Home Science Education Profiling Elite Fighters in Combat Sports — Part I: Is it Talent...

Profiling Elite Fighters in Combat Sports — Part I: Is it Talent or Hard Work?


When it comes to success and achievement, there tends to be a case is made for either innate talent or unquestionable work ethic. This is no different than the nature or nurture debate: a debate that was highly criticized for its false dichotomy of “tightly interwoven parameters”.

A Brief Look into Nature Versus Nurture:

Philosophers such as Plato and Descartes believed that some things were inborn regardless of environment, while philosophers such as John Locke believed in Tabula Rasa — that we are born with a blank slate mind.

But there’s just no way to completely distinguish nature and nurture with people. The environment influences the genetics, and the genetics influence the environment — it’s a constant cycle.  Asking a question like whether an athlete’s achievement is talent or hard work is similar to asking whether someone’s gift (whatever it may be) is inborn or nurtured. This series attempts to balance the two and provide a more complete profile of elite fighters: physically, environmentally, and mentally.

Contemporary Views of Nature Versus Nurture

“Today, the majority of experts believe that behavior and development are influenced by both nature and nurture… While few people take the extreme nativist (nature) or extreme empiricist (nurture) approach, researchers and experts still debate the degree to which biology and environment influence behavior.” – Kendra Cherry

The Sports Gene“, written by Sports Illustrated’s David Epstein, came up with a similar conclusion. Maggie Fard of the Washington Post writes, “So which is it: nature or nurture? Epstein concludes that one is useless without the other. Most athletic traits, he writes, are ‘a braid of nature and nurture so intricately and thoroughly intertwined as to become a single vine.”

 MMA and Combat Sports:

Many would often credit talent or reflex for fighters that successfully employ a hands-low style. Same is said when an athlete has incredible feats such as being the best “MMA wrestler”, despite not having any collegiate background (Georges St-Pierre).

These athletes had put countless hours into training, understanding, and visualizing their specific techniques and style. When asked, they’ll tell you that it’s most likely time that other fighter’s did not spend. Great hands-down fighter had devoted their time into perfecting that style, and practically all fighters with an unorthodox style had a great environment to learn it.

Prince Naseem Hamed had a coach that would emphasize stance switches since a young age (without the emphasis of hands defence). Look to Muhammad Ali and you will find a coach that believed just how special he was, letting him do what he wanted because he believed that he was “different”. Look to Samart Payakaroon and you’ll find that he came out of the legendary Sidyodtong camp. Look to Saenchai Sor Kingstar and you’ll find competitive boxing experience like Samart, in a country that does not culturally value punches.

But on the extreme flip-side, it’s also not so simple as the 10,000 hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. If it was this simple, there’d be no need to segregate female and male athletes so long as they put in the hours.

For more examples of why physical genetics matter, Epstein has more insight — people who were 6 foot to 6 foot 2 inches had a five in a million chance of playing professional in the NBA. The odds would go up significantly as the height did, and when one stands over 7ft, there’s a one-in-six chance they’ll be in the NBA (Link).

In Combat Sports

There are distinct weight classes to help separate the height in combat sports, and certain body type may suit a certain style better. Thus the following passage is even more relevant.

“When it comes to sport at the highest level, body shape seems to be increasingly prescriptive. Croatian water-polo players’ arms are getting bigger, elite female gymnasts have shrunk from [5 foot, 3 inches] to [4 foot 9 inches] over the last three decades, tennis players’ forearms are growing, swimmers’ torsos are extending and the top boxers’ arms are getting longer while their legs get shorter. There has been a “big bang of body types”, says Epstein, which means there are genetic characteristics that, with the odd exception, all but rule some in and some out of reaching the very top in certain sports, never mind how many hours they’ve practised.” — Richard Moore from The Guardian

So with this said, this series will begin to profile elite athletes by asking these type of questions:

1. What are the physical attributes of the fighter and just how important is athleticism? This is important to consider — fighters such as Jon Jones, Travis Browne, Anderson Silva, and Georges St. Pierre all have a reach advantage in their respective weight classes.

Each of them are successful with being in the long-range, and perform some type of extraordinary feat. Is it a coincidence that the two men who contested or defeated dominant champions like Anderson Silva and Jon Jones also had similar reach relative to their other opponents? (Chris Weidman and Alexander Gustafsson)

And what about the fact that average size (height and reach) for each weight class have been increasing in the past few years? — Reed Kuhn Fightnomics

2. What body types excel in their respective expertise? For Georges St. Pierre it’d be more specifically variations of the jab and the double leg. How did GSP get so good at the jab and double leg, how did he approach it? Is it a coincidence that the opponent who challenged him the most was a southpaw (deters jabs) and an elite wrestler?

3. Why is it that certain styles mix together really well? Luke Rockhold and Anthony Pettis — good kicks and good bottom game. Cub Swanson, Junior Dos Santos, Anderson Silva — good punches, hands low style, and good takedown defence. Daniel Cormier, Fedor Emelianenko, and Cain Velasquez — smaller and shorter heavyweights with dominant clinch engagement off heavy strikes.

4. What was their environment that helped shape their styles? Some of the most successful camps: Alpha Male, Tristar, Jacksons, American Kickboxing Academy all have distinct expertise, and perhaps with specialized weight divisions. Is it a coincidence that at least at one point in their camp, they were training with another elite teammate in the same weight class? (Rashad Evans with Jon Jones, Rory Macdonald and Georges St-Pierre, Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier).

Complex and Mysterious

“Epstein doesn’t find the sports gene (nobody has). Neither does he discover, as his subtitle promises, “what makes the perfect athlete”. But where others have rejected ambiguity in their search for a definitive answer, Epstein has embraced it in his quest for a much deeper truth. Whatever that is, it is complex and mysterious.”–Richard Moore from The Guardian

While I don’t know what discoveries and correlations will be made, I do hope to find clarity in what appears to be complex and mysterious by profiling the elite.

As always, thank you for reading. Stay tuned for more Part II — a profile on Georges St. Pierre. To stay updated on future articles simply follow me on Twitter or add me on Facebook, the links are located below. 



For more fight analysis and technical breakdowns visit SciFighting.com