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Last week saw an exceptionally rare match, almost unique in MMA history, a fascinating fight between two extremes. Of course, achieving this required a certain degree of imagination and abstraction. It’s very easy to see AJ McKee move up to lightweight to take on Spike Carlyle as a highly favored martial artist against a tough but less skilled veteran, but to do that would be to miss seeing the fight for what it really was. . I’ve written about Carlyle before. With more time to think about it, his win over Dan Moret is the most incredible MMA fight I’ve ever seen, out of thousands in nearly 30 years of fandom. Not the best or the biggest, but the most amazing. I had never before seen a fighter so badly dominated, with such an obvious skill deficit, and so completely exhausted that he had to bend over with his hands on his knees, magically come back to win – and not even by decision , but choking a far superior grappler who had never been submissive before.
Carlyle was a very impressive 14-3 in the fight against McKee, and was on a five-game winning streak, including at least three in which he had been the betting underdog. I’ve seen most of his matches and consider myself a fan, yet I can’t figure out how Carlyle actually wins. He is generally technically inferior to his opponent in all major aspects of MMA, but he is the one who has the upper hand in the end. His strategy boils down to turning the fight into a savage brawl, landing huge knockout strikes to the feet, often very carelessly, and then engaging in a series of wrestling exchanges. Carlyle isn’t a “good” grappler as we normally think of him, but he excels at shoving and is infinitely tough, able to evade submissions, tank a bunch of brutal kicks and turn into his opponent , somehow ending up on top even when downed. Obviously, this approach requires an inordinate amount of energy, and the cardio demands are exacerbated by the fact that Carlyle is a huge, muscular lightweight. He is often very tired in round 2, but less so than during his featherweight stint in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. However, this is where Carlyle’s endless tenacity comes into play again. He forces himself to keep fighting, with the unwavering belief that he will triumph. He may have to take portions of a round and take heavy damage, but he doesn’t care, as Carlyle will gather all his remaining energy for one last charge. If that doesn’t work, he’ll rinse and repeat for the full 15 minutes of a fight, because no one has ever stopped “The Crucifixion.”
Carlyle is the absolute extreme of toughness in modern MMA. Of all time, no one will ever top 140-pound Yuki Nakai against 230-pound Gerard Gordeau, repeatedly getting punched in the head and having his eye gouged out with the Dutchman’s toe, submitting him anyway, then continuing to fight several times on the same night in a tournament, submitting 250-pound Greco-Roman wrestler Craig Pittman before falling to the legendary – and at 185-pound, still much bigger – Rickson Gracie in the final, then hiding his blind eye for a decade lest it would hurt Japanese MMA. By modern rules and standards, Carlyle is the pinnacle of heart and fighting spirit.
Carlyle’s opponent was also an extreme, but in another category: talent. Like Carlyle, I’ve written about McKee before and stand by my assertion that he may well be considered the greatest fighter of all time by the time he retires, albeit fighting in Bellator instead of the UFC overhyped may obscure this reality for some. His talent is completely off the charts, with a young Jon Jones the only comparison I can make. McKee is phenomenal in every aspect of the fight with stunning and unprecedented speed, precision, explosiveness and power, and often textbook-perfect technique. There are two ways to look at his first professional loss, the Bellator featherweight title rematch against Patricio Freire. The first is that he didn’t take the fight as seriously as he could have, and often looked sloppy looking for an opening for a spectacular knockout that never came. Another is that despite being out of his game, McKee barely lost a decision to one of the greatest fighters in MMA history, who executed one of the toughest game plans. brightest and most disciplined in the history of title fights that night. An all-time Top 20 legend in Freire had to walk a tightrope for 25 minutes to barely edge him. McKee is just this disgusting talent.
What happened when these two extremes met? For starters, it was a very good, exciting fight. Round one was among the most thrilling stanzas I’ve seen all year, with Carlyle fighting like even more of a savage berserker than normal. It was also the right choice. There was no way he could ever defeat McKee in a slower, more methodical fight. He had to make it an insane brawl where hopefully McKee would crack under the pressure or make a mistake. Round 1 had its twists, and after taking the worst on the feet, Carlyle was in top position for a while, keeping McKee from getting back up. Unfortunately for Carlyle, while no one in the world is as tough as him, McKee is still much tougher than the average pro, not to mention he’s highly intelligent and well disciplined. He rolled over and got the dominant position, taking the full mount and back. As Carlyle regained the upper hand towards the end, he ate a series of huge elbows that McKee landed on his back. McKee had not only withstood Carlyle’s barrage, but won the round. Carlyle was also tired after the first lap. He tried the same magic as against Moret, fighting in opportunistic spurts, but he had reached the limit of his tenacity against such a good opponent as McKee, who completely overpowered Carlyle in the remaining 10 minutes. . Almost every other fighter would have been stopped or submitted, but not Carlyle, who continued to try and win, even to no avail, until the final bell. McKee was ready for it, however, tried to slow the fight down and didn’t overextend.
Thus, we learned how far ultimate tenacity can take a fighter. The answer is much further than most think, although there is a strict upper limit. We also learned something about ultimate talent. Despite all of McKee’s ability, he couldn’t rely on that alone to win. He had to tap into his own tenacity, self-discipline and combat intelligence to avoid the lure of Carlyle’s endless brawling and win the grueling and thrilling 15-minute battle. The fans, for their part, got one of the best rounds of the year and a very good fight. It’s an exciting and instructive battle that we may not see again for a while.