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When Victory Is No Longer Enough, Outside Pressures Become Harder to Ignore

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Lyoto Machida or Ryan Bader. Either of them. It makes little difference which one. On Monday you sit through a media conference call where your boss announces that the two other guys on the call -- Mauricio Rua and Brandon Vera-- will be fighting for a title shot. You and your opponent? You’ll just be fighting for money, fame, respect -- the usual.

Then the next day the boss calls you up to tell you he changed his mind. Now he’s decided to open up the title shot sweepstakes to all four of you. Whoever looks "most impressive" in victory on Saturday night will get the next crack at the UFC light heavyweight title. Could be any one of you.

My question is: if you’re Machida or Bader, and you went from out of the running to "in the mix" after a little public outcry and a change of plans, what are you supposed to do with this information? Now that you know your fortunes can be changed with a win deemed more impressive than whatever happens in the other fight, which you have no control over, how can it not mess with your head -- not to mention your game plan -- at least a little bit?

"It’s there in the back of my head," Bader admitted when I put this question to him on Wednesday afternoon. But then, he added, maybe it shouldn’t be. After all, he was already planning on winning the fight and looking good doing it.

"It was kind of like, okay, I just have to beat Lyoto regardless, and then I’ll at least be closer to a title shot," Bader said. "But then [White] came back and said that, so my hopes are up again. It got me a little bit more excited."

Machida admitted to having a similar reaction after hearing the change of plans.

"I really respected Dana’s opinion on that, and I believe the UFC always positions itself the right way in those matters," he said through a translator. "But I did think it was a little unfair of them to say that only the winner of the main event would get the title shot."

Now that the title shot is up for grabs among the four fighters at the top of Saturday night’s UFC on FOX 4 card, the dynamic has undeniably changed. Obviously, all four of them had planned on winning and winning big even before the stakes shifted, but now there’s a built-in way for them to win and still lose. If victory itself isn’t enough, what vague value judgments will their performances be subjected to?

Typically, there are a lot of different ways to look impressive in a fight. A quick finish is one way. A long, dominant performance is another. The bouts that win the ‘Fight of the Night’ bonuses are usually back-and-forth battles where each man has his moments. But as several fighters and trainers have pointed out in the past, getting ‘Fight of the Night’ means you probably got beat up at least some of the time. What’s so impressive about that?

"I think ultimately the fans want to see knockouts," said Bader. "You think you’ve got to go out and knock someone out for it to be an impressive win. But it’s kind of hard to even know what an impressive win means."

It’s also sometimes hard to make it happen all on your own. Is a win in an exciting, competitive fight more impressive? And if so, how do you guarantee that you’ll have a willing dance partner?

That’s a question both Bader and Machida will have to face. While Bader has his share of one-punch knockouts, the smart play for him might involve using his wrestling to nullify Machida’s striking game. Then again, takedowns and top control aren’t known for being all that impressive to most MMA fans.

It’s the same for Machida, who’s known for his "elusive" stand-up. Striking technicians and karate purists might appreciate a few rounds of hit-and-run mixed with sprawl-and-brawl, but would it be impressive enough to result in a title shot?

In Bader, Machida said he sees a fighter who "plays a lot with strategy" and "fights the way he can." But for this fight, Bader made very sure that he wouldn’t be thrown off by Machida’s unorthodox style. His team brought in a karate world champion from Las Vegas to give him a Machida-esque look in training, he said.

"A lot of guys haven’t seen that in practice, so it’s a surprise when they get in the Octagon with him," Bader said. "We put on the headgear and sparred some when he first came down, and you couldn’t tell that it wasn’t Machida. Same stance, same style."

But then, in training he wasn’t focused on winning according to someone else’s definition of what’s impressive. He was focused on being the better of the two fighters in the cage rather than the most impressive of the four guys at the top of the card. And make no mistake, there is a difference.

Both Bader and Machida will tell you that this new wrinkle doesn’t change anything. Intellectually, they know that winning is always the first priority, regardless of what the boss says will happen later. Worrying too much about how you win is a good way to get yourself beat. But then, who wants to be the guy who gets passed over for playing it too safe? Who wouldn’t be thinking about ways to earn that title shot, whether they admit it before the fight or not?

Bader isn’t pretending that this doesn’t add a little bit of extra pressure. The whole impressive win contest that the light heavyweights have going on this time around "kind of makes you want to open up a little more and be reckless and careless and swing for the fences a little bit," he said.

"But at the same time, that might get you in trouble," he added. "Or it might win you a title shot."

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