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New Champions Highlight MMA’s Constant Evolution

Conor McGregor, UFC
Photo Courtesy of AP

It was all over. The Brazilian king’s long rule had ended in all of 13 seconds as challenger Conor McGregor put him away with one left hook to the jaw.

Jose Aldo went from being the No. 1-ranked pound-for-pound fighter in the world, a man on an unbeaten 10-year reign and a legacy rivalled only by the greatest fighters the sport has ever seen,  to being on the losing end of the UFC’s fastest finish in title fight history. On top of the MMA world for one second and unconscious and defeated the next. Aldo’s abrupt loss perfectly encapsulated how painfully unpredictable and harsh the sport can be. No one is untouchable, not even a fighter of Aldo’s stature.

The Aldo-McGregor fight capped off the year-long build-up to the fight that McGregor wholly dominated from start to finish. It was unprecedented how one-sided the “rivalry” was as the impertinent Irishman beat Aldo down on the microphone and capped it off with a record-setting finish. It was another unceremonious end to a UFC champion’s title reign.

Conor McGregor, Jose Aldo

Photo Courtesy of AP

Aldo’s loss makes him the eighth champion out of the UFC’s 10 who have lost their belt in the last 12 months. The calendar year saw seven new champions, an unprecedented change for the company and a potential turning point to a new era. What’s most notable is the manner in which the UFC champions were dethroned. They were, for the most part, dominated.

Before Aldo’s knockout, middleweight champion Chris Weidman also lost his strap to Luke Rockhold after being beat down on the ground — a beating so bad referee Herb Dean was criticized for not stopping the fight earlier.

Just last month, Holly Holm shocked the sports world by knocking out the indomitable Ronda Rousey in the second round. The fight was not close as the former multiple-time boxing champion put on a striking clinic and finished off MMA’s biggest superstar despite being as high as a 10-1 underdog at some point.

UFC 185 in March set the tone for the year as both lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and women’s strawweight champion Carla Esparza their respective titles in brutal fashion. Pettis was beat in every facet of the game throughout five tough rounds as Esparza never stood a chance against Jedrzejczyk’s barrage of strikes.

Fabricio Werdum squares off with Cain Velasquez at UFC 188

Photo Courtesy Of AP

Cain Velasquez’s return to Mexico was the stage of another huge upset. Fabricio Werdum followed the footsteps of his Kings MMA teammate, Rafael dos Anjos, and submitted Velasquez despite being a 4-1 underdog.

This was definitely the year of the challenger as even the seemingly untouchable Jon Jones was stripped of his belt for reasons outside competition.

Under more scrutiny, the unseating of the champions was made possible by an exploitation of a key weakness that may or may not have been obvious either due to a lack of preparation in the champion’s part or simply because the challenger was the better fighter.

A year ago, former UFC bantamweight champion, Renan Barao was being marketed as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter. Barao, like his teammate Aldo, was unbeaten for over a decade. That didn’t stop him from being beaten down by 7-1 underdog T.J. Dillashaw. At the time Barao was noted for his great all-around fighting style until Dillashaw confounded the Brazilian with his nifty footwork and advanced kickboxing. It was like the new replacing the old — a similar case with Aldo passing it on to McGregor.

Like Barao, Aldo was built under the traditional Muay Thai fighter’s mold with ironclad takedown defense. Barao and Aldo feasted on the wrestle-boxers who still ruled MMA at the time but once they came into contact with a more innovative striker who could not only counter but predict their movements, their time at the top was taken away.

In fact, there are hardly any wrestle-boxers left as UFC champions. Champions Demetrious Johnson (now the longest actively reigning UFC champion) and Dillashaw both have wrestling backgrounds but have developed such intricate skillsets they don’t fit the traditional wrestle-boxer mold.

Like most sports, fighters need to be more skilled in 2015.

Holly Holm Ronda Rousey

Photo Courtesy of AP

Rousey’s lack of polished striking technique was horribly exposed by Holm who made her look like an amateur in comparison. The once-dominant champion’s detractors claimed she was a “one-trick pony” and it showed as the judoka had no idea how to get Holm to the ground once her initial attempts at throws were thwarted. She couldn’t cut off the cage or neutralize Holm’s measurement of range and paid the price. Unless Rousey grows very quickly in the next six months, she’ll be hard-pressed to defeat her new rival.

Pettis and Esparza were defeated for entirely different, yet similar reasons: a gaping weakness in their skillset.

Pettis was unable to keep the fight at range to set up his creative flow of strikes. Dos Anjos kept applying forward pressure and the more he moved backwards the worse it got. He repeatedly got taken down and beat up. His incredibly versatile jiu-jitsu couldn’t save him.

Esparza on the other hand simply was unprepared and had virtually nothing to offer once she realized Jedrzedczyk wouldn’t get taken down. Like Rousey, she was exposed as being too one-dimensional to hold on to her title once a challenger like Jedrzedczyk defused her only method to victory.

Speaking of unpreparedness, Cain Velasquez — the powerful wrestler known for his unrelenting pace and endurance — looked like a shell of his former self when he fought in Mexico City’s elevated landscape finding himself with a blown gas tank by the second round and eventually succumbing to a guillotine choke after a half-hearted takedown attempt. In Velasquez’s case, it wasn’t more so a gaping weakness in his game but his preparation that led to his collapse.

Weidman was defeated simply by the better fighter in Rockhold. The fight was close up until a mental lapse by Weidman, leading to an ill-advised spinning heel kick. Rockhold saw it a mile away, grabbed onto Weidman and mounted him. The fight ended shortly after. The jury is still out on his loss, but Rockhold demonstrated a near-perfect fight, being prepared for wherever the contest went.

The sport of MMA is very young, yet continually and rapidly evolving. An indomitable champion in the previous few years could appear like the sport’s new breed only until a newer breed violently replaces him or her atop the pecking order.

Unless the champion can progress as rapidly as the sport, their reign will be very limited. Abrupt ends to title reigns only highlight the sport’s volatility and the perpetual theme of evolution. Adapt now or fall forever.

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