How much can the Internet teach you about fighting? You might be surprised
It didn’t take long before Sara McMann found out about the video, the one put together by a mysterious Internet personality known only as “BJJ Scout,” the one that spends just over nine minutes examining a weakness in her ground game that begins with her toes.
How could she avoid it, even if she wanted to?
Between our share-happy social media culture and the know-it-all nature of the MMA blogosphere, stuff like this makes the rounds pretty quickly. On Twitter and on message boards, the word was spreading fast. McMann doesn’t use her toes well. They aren’t “activated” when she’s in her opponent’s guard. Her toes are going to mess around and get her submitted in the biggest professional fight of her life against UFC women’s bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey on Saturday at UFC 170.
A 2004 Olympic silver medalist wrestler can only hear this from so many people before she feels compelled to pull up the video and see for herself. And once she did that?
“I see validity in it, honestly,” McMann told MMAjunkie. “There were times when I wasn’t on my toes, and it would have been advantageous to me. I totally agree.”
It’s not what I was expecting to hear, to tell you the truth. That’s not because the points raised in the BJJ Scout video weren’t well made or exhaustively researched – they were both, and they highlighted examples from her early MMA bouts and from various grappling tournaments in order to make those points.
At least, I found it informative, both as a journalist and an amateur jiu-jitsu enthusiast. It’s just that I’ve heard from enough fighters that they tire of hearing advice from armchair experts who can’t wait to tell them what they did wrong in their last fight or how they should gameplan for their opponent in the next one.
You can see how that might get annoying, and sure, McMann admitted, she felt some of that when she watched the video that referenced her “weak strikes” from the guard while also declaring her “very low on the [Brazilian jiu-jitsu] skill tree.”
“I mean, you can’t see anything like that without seeing a criticism of yourself,” McMann said. “When it’s like, ‘Sara McMann has this level of BJJ,’ I can’t help but be like, yep, I’m so horrible they offered me a title fight to teach me a lesson. How insulting to the black belts I beat.”
By the same token, McMann added, “I think that any time somebody offers a different perspective, it should be something that is welcomed, whether it’s praise or criticism.”
But who are these people doing the praising and criticizing? Especially on the Internet, which is overflowing with self-proclaimed experts – just think of how many times you’ve read a comment on an online article that began with something along the lines of “As a lawyer myself… ” – how do you know who’s qualified to give advice and who isn’t?
That’s the tricky part, especially because for online analysts like the BJJ Scout and Bleacher Report’s resident striking expert, Jack Slack, anonymity is no accident. As they both explained in separate email correspondences with MMAjunkie (neither would agree to a phone interview), the point of their detailed, analytical breakdowns is the information itself – not necessarily the credentials of the creator.
For instance, take Slack (a pen name that he says is a nod to the boxers of old). You can find plenty of fighters who will admit to reading and enjoying his detailed breakdowns of striking techniques. To read his treatises on the stepping right hook or the similarities between Dan Henderson and Rocky Marciano is to confront the very real possibility that maybe you don’t know as much about this fighting stuff as you think you do. His breakdowns are incredibly detail-oriented, but also usually unified by certain themes. They seem to exist in that rare sports writing space where the reader comes away with a better understanding of the sport itself, rather than merely the people in it.
Slack describes himself as “a martial arts fanatic from the U.K.” who got involved in karate very young, then boxing, then most recently jiu-jitsu.
“I started writing my own notes when watching fights because I wanted to improve myself and the quality of my own training,” Slack wrote in an email to MMAjunkie. “ … If experienced fight fans, martial artists or fighters enjoy the breakdowns, I love that, but I certainly don’t aim to tell anyone that I know better than them. The way I see it is that every other sport in the world has books you can read or pundits you can listen to, and they will explain formations and plays. In MMA we are constantly told how beautiful and technical the sport is, but nobody is really explaining it to the new guys. That could be something which alienates a lot of potential fans.”
There’s a similar motivation at work for BJJ Scout, who offers up for free on YouTube the kinds of in-depth technique and strategy breakdowns that many in the jiu-jitsu world are used to paying for in the forms of books, DVDs or seminars.
“To sort of show that what the ‘elite’ do is not magic,” BJJ Scout wrote, but rather a matter of being able to see the action for what it is, and the ability to use “data-driven methodology” (to make one video, the BJJ Scout says he’ll sometimes watch more than 100 matches with a spreadsheet in hand) to come to the right conclusions.
