“HABIT, n. A shackle for the free.”
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
I sometimes wonder if, to some varying degree, we are all slaves to our patterns and routines. If I talk to someone I know, I can predict most of his or her responses and reactions. This doesn't make me psychic, it just means we are predictable and play out our lives in the patterns we have established. As children, we are more of a blank slate, and then we begin to get hardwired. We become what we practice, this is especially true in combat. (Thus, combat models life.)
If you spend thousands of hours on certain movements, it becomes ingrained into your motor memory, and you will execute these movements reflexively, without thought. Sometimes, even when you didn't mean to. That is rote behavior. That is the blessing and curse of practice.
In a fight, we aren't completely predictable machines, but we're more predictable than we think. There is the old adage of not fighting with emotion. As philosophers have first argued and neuroscientists have confirmed, being emotional doesn't make you less robotic; in fact, it does the opposite: it makes you a slave to emotion. Philosophers say a calm mind gives you free will, neuroscientists say a calm mind gives you agency, but before either, fighters knew a calm mind made for better move selection (freedom of choice and decision-making). Fighters knew it before everyone else, which gave birth to the adage of not fighting emotionally, which evolved into philosophies of not living emotionally. The lumps on your face were all the evidence you needed.
Perhaps, since we live in a less physical world, we have forgotten the need for self-regulation and emotional control. Since combat training is no longer normal, it is now normal to fight over nothing. To be predictable robots who serve our emotions.
What moves we select and how and when to use them, this is commonly known as fight IQ. A fighter with a low fight IQ can have perfect technique, just like any great fighter—the difference, however, is applying the wrong move at the wrong time perfectly. Like throwing the perfect punch when you should be executing the perfect block, and getting knocked out. Practice makes perfect can also mean doing it wrong perfectly.
The outcomes of most fights have already been predetermined in the lead-up.
It's Human Nature
For me, watching Jose Aldo fight Conor McGregor was a metaphor for human nature: a fight represents our natures playing themselves out. If McGregor and Aldo fought 100 more times, it's hard to say how many victories each fighter would have over the other. But when they did fight, the outcome had already been foreshadowed. If McGregor had lost, that result, too, would have been foreshadowed. It depends on how much one man studied the other man. Leading up to their contest, Jose Aldo said he didn't watch many of McGregor's fights—that he wasn't interested. Some fighters aren't interested in what the other fighter will do, they see no value in it, or in planning for that matter—their sole focus is on what they will do and perfecting their habits. These fighters believe they will make it up as they go, but fighters who plan to make it up as they go, with predictable irony, fight like they always do. But what happens when they meet an opponent that plans to counter what they do?
McGregor's Habit of Hitting a Rushing Man
If we are slaves to our habits, then winning can be a habit. So can knocking someone out.
McGregor, a southpaw, has a habit of landing the counter-left on a man who rushes at him. Especially if the other man has a shorter reach. (Which is nearly every opponent he has faced.)
Aldo Has a Habit of Overextending When Frustrated
Aldo is a brilliant striker, but has a habit of overextending with the right when frustrated, or when he is at a reach disadvantage. (Sometimes leading with his face.) McGregor predicted that this is what Aldo would do in his fight since Aldo has done it at least once in every fight. McGregor said in an interview, when Aldo overextends with the right, he will meet him with his left. This sounds like a man who has watched a lot of tape on his opponent. That is the difficulty of being the champion. A champion cannot watch every up-and-coming challenger, whereas every challenger is studying the champ. The longer you stay at the top, the more predictable you become to everyone else.
But to guarantee his success and Aldo's behavior, McGregor had to get Aldo frustrated before they even fought. Thus, the trash talking got started early and it got ugly. When both men were in the cage, Aldo avoided making any eye contact with McGregor and the announcers took notice. Aldo admitted leading up to the fight that no fighter has made him as angry as McGregor had. A slave to emotion.
When Two Habits Collide
After a long hype that lasted over a year, the frustrated and angry champion, Jose Aldo, rushed McGregor, as predicted, overextending with the right. McGregor parried. Though Aldo knew better, he couldn't help himself. He was so angry. This was the moment McGregor had been waiting for.
