MacDonald vs. Ellenberger and the Exaggeration of MMA’s Talking Heads Jed Meshew July 31, 2013 Opinion Last Saturday night, Rory MacDonald and Jake Ellenberger got into a fight. It was the most highly anticipated bout on the UFC’s most recent FOX outing and sadly it disappointed a great deal. MacDonald sat behind a well timed jab and dictated the entirety of the fight while Ellenberger looked completely lost inside the cage, flummoxed by the very basic boxing principles of the jab. By the end of the fight both men had earned the derision of the crowd and likely lost a fair few fans in the process. After the fight, the fallout truly began. UFC head honcho Dana White concurred with the fans in a post fight tweet commenting that the fight “sucked” and the twitter reaction of fans ranged from general malaise to downright outrage, with some people going so far as to demand pink slips. Now that is absurd. These are two of the best in the world at 170 pounds and one lack luster fight does not necessitate firings. However, what I find almost equally absurd is the response to the backlash from several members of the MMA intelligentsia defending the fight and particularly Rory MacDonald’s performance. Their arguments center around the idea that MacDonald expertly used the jab, a notoriously under-utilized weapon in MMA, to corral a dangerous brute of an opponent and that his technique and skill should be recognized and lauded for what it is. I agree wholeheartedly. Rory’s jab was on point and Ellenberger looked hopeless against it. Good for Rory to win against a tough guy. But just because someone shows a particular aptitude for something doesn’t mean it’s exciting. That fight was boring. It was glacially paced, had very little action and had none of the “mixed” in mixed martial arts. FightMetric has MacDonald landing 48 out of 120 strikes in the bout and Ellenberger landing 27 out of 106 strikes. From those numbers basic math will tell you that Jake Ellenberger landed not quite 2 punches PER MINUTE and Rory MacDonald landed just over 3 punches per minute for a combined total of exactly 5 landed strikes per minute of being in the Octagon. And that is a fight with almost zero clinch work and a combined 4 take-down attempts made. Look, if you want to defend Rory’s performance as one of necessity in the cutthroat, win-centric UFC then okay. But don’t piss on my head and tell me it’s raining. 5 strikes combined per minute of action, particularly when that action is fought almost exclusively at range, is in no world exciting. The other big argument I’ve seen in Rory’s defense is along the lines of “MacDonald had no reason to do anything else since it was working” and yes that argument is accurate. He didn’t have to do anything else to win. But if everyone adopts this strategy say goodbye to MMA. Look at the rest of the card from Saturday night. Liz Carmouche was physically dominant over Jessica Andrade; once she secured the take-down she didn’t need to do anything other than sit on her and throw enough punches to keep from getting stood up. Could she have done that? Sure. She still gets the win and moves on up. Should she have done that? No that would have been abysmal and no one would have enjoyed it. Instead Carmouche beat the brakes off of her opponent, won some fans, and probably got some extra scratch from the Fertittas for her troubles. My biggest issue with MacDonald’s performance is in viewing the entirety of it. If you just look at snippets you can see and laud excellent footwork, complete control of range, angles, timing, and just an overall generalship of the fight. But looking at it on the whole you see a fighter who is so afraid of losing he closes down all the other facets of his game and does the bare minimum to win, albeit clearly. I don’t hate the jab. Quite the contrary. I, like most MMA purists, see the jab as the best weapon that gets the least love. But the best part about the jab is its functionality. The jab can be used as a punch on its own merits, as a defensive tactic to maintain distance, as a range finder, as a set-up punch, as a counter, as a disruptive tool to your opponent’s combinations or footwork, as a method of positioning your opponent’s body or head, or as a diversion. It has so many functions and Saturday we only saw it used to keep range or to pot-shot the hapless Ellenberger. After re-watching the fight several times I counted only three occasions where Rory followed up his stiff jab with another punch. Three. And his refusal to throw in combination wasn’t for lack of opportunity either. Ellenberger’s reaction to the jab left several openings both to the body and for straight rights to find a home but MacDonald was content behind his jab and never really opened up his game. Contrast that with his teammate Georges St. Pierre who frequently employs the stepping jab that Firas Zahabi