While many who fully commits themselves to the sport of mixed martial arts by spending their life practicing technique in the gym will likely do very well in competition, in order to reach the absolute upper echelons of the sport — such as being the UFC women’s strawweight champion — one will need to possess the natural assets that can’t be taught, or at least not within in a single lifetime.
One of the most valuable of these “intangible skills” is a high fight IQ, which provides the ability to effectively adapt to an opponent during the bout. While some athletes are unable, or unwilling, to stray from their favored techniques over the course of a career, others fall on the other end of the spectrum: their Fight IQ is so high that they are able to recognize during a fight that their strategy and tactics are being effectively neutralized, then make the necessary adjustments all while in the midst of combat. Such a skill is extremely rare and nearly impossible to develop, which is why it is sparse even among the top rankings of the UFC.
One such possessor of this “intangible skill” is the UFC strawweight champion, Jessica Andrade. As evidenced by the vicious slam knockout of Rose Namajunas that ceded Jessica Andrade the title, Andrade showed that she was able to recognize when she was being thoroughly beaten (Namajunas dominated the first round), and make the necessary adjustments to find a way to win. By breaking down Andrade’s knockout of Namajunas (which will likely be remembered as one of the most violent in the sport’s history), we can see how Andrade adapted on-the-fly, creating, and then seizing the potential for victory. This ability to discern when tactical changes are needed, and then implement them during the bout should be of great concern to Andrade’s upcoming opponent Weili Zhang; she is going to need to be able to think and adapt just as quickly as Andrade — a difficult feat — if she wants to deprive the current champion of a claim to any successful title defenses.
Slams: A Proper Application of Force
While often maligned as nontechnical and wild, just like some other techniques in MMA, slams are actually highly intricate: what determines if a slam is successful in knocking out its victim or not isn’t the amount of force that is generated, but rather whether the victim’s head is what hits the mat.
So, while we often see high amplitude, dynamic slams in the UFC, if the intended victim is able to fall properly and keep their head from hitting the mat (as Rose was able to do during Andrade’s first two slam attempts) they will likely remain conscious and continue to pursue whatever submission they were working towards. Only when Andrade made a modification that allowed her to dictate the angle Rose’s fall, therefore slamming her on her head, was the technique successful.
The Failed Attempts
Knowing that Jessica Andrade is a formidable wrestler, Rose Namajunas prepared to counter the wrestling with a technique known as the Kimura Trap. Whenever Andrade pushed her up against the fence, Rose would reach over Andrade’s back and secure the two-on-one wrist grip known as the Kimura. Once the Kimura grip is secured, not only is it significantly harder for Rose to be taken down, but if she is, Rose can transition to submission attempts (such as the armbar we saw), or look to take the back.
We see the benefit of the Kimura grip manifest in this clip of the first slam attempt: Jessica Andrade is attempting a single leg takedown; this means that when Rose secures the Kimura grip, Rose’s body is locked in place over the back of Andrade’s neck, effectively placing her behind the Brazilian.
This does two things: it greatly corrupts Andrade’s posture, which makes it much more laborious (yet still possible) for Andrade to lift Rose, and it means that Andrade will have limited control over the angle in which Rose will fall. Because Rose was behind Andrade on the first two attempts, Andrade couldn’t slam Rose on her head, thereby allowing Rose to fall properly and avoid damage, as we see here:
After the slam, Rose’s Kimura grip prevents Jessica Andrade from holding her down, allowing the then-champion to immediately return to her feet
On the second attempt, Andrade is able to use her sheer power to overcome the corruption in her spine (which is a result of Rose’s body positioning across the back of her neck) and lift Namajunas up into the air. Because the Kimura grip locked Rose behind Andrade, Rose has substantially more control over the engagement than it might initially appear.
While up in the air, Rose unlocks her legs from Andrade’s arms and immediately swings herself around the Brazilian, using the Kimura grip to pull herself into an armbar. Namajunas got the better of this exchange because Andrade had attacked with a single leg takedown: her head was inside Rose’s body, so when Andrade lifts her opponent, Namajunas is behind her depriving Andrade of the ability to control Rose’s decent to the mat. This allows Rose to fall safely onto her shoulders and avoid taking damage. Andrade then goes on to successfully escape the armbar.
The Successful Slam
After the first round, it was apparent to all (including Jessica Andrade and her corner), that not only had Rose won the first round, but Andrade was in serious trouble. Andrade had been thoroughly out-struck, almost submitted, and ended the round on her back with Namajunas in top control; serious alterations would be needed if the challenger wanted a chance to claim the belt. By inspecting the finer points of the notoriously violent slam that earned Jessica Andrade the UFC Strawweight Championship, we can see that such consequential adjustments were made by Andrade; her victory was a result of martial science, not sheer brute strength as it might appear.
The sequence starts with Andrade pushing Rose up against the fence where the then-champ locks up another Kimura. By taking a close look, we can see Andrade hand fight with Rose, temporarily breaking the Kimura grip. Although Rose reestablishes the grip, by hand fighting, Jessica Andrade gives herself both the time, and space, to switch from a single leg takedown to a high crotch takedown by moving her head outside of Rose’s body.
This was an expert tactical decision that yielded substantial dividends for Jessica Andrade. Because the high crotch places Jessica Andrade’s head outside of Rose’s body, when Andrade lifts Rose into the air, Rose is now in front of Andrade, giving Andrade the control needed to ensure Rose lands on her head.
Notice how much more control Jessica Andrade has over Namajunas in this clip of the finish as opposed to the previous attempts. As she is behind her opponent, Jessica Andrade is able to hoist Namajunas up into the air and slam her straight down, ensuring Namajunas’s head is the first thing to hit the mat. Rose Namajunas is deprived of her consciousness, and Jessica Andrade is the new UFC strawweight champion.
An Extraordinarily High Fight IQ
Jessica Andrade’s knockout of Rose Namajunas should not be viewed as a victory of brawn over brain, but rather that the combination of the two creates a terrifyingly skillful fighter. While the first round of their bout showcased that Rose’s striking and Jiu-Jitsu skill was significantly above Andrade’s, that does not mean that Rose is a better fighter. In order to win in mixed martial arts, you don’t need to be better than your opponent: you only need to be better at one aspect of fighting for one moment to secure the finish.
What is so impressive about the manner in which Jessica Andrade claimed the strawweight belt was that she was being thoroughly beaten. Rose Namajunas had trained extensively to counter Jessica Andrade’s superior wrestling by employing the Kimura Trap; it was a thoroughly thought out strategy that paid abundant dividends until Jessica Andrade made a mid-fight adjustment to render Rose’s counter obsolete.
By recognizing that moving from a single leg takedown to a high crotch takedown would allow her the necessary control to slam Rose effectively, Jessica Andrade showed that despite her technique was largely inferior to Rose’s, her fight IQ — which is arguably more valuable than superior technique — was superior. While striking and grappling technique can be learned and improved through hours and repetitions in the gym, fight IQ is notoriously difficult to improve. As Jessica Andrade is obviously in possession of an extraordinarily high fight IQ, Weili Zhang, and the rest of the strawweight division will have their work cut out for them if they want to usurp the title from the Brazilian champion.