Aldo threw a left hook, but in the middle of the stanza, as predicted, McGregor met Aldo with his left. 13 seconds into the fight and we had a new undisputed UFC Featherweight World Champion. Exactly as advertised.
You don't often hear people say they make their best decisions when they are angry. Yet when we are angry is when we are most confident with our decisions (making you a fool twice). A recipe for disaster. (And further evidence for why we should learn to control our emotions.)
Chad Mendes caught this same punch when he fought Jose Aldo in their second fight. In fact, just like McGregor, it was within the first minute of the first round, when Mendes dropped Aldo to the canvas. In that fight, Aldo was able to recover and win the decision.
Mendes caught Aldo in the middle of a combination and sometimes punches land. McGregor's punch was deliberate and precise. He had it planned and was waiting to execute his counter, rather than it being incidental to a combination. However, the added power of the punch didn't come from McGregor but from Aldo. McGregor threw the punch while backing up. All the impact came from the charging man, Aldo, who led in with his face.
In an earlier example, this same left hook on a rushing Aldo was there for Mark Hominick as well. However, being Aldo's smallest opponents, Hominick didn't have the same power as Mendes or McGregor. This was also early in Aldo's career where Aldo's chin had yet to diminish. As Hominick began to piece together Aldo's habits, the fight began to turn in his favor, but it was too late. Time ran out, but the wrinkle was exposed.
In the dressing room before his fight with Aldo, McGregor was seen practicing backing up to lure an imaginary Aldo to chase him, and delivering the left hand. He practiced this over and over. He was counting on Aldo to do what he always does, and Aldo came through. This is what is known as a game plan: countering for predicted behaviors. Even the best fighters in the world get stuck in their ways.
Time doesn't only create talent, sometimes it also creates ruts.
In the same way, it's easy to win arguments when you already know what your opponent will say. Good salesmen will handle objections before they come up. The objections are pretty standard if you're paying attention. We aren't that original. This is how deals are made. This is how you negotiate in the boardroom. Whether a fight, business, life, or a relationship, they all work the same way. They all have the same types of people and are governed by the same rules: What you want, and what I want.
Thinking it doesn't matter what your opponent will do and that it only matters what you will do is like thinking the order of cards in a card game does not matter—or knowing what cards will come up in a card game does not matter. If this were true, insider trading should not matter. A football coach stealing his opponent's playbook shouldn't matter. Because knowledge of what the other guy will do does not matter. Only a fool would believe this.
And sometimes fools become popular fighters because they are exciting to watch. Just as car wrecks are exciting to watch. However, do not mistake excitement with maximizing potential.
Reading the Behaviors of Others
McGregor has long complained that most fighters are too predictable. No different from rappers calling other rappers "basic," which means lacking in freshness and originality. It's why, before entering the UFC, he predicted he would take over the division and become a UFC world champion. To slay all the "basic" MCs. Similar to an investor or entrepreneur who sees patterns in the market that are ready to be exploited.
Patterns of behavior are hard to change. We get stuck in them. McGregor, recognizing this, often tells his opponents beforehand exactly what they will do and how he will counter. Yet even though he tells them about their habit, just as he did with Aldo, they generally do it anyway. How do you stop a habit you have practiced for over a decade? McGregor is not worried about giving away his game plan. He knows they will consider it more trash talk from a brash fighter and ignore it. Tell the truth to their face, and they will think you are lying. Their self-image is not of the predictable fighter McGregor is painting them out to be so they aren't likely to believe him. But that's human nature, we will ignore the things that do not paint us in a positive light.
Even if McGregor's opponents did believe him, they may second guess themselves, considering it reverse psychology or mind games, and stick to what they've always done. McGregor believes he's stating a fact, but knows stating unpleasant facts will psyche his opponents out. They will lose confidence in new things and come out as expected. That's the thing about predictability, even if someone makes you aware of it, you may still act the same. This only further confirms the case for the predictability of human nature. In fact, you couldn't even claim anything about human nature unless it was predictable. Because if humans never predictably do it, how can you call it our nature?
