Technique and Conditioning: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Usyk vs Joshua & Volkanovski vs Ortega

Two exciting championship fights in two different combat sports with different results took place last weekend. One fight had a more skilled fighter dismantle a bigger and stronger opponent to become a new champion. The other fight saw a better conditioned athlete shake off everything his opponent could threw at him and set a blistering pace every round to retain his title.

They’re different sports, so they’re not apples-to-apples comparisons, but the point still stands that one does not trump the other at all times. It’s all about context, and I think the contrast goes pretty deep with this one. It’s also interesting that both winners are named Alex.

Boxing does get technical, but it also requires tons of conditioning due to being as long as twelve 3-minute rounds of punching and defending. Meanwhile, MMA has 5-minute rounds, but it also involves a lot more technique due to all the things you’re able to do.

Both require technique and conditioning in varying degrees, and one does not take precedence over the other in either sport. You need both to fight at a world championship level. With that said, it was interesting to see how these two fights in these two different sports showed different facets of the fight game quite distinctly.

Let’s take a look at these two examples of technique and conditioning trumping each other, how one is not always better than the other, and that it’s always better to have both.

Technique Over Conditioning: Oleksandr Usyk vs. Anthony Joshua

Anthony Joshua has incredible potential, so much that much of it is still untapped even as a world heavyweight champion. He hasn’t hit his true peak yet, but he’s already inundated with doubt and hate from fans due to his propensity to get upset by those who are supposedly underneath him. That loss to Andy Ruiz really showed how much he still had to learn, and that rematch was less about his improvement and more of Andy Ruiz letting himself down.

I was hyped for Oleksandr Usyk’s heavyweight career due to how I became a boxing fan from watching James Toney’s heavyweight debut against Evander Holyfield in 2003. I have a liking for good cruiserweights who go up to heavyweight as they’re smaller, but tend to be faster and more mobile than their bigger opponents. It’s the kind of boxing I enjoy watching, and Usyk’s performance had me at the edge of my seat the whole time.

Joshua is still pretty tough, so he wasn’t going to get put on his ass easily. If he were to brawl, he could easily outmuscle his opponent. However, Usyk isn’t a brawler like Ruiz, so there wasn’t going to be much roughhousing. Usyk was all about patient southpaw boxing in this fight, and he was watching his opponent the entire night to understand his tendencies and find ways to exploit them.

You could watch their feet for the whole fight and see how Joshua never addressed the issue of lead foot positioning. As long as Usyk had his lead foot outside Joshua’s lead foot, he had control of the fight. His left had a clear path to Joshua’s face for most of the fight, and Joshua barely had any head and body movement until the final moments of the 12th round.

It’s pretty weird since Joshua was fully capable of all those things you’d expect from a more technically competent boxer, but he didn’t do anything that could’ve tipped the scales. He boxed a boxer to prove that he could box, and he paid for it with his belts. He left people thinking he should’ve brawled the boxer, especially since he had three inches and more muscle over the Ukrainian, so he could’ve put more body on him.

But alas, it didn’t turn out that way, and Usyk’s vast amateur experience and training under Anatoly Lomachenko took over. It’s not to say that Usyk didn’t have conditioning, or he wouldn’t have been able to stay on top of Joshua for the entire fight. Even when Joshua was able to start hitting him up enough to give him those two black eyes, Usyk stayed consistent and got the better of the now-former champion.

EDIT(1OCT2021@5PM): This clip shows it clearly. AJ was more or less a stationary target for most of the fight, while Usyk constantly adjusted his position to always have the clear path for his left to land.

Conditioning Over Technique: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega

Watch this video of Uncle Chael talking about Volkanovski as an elite endurance athlete. I agree with him that Alexander Volkanovski’s performance was a definitive showcase on why conditioning must be a priority in martial arts training. As the great catch wrestler Karl Gotch once said (paraphrased), “Conditioning is your most important technique.”

I saw a good number of spots during the fight when Brian Ortega showed how much he deserved his BJJ black belt. He was throwing tons of techniques that, if he were not as tired as he was, could’ve ended the fight easily. But Volkanovski was stronger and better conditioned, and he was able to keep going hard and eventually overwhelmed Ortega.

The last round saw the doctor and referee checking if Ortega could still see because his eyes were almost completely shut. Ortega still had the will to continue, and he still had a chance as long as Volkanovski could make a mistake. But the Aussie champion was too focused and in too good a shape to mess up in the fifth round of a championship fight. He knew exactly what he needed to do, and he stuck to his game plan.