“That is one of the reasons I wanted to be anonymous. BJJ Scout could be a white belt or black belt. Anyone can click on a YouTube match and learn something, perhaps even stuff you have never seen before on DVDs.”
In a lot of ways, it’s the opposite of what many of MMA’s self-styled gurus try to accomplish. It’s a little subversive, even. Instead of establishing an identity complete with credentials and bona fides that will convince people to pay for their benefit of their expertise, anonymous Internet personalities like the BJJ Scout give it away for free to anyone who wants it, all while making no attempt to convince you that he knows what he’s talking about.
No attempt, that is, aside from the content of the videos themselves, which provide some pretty high-level analysis that also verges into esoteric territory at times. Will the casual fight fan even know enough about jiu-jitsu to grasp these concepts? The good part about giving it away for free on your own website is that you aren’t obligated to care.
It would be one thing if the armchair aficionados and couch-potato fans were the only ones paying attention. They’re easy enough to dupe. But the truth is, professional fighters and coaches are not only watching and reading the stuff that people like BJJ Scout and Jack Slack produce – they’re learning from it as well.
“I actually watch all of that stuff on people we are going to fight,” said John Crouch, who coaches fighters such as Benson Henderson and Joe Riggs at Arizona’s MMA Lab.
That’s not to say he’s necessarily changing game plans based on what Slack says about someone’s left hook, Crouch added, but extensive breakdowns in the form of videos or GIFs often act as a great scouting tool, if only for the sheer volume of information they provide.
“I always feel like many people attacking the problem are better than just one,” Crouch said. “So even if it is what I thought, I feel like I am covering my bases by paying attention to these guys. None of them has changed our game plans, but I watch them all.”
UFC welterweight Jason High is a fan of Slack’s, he said, in part because, as a former wrestler, the striking aspect of MMA is the one where he has the most room for growth.
“For kickboxing and striking in general, stuff I’m not as familiar with, you can learn a lot from that stuff,” High said. “It’s fun to take stuff off there and try to use it in practice. Some of it you can use, and some you can’t. It’s like going to a seminar or something.”
That approach seemed unusual to the point of being almost absurd back when UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones claimed that he’d learned much of his early stand-up skills from watching YouTube videos, but now, High said, it’s a lot more common than many people realize.
“Most fighters, you’d be surprised; it’s not something guys talk about openly, but they’ll text training partners all the time saying, ‘Did you see this on the Internet? How about that?’ That goes on all the time, so it’s kind of like a rolling wiki,” High said. “You just keep adding stuff, and it’s edited by yourself and the people you train with who give you feedback.”
As with any wiki project, the editing is a vital part. With so much information out there, and so many different people convinced they know the secret to beating someone like Rousey, a fighter or trainer can’t just absorb it all without filtering it through their own knowledge and experience. And, as some will eagerly point out, if these Internet experts know so much, why aren’t they in the cage scoring knockouts and submissions at a frantic pace?
Then again, High said, you start disqualifying people who haven’t spent time in the cage, and you’ll lose a lot of very respected coaches in this sport.
“From a technical standpoint, it’s kind of like Greg Jackson, not that I’m comparing the two,” High said. “It’s just that you don’t necessarily need to have a competition base yourself. There’s some things that you can’t understand or relate to unless you’ve been there, but from a technical standpoint, when you’re watching videos and breaking down small movements, I think Jack Slack is plenty qualified to do that. Lots of people are.”
And as much as fighters might get sick of criticism from fans and media, at least when it’s of an extremely specific technical nature there’s some immediate action they can take. They can also evaluate the criticism on its own merits and decide for themselves whether it’s worth acting on, which, according to McMann, is “the kind of thing that feeds wrestlers.”
“We want to be told what we’re doing wrong so we can fix it,” McMann said. “That really was a help because then I started thinking, why do I do this instead of that? Maybe I should be on my toes to help me make a faster transition, but there are certain times when I don’t want to be on my toes for these reasons. It really did get me thinking more, so it was a tremendous help.”
At the same time, McMann added, just because you can pinpoint a weakness in a fighter’s game, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re telling them anything they don’t already know. Some of the points in the BJJ Scout video were things her coaches have been hounding her about for some time, which is not so different from how it was when she was training for the Olympics and some helpful stranger would tell her what was wrong with her single-leg takedown.
“Then it’s like, yeah, I’ve been working on that for about a year. It’s just that some things are hard to correct,” McMann said. “You can sit there and tell people what they need to do, but doing it in the microsecond of an athletic competition is a lot harder to do.”
For the latest on UFC 170, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.
(Pictured: Sara McMann)