Nate Diaz’s now infamous comments regarding Conor McGregor’s movement coach Ido Portal, in the run up to UFC 196, have gone down in history as probably one of the most immaculate digs between trash-talking fighters.
“You’re playing touch-butt with that dork in the park (with) the ponytail, and I’m the one that ain’t got no training partner? I don’t think so.”
People either really buy into Portal and his methodologies or they really don’t, and to be fair to him he certainly provides a lot of material for his detractors, such as this video of him teaching head movement with a child’s toy.
portal ido teaching head movement. Cant make this shit up pic.twitter.com/6JyJMYq3rQ
— Zombie Prophet (@ZPGIFs) May 12, 2016
Despite the mockery though, McGregor and his team may well be onto something with his unorthodox style of training.
A large part of the success of UFC champions may be due to the length of time they have spent in the sport. High end competitors of all sports are highly trained machines, robots with a repertoire of responses to deal with anything their sport throws at them in a split second. Muhammad Ali’s jab after all, could find a target a foot and a half away in 40 milliseconds. There is no time to react to that.
But there is a way to beat these robots – show their software something it hasn’t seen before.
A clear example was delivered in The Sports Gene by David Epstein. This was of pro-softball player Jennie Finch, who used to host a segment in Fox’s This Week in Baseball where she would pitch against her Major League Baseball counterparts. These were guys who regularly dealt with pitches upwards of 90 mph with a variety of swerves and curves.
Finch pitched underhand to them in the softball style, a larger ball at a pace of about 60 mph. With the ball being larger and moving at a slower pace, it made no sense when those batting superstars couldn’t hit it. Disgraced drugs cheat Barry Bonds pleaded for the cameras not to film him.
This is because batters don’t literally “keep their eye on the ball”. It takes 400 milliseconds for both pitches to reach the batter (Finch pitched closer to the mound than MLB pitchers), it takes half this time for the human brain to merely register the ball is in flight and activate muscular response.
The sluggers have interpreted the body language of the pitcher and have decided long in advance of the ball leaving the pitchers hand what sort of ball they will be dealing with. When the MLB pros were facing the windmill motion of Jennie Finch, the years of software wired into their brain to anticipate a flight that has not yet happened, was rendered useless.
This ability to bamboozle highly skilled fighters through unusual movement can, and has been, used in MMA. For example, Dominick Cruz’s dedication to perfecting his unique movement and footwork has made him possibly the hardest fighter in the UFC to hit. He has taken inspiration for his movement from a variety of sports and has shown contenders to his bantamweight division something they can’t interpret instinctively, making landing punches on him very difficult. He is subsequently among the best fighters across all UFC divisions.
Not all developments of unique movement are as deliberate as Cruz’s. Australian cricket bowler Daniel Worrall saw the Melbourne Stars through to the Big Bash League final this year with a dazzling display of bowling with “the strangest run up in the League”. But the strange run up had an equally strange explanation. He claims his run up developed as he had to avoid a tree in his back yard as a kid. While not as deliberate an invention, his run up was different enough from the norm to cause batsmen problems.
The movement of a newly-developed ball in football has also been shown to wreak havoc. The reduction in the number of leather panels on the World Cup ball each year since 2006 has resulted in variations of its flight. Which may be a more accurate explanation for characteristic early tournament mistakes than the “nerves” that commentators cite. The Jabulani ball introduced for the World Cup in South Africa incited particular controversy at a time when widening the goalmouth was suggested to increase the scoring at major tournaments.
The anecdotes are endless, be it a pitch from a particular stance, a rotation of a football or a drop of a shoulder, athletes at the upper echelons of their sport have been trained to use subtle cues to predict the future. So when they are confronted by something new, is it possible to turn even the top professionals to near novices?
There is no sport more equipped to take advantage of this potential than MMA. Cruz can be erratic in his movement and Demetrious Johnson mesmerising in his creation of angles, but they have in common the fact they are different to anyone else out there, and have subsequently climbed to the top of the pound-for-pound rankings.
The presence of Portal in McGregor’s camp makes sense, he has studied movement from yogi to circus performers. Mocked or not, he could prove to be a great asset, giving McGregor the ability to present a movement pattern that even the most seasoned fighters will not have encountered.
We have already seen his transition from a predominantly boxing stance to a more flow-based style of footwork and hands spread wider. This allows him in and out of engagement quickly, and to land strikes from sneakier angles than would be possible if his hands were in front of his face.
Of course we don’t want a division of Cruzs, who place the heaviest emphasis on not being hit. But there is an art to movement and footwork, and its exploration is still in its infancy.
The floodgates are about to open, we can only hope it’ll lift the sport up with a range of new exciting styles, as opposed to drowning us with ducking and diving point contests.
Daniel Boland, Pundit Arena
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