion to the back of the title contender pack. Again, the benefits of Overeem winning were far outweighed by the potential detriments of a loss, so it makes sense that Overeem may have simply been fighting to avoid a loss.

The same could probably be said for Evans. Like Overeem, he was matched up against a fighter ranked far below him. A win over “Lil’ Nog” would not have done a lot to improve Evans’ standing among his fellow light heavyweights, while his loss—particularly after such a lackluster performance—is a significant setback to his future title prospects. As with “The Reem,” the negative consequences from a loss outweighed the positives from a win, so it’s logical that Evans would have adopted a similar approach to the fight as his heavyweight teammate.

Aldo’s motivation to win was greater than Overeem’s or Evans’, as retaining his title is the top priority of every champion, but his motivation to not lose was similarly more significant. Keeping a belt is great, but losing a belt is crushing, so as with the previous two fights, Aldo apparently wanted to do just enough to win on points. Unlike Evans or Overeem, Aldo was successful, but that doesn’t change the fact that all three might have been fighting to not lose, rather than to win.

Fortunately, the efforts put forth by the UFC’s fighters more often resemble that of Woodley, Maia and Kimura than of Overeem, Evans and Aldo, and just because a fighter is truly going all out for a victory does not necessarily mean he will achieve one. Nevertheless, fans have come to expect a certain level of effort from the fighters at the top levels of MMA; that’s the agreement that fighters, the promotion and the sport’s fans enter into before each event. Fighting simply to avoid a loss, regardless of the logic behind such a strategy, violates that agreement, so when those losses come along anyway, their effects are compounded significantly.

Photo: Alistair Overeem (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.