Tempo. Pace. Rhythm. Momentum. These are fairly impalpable aspects of hand-to-hand combat that can be challenging to identify or describe, yet they can have drastic repercussions on a fight's outcome.
In the unified rules of MMA, the main thrust of the Control category was to acknowledge a wrestler who controlled his opponent through takedowns and positional advantage. As with most elements of grappling, it's much easier to identify the tangibility of a fighter securing or defending a takedown, having his guard passed or his back taken. Also, because these actions are less subjective to interpret and much more black and white, grappling statistics will generally be more accurate -- and therefore more valuable -- than striking statistics.
However, there are certain characteristics of control that aren't so plain and obvious. Most are reflected in the free-movement or striking phase of combat, but the grappling department is not entirely devoid of these contentious issues -- such as the oft-debated scenarios of a bottom-fighter threatening with sweeps or submission attempts and dictating the momentum with an active guard. This interplay, like analyzing who's directing the ebb and flow of a striking match, is trickier to assess from the standpoint of control.
The beloved term "Lay-N-Pray" was coined for a wrestler who invoked positional and/or locational control with the noticeable absence of activity or offense. Anderson Silva's most unappreciated performances were actualized under the same credentials but, instead, the middleweight champion dominated the location of the fight by forcing Patrick Cote, Thales Leites and Demian Maia to stand up with him. In the clinch phase, two examples of encounters that were heavy on control but light on violence are Randy Couture vs. Brandon Vera and Aaron Simpson vs. Brad Tavares.
With the displeasing and unclear facets of control behind us, let's look at the most recent paradigm for exciting and attributable advantages of control in a stand-up affair. Nate Diaz demonstrated his uncanny ability, which is fully shared by big brother Nick Diaz, to dominate the tempo of a striking duel against Jim Miller in the main event of last weekend's UFC on Fox 3 show. In every match up featuring one of the Diaz brothers, the most important single factor is whether they'll be able to dictate the momentum, pace and location of the fight -- because whenever they can, they win.
In the first round of Nate Diaz vs. Jim Miller, it was clear which instruments Miller wanted to employ in order to orchestrate the rhythm: leg kicks, takedowns and a stifling clinch game. In the first half-minute of their lightweight clash, Miller cracked off two crisp leg kicks, locked horns in the clinch and snatched a body lock while pursuing a high-crotch takedown.
Diaz ate both low kicks but defended the clinch assault well by digging an underhook on one side and grabbing tight wrist control on the other. This allowed him to peel away from Miller's grasp, circle off the fence and drift back into the cage's open space; effectively negating Miller's preferred realm of combat to duel in his own. The remaining first-half of the opening stanza saw another successful clinch tie-up and pair of Miller leg kicks. While this was far from momentous, Miller did succeed in controlling the immediate momentum by applying these techniques effectively.
The subtle changes in the fight's flow came about in the latter half of the first round. What makes the Diaz brothers so special from the perspective of tempo is that most fighters are content to read their foe's rhythm and capitalize on whatever opportunities they're given. Nick and Nate accomplish more than that: they excel at both thoroughly disrupting their opponent's tempo and imposing the relentless, high-volume boxing onslaught that's become their distinctive trademark. It's the difference between getting a feel of the rhythm and drowning someone in yours.
Nate started to steal the momentum with a wide right hook and blistering straight left combination, then another, then a series of straight, snapping jabs. Again, the results weren't a significant about-face, but Miller, who'd kept a tight range while pressing forward, was steered backwards and forced to completely disengage and reset. The key is that the location where they re-engaged is where Nate Diaz is at his deadliest, and every time he steered Miller back to the outer fringe of striking range, he had the opportunity to disrupt Miller's flow and enforce his own.
A personal victory was achieved when Nate turned the tables and moved forward to initiate the clinch with Miller. That zone was assumed to favor Miller, as it was close enough to jam Nate's lengthy pawing and one step closer to taking him down. Nate made a definitive statement by fearlessly engaging Miller in the clinch and, because he was able to mount offense and cause Miller to back pedal, he effectively took one of Miller's perceived advantages out of the equation.
Sensing this, Miller tried to aggressively clinch up again to re-establish the momentum, but Diaz applied his leverage well with a wide base and technical defense (underhooks, whizzer and countering with a kimura attempt). Diaz circled off and pressed Miller on the cage wall and started landing his signature assortment of tight punches -- both upstairs and down -- and spearing knees. In the final minute, the dynamics had changed and Diaz was now walking Miller down, showing signs of that confident swagger and stinging freely with sharp combinations, one of which dropped Miller.
The second round was a classic display of Nate Diaz when he knows he's orchestrating the music. He had a strong read on Miller's timing, what selection of strikes and angles he was attacking with and, having cemented that the clinch was not a weakness, Diaz absolutely owned the striking range. He began to slip, dodge and side-step Miller's advances while finding the mark with his brilliant counter-boxing.
The Diaz brother's mastery of tempo goes beyond controlling the pace. One reason their frenetic boxing is so tough to decipher is the way they play around with the tempo (and angles) of their strikes. This has been deemed as the "pitter-patter shatter" because the steady stream of half-steam punches will be unexpectedly interrupted by a huge power shot; usually a scorching uppercut or hook to the body at close range or the right hook and left straight medley from outside. The brethren are also heralded for having a silky smooth guard game and being impossible to hold down, much of which can be attributed to their knack for disrupting their opponent's flow and imposing their own.
There are two ways to win in MMA: striking and/or grappling. The more subtle means that mixed martial artists use to succeed with striking and/or grappling can be fascinating, and the Diaz brother's unparalleled mastership of dominating the fight's tempo is one.