Champ Beware: Defending the Title May be Harder Than Winning It

champ beware
LAS VEGAS - JANUARY 01: (R-L) Mike Brown punches Diego Nunes at UFC 125: Resolution at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on January 1, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

“Success is not measured by what you accomplish, but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.”

– Orison Swett Mardsen

In the past year, we have witnessed the UFC championship belts change hands at a rate higher than what we’ve seen in the past. And in many instances, the champ lost his or her belt in their first title defense. Examples include Miesha Tate, Luke Rockhold, Fabricio Werdum, and Holly Holm.

Other champs successfully defended their belts, but then lost in a surprising fashion by being uncharacteristically knocked out. Prime examples of that were José Aldo, Rafael Dos Anjos, Ronda Rousey, and Robbie Lawler. Many speculate that this occurred due to the increase in skill levels in MMA. In other words, there is a lot more parody. Although this is partially true, it might not account for the entire story. As research has taught us, there is never one variable that is responsible for explaining an outcome.

Champ Beware: Defending the Title May be Harder Than Winning It

We are going to provide some potential explanations from a mental perspective as to why this is happening. The mental aspect to a fight should never be taken lightly. Moreover, the technical skills of a fighter and the mental aspects are intertwined more than a fighter may realize, and do not operate independently.

We recognize there are a plethora of accounts on the internet posted by expert MMA practitioners who systematically breakdown championship fights. They offer insight and explanations on a move-by-move basis. We do recommend watching as many expert fight-analysis videos as possible, to use as a learning tool.  However, fight analysis is not the focus of this article.  The point of this article is to examine a variety of variables that might independently, or collaboratively, impact a champion’s performance and probability of victory.

The Measure of a Champ

A defining point of data for a champion is their number of successful title defenses. To put this into perspective, Georges St. Pierre defended his title 12 times, Anderson Silva 11 times, and José Aldo defended his belt on seven occasions.  Much like one-hit wonders, there have been many champions who come and go. In boxing, Buster Douglas caught the world’s attention when he knocked out Mike Tyson.

Champ Beware:  It’s not that unusual for a champion to get caught up in the hype and believe he or she is bigger than the sport.

Similarly, Holm shocked the MMA world by beating the seemingly unbeatable Rousey. Though, Holm’s win turned out to be a good thing for the bantamweight division. It elevated other female fighters such as Valentina Shevchenko, Tate and Amanda Nunes up from a place when the division was thought to lack talent and depth. Hence, the champ who loses the belt is ultimately good for the sport.

While reaching the pinnacle of the sport is an absolutely amazing accomplish, we would posit the title defense become exponentially more difficult with each fight. Here are some aspects to consider:

Exposure

Often times lesser known fighters hold a small advantage simply because there is less footage to study. Analyzing video of a champion, especially against numerous fighters and styles, can provide the challenger with an important edge. Champions might not have this advantage because there is less video available on the challenger, though this is not true in every case.

In contrast, contenders are able to study a plethora of footage from fights. As well as insider views on training camps. And they use it to craft game plans based on the perceived strengths and relative weaknesses of the champ.

Champ Beware: Challengers take more risks and may even act unpredictably.

Respect

Respect is a critical element in all sports. After losses we have witnessed champions admit they didn’t respect their opponent enough. Champ Beware: It’s not that unusual for a champion to get caught up in the hype and believe he or she is bigger than the sport. For example, in his title loss, some speculated Rockhold didn’t respect the skills of the less-physically talented Michael Bisping. Bisping clearly has achieved a level of expertise as a result of logging thousands of hours of MMA experience, combined from training, studying film and real-time fights. A veteran of MMA should not be respected based on status alone, but on the fact that experience accrued over the years makes him or her crafty and dangerous.  

Injury

Maintaining championship status takes a toll on the body.  And this isn’t just from the fight.  When a fighter becomes the champion, everybody wants a shot at the title, even in the gym. Even with the most carefully planned training camp, reigning champions must train and spar with the most elite fighters in the world to remain sharp. Some suggest the most damage an MMA fighter endures is actually from sparring. In addition, because of the champion status, media demands can take time away from rest, recovery and quality training. Media obligations and lack of recovery time, paired with over-training, adds up and takes a toll on the body and the mind.

