If you're a fan of combat sports, Brock Lesnar's performance in UFC 121's main event last Saturday was nothing short of pathetic.
For those of us that watched the big show, we witnessed the man who many, if not most, considered to be the best heavyweight in MMA not only completely gas out two minutes into the first round, but handle taking punches the same way a girl scout would covering up, cowering, and hoping the bad man would just go away. On that same night, we watched Brendan Schaub school another heavyweight elite, Gabriel Gonzaga, with nothing but good ring generalship and a decent jab.
It's becoming increasingly obvious that boxing fundamentals are not just winning high profile fights, but an absolute necessity to compete at the elite level. MMA isn't like it was back when Royce Gracie entered the first UFC and dominated every opponent he came across by immediately taking them to the ground and performing submissions. These days, grappling and submission defense is a standard, and fighters are usually more than equipped on preventing being taken to the ground and on what to do when it happens. So where does that leave them? Standing and striking.
But let's not act like flying knees and kicks are winning fights. Frankie Edgar completely dominated a top three pound-for-pound fighter in BJ Penn, not once, but twice by fighting almost entirely as a pure boxer. By sticking and moving and circling his opponent, Edgar managed to both embarrass and end the reign of the lightweight champion. Not once in either of their fights did the great Penn seem to have any answer.
Dan Hardy - known for being a ferocious striker himself - was just knocked out when he was countered while throwing a looping left hook. It's the same left hook that quite often we'll see MMA guys do mid-fight when they give up on strategy and just look for the quick KO. I call it "The Striker's Folly." It's when two fighters suddenly decide to just start winging left hooks until someone inevitably gets caught. The lethal cocktail of small gloves, an unprotected chin, and not seeing the punch coming leaves somebody out cold and the fight over. Most of Chuck Liddell's career wins were based on this...so were his losses.
It's this kind of poor establishment of boxing fundamentals which makes the still-evolving sport sometimes look cheap and amateurish, even at the highest level, and it's not simply a matter of styles making fights. There is no excuse for a UFC fighter to not know how to properly handle taking a punch, to not be prepared for more than a round of hard fighting, to not know how to approach an opponent who circles you with a flicking jab, to lack the discipline to avoid a fight regressing into a wild slugfest. Yet, still we're seeing it all the time. This isn't just stuff they shouldn't be doing in a championship fight this is stuff that should be out of their system by the time they sign with the UFC.
If this means Shane Carwin needs to start jogging in training, like a professional boxer does, in order to prevent punching himself out after one round, so be it. If BJ Penn needs to learn how to counter and throw back when his opponent just wants to box all night, fine. It's certainly better than him aimlessly waiting all night hoping for his opponent to stand still so he can shoot for the takedown.
There was a time when MMA was young and every fighter needed extensive lessons on how to perform a takedown, how to perform submissions, and how to guard during grappling. Now, it seems they all need a serious clinic with Emanuel Steward before entering the Octagon. You can't take a punch well? Try sparring every day in a boxing ring until you can. Getting caught on the chin too often? Learn to keep your guard up. Can't catch your opponent who's boxing your ears off? Somebody teach you how to apply pressure and cut off their exit. And once that's down, then you can begin to apply it to the rest of your game.
Anderson Silva has long been known for his ability to not just deal punches, but avoid them coming his way, despite being a fantastic BJJ guy. Lyoto Machida seemed invincible in his run to the light heavyweight championship, with his counters and striking combinations, but even that ended when Shogun Rua applied one of Boxing 101's "Styles Make Fights" rules counterpunchers hate pressure.
It really is funny to see how full-circle boxing has become in MMA. Royce Gracie made it seem worthless at one time, but now, it seems more necessary than ever. But let's make sure that we're learning more than just how to throw a punch. Today's MMA elite need the endurance to make it through the long haul, the experience to know how to handle an opponent who decides to fire off on you, and the basic movement and ring generalship to handle a guy who just wants to stick and move on his feet. Until then, don't be surprised to see more dominant champions of MMA fall to boxing's simple one-two.