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The Mental Edge

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The Mental Edge

In the lead-up to perhaps the biggest weekend of fights in MMA history, Psychology Professor and martial artist David Klonsky, PhD, takes a look at some key match-ups and tells us: who has the mental edge?

Key Matchup #1 – Rafael dos Anjos vs. Eddie Alvarez (Thurday July 7)

Rafel dos Anjos looks to defend his the lightweight title against challenger Eddie Alvarez.

RDA is on an absolute tear, defeating the best of the best in the lightweight division, including Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis, Nate Diaz, and Benson Henderson. He has not only beaten these monsters but made it look easy. Alvarez has also beaten some impressive names, including Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez, although in close decisions.

Mentally, I give Alvarez the edge. RDA has been champion for over a year now which can make even a hungry fighter a little less hungry than when they were striving to become champion and defending for the first time. Also, RDA is by almost any metric a better fighter than Alvarez, and this will also make it harder for RDA to approach this fight with the highest level of urgency. In contrast, Alvarez has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Plus, he is also a fighter who enjoys risk (as detailed in this epic breakdown by Robin Black). Finally, Alvarez’s championship experience in another large promotion (Bellator) will help him feel focused rather than nervous when the fight begins. All this said, RDA is so much better than Alvarez that I think he overcomes any mental disadvantage.

– Mental Edge: Eddie Alvarez

– Forecast: RDA by Submission (after battering Alvarez with strikes on the feet and ground)

 

Key Matchup #2 — Joanna Jędrzejczyk vs. Cláudia Gadelha (Friday July 8)

Strawweight champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk is used to intimidating opponents and gaining the mental advantage. In the lead-up to her fight against former champion “Cookie Monster” Carla Esparza, JJ was so effective with her mental intimidation that Esparza appeared to have accepted her loss before even stepping into the cage.

However, the broadcast of The Ultimate Fighter 23 has changed things in two ways. First, it has given JJ and Gadelha an unusually large number of interactions leading up to their fight. Second, it has provided an unusually large amount of psychologically relevant footage to enjoy and evaluate. A few things seem clear to me. Gadelha is not in the least bit intimidated or rattled by JJ. In contrast, she seems thoughtful, focused, at peace, and ready. It is JJ who seems consistently bothered by her fighters’ lack of success and by her inability to rattle Gadelha. In addition, Gadelha has already fought JJ and lost a very competitive (and controversial) decision. Thus, Gadelha has no reason to feel overwhelmed by the moment, and every reason to feel that she knows exactly how to approach her re-match with JJ. This is exactly how Gadelha appears to feel in TUF 23 footage.

To be sure, JJ is a fierce competitor and will not back down. But I think Gadelha has shown she has the better understanding of and approach to this particular fight.

– Mental Edge: Claudia Gadelha

– Forecast: Gadelha by Decision

  

Key Matchup #3 – Miesha Tate vs. Amanda Nunes (Saturday July 9)

After her stunning and well-deserved come-from-behind victory against Holly Holm, Miesha Tate is the new bantamweight champion and defends her title against Amanda Nunes.

I give Tate the mental edge for a few reasons. First, she has extensive experience in high-stakes, championship fights, both in Strikeforce and the UFC. In contrast, this is Nunes’ first championship fight; nerves will not be her friend. Second, Tate has had 8 fights against the best opposition the women’s Bantamweight division has to offer (Ronda Rousey twice, Holm, Jessica Eye, Sara McMann, Marloes Coenen, Cat Zingano, Sarah Kaufman), whereas Nunes has had 3 such fights (Zingano, McMann, and Alexis Davis).  Tate has seen it all, Nunes has not.

Third, Tate has continued to evolve her skill-set, and now brings increased punching power and an enhanced submission game compared to her younger self. Such evolution should not be taken for granted; in fact, many women fighters who three years ago looked poised to make UFC title runs (Sarah Kaufman, Sara McMann, Jessica Eye) have stalled in their progress. Miesha’s continued evolution not only provides her with more skills, but more confidence.

