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The Reinvented Fighter

By on June 7, 2010

cro copFighters are always trying to reinvent themselves- particularly after a tough loss or a string of poor performances. Competitors like Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic are prime examples of how it is almost necessary for a fighter who has had a rough patch to convince himself that he’s a changed man. The reinvention of a fighter can take many forms- a new weight class, switching to a different training camp, or changing the style with which they fight. Do the results ever really validate the belief that the fighter has truly reinvented himself, though? Can someone like Cro Cop truly get back to the form that they used to display?

Let’s break this down. The way I see it, fighters look to reinvent themselves in a few distinct ways. The most popular are the following three: recovering from troublesome injuries (the “hey, I’m healthy now!” reinvention), changing weight classes (the “you can see my abs now!” reinvention) and changing camps/training partners (the “it’s not me, it’s you” reinvention). For fun, we’ll throw in a fourth category, which represents fighters who suddenly change strategies or take training more seriously (the “brand new man” reinvention).

“Hey, I’m Healthy Now!” Reinvention

Notable Examples– Cro Cop, Tito Ortiz (many times), Kevin Randleman (ditto), Mauricio “Shogun” Rua

Our boy Cro Cop is hoping that this particular form of reinvention will work for him, of course. Cro Cop has recently said in interviews that a couple of years ago, his “knee was completely broken”. Cro Cop says that this obviously affected his kicking, and that only in the last couple of months has he really started kicking at full steam again. The question is, is this really the problem or is there something else amiss? After all, while it’s true that we haven’t seen Cro Cop throw many kicks in his last few fights, he also seemed to be tentative and timid all-around. Also, it’s not as if he was setting the world on fire in his initial three fights with the UFC, where he was beaten by Gabriel Gonzaga and Cheick Kongo.

Still, I wouldn’t doubt that having leg problems and not being able to kick confidently could affect Cro Cop in a noticeable and major way. Sure, it shouldn’t have kept him from throwing punches aggressively, but when one major part of your game is inaccessible, it can definitely affect everything else that you do. Regardless of whether the injuries have been a culprit in Cro Cop’s fall from relevance, we won’t know whether it was just the injury or not until we see him perform this weekend.

Other fighters that have claimed that injuries held them back during rough patches of their careers have had mixed results. Shogun is definitely one of the few success stories when it comes to fighters coming back from serious injuries, but others, like Randleman, could never seem to get healthy long enough to make a sustained impact in the sport. Ortiz seems to be leaning toward the Randleman side of things, unfortunately. He claimed he was finally 100% healthy before the second Forrest Griffin fight, then immediately said otherwise after he lost by decision. Then, in the current season of “The Ultimate Fighter”, he dropped out of his planned fight with Chuck Liddell in order to have yet another surgery, this one focusing on his ailing neck.

One thing that could affect Cro Cop (or others hoping to bounce back from injuries) would be age. A young fighter like Shogun can bounce back from a serious injury, but again, older fighters like Randleman and Ortiz have had one problem after another.

“You Can See My Abs Now!” Reinvention

Notable Examples– Brandon Vera, Wanderlei Silva, Rich Franklin, BJ Penn, Randy Couture

The name of this particular reinvention implies that the fighter drops a weight class, but that is not always the case. Many fighters make the rather puzzling decision of moving up in weight when they are having trouble in a lower weight class, which would seem to be backwards. Still, in the case of a guy like Franklin, who couldn’t seem to beat the champion of his division (Anderson Silva), what else is there to do? Then there is someone like Diego Sanchez, dropped down to lightweight believing that he could bully people around, only to be bullied himself by BJ Penn, which led to Sanchez going back up to welterweight.

As you can see, this reinvention has mixed results, too.

It worked great for Randy Couture, who found new life as a light heavyweight, bounced back up and won the heavyweight title after losing two out of three to then-light heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell, and came back down to light heavyweight yet again after realizing that fighting 280-pound monsters wasn’t the best move after all. Still, for every Couture there are three or four Brandon Veras or Mike Swicks- guys who couldn’t quite reach the elite level of their old weight class, and were not able to do so in their new weight class, either. Then there’s BJ Penn, who you’d think would have learned by now to never go to welterweight again, but always seems to be thinking about it. For others, like Franklin or Silva, the jury is still out, as they haven’t had enough fights in their new weight classes to really show whether it’s the right place for them.

The key here is that changing weight classes should not usually be done just to avoid one or two opponents that you match up poorly with, or to try to right the ship after a losing streak. Your weight class should be about your body, and that’s it. If you could stand to cut some more weight, drop a class. If you are having trouble making weight and are already big for your weight class, consider moving up. Changing weight classes simply to convince yourself that you are a new man is not a high-percentage play.