McGregor predicts things without concern because he knows changing habits is damn hard. Ask anyone who's tried to lose weight and gained it back.
Before the Aldo-McGregor affair, former UFC champion and MMA analyst Dominick Cruz pointedly said:
During the filming of The Ultimate Fighter, McGregor even predicted a certain UFC champion would switch training camps, he even warned the head trainer of the champion's camp. (The champion was already spending a lot of time at another camp.) The trainer, of course, didn't believe him, but that's what ended up happening. He's not psychic. McGregor assumes fighters are inherently self-interested, petty, and fight like machines. It is up to the fighters to prove they are more than that. Though they are beginning to call him Mystic Mac, this doesn't take a genius, does it? You hold high expectations of people, you're often disappointed. You hold low expectations, and you're rarely proven wrong. And when faced with an unpleasant truth, people tend to ignore it.
McGregor for his part has hired movement coaches to help hide his patterns and make his movements less apparent. He's also constantly reading about mental health and character. He focuses on calming his spirit, he calls it a state of Zen. Whatever it is, it allows him to relax and be calm so he can make the correct move selections during the fight.
From the Aldo fight, McGregor was supposed to fight Rafael dos Anjos for the UFC Lightweight Championship. But two weeks before the fight, dos Anjos had to pull out of the fight due to injury. On short notice, Nate Diaz replaced dos Anjos to fight McGregor in a non-title fight. With his confidence at an all-time high, McGregor took the fight without a second thought. But McGregor's own hype had gotten to his head, he forgot what made him so good. It wasn't just his talent or his reach, it was the preparation of his team, and in particular, John Kavanagh and Owen Roddy.
McGregor had previously fought Chad Mendes on short notice.
Mendes soundly beat McGregor in the first round, but with less than a week's notice and being completely depleted after a grueling weight cut, Mendes was knocked out by McGregor late in the second round. But without the advantage of studying his opponent, it was not the same McGregor.
In meeting Nate Diaz, though he did well in the first round, McGregor was meeting not only another southpaw, but it was also the first opponent to have a reach advantage over him. One who didn't care about McGregor's mind games and actually got under McGregor's skin with his trash talk. Furthermore, McGregor is a boxing-centric fighter, and Diaz was the most skilled MMA boxer he had ever faced. Though Diaz presented new variables McGregor had never had to account for, McGregor didn't bother studying his opponent, he thought it didn't matter. According to Kavanagh, McGregor also stopped listening to his coaches. He underestimated the value of study and put all his belief into his talent. It was the same mistake Aldo made. McGregor thought he really was Mystic Mac.
But a magician should only be a magician to his audience who are unaware of his methods. To himself, he should only be a man who studies.
In the second round, Diaz rocked McGregor and made McGregor submit with a rear-naked choke.
Never underestimate study.
McGregor asked for an immediate rematch and wanted a full training camp. Kavanagh said the loss was the best thing to happen to McGregor because now he knows he is only as good as his preparation and the team around him. But predictably, with the biggest payday of his life in their first fight, it was Diaz who did not train properly for the second.
Though it was still a tough fight and Diaz exploited the same weaknesses in McGregor that he had in their first fight, a smarter McGregor outpointed and outworked Diaz for a decision victory. Whether things were going wrong or right, reminiscent of UFC legend Georges St-Pierre, McGregor stuck to his game plan.
If fights are mostly predetermined in the lead-up, it is noteworthy to mention some statistics. In the UFC, fighters with southpaw stances beat orthodox fighters the majority of the time. The younger fighters usually beat the older fighters. (Not only because of their youth but because they have sustained less damage in their career.) The taller fighters with the longer reach also have an advantage. McGregor held all these advantages over Aldo.
Unlike what the public may believe, it's the tall, lanky, and awkward who make the best fighters. They defy convention, which makes them outliers. Outliers are always harder for the mainstream to predict, and in fighting, harder to beat.