Fourth, Nunes tends to start fast and fade. She looked predictably unimpressive in the third round of her most recent fight. It is arguable whether her performance was deserving of a title shot, and Nunes has not yet shown that she can can perform at an elite level beyond round 1.  She could give Tate trouble in Round 1, but if Tate survives (and she has shown the ability to weather punching storms, e.g., Holm), Tate will be able to break Nunes down. Tate is smart and knows this.

– Mental Edge: Miesha Tate

– Forecast: Tate by Submission in the championship rounds

  

Key Matchup #4 – Mark Hunt vs. Brock Lesnar (Saturday July 9)

 In a very (very) fan-friendly fight, former WWE and UFC star Brock Lesnar returns from a 4+ year lay-off to fight KO specialist Mark Hunt. For three reasons Hunt has the clear mental edge. The first is ring-rust. Ring-rust is real (unless you are Dominick Cruz). Lesnar has been away since 2011, Mark Hunt has been active against high-level competition. Mark Hunt’s timing, rhythm, and focus will be sharp; Lesnar will be re-figuring out his timing, rhythm, and focus while avoiding Hunt’s one-punch KO power. A tall order.

The second is experience and knowledge. Hunt has been around forever. He does not simply understand angles, timing, and distance, they are second nature to him. In contrast, Lesnar has very little MMA experience and likes to come straight forward. Hunt knows what to expect and how to counter.

The third reason for Hunt’s mental advantage is desire, or lack thereof on Brock’s part. It is not at all clear that Brock’s heart is in MMA. He gives uncertain answers to questions about whether he plans to continue fighting after Saturday. He has prepared for only a relatively short amount of time for the current fight. And when he approached Dana White about his return it was specifically to return for UFC 200. In other words, Lesnar’s return was motivated in large part by the spectacle and pay-day, rather than a pure and genuine re-commitment to high-level martial arts competition. This is a recipe for disaster when facing a martial artist like Hunt.

– Mental Edge: Mark Hunt

– Forecast: Hunt by TKO in Round 1

 

Key Matchup #5 – Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier (Saturday July 9)

Arguably the best ever, Jon Jones hopes to get back the belt he never truly lost against current light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.

Normally, in a rematch, I think the mental edge goes to the winner of the first meeting if the outcome was lopsided, but to the loser of the first meeting if the fight was competitive. After a competitive fight, the loser can feel that he had positive moments to build on and that adjustments can be made to address and overcome the not-so-good moments.  In contrast, the way forward is more challenging for the winner: on the one hand, he won, so it can feel wrong or counterproductive to change, but on the other hand, not changing means not evolving, and in turn, allows the opponent to know exactly what to expect and prepare for.

The first meeting between Jones and Cormier was close enough to be called competitive. Even though he lost the decision, Cormier had his moments, including an emphatic takedown of Jones later in the fight. In addition, Cormier felt his nerves impeded his performance, and this may very well be true. It was Cormier’s first UFC title fight, and Jones’ 9th. It would be natural for nerves to affect Cormier more than Jones. So, when the re-match was announced, my instinct was that Cormier had the mental advantage. This time he would know what to expect mentally and physically and be ready for it. But…

… in the interviews leading up to the fight Jones appears to be the one who is poised, level-headed, mentally prepared, and focused. In contrast, Cormier looks rattled, angry, and overly desperate to win (“I’m willing to die to beat you”). Jones, despite his history of immature behavior, seems to have the mental advantage. He also happens to be the better fighter. I think we are headed for a repeat of the first meeting.

– Mental Edge: Jon Jones

– Forecast: Jon Jones by unanimous decision

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Exclusive: Mike Ekundayo, “He could come with anything, I don’t care”

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In a little less than a week, Rise of Champions crowns its inaugural bantamweight champion. The crowning of the first 135 lb. champion marks the young promotions first champion. It makes sense why the promotion owned and operated by UK MMA star, Brad Pickett, and Team Titan head coach, Mickey Papas plan to crown the promotions first champion in the bantamweight division. Pickett competed in the division throughout his tenure with the WEC, and ultimately the entity which absorbed the light weight promotion, the UFC. Even more-so, two young and rising prospects of the division. One undefeated in his professional and amateur career, the other riding a seven consecutive victories, five by submission. The two meet February 17th, Mike Ekundayo puts his career unbeaten streak up against Jonas Magard’s at ROC 5, for the aforementioned, inaugural bantamweight championship.