preaches. GSP uses all the facets of the jab when he fights and while he most often uses it as Rory did here, a stand alone punch, he mixes in power punches behind it enough which do wonders in marking up his opponent and, you know, actually hurting the other guy. More importantly, even when GSP is only using his jab as a form of attack he does so with snap and frequency. GSP battered Koscheck with the jab in their second fight using it to effectively beat his opponent up, not just beat him. If Rory didn’t want to diversify his use of the jab, at least if he had upped his volume with it the fight would have had a better pace and been infinitely more watchable. Also, let me be clear here, I’m neither putting the blame on Rory for having a boring fight nor saying he should go out there guns blazing and see what happens. I am completely supportive of taking a calculated approach to solving and defeating a dangerous fighter like Jake Ellenberger. By all means, jab Jake to death if that is effective. But if that is your plan actually jab him to death not just once every 2 minutes. Or jab in combination. Or use your excellent footwork and angles to create some more power shots. Or mix up your game in any way. MMA is a sport loved because of all the facets of it. Rory gave us 1 aspect of 1 facet and didn’t even hammer it home. That being said, I’m far more disillusioned with Jake Ellenberger than I am with Rory. In the biggest fight of his career, one with serious title implications Ellenberger looked completely and utterly disinterested/lost depending on how generous you want to be to him. Jake was neither aggressive nor technical. He landed a paltry 27 strikes the whole fight, and none of them with his trademark power. He completely forgot that he is a good wrestler and though his best success came off his take-down attempts (in the second round the only appreciable offense he landed came out of the clinch resulting from his take-down attempt) he only shot 3 times. More importantly, Ellenberger was clueless on how to create angles and move against the jab of Rory. Rory didn’t use a bunch of high level trickery to control the fight. All he did was put his lead foot into Jake’s chest the whole fight and occasionally pump out a jab. But it completely flummoxed Ellenberger, and for an elite fighter like Ellenberger to have no real concept for how to move around that or even have a back-up plan for countering it is extremely disappointing. Neither man did much in the fight and as a result it was a tepid, boring affair. But, as is becoming far more frequent in the aftermath of boring fights, MMA journalists and “purists” have started vocalizing support of the technical if tedious. These high brow fans lived for a long time in a culture of the misunderstood and under-appreciated. Then the UFC blew up and there was an influx of “uneducated” fans who had only the basest understanding of fighting, next to no interest in the ground game, and really just wanted to see some guys throw hands until one of them fell down. This became the majority of the fan base and so every time the new TUF fans would boo someone hustling from top-position or every time Leonard Garcia whiffed a wild windmill and those same TUF fans lost their minds, it caused the “smart” fans to die a little inside. And now in a Pavlovian response you can usually find several MMA writers who write “unpopular” opinions decrying the public for not appreciating the latest lackluster affair. Sometimes they are right and the public response to a fight is foolish (the general reaction to the beginning of the short lived “Machida Era” was absurd for instance), but equally as often they just come off as self-important and contrarian. Fights aren’t good or bad because of the lack or presence of technique so instead of telling us the merits of a fight where 80% of the bout was a staring contest just call it was it was and move on. Was MacDonald-Ellenberger the worst fight in history? Of course not. But was it good? Absolutely not. One fighter found a way to win while exerting minimal effort and the other was confused by the most basic principle of boxing. It looked for all intents and purposes like a lackluster sparring session who would rather not be there, not like a fight between two of the best fighters in the world with a potential title shot on the line. Just because a fight has some meritorious aspects doesn’t make it good. If you really try you can always find something worth commending in a fight. There is nothing wrong with elite fighters putting on a stinker from time to time and just because one of them happened to employ an under-utilized technique to moderate success doesn’t make it a good fight nor does it mean the public just doesn’t “get it.” Some fights just aren’t good and the sooner we can admit that the better for MMA journalism and the community in general.