According to Fightnomics, UFC champions on average have reach advantages over the rest of their division. Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, and Conor McGregor would then be the perfect builds for MMA. Also worthy to note is that both Jones and McGregor start out crouched and crawling before their fights. They want to be free to move, free from the shackles of habit. And like Georges St-Pierre, McGregor does better with game planning and has learned to be a disciplined champion. For these reasons, both Jones and St-Pierre are reluctant to take short notice fights. And St-Pierre, Jones, and McGregor all come from camps that compare fighting to engineering, or logic-based problem-solving, and training to r&d. (Kavanagh is a former engineer, Jones's coach Greg Jackson is a math nerd, and St-Pierre is trained by two philosophers, John Danaher and Firas Zahabi.) Not surprisingly, there is mutual respect and cross-training from all three camps.
Few fight coaches would ever associate fighting with engineering or with logic-based problem-solving for that matter, which is what makes these coaches unique in fighting and excellent in finding patterns. (But then again, MMA, and in particular Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is quite popular in Silicon Valley.)
If you've ever talked to professional coaches, they are nerds. Combat is just discovering that the nerds, not the anti-intellectuals who hate studying (tough guy-meatheads), make for the best coaches. The nerds will never underestimate the value of studying and lifelong learning. Some like to romanticize fighting as a feeling, an emotion, rather than a subject of study. But nerds will treat it like any other study, and will approach it with reason, rather than emotion. It's the difference between looking like a fighter who doesn't think, and thinking about fighting. Or the difference between believing astrology and studying astronomy. And some people just won't know which is better, just as some people can't tell a good deal from a bad deal.
The pattern has always been the nerds, the tinkerers, are the ones who drive innovation. This is no different in fighting. Wonder how long it will take mainstream martial arts to notice this pattern? If we are to believe Conor McGregor, it may be never. Most folks won't even notice what's on their nose.
After Diaz, McGregor fought Eddie Alvarez for the UFC Lightweight Championship. Against Alvarez, McGregor had the same advantages he had over Aldo. Alvarez has a habit of being reckless and impatient; it's not unusual for Alvarez to get knocked down in his fights while rushing in and having to work his way back from behind. Especially, like Aldo, charging in with the right. In Alvarez, McGregor not only had a full camp but in many ways, he had already trained for Alvarez in training for Jose Aldo. Since McGregor's first fight with Aldo was canceled due to Aldo being injured, McGregor had two training camps for Aldo leading into their fight. Against Alvarez, McGregor had a year to get ready for a right-handed fighter who charges in. To make matters worse for Alvarez, even before Aldo, McGregor already had a habit of hitting a man who rushes. (You need to take your time with McGregor.) Alvarez was McGregor's ideal opponent.
While McGregor is calm in the media chaos and can think clearly, Alvarez was flustered in the limelight. Alvarez was everything Nate Diaz was not. There are few who are prepared for the media circus that comes with fighting Conor McGregor (much like fighting Floyd Mayweather). They may be in a state of anxiety and chaos; when that happens, they'll fall back on their training—their habits. But when your opponent knows your playbook, this can spell doom.
When Alvarez lead with the right, unlike the single punch he landed on Aldo, McGregor caught Alvarez with a four-punch combination. Even deadlier and more precise than before. But if you consider the amount of preparation, it's not as mystical as it first appears. Unlike fighters in ruts, McGregor is still getting better.
If we have learned anything about Conor McGregor, everything about him is unpredictable—for now. The pervasive analogy used is that of water—since it flows. It moves predictably but also unpredictably. It does what it does. McGregor likes to say other fighters are stiff, their movements too transparent and telegraphed. They do what they do.
After his McGregor fight, Jose Aldo fought Frankie Edgar for the interim UFC Featherweight Championship (which McGregor vacated after winning the UFC Lightweight Championship). With seven months to prepare and time to shore up his weaknesses, Aldo not only studied Edgar, he watched his defeat to McGregor over and over again. The lesson: Do not lead.