Ortega left everything there in the cage, doing whatever he could to get the jump on the champion. I distinctly remember that tight guillotine from the top and him diving into what could’ve been a back take. There were so many opportunities for Ortega that didn’t come to pass simply because he was more tired than Volkanovski.

A recently promoted BJJ black belt, Ortega deserves every bit of that accolade as he showed how much better he is compared to his first few fights in the UFC. It’s just that on that night, Volkanovski was the better man. Simple as that.

Technique and Conditioning Together

I’ll talk about this in MMA as that sport showed a more stark contrast between these two aspects, as opposed to the shades of gray between them in boxing.

Lighter weight guys like Volkanovski, Franky Edgar, and Max Holloway are known for both technical competence and deep stamina pools. The matchup that came about during the late 2000s and early 2010s in MMA became less of the clash of styles from the olden days as top-level fighters became more well-rounded, training in both striking and grappling. The matchups became more of technique versus conditioning.

The likes of BJ Penn had fans going, “If only he’d work hard and get in shape, he’ll wipe the floor with everyone.” He indeed had that potential, being virtually unstoppable if he ever gets the motivation to hunker down and get in the best shape possible. I particularly remember his performances against Joe Stevenson and Diego Sanchez. A motivated BJ Penn in his prime was absolutely indomitable in the Octagon.

But such instances happened only a handful of times in his career. He was also a stubborn guy, having been born into privilege, got into martial arts because he had nothing else going on in his youth, and turned out to be incandescently brilliant at it. When you’re so gifted that pretty much nothing is physically impossible to you, then you’ll certainly be lax in other aspects of your training. You won’t care as much about conditioning since you’re too good to rely on it.

The fighters who would dethrone him left no stone unturned. They put even more work, their training methods were more thought-out, their strategies didn’t prioritize one over the other. They took both technique and conditioning as two sides of the same coin, and they invested more in the sport-specific training that would pay dividends in the cage.

They were less diminished by weight cuts, more capable of executing game plans, and more confident during the fight. That’s the Triad of Performance in synergy, culminating in a perfect showing that looks efficient and effortless. No more of this talk about “If he learns more jiu jitsu, he’ll be unstoppable” or “If he just worked harder, he’d be the greatest of all time.” These guys do practically everything to maximize their potential.

Conclusion

Every now and then, I hear a guy wax lyrical about “pure fighters” who get in the cage to scrap on a whim, bleed buckets of blood, and not care about whatever condition they’re in. The Tank Abbotts and Chris Lebens of the world are appreciated for their grit and willingness to live and die by the proverbial sword. Personally, I’ve had my fill of that stuff.

It’s nice to look back at the early days, when “men were men” and “they fought because they were born to fight” or whatever nonsense. Yeah, I think of that sentiment as nonsense these days. It’s not to say that I can’t appreciate the idea of a guy who has brass balls getting in there and cleaning house simply because fighting is in his blood.

However, I’m so sick of watching these supposed fan favorites fade over time and disappoint once they’re over the hill. The difference between these guys and the so-called athletes is that the latter aren’t as uncompetitive when they’re past their prime. We’re now seeing more fighters in their 40s and 50s still able to put up a good fight.

If there’s one good thing about the whole YouTuber boxing boom of the late 2010s and early 2020s is that we get to see retired fighters ply their craft with their aged and diminished bodies, ravaged by both time and “non-professional” lifestyles. You see how far technical skill and muscle memory takes them, especially in the later rounds when their less-than-stellar cardio starts redlining and their muscles burn with lactic acid.

There are a few who never fully lifted their foot off the gas, staying in shape simply because it’s a part of who they are. It’s not to say that if someone stops going to the gym for a long time, they’ll be bums for the rest of their lives. But if there’s a fountain of youth, it’s simply not stopping what you’re doing. The body won’t forget what it has to do every single day.

There’s the exception of Mike Tyson, whose physical gifts were mostly retained and all he had to do was lose some fat and get his cardio back up before he started slamming hooks again. But he’s special, like how aliens are special. He’s the closest that boxing has ever gotten to the ideal combination of technique and conditioning.

Is it really worth it if you’re only going to do it for a while? All that time spent learning the craft, only to lose it a couple of decades later because time waits for no one. How much do you love the craft? Would you do what you can to hold onto it for as long as you can?

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