Crunch Time: Fighters have learned to adapt over the years

Note: This is the Crunch Time column I wrote for the July 7 issue of the Cheney Free Press.

The UFC will have its historic 200th pay per view event on Saturday (July 9).

One of the fights will feature former UFC heavyweight champion and WWE wrestler Brock Lesnar taking on former kickboxing world champion Mark Hunt.

It will be Lesnar’s first MMA fight in five years. Although his initial UFC run was short — 2008-11— he was a dominant champion and one of the promotion’s top draws.

But a recurring bout with diverticulitis and back-to-back losses against Cain Velasquez and Alistair Overeem forced him to take time away from the fight game. He returned to the WWE in 2012 and has spent the last four years headlining events and making a lot of money. Yet there’s always been a chance that Lesnar would return to the octagon.

But when the UFC did announce that Lesnar would return — for a one-time appearance — fans and critics scoffed at the idea. The UFC’s landscape has changed in the last five years and Lesnar’s time in mixed martial arts had passed.

It wasn’t until Lesnar announced that Hunt was his opponent and started making the media rounds that fans started to warm up to the idea of his UFC return.

During an interview with UFC.com, Lesnar noted the fight between Hunt and himself is a classic “wrestler vs. heavy hitter” match.

“And that’s what made the UFC from the very first one (event),” Lesnar said in the interview. “The different (fighters’) disciplines against each other.”

It’s interesting that Lesnar brought up the early days of the UFC.

When the UFC began in 1993, it was to identify the most effective martial art in a fight. The first UFC tournament featured competitors with different disciplines including boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Sambo, wrestling, Muay Thai and karate.

The tournament’s winner, Royce Gracie, was a sixth-degree Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt and would use his grappling to defeat larger opponents. Gracie would go on to win the second and fourth UFC tournaments.

Back in those days competitors were mainly disciplined in just one martial art. Grapplers were effective because they could take down an opponent down and submit them. At the time, Brazilian jiu jitsu was effective in these matches because it wasn’t a well-known discipline among American fighters.

NCAA Division I wrestlers like Dan Severn, Don Frye and Mark Coleman also had success in the early days of UFC. Even Mark Schultz, who won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling in the 1984 Olympics, has a UFC win under his belt.

That doesn’t mean boxing or kickboxing is ineffective in mixed martial arts. A fighter who has powerful striking can knock out his opponent with a solid jab or knee before they get taken down.

Over the years, most fighters have added techniques from more than one discipline. Most competitors, who already have a solid wrestling or jiu jitsu background, will start to train in boxing, kickboxing or Muay Thai to improve their striking. While a fighter continues to focus on their primary grappling discipline, they may add another form of ground fighting to their moves. This has made fighters better athletes and the fights themselves more competitive.

One of the recent examples is Holly Holm, who became the first combat sports athlete — man or woman — to win world championships in boxing and mixed martial arts. Although Holm has been in MMA for only five years, she has been able to implement her boxing, as well as add wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu to her repertoire.

As for Lesnar, he’s a Division I heavyweight champion who received his promotion to blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Although blue belt is the second rank in the martial art, a person at this level has already learned several techniques and has spent hours practicing them.

Velasquez, who defeated Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight title in 2010, is a Division I wrestler and a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt.

Although Hunt’s main disciplines are kickboxing and boxing, he has had to develop his takedown defense and grappling to be on par with today’s competitors.

Sure, Lesnar vs. Hunt isn’t really a fight that harkens back to

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