Champ Beware: It remains important to let goals drive sparring sessions. 

Some may wonder how it was possible that Dominick Cruz was able to return from a severe injury and regain the bantamweight championship from T.J. Dillashaw. This is a unique case, where Cruz was able to focus his time on not being a champ. Instead he spent time analyzing fight video and doing proper rehabilitative-type training, and recovery, in preparation for the fight. An athlete who injures their knee, for example, often report his/her knee strength and conditioning are stronger than it was prior to the injury.

Character

Based on championship status, a fighter may find themselves fighting out-of-character. The challenger has less to “lose” and the champ has more to “prove.” Champ Beware: Challengers take more risks and may even act unpredictably. Though styles-make-fights and every contest is different. Each fighter maintains general aspects to his or her fight-character. Often times pressure from the media, fans, or even self-imposed pressures can drive a fighter to compete outside of what brought them to championship heights.

We all watched Rousey fight out-of-character as she chased Holm around the octagon. Did Werdum chase Miocic and fight out-of-character? And did Aldo uncharacteristically go after McGregor? The pressure of the moment, and fighting out-of-character, is also known as choking. The pressure to entertain, to match the opponent’s intensity, and to answer the critics can lead to choking.

Champ Beware: For some, winning a championship title may have a negative impact on motivation.

Confidence

UFC vet, and former WEC champion Mike Brown noted that after winning his championship belt, his confidence was at an all-time high, stating, “I truly believed I was the best in the world. As a result I trained really hard.  I never even wanted to lose a sparring session after that.”  Mike admits that while sparring, “I wasn’t learning, but I just wanted to make sure nobody beat me.”

This type of drive is a key to maintaining championship form. But Champ Beware: It remains important to let goals drive sparring sessions.  To evolve at any level, newer skill sets must be applied, analyzed, improved, and then tested again.  This cycle repeats itself as skills are honed like a sharpened knife.  The very drive that makes a champion great might potentially derail their career. Stay confident, but it’s important to remain confident within the realm that brought the fighter to championship status, and not blunder across the over-confident boarder.

Motivation

It is often said that success is fleeting. Some pursue success for physical reasons. Others do it for internal ones. And still, some do it for social respect. Champ Beware: For some, winning a championship title may have a negative impact on motivation. The fighter may check it off the bucket list, then show up to collect their check after the next unsuccessful title defense. Or others acquire the belt and start looking for the money fight.

Champ Beware: Understanding that a champion has everything to lose, and the challenger has everything to gain, is a critical concept.

While many believe money is a key influence, often times it is not. Champions must be driven in their day-to-day training. Being the best, for whatever reason, must remain a core motivator for a champion to maintain their high level of success. While part of the formula, money earned just reinforces the purpose to maintain a champion’s day-to-day training behavior.

We believe that being the best, in of itself, should remain a core motivator for a champion to maintain their belt. Like Brown, they often must strive to stay one step ahead of their sparring partners by seeking to win every exchange, or accomplish some other targeted goal during their daily training and conditioning sessions.

Once a fighter reaches the pinnacle of the sport, they must search for other motivations to drive their daily grind. There must be a new vision and a new mission. Perhaps the vision is to become the greatest-of-all-time, and run through every opponent for the next few years. Ultimately, it’s best to be motivated by an internal self-fulfilling aspect. Such as trying to become the best version of one’s self.  This motivation manifests itself in patterns in the champion’s daily behavior

Remember, be aware that your motivation and confidence will change, stay in character, rest and recover, and respect your opponent.

Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is not only a key to getting to the top, but it is necessary in adjusting to the changing environment that comes with being a world champion. Champ Beware: Understanding that a champion has everything to lose, and the challenger has everything to gain, is a critical concept.  The challenger will take more risks while some champs may tend to be more guarded. Where in the past the champ fought to win, now they fight to avoid losing.

If you are reading this and you are a champion, you’ve been warned! It is critical to understand the emotional states that are related to a fighters previous best and worst performances. Become familiar with the emotions and training habits associated with the best performances. Then revisit these through training and visualization. Remember, be aware that your motivation and confidence will change, stay in character, rest and recover, and respect your opponent.

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