Although it would be an error to describe mixed martial arts as a sport dominated by strikers, it’s easy to see that top level fighters have focused on improving their striking in recent years. The success of Robbie Lawler, T.J. Dillishaw, Anthony Pettis, Jon Jones, Holly Holm, Dominick Cruz, Stephen Thompson, Conor McGregor, Donald Cerrone, and of course Anderson Silva, all exemplify the emergence of a contemporary striking era which is best defined by the development of foot movement in mixed martial arts. Even grapplers (think of Fabricio Werdum, Rafael Dos Anjos, Daniel Cormier, Demetrius Johnson, Ronda Rousey) have significantly stepped up their striking in recent fights in order to deal with their heavy handed opponents. Among other things, the striking era means that the sport is well ahead of a period in the mid 2000s when its top competitors were wrestlers whose primary goal was to take their opponents down and hold them there.
The striking era has many implications for the sport. Viewers are treated to more skillful knockouts by the likes of highly trained strikers like Anderson Silva, Stephen Thompson, Conor McGregor and their contemporaries. Fights that would presumably take place on the ground are increasingly taking place on the feet. Perhaps most interestingly, I think that the contemporary focus on striking in MMA has become so alluring that fighters with clear grappling advantages have become knock-out-hungry and made the error of exposing themselves to opponents with much more striking experience. Holly Holm took advantage of this lure in her championship fight with Ronda Rousey and produced one of the most memorable knockouts of all time. Stephan Thompson took advantage of this lure by schooling Johnny Hendricks in a recent fight setting up a likely title shot later this year.
Another implication of the lure of striking means that some seemingly great strikers may have been able to punch and kick their way to the tops of weight divisions without having to worry about having their grappling tested. This isn’t a dismissal of these strikers’ ability to keep fights on the feet with split second sprawls and foot movement. Rather, I am questioning the degree to which some top level strikers have had to focus on their grappling defense given that most of their opponents are happy to oblige them in a stand up fight. After last night, Conor McGregor and Holly Holm are clear examples.
At UFC 196 two strikers and heavy favorites (both in the betting books and in the popularity contest), in Conor McGregor and Holly Holm, were matched up with two grapplers, in Nate Diaz and Mischa Tate, and quickly out grappled in otherwise competitive fights. UFC 196 will go down as one to remember as Nate Diaz’s dethroning of McGregor and Tate’s dethroning of Holm represent results that throw entire divisions into disarray. More to my point, they also represent a reminder that even in our striking era, it is important not to anoint strikers like McGregor pound for pound greats before their ground games are thoroughly tested.