Carla Esparza, Robbie Lawler and “The Fighter’s Mentality”

What is a “fighter’s mentality?”

Watching Carla Esparza keep a frantic pace with takedowns and strikes last night, against Rose Namajunas at the finale of The Ultimate Fighter Season 20, brought the idea to mind.

Esparza, the former Invicta champion, had mostly ground out decision victories in her bouts on the season, while Namajunas was, comparatively, a buzz saw. When the finals were set, it seemed everyone was picking the inexperienced “Thug” Rose to earn the win, and the UFC title. She had the momentum — she was the fighter.

But last night, Esparza turned the tables, finally showing that “fighter’s mentality” which we had hoped to see from her on TUF, and eventually finishing Namajunas off with a choke.

More than anything, Esparza looked like a fighter again — and again, she became a champion.

But what does that mean?

Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Allan Goes chimed in last year in a memorable interview with SCIFighting,

“These guys these days, they need ten week training camps,” Goes said. “Dude, if a guy comes and knocks on your gym and says “hey, I’m going to kick your ass”, are you going to say “hey, can you come in ten weeks? In ten weeks I’m going to be ready for you.” What is that? That’s the difference of the guys back in the day and the guys today. The guys back in the day are ready any time. We were born ready. We train every day; we have good nutrition every day. You are not a warrior on occasion. You wake up warrior, you die warrior. I don’t like it. In the fights these days, guys just hold you and hold you — and throw two punches and look to the clock. That is not a warrior.”

Goes was a veteran of the wild Brazilian “vale tudo” fight scene of the 1990’s. There weren’t many distinctions between a street fight and a vale tudo: not in the rules of engagement and not in how fights were arranged either.

He went on to fight, predictably, everywhere and anywhere — including PRIDE and the UFC. He’s best known for fighting two of the all-time greats, Frank Shamrock and Kazushi Sakuraba, to draws. There’s no going back to those days, but maybe we can pull some spirit from them.

The words came back to me as I read an interview last month from Sherdog with Faras Zihabi, the trainer at TriStar Gym. Zahibi, who describes a love for both jiu-jitsu and wrestling – was asked what separates the two. He made several good points, and everyone should read the whole article. But something in the mentality stood out:

“The wrestlers are better strategists,” Zahibi said. “Why? When you wrestle, you have three rounds, so you start thinking about strategy as importance. In jiu-jitsu, it’s one round. When the wrestler starts in MMA, he’s thinking, I’ve got to win two out of the three, minimum. That’s the minimum for victory. It’s not what I’m looking for, but it’s the minimum. A jiu-jitsu guy will do something crazy at the end of a round he was winning. Maybe he goes from top position to the bottom looking for a fancy armbar and gives up the round or gives up the position. They make more strategic mistakes than the wrestlers. Wrestlers use their wrestling in reverse; jiu-jitsu guys, no.”

I believe Zahibi is right — the wrestler’s approach is going to be different from that of a jiu-jitsu player like Allan Goes. But it’s not just a difference in the rules that the two sports employ – where sport jiu-jitsu is one round and wrestling three. Sometimes it’s a difference in the mentality.

Increasingly, his notion of the wrestler’s mentality of earning rounds may be losing favor.

Allan Goes and his teammates on the Carlson Gracie Team were known for an aggressive pressure game. Among their standouts was Ricardo Liborio, who would later co-found American Top Team in the early 2000’s, after vale tudo had made way for MMA.

In Goes’ day, it was Pat Militech’s camp which was the most dominant in the UFC. Pat Militech helped craft not only his own championship run, but that of Matt Hughes and Jens Pulver, who shared a wrestling background. Later, they made a heavyweight champion out of Tim Sylvia.

The young gun of the pack was Robbie Lawler, who didn’t quite make to the top back then.

But 12 years later, a week ago, there stood Robbie Lawler, holding up a UFC Welterweight title after a five-round battle with Johny Hendricks. He would become the first of Liborio’s American Top Team to earn a UFC championship, and, one might say, the last titleholder from the long-gone Militech Fighting Systems.

Still, no one would call Lawler a jiu-jitsu man. In fact, his wrestling acumen was to his success – making the former NCAA All-American Hendricks struggle for his takedowns.

But the difference in mentality was clear. By the end of the fight, Hendricks was still, as Goes put it, “holding you down, throwing a punch, and looking at the clock,” while Lawler was still fighting.

Later, on the MMA Hour, Lawler’s old teammate at Militech camp, Matt Hughes, described Hendricks’ struggle and compared to his old foe, Zahibi protege Georges St-Pierre:

“I believe that he got this from Georges St. Pierre. GSP is not a guy to go out and win fights. GSP wants to win three of the five rounds. He wants to win a round, then win another round, then win another round…and I think Johny really tried to do the same thing. Not go out there and win the fight, but go out there and win rounds. That’s not the most exciting thing to watch, watching a guy go out and try to win rounds. People want to see people go out and finish the fight.”

People, for twelve years now, have wanted to see Robbie Lawler fight. If the sport is going to continue to grow in the next twelve, that mentality will have to be rewarded.

Maybe it’s just that simple.

People, from the vale tudo era to The Ultimate Fighter, just want to watch fighters fight.