“It’s Not Me, It’s You” Reinvention

Notable Examples- Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Kenny Florian, Andrei Arlovski

Being dumped is never a great feeling, and to have a high-profile leave your gym after a lackluster performance, citing the need to find “better training partners” is a bit of a smack in the face, isn’t it? However, throwing your old teammates under the bus while announcing your intention to train elsewhere has been a staple of the sport just as long as arm bars and head kicks have. In fact, this reinvention is often one of the more successful ones, probably because many times, the fighter is right and their old camp really wasn’t getting it done.

Georges St. Pierre (and many other members of Greg Jackson’s team) is a shining example of how this can work out in a fighter’s favor. When GSP realized that he had the raw talent to become an all-time great in the sport, he knew that he had to expand his horizons and look outside of his native Canada for training partners and coaching. The results have been impeccable, to say the least. Kenny Florian recently had a public split from Mark Dellagrotte, himself one of the best trainers in the sport, and has been training with the likes of GSP and others since. So far, a dominating win over Takanori Gomi seems to indicate that it was a good move.

Of course, changing camps doesn’t always mean that your old camp sucked. Fighters like Florian have long been willing to move around in order to learn new things and break up the monotony of training at the same place and with the same partners time and time again. Florian had previously gone to Thailand to work on his standup skills, for example. Arlovski also recently embraced the “nomad” approach, making stops at Jackson’s in New Mexico and California’s American Kickboxing Academy. Of course, the long break he had after the Brett Rogers loss and the new training locales didn’t seem to help him in a disappointing loss against Antonio Silva.

Finally, some fighters change camps simply because it’s time to move on. Look no further than the once-mighty Team Miletich, which had been the best camp in the world at one point. Now, almost all of the marquee fighters from the team are gone. Matt Hughes and Robbie Lawler left and started H.I.T. Squad. Jens Pulver and Tony Fryklund moved out to Idaho and started their own gym. Even mainstays like Spencer Fisher and Drew McFedries went across the river to Illinois and started their own gym. And, of course, logistics sometimes force a change of scenery, too. Another Miletich fighter, Ben Rothwell, finally moved his training camps to Wisconsin in order to be closer to his daughter. Wanderlei Silva started his own gym in Las Vegas after a short run at Xtreme Couture because he wanted to be based in the United States after his signing with the UFC.

Some changes can make you shake your head, though. How many top-notch light heavyweights does Rampage Jackson have to work with at Wolfslair, for example? There are a number of quality fighters emerging from that gym, and fellow UFC fighters Michael Bisping and Cheick Kongo lend some top-notch expertise, but moving halfway around the world in order to spar with no-names while your opponents are sparring with the likes of Nate Marquardt, Shane Carwin and Keith Jardine just doesn’t make much sense.

“Brand New Man” Reinvention

Notable Examples– Vitor Belfort, Tito Ortiz, Wanderlei Silva, Georges St. Pierre, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson

Ah, my favorite of all the reinventions. This vague reinvention covers many different issues, problems and excuses. Fighters say that they never trained hard in the past, and have changed that in order to turn things around. Fighters say that they are using a different strategy in order to enjoy more success in future fights. Some fighters go the other way, and claim that they will more closely resemble an older version of their own self (ie the constant proclamations that the “old Vitor” is back).

There is no reinvention that is less predictable than this one. Belfort has been the “old Vitor” numerous times, only to go back to the…I don’t know…new Vitor? Rampage claimed that he was in the best shape of his career before his fight against Rashad Evans, where he visibly gassed in the third round, which helped to keep him from finishing the fight when he had the chance. Previously, he had fought in five-round fights without looking as tired as he appeared in the third round of the Evans fight.

However, you can’t deny that others have had success with this reinvention. After Silva was laid on for five rounds by Ortiz way back at UFC 25, he became an even more vicious and dynamic fighter, spending the next several years terrorizing Japan in the Pride Fighting Championships. Ortiz himself learned how important cardio was after gassing out and losing against Frank Shamrock at UFC 22, and vowed to have the best cardio in the sport thereafter. For many years afterward, he accomplished that goal. GSP has had a reinvention of sorts into a tactical, cerebral fighter that maybe hasn’t gained him new fans, but has made him perhaps the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.

My favorite “Brand New Man” reinvention has to be that of just drastically altering your appearance. Who knows what portion of Evan Tanner’s success was due to his multiple hairstyles over the course of his UFC career? Of course, this can backfire too- Frank Trigg looked just plain weird with hair in his latest (and probably last) UFC fight, and he was put away by Matt Serra in what I believe was a direct result of that dubious decision.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though. Reinventing yourself is not only a tangible way of increasing your ability to perform in the cage (or ring), but is just as much a mentally necessary process for men and women who make a living by punching other professional athletes in the face. If a fighter can’t convince his or herself that the previous losses were due to this reason or that reason- and that the problem has been fixed- how can they ever step back in to fight with any kind of confidence?

E-Mail Jon Hartley

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