Game planning in any combat sport is an essential part of fighter preparation and success. A pre-fight strategy will determine what areas one needs to avoid, exploit and attack. Game planning in mixed martial arts has innumerably more layers than a single martial art, though it does lack in the depth of those layers. Your modern mixed martial artist doesn’t need to worry about berimbolos and worm guard, but they must be prepared for anything from axe kicks to imanari rolls to sacrifice throws.
The sheer amount of different techniques available to the mixed martial artists has required coaches and fighters to train specifically for their agreed upon opponents. When fighting a high-level kickboxer one likely needn’t worry about an esoteric inverted guard game. This need to train specific has traditionally led to fighters watching a lot of tape on their opponents. The thought process behind this studious approach is that it will familiarize them with their opponent’s tendencies.
There are however a strong minority of fighters who, though they possess the means, choose not to watch tape on their competitors. Instead they have their coaches and sparring partners watch tape and transfer that information more effectively. When your sparring partner is of comparable size to your opponent and he accurately mimics them, one can step into the cage having already fought a version of their opponent for months in advance.
The question is: why not watch the tape for yourself? The individual fighter might see something everyone else missed, or at the very least become even more familiar with their opponents game. It seems inadvisable to ignore this process – which has become the norm in most high-level camps – but the reason many fighters don’t watch tape is actually quite cogent.
Combat sports and MMA is all about enforcing your will upon another. Even for the reactionary fighters i.e. the counter striker: the goal is to make your game work by exploiting the others. Fighters who do not review footage of their opponents past fights often give the same answer when asked why: they are focused on themselves, on enforcing their game onto their competitor and not worrying about what the other is doing.
In a sport as mentally intense as MMA any and every factor leading up to and during a fight counts. Imagine Fighter A has a bout with Fighter B:
Fighter B is known for an insanely powerful right hand
Fighter A watches all of Fighter B’s fights seeing him ferociously knockout one athlete after another
Fighter A’s coaches spend a large part of camp focusing on keeping his guard up and circling away from the power right hand of Fighter B
Come fight night, Fighter A has built his game around avoiding the game of Fighter B but not on enforcing his own
This is an extreme hypothetical but the merit of it holds true. For some fighters, obsessing over their opponent inextricably draws strength and attention away from their own preparation. There is a real danger of building your opponent up into a superhuman, especially when you are watching highlight reel knockouts and submissions on a loop. Pre-fight prep though, is a game of risk and reward.
The fighters who watch footage of their opponents may know their game inside and out, and use that to their advantage. Those who choose not to watch tape may miss out on a few key elements that they come to later regret. One could say you can still watch tape on your opponent and stay committed to your own game plan and that is true to some degree. But it cannot be said that the fighter who focuses solely on himself while letting his coaches and teammates worry about a game planning is foolhardy.
Fight camps differ widely even within the same gyms, coaches, and teams. Although it appears as though the majority of fighters continue to watch tape on their opponents, a new group of athletes have emerged who reject that traditional approach. In a sport that is still in its infancy there remains a vast field of opportunity for exploration and improvement. Watching opposing fighters past fights might be one of those things that turns out to be a waste of time or it could be consolidated as an essential process. That’s the great thing about MMA; there are so many differing approaches to the game and we see each one of them being tested and refined on a weekly basis. In the next five to ten years we could be looking at a very different sport based solely on the changes in fight preparation.