Speaking to the undefeated Ekundayo before his fight, he believes this opportunity to be inevitable. Born in Hackney, (a borough of London) early in life, Ekundayo was no stranger to cramming his belongings into large cardboard boxes. At the age of 7, he moved from Hackney to Herne Hill, a district located in South London. Two years later he found himself in similar situation, moving from his vaguely new home in Herne Hill to Brixton. A road trip in the car to his new home, took approximately 5 minutes.

It is admittedly, not an easy life. In a harrowing article describing the horrors of gang life in London by the metro.uk, former gang member turned community activist, made the claim, “When you are from Brixton, from Peckham, west London, anywhere in London, you are seeing hardship where a lot of communities can’t reach their full potential”.

In his own words, Ekundayo describes his home as, “not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing”. But that couldn’t matter any less for him. Not only does the London resident consistently work to grow his potential, he gets to see it every day. His coaches Brad Pickett and Mickey Papas hold the knowledge as well as first-hand experience, increasing his limits with every session. “We’re all close”, speaking of his coaches and team. “My head coach is Mickey Papas, he’s very knowable in the game. He’s been around for a very long time. He teaches me a lot, I can learn a lot of stuff from Mickey Papas. Sometimes I just think, how does he know all of this? Where did he get this information from?”

He continued, “While I was coming up through amateur, Brad (Pickett) was still an active fighter, but nowadays he’s taken a coaching approach. So he’s coaching us prospects getting us to where he got to and further… He’s been through it all, gotten to the top, and stayed at the top”.

Further discussing his coach, “For UK MMA, you could definitely call Brad a legend. He’s done a lot in his career, and someone who I rate highly as an MMA fighter is Demetrious Johnson, and of course Brad has got a win over (him). I feel like just being surrounded by someone like Brad, you’re working towards the right things. When he passes information onto you, you respect it that bit more because of far he got in his career. He’s definitely given me the right guidance, I trust his guidance”.

When it comes to the upcoming title fight, confidence poured out from where praise and respect had once been. “I just think it’s my time, to be honest. I really do believe it’s my time for all of this. The work I put in, certain things become inevitable”, he said. “I actually called this after I won my third fight, I called for belts and big shows. I spoke it to existence”. He continued, “It’s my time to finally to get a strap of some sort. All the straps is what we’re going for, all of them. We’re going for every one”.

“Rise of Champions is my show… That’s how I feel when I’m performing on ROC, it’s just my show, it’s my time to shine. Everyone knows who there here to see, there not really there to see the other guys. It’s my time, it’s my show and I’m going to put on a show on February 17th and I’m going to win that belt”.

The infectious nature of his positive attitude was palpable. Although we only spoke through small rectangular devices, I could feel his energy in the room. His attitude shined brightest when talking about what it would mean to be the first ever ROC Bantamweight champion. Ekundayo claimed, “It just means a lot to have my first belt in anything to be honest… Within myself, I call myself a champion, every day. But now, other people would have to call me a champion because I’ve got a belt… And one thing I really want to do is, which sounds a bit weird, I just want to take the belt home to my area, to Brixton.”

“I just want to take it to my area, and just show the people of that area what hard work can achieve… I want to just take it to my people and show them that not for nothing, we are from Brixton, it’s not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing but you can rise above it and you can achieve your goals and that’s what the belt will mean”.

When the conversation shifted to the topic of his opponent, Ekundayo had less encouraging words rolling off his tongue. Jonas Magard, the second half of the ROC 5 main event, holds a record of 7-4. Currently he owns a seven fight win streak after starting his career 1-3. Ekundayo thought, “He did fight quite decent guys in his three loses… but in the seven fight win streak, none of his opponents have been of caliber”.