Aldo's strength is as a counter-striker. Against Edgar, Aldo stayed discipline to his game plan, allowing Edgar to lead and then countering him. Edgar in a way is the perfect opponent for Aldo, not only does Aldo have the reach advantage, but Edgar likes to lead and charge in on straight lines.
Edgar is durable and mixes in his attacks with feints and lateral movements, but when he does attack it's straight on, where Aldo is waiting. Edgar did not force Aldo to change his plan. This was also an emotionless fight for Aldo, Edgar doesn't get under his opponent's skin like McGregor does. Aldo won a comfortable decision.
Aldo then fought Max Holloway for the undisputed UFC Featherweight Championship. Before Diaz, Holloway gave Conor McGregor his toughest test. Holloway started with the McGregor-esque mind games and taunts early against Aldo, which lasted for about a year until they finally met. (Holloway was calling out Aldo before he was even booked to face him.) Holloway, like McGregor, was not only younger but bigger than Aldo. Holloway is also a part of the next generation of MMA fighters who constantly switch stances and mix up attacks. Like McGregor, he is a young, big, movement fighter with supreme confidence. Holloway has also been thinking about beating Aldo since his teens.
Aldo, having learned from McGregor, stayed dedicated to his game plan. Counter-attack. The same plan he used against Edgar. After the first round, Holloway realized that he couldn't get Aldo to lead. Normally a high volume striker who switches stances, Holloway maintained an orthodox (right-handed) stance and pulled back, hoping Aldo would lead. Aldo didn't take the bait. However, Holloway has one of the highest fight IQs in all of combat. The problem for Holloway to solve was, how do I get Aldo to lead? Holloway adjusted and came back with a complicated meta-solution: Attack, allow Aldo to counter, then counter Aldo's counter.
Aldo's weakness was still the same, after he punches, his defense is down. Rather than leading with the right, Holloway in orthodox stance, caught Aldo with a jab, Aldo slipped Holloway's follow-up right and countered with a blind left hook. Another Aldo pattern, punching without looking, which he did against Mendes, Hominick, and McGregor.
Many of the best UFC fighters have been counter-strikers. The advantage to waiting for the opponent to attack first is the clarity of vision, you see everything coming. When you attack, you must aim and hit while moving. In the counter-strike, you see the opponent coming, where you can aim and strike. However, counter-striking takes discipline, calm nerves, and timing.
Holloway after the attack became the counter-striker, he saw Aldo's hook coming, moved out of the way, then caught him with the same two-punch combo he threw previously, the jab-cross. The end for Aldo came in round three.
Aldo had a 10-fight WEC/UFC title run. It was only a matter of time for time and his opponents to catch up.
Combat Models Life
When a professor teaches logic and philosophy, the purpose is to use it on yourself and see where you may have biases. Yet what do we do? We use it to point out biases in others, rather than ourselves, and that too is predictable.
It is much more productive to think of these combative examples as inroads for self-examination, in what ways are we too predictable? To look within ourselves and see how we can break out of our unhelpful patterns of thoughts and rote behaviors. To free ourselves, without having to take any physical lumps in the process.
I hope the big takeaway is, what can we do to live less robotic lives?
If you look for the weaknesses in others, you will find them. But can you look within yourself to find your own? That's a better test of an objective mind. And if all you see are the flaws in others, what reason is there for you to grow? And if you don't grow, you will be knocked down. Predictably, and more than once.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- For numbers nerds, Fightnomics: The Hidden Numbers in Mixed Martial Arts and Why There’s No Such Thing as a Fair Fight by Reed Kuhn and Kelly Crigger is the only work of its kind for MMA.
- The definitive book on sports and numbers is Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
- In Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely refutes the common assumption that we behave in fundamentally rational ways, and how predictably irrational we are.
- If you want to see how behaviors can be explained by numbers, check out Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
- On the philosophy of free will and spontaneity, read Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
- For the intersection of Zen and combat, read Takuan Soho's The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman
- On improvisation, life, and art, check out Stephen Nachmanovitch's Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art
- For stories about people who defy life's conventions, check out Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
- The only dictionary based around satire, The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce