“HABIT, n. A shackle for the free.”
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
I sometimes ask myself if we are all slaves to our patterns and routines? I can talk to someone and predict most of the things they will say, or their reactions to the things I will say. This doesn't make me psychic, it just means, for the most part, we are predictable and play out our lives in the way we have practiced it. The same is true if not more true for combat. Having spent thousands of hours on certain movements and muscle memories, they are executed reflexively, even if we don't want them to. That is the blessing and curse of practice.
In a fight, we aren't completely predictable machines, but some fighters are less predictable than others. If they are calm, they have better move selection. How we pick our moves and when we use them — you can call that timing and fight IQ. A fighter with a low fight IQ can have perfect technique, just like any great fighter. The difference is, they might do the wrong thing at the wrong time with perfect technique. Yes, practice makes perfect. It can also mean doing it perfectly wrong. Most of this outcome has already been predetermined in the lead-up.
It's Human Nature
When I watched Jose Aldo finally fight Conor McGregor, it was for me an analogy for human nature. A fight is a chance for our natures to play itself out. If the two adversaries fought 100 more times, I don't know how many of the meetings McGregor might win, but surely Aldo would also win many. But when they did fight, the outcome had already been foreshadowed. If McGregor had lost, that outcome too would have been foreshadowed. It depends on how much one man studied the other man. Though I don't believe it to be true, 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; the fight adage is, just worry about what you will do. So perhaps there is truth to Aldo's words beyond a mere insult of McGregor not being worth his time.
McGregor's Habit of Hitting a Rushing Man
McGregor, a southpaw, has a habit of landing the counter-left hook on a man who rushes at him. Especially if the other man has shorter reach. (Which is nearly every fighter in his weight division.)
Aldo Has a Habit of Overextending When Frustrated
Aldo is a brilliant striker, but he has maintained 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.
When Two Habits Collide
After a long hype that last over a year, a frustrated and angry Jose Aldo rushed at McGregor — overextending with the right, which McGregor was prepared for. McGregor parried the right hand.
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 World Champion in Conor McGregor. Exactly as advertised.
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. Against McGregor, Aldo was put out by a succession of accurate hammer fists on the ground.
Mendes caught Aldo in the middle of a combination, and sometimes punches land. McGregor's punch was more purposeful and precise. He had it planned and was waiting to execute his counter — rather than it being incidental to a combination. The added power of the punch came not from McGregor but from Aldo. McGregor threw the punch while backing up. All the impact came from the charging man, Aldo, who led with his face.
Another example is Jose Aldo vs. Mark Hominick. It didn't have the power of Mendes or McGregor; Hominick is much smaller than all three of these men, but the left hook on a rushing Aldo was there for him. As Hominick began to figure Aldo out and find success with this technique, the fight got a lot closer in the later rounds.
In the dressing room before his fight with Aldo, McGregor was seen practicing backing up to lure an imaginary Aldo to chase him, to deliver the left hand. He practiced this over and over. He was counting on Aldo to do what he always does. That is gameplaning: having counters for predicted behaviors. Even the best fighters in the world get stuck in their ways.
In the same way, it's easy to win arguments when you already know what your opponent will say. A good salesmen or pickup artist will handle objections before they come up. The objections are pretty standard if you're paying attention. We aren't that original. This is the art of the deal. This is how you negotiate in the boardroom. A fight, business, life, relationships, they all work the same way. They all have the same types of people and are governed by the same rules.
Reading the Behaviors of Others
McGregor has long complained that the fighters of today are too predictable. No different from rappers calling other rappers "basic," meaning 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. No different from an investor 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 another taunt from a brash fighter and ignore it. The self-image they have of themselves is not in line with the predictable fighter McGregor is painting them out to be. So they will ignore what doesn't paint them in a positive light. Even if they did believe him, McGregor assumes they still won't change. They may second guess themselves, considering it reverse psychology or mind games, and stick to what they've always done. That's the thing about predictability, even if someone makes you aware of it, you may still act predictably. Which only further confirms the case for the predictability of human nature.
In McGregor's mind, he's stating a fact, it'll psyche his opponent out, and from experience, he has learned that they will come out just as he expects them to. He predicts things with no concern because he knows changing habits is damn hard. Ask anyone trying to lose weight and keep it off forever.
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 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 are often disappointed. You hold low expectations and you're rarely proven wrong.
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. There are few who are prepared for the media circus that comes with fighting Conor McGregor. They may be in a state of anxiety and chaos; when that happens, you fall back on your training — your habits. But if your opponent knows your playbook, this can spell doom.
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. He likes to say other fighters are stiff, their movements too transparent and telegraphed. They do what they do.
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 fighter usually beats the older fighter. (Not only because of their youth but because they have sustained less damage in their career.) The taller fighter with the longer reach also has an added advantage. All of these variables were true in Aldo vs. McGregor.
According to Fightnomics, UFC champions on average have reach advantages over the rest of their division. Jon Jones 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.
Before the Aldo vs. McGregor affair, former UFC champion and MMA analyst Dominick Cruz pointedly said:
I use this not as an exercise in criticizing Aldo or any training style. In college, when a professor teaches logic or philosophy, the purpose is to use it on yourself and see where you may have biases. Yet what do we do? We immediately go out to get into arguments with our friends and try to beat them. That too is predictable. Let's not do that. It is much more productive to think of these examples as inroads for self-examination — if we too are too predictable in our own ways. To look within ourselves and see how we can break out of our own patterns of thought and behavior. To be free. 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. Can you look within yourself to find your own? That's a better test of an objective mind. 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 more than once.
Useful Companions to This Article:
- Fightnomics: The Hidden Numbers in Mixed Martial Arts and Why There’s No Such Thing as a Fair Fight - Reed Kuhn, Kelly Crigger
- Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game - Michael Lewis
- Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything - Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
- The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman - Takuan Soho
- Outliers: The Story of Success - Malcolm Gladwell
- The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary - Ambrose Bierce