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Evolve Media.
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Last year, I wrote an article hyping up a
scintillating showdown between then Patricio
“Pitbull” Freire
, at the time a two-division Bellator MMA champ, and the undefeated kid dynamite
and possible future GOAT A.J. McKee.
While some scoffed at my description, their clash didn’t prove me a
liar. With a sensational head kick followed by a lightning-quick,
tight guillotine, McKee defeated Freire and ascended his promised
throne. Even those who rarely give fighters outside of the Ultimate Fighting Championship credit had to
admit that McKee was one of the pound-for-pound best in the sport
and possibly the world’s finest featherweight.

I wasn’t writing articles when their rematch was announced, but I
was far less enthused about it. I saw the potential for a dry,
disappointing fight. Alas, my worst fears came true and the sequel
was underwhelming. Freire fought an exceptionally smart,
disciplined fight to regain his crown, but few were highly
impressed at what often looked like a mere sparring match.

Rematch disappointment isn’t confined to Bellator, however. The
co-main event of UFC 274 featured a long-awaited second fight
between reigning strawweight champion Rose
and Carla
. Esparza had stopped Namajunas all the way back in 2014
to become the promotion’s first 115-pound champion, but a lot had
changed since. Strawweight itself had become by far the most
talent-rich division for female fighters, and “Thug Rose,” while
lacking the physical dominance of other champions, could well be
the most technically skilled and well-rounded woman we’ve witnessed
yet in MMA. Not to be outdone, Esparza had also shown tremendous
growth since their first confrontation. Not only had her main
strength of grappling improved greatly, but her stand-up, which she
barely possessed at all in 2014, had made huge strides, especially
her defense and movement. It was certainly an intriguing battle
between striker and grappler.

What we got was so dull that it made McKee-Freire 2 look like a
fight of the year contender. It was one of the most ruthlessly
boring championship encounters in UFC history, as both martial
artists stood, stared, moved around the cage, and once in a great
while, threw punches at the air and clinched up.

On the surface, those two rematches appear very different. One was
an immediate rematch that happened less than a year than the first
fight, while the other had a distance of eight years. McKee was a
big favorite, while Esparza was a very live underdog many were
picking. McKee was the champion and favorite after dismantling
Freire in less than 2 minutes the first time around, while Esparza
was the challenger despite stopping Namajunas in their initial
meeting. Yet, the reason for both fights being disappointments is
similar. We will look at each in detail and draw some generalized

For the Bellator featherweight championship rematch, McKee was
absolutely suffering from overconfidence. And why shouldn’t he? He
had smashed through every major challenge of his career, beyond
anyone’s wildest expectations in each case, and had obliterated
Freire the last time they had faced off. He had every reason to
believe that he was a superlative, untouchable young champion, as
he had made virtually everyone watching his fights believe the
same. That resulted in McKee waiting and waiting for an opening to
explode and produce another highlight-reel finish. When the
opportunity didn’t present itself, he was stuck firing one-twos,
many of them sloppy. This approach still would have worked against
many foes due to McKee’s disgusting, dizzying level of talent, but
not against Patricio
, a man who embodies all the highest principles of the
martial arts and is one of the smartest fighters to ever live. For
25 minutes, Freire gave McKee no such openings, walking a tightrope
the whole way through. Freire’s defense was iron-clad, and when he
felt safe, the Brazilian punished McKee with kicks and the
occasional punch. It wasn’t riveting, but it was the only possible
way for Freire to triumph. Expecting to win decisively the way he
had originally, McKee was not ready for a long, cerebral, grinding
fight and ended up losing the narrow decision.

With Esparza-Namajunas 2, the explanation is even simpler. The two
fighters were at a perfect stalemate. Esparza knew that she stood
little chance in the striking and had to keep her distance, moving
while looking for an opportunity to get a takedown. Namajunas,
while a much better wrestler than in their first fight, is
susceptible to being taken down and struggles to get back to her
feet. Thus, she sought to keep the distance and touch Esparza from
range, which ended up being very difficult against someone moving
as energetically and being as defensively sound as “The Cookie
Monster.” Hence, neither fighter wished to risk matters and engage,
as doing so would give a distinct advantage to her foe.

What is the common theme running throughout these two affairs? It’s
simply a major increase in the intelligence and professionalism at
the elite levels of the sport, the latter a subject we’ve discussed before. Top
fighters today are just too good, have too few weaknesses, and are
too smart, crafting clever game plans and executing them with
discipline and care for 15 or 25 minutes. Freire had given McKee a
brief opening in the first fight, which the latter exploited in
brilliant fashion. That wasn’t going to happen again, and with
Freire learning from the defeat, McKee faced a tough, protracted
battle even if he had come better prepared. Meanwhile, Esparza was
the peskiest type of challenger for Namajunas, a dangerous grappler
with very sound defense and movement, excellent cardio, and no
major flaws to her game. Namajunas’ memory of being badly
outgrappled and tapped with a rear-naked choke in the first fight
certainly didn’t help matters.

This wasn’t always the case. In the past, fighters would triumph
over their opponents because of a major advantage that would still
be present in the rematch. Even elite fighters had gaping holes to
their game and would often fight in the manner that was neither
smart nor disciplined. If you want an example, check out Rich
’s two fights with Evan Tanner.
That’s no longer the case for top fighters, and oftentimes, the
window of opportunity in the first fight is thoroughly sealed up by
the time of the rematch. Unfortunately, that means more
disappointing rematches in our future!