He elaborated further, “What’s in my thoughts is more me, then it is of him. So, he could come with anything, I don’t care. I’m just focused on how I’m going to be picture perfect. How I’m going to paint a masterpiece, how I’m going to make it a beautifully perfect performance. That’s what my primary focus is on, so what he does to me is irrelevant, I’m just going to focus on how I’m going to be perfect on the night of February 17th”.

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UFC 222 Re-Worked with Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya, and Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega

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UFC 222 has been saved, and it didn’t take a superhero to lift the burning boulder which was Max Holloway’s injury and withdrawal. All it took was a female named Cyborg and a man with a demeanor so smooth, he could be mistaken for an alter-ego. Cris Cyborg now serves as the UFC 222 main event when she defends her featherweight belt against Yana Kunitskaya. Frankie Edgar bumped down to the co-main event to face Brian Ortega in what is likely a title eliminator. The news of the UFC 222 revival originally stemmed from a report by MMAFighting.com and confirmed later in the evening by the UFC.

Over the course of the week, reports surrounded the Las Vegas card and whether it would survive. Multiple options were reportedly being mulled over; cancelling the card outright, changing the pay-per-view (PPV) to a ‘Fight Night’ with an Edgar vs. Ortega main event, Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt 2 main event, among others. Ultimately, the promotion landed on Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya as the new main event, while also booking Brian Ortega.

This adjustment of the card places their women’s Featherweight champion in the second PPV main event in three months. Cris Cyborg recently put her undisputed Featherweight title on the line against Holly Holm at the year ending card, UFC 219. She successfully defended her belt by unanimous decision, in what was an amazing technical display from the Brazilian. In her octagon career, Cyborg is undefeated in her four appearances with three KO/TKO stoppages.

The second half of the new main event, Yana Kunitskaya, makes her UFC debut against the scariest women on the roster. If the 145 lb. champion was not enough of a challenge, Kunitskaya also makes her first appearance in the division since defeating Cindy Dandois in December of 2010. Of Russia descent, her most recent performances came inside the Invicta FC cage. At the female-only promotion, she posted a record of 1-1, with 1 No Contest. Her loss and no contest, both came at the hands of former UFC Featherweight title challenger, Tonya Evinger.

Turning to the co-main event, both fighters have been relatively inactive but, for good reason. Brian Ortega amazingly forced perennial men’s Featherweight contender, Cub Swanson, to tap in the second round of their ‘Fight Night: Fresno’ contest. Ortega fought twice in 2017, but more-so stayed inactive following his stoppage victory over Swanson. The Californian contender announced his desire to wait in line for the next title shot following the recent victory.

For Frankie Edgar, his last fight took place at UFC 211 when he absolutely demolished young and rising star, Yair Rodriguez. A card which took place last May. While Ortega holds an undefeated record, Edgar is undefeated in his previous 9 fights, excluding people named Jose Aldo.

UFC 222 takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 3rd.

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UFC Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker Announces Birth of Third Child

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Times seem dull and dreary for the UFC’s Middleweight Champion, Robert Whittaker. The New Zealand born fighter withdrew from the promotions event debut in the eastern region of his residence, Australia. UFC 221, which takes place this Saturday, booked Whittaker to defend his title for the first time against former division champion, Luke Rockhold. His withdrawal was due to mistreatment of a serious staph infection inside of the Australians stomach.

It couldn’t get much worse, having to disappoint fans, and missing the first UFC event in eastern Australia. As it turns out, it could not get worse for Whittaker. Life only got better, as he had the pleasure of announcing the birth of his third child.

His new child is the champions third and first girl. Information regarding his child is limited as this moment is a tender and special time for the Whittaker family.

UFC 221 takes place in Perth, Australia at Perth Arena on February 11th. The cards main event features Whittakers short notice replacement, Yoel Romero taking on Luke Rockhold. Much to the satiety of fans, an interim belt is not in the equation in this instance.

Thank God. Excuse me, thank Dana White.

UFC 221 also features the ‘Super Samoan’ Mark Hunt vs. Curtis Blaydes, Tai Tuivasa faces Cyril Asker, Alexander Volkanovski vs. Jeremy Kennedy and more.

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