Thursday, 12 November 2009

So, what's so special about this Fedor guy anyway???

My good friend Vadim Kolganov, SAMBO Master of Sport, once told me that a lot of people have recently taken up SAMBO training, because they believe that this way, they'll discover Fedor Emelianenko's secrets. "But to be honest with you", Vadim continued, "Fedor is not SAMBO. Fedor is just...Fedor!" And what exactly might that be, then? Another friend, Coach Greg Mihovich, muay thai fighter and high level judo competitor, wrote on Facebook the other day that Fedor is "a tremendous combination of skill, power, mental strength, dedication, will, heart, spirituality and humility". I believe that Greg sums it up pretty well on what makes Fedor a great fighter and moreover, a great champion (if I'm allowed to say, a champion at the same level with mythical figures of the 20th century, like Mohamed Ali or Michael Jordan).

Still, in my mind the question remains: what is it that makes Fedor so much better than his opponents? Can it be the "style" he's practicing? Well, according to many hardcore MMA fans, who zealously share their opinions in various internet forums, he practices SAMBO and boxing, which is basically what every other MMA fighter on the planet is practicing - a grappling style combined with a striking style. Could it be that he's developed a set of more effective techniques? Mmm, those techniques have been revealed in the book "Fedor: The Fighting System of the World's Undisputed King of MMA", (widely) available by Victory Belt publications. Unless nobody on this planet bought the book, there should be a number of fighters out there who know the techniques by now. Why haven't they been turned into wrecking machines? OK then, is it possible that Fedor trains more and harder than his opponents? I very much doubt that: in this, world-class level of competition, I don't believe there's enough time in a 24-hour day to put more training in. How about his mental attributes and his sheer toughness? To be honest, I do not know enough about his mental attributes in order to judge, so maybe. Regarding his toughness, I'd say there's no tougher fighter out there than Minotauro Nogueira and even he, got soundly beaten by Fedor, not once but twice!

It's pretty hard reaching a conclusive answer, so here's what I thought: why not watch Fedor's last fight against Bret Rodgers, and try to pinpoint a few things that Fedor does obviously differently than his opponent? Because - you never know - a secret might be hidden in plain sight, right? So, here's the fight and right after, what I notice:

First, check and compare the two fighters' postures. It seems to me that Fedor keeps an upright, relaxed posture, with his shoulders kept naturally down, and his weight evenly distributed over both his feet, while Rogers fights from a semi-crouch, weight forward, spine slightly flexed, shoulders slightly elevated and internally rotated. Is it possible that the forward flexion of the torso does not allow for efficient rotation around the spinal axis, reducing the force of his strikes? Could it be that the elevation of the shoulders (through the use of the upper trapezius and levator scapulae muscles) directs forces to the cervical (the neck, that is) and the upper thoracic spine, towards structures who provide less support and stability, resulting, once again, in diminished power generation? Of course, I will not claim that Rogers is not a hard hitter, but inefficient biomechanics leads to waste of energy: with diminished structural stability, one tends to use pure muscular strength instead, and that leads to fatigue. Well, don't you think Rogers "gassed" relatively early for a world-class athlete? Oh, and one more thing: both spinal flexion and shoulder elevation can mess with an athlete's breathing patterns and guess where that leads: yep, fatigue it is! So, according to elementary sports biomechanics, the foundation for efficient movement is posture[1], still there's a number of MMA coaches out there teaching the "hunchback" as the best fighting stance. Go figure...

At the exchange starting at 1.34 of the video, ending with Rogers being taken down, and once again at 3.01-3.10, notice how Fedor seemingly overextends with his leading right punch, but his feet follow up immediately so that his center of gravity always ends up above his base of support. This way, he maintains stability through mobility so he’s able to continuously generate power from any position. He probably breaks every rule in the textbook of boxing by abandoning his fighting stance and squaring up to his opponent, but guess what: it does not really matter, because he gets the job done by not being bound by his fighting stance! This is a perfect example of what is known as agility and dynamic balance, two fundamental athletic attributes whose application is not limited to fighting. And these attributes are trainable, as every self-respecting football, basketball or tennis coach will tell you.

What else do I see in Fedor that I don’t see in Rogers? I see beauty of movement and effortlessness, and these mean nothing else but technical perfection. To achieve this lever of mastery, according to Joanne Elphinston, performance consultant to elite professional athletes, one requires “a physical structure that supports the sport’s biomechanics, the neuromuscular coordination to correctly sequence the movement, the psychological skills to focus effort without unnecessary tension and the physiology to sustain the movement pattern until the event is completed”[2]. What I’m trying to say here is that while Brett Rogers (and the majority of MMA fighters out there today) is a tough fighter, period, Fedor is a fantastic athlete, which makes him a-totally-different-class-of-a-fighter. The thing is that the “generic” attributes and skills that make a great athlete can and should be trained before one proceeds to train the specific skills of a sport. I have no specific information about how Fedor acquired those, but seeing that athletes from the former Soviet Union are demonstrating technical mastery more consistently, I can only assume that he has benefited from the advanced research done during the Soviet era in the fields of human movement, sports, and performance enhancement, which was later incorporated in the physical education system of the former USSR. On the other side, your Joe Average MMA fighter, begins as a young man, brimming with testosterone and a vague notion of toughness in his head, who goes to an “MMA Academy” and starts technical training from day one, hitting bags, pads and sparring partners, according to the methods of the so-called “old school” (OK, he also does some roadwork and maybe lifts some weights). Well, I have once heard someone say that there’s no better way of guaranteeing an average fighter than to train him in an average way (don’t remember who it was, so I cannot quote him, sorry ‘bout that) and I tend to agree with that.

One last thing that I notice in Fedor, which I actually haven’t yet seen in any other MMA fighter out there, no matter how highly ranked, is adaptability and flow. Fedor is not trying to apply his SAMBO techniques, he is not “integrating his striking with his grappling” and he is not trying to impose a specific system’s fighting strategy – he just does what he has to do in order to break his opponent down. What do I mean by that? Take, for example, Minatauro Nogueira: as excellent a fighter he might be, in each and every one of his fights, he follows the exact same, typical of BJJ, strategy; shoot to take down, try for submission. In his fights against Cro Cop and Tim Sylvia, he just kept on trying to take them down unsuccessfully, until he managed to pull through, on the way taking quite a beating and surviving thanks to pure guts. Take away his BJJ strategy and he’s most probably in trouble. Why? Because he is defined by the style (art, system, sport, whatever…) he practices. Fedor, although he practices SAMBO, is not defined or limited by it. Check again the two exchanges from the Rogers fight I mentioned above, both ending with Fedor taking his opponent down: he leads with the right hand, seemingly loses his balance, steps deeply inside with his right foot and hooks with the left hand. Only, since he’s now in close distance, the second strike becomes a push that trips the opponent over his right leg. Is this “integration” of striking and grappling? No, because there is no distinction between striking and grappling – both emanate from the same kinesiological basis! In this sense, I’d say that Fedor’s style can only be described as “pure fighting”.

Now, some of you might (justifiably) ask: is there a way to train people in this “pure fighting” with consistent results? I believe there is, but this is the subject for another, much more extensive blog post – or maybe even a book…

Notes & References
[1] Besides Fedor, there’s another MMA fighter, very successful recently, who’s utilizing this upright body posture, Lyoto Machida. Also, the very talented Gerard Mousasi has adopted this posture, since he started training with Fedor Emelianenko.

[2] Elphinston, J. Stability, Sport and Performance Movement. North Atlantic Books, 2008, p. 7