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Rusty Business

“Ring rust” is a term that has varying strength. On one side there are recent cases like Yoshihiro Akiyama’s long-awaited return at UFC 116. Akiyama was never known for great cardio, but a year out of the cage did a number on his gas tank, leaving him blatantly exhausted midway through the second round. Conversely, former champ and genetic-jackpot winner Randy Couture spent 13 months playing retired before dominating Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title in 2007.

Inconsistency aside, there is enough evidence to consider ring/cage rust a real problem. Missing is a clear explanation. There are three main factors that fighters must maintain during a break: physical conditioning, evolution of technique, and mental fortitude. While most cases of ring rust are probably a combination of the three, each affects performance in unique ways.

There are dozens of strength and conditioning programs available to athletes. But none of them can match real combat-sport competition. Firstly, it is impossible to train effectively with anyone you genuinely dislike–things get heated too quickly. There needs to be a level of trust; so fighters train with friends, which inadvertently attaches emergency brakes to the intensity level–a friend does not rush in for the finish when his sparring partner gets rocked, or crank on a submission like a title is on the line.

Training focuses on technical aspects, which are essential, but less draining than hunting for a knockout. Nothing can replicate the cardio test of a real fight. Fighters will run, jog or swim at the highest pace that they can confidently maintain, while paying close attention to their breathing. Conversely, fighting has an fluctuating pace that puts the heart and lungs through bouts of spiking intensity.

The obvious solution is focusing on sparring sessions to build cardio, but that’s a catch-22. Even if fighter is willing spar with full-blown heavy-contact, a good coach would not allow it because the chances of injury would skyrocket. Getting back into the cage is the only solution.

All fighters have room to grow and evolve, and time off means lost opportunities to learn from mistakes. Watching fight tapes is a huge part of top-tier competition, not only to learn about opponents, but to catch personal slip-ups. Dropping hands after throwing kicks, predictable combinations, and telegraphing strikes and takedowns are some common mistakes that creep into fighting styles.

Such problems can be absent throughout training and emerge under pressure. Aggressive coaching can be iron them out, but that takes weeks. Furthermore, not all training camps are truly well-rounded. For many, the only way to find subtle holes in their game is to fight a variety of opponents.

Finally, mental fortitude is the wild card because it can lapse without warning. Humans can adapt and even become comfortable under extreme stress. However, time away from a roaring crowd and a dangerous opponent makes for a visceral return experience. Fear can come out of nowhere and cut to the bone, leading to something even worse than diminished cardio: hesitation.

Repetition and “muscle memory” are what fighters rely on in the heat of the moment. Mental conditioning allows fighters to react to a strike, takedown, or submission. But with time off, even a few weeks, the conditioning begins to fade, and fighters have to think about actions that should be automatic.

When Rampage Jackson returned to face Rashad Evans at UFC 114, his wild swings were tell-tale signs of a long layoff. But the most embarrassing moment came in the third round when Jackson landed a hard left, and inexplicably stood back and allowed a bobble-headed Evans to recover. That match was Jackson’s 38th professional fight, but those few seconds were the crystal clear difference between occasional training and consistently competing.

Athletes from all sports seem out of sync after a long layoff, but it’s far more severe in combat sports because of the specific factors that contribute to ring rust. Still, rust does not hit all fighters equally, and is far from a guaranteed loss.

The next year will see some particularly high-profile fighters returning after extended layoffs. First, Thiago Alves, on the sidelines since UFC 100, will finally be returning for a rematch with Jon Fitch at UFC 117. And Vitor Belfort, out since September, is expected to return in the fall, probably against the winner of Anderson Silva vs Chael Sonnen.

It’s a dangerous situation for both fighters, but potentially extremely rewarding. Alves is being given a chance to jump ahead of Jon Fitch in the race for a second crack at Georges St. Pierre. Due to Fitch’s conservative (see: boring) style and reluctance to fight teammate Josh Koscheck, Alves can easily become the more popular choice.

Similarly, Belfort was originally promised a middleweight title shot due to his unique speed and striking power, despite never fighting in the UFC at 185lbs. The intriguing style matchup against Anderson Silva, and lack of real threats (including Sonnen) in the division, mean that Belfort may still walk into a title shot. It remains to be seen whether either man can overcome ring rust, as a loss for either fighter now would be mean a huge blown opportunity.

  • bigbadjohn says:

    excellent article. great analysis

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  • Rece Rock says:

    …actually Testicular fortitude is the wild card.

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  • MCCastaneda says:

    This is a good analysis! I think the below paragraph hit the nail on the head.

    “Repetition and “muscle memory” are what fighters rely on in the heat of the moment. Mental conditioning allows fighters to react to a strike, takedown, or submission. But with time off, even a few weeks, the conditioning begins to fade…”

    Best point of the article. Well done. You do good research & analysis, Christopher!!
    Keep up the good work. It is a pleasure to read your work.

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  • FightFan313 says:

    That is a really good topic. I see a lot of fights where fighters don’t rush in to finish a fight just because they think the other guy is “baiting” and I don’t think that all training partners take it easy or stop if another gets rocked. . .that is part of the game. I train kickboxing and Jitsu and I know that I have been rocked and my partners haven’t taken it easy but wait, we talk about that. WE as training partners discuss how we are feeling so the other knows not to go to hard that day or to go smash mouth until a tap or gym ref steps in so I think Ring Rust is really about where the mind is at. Training partners can tell me if I feel strong or week or if I am slow or fast so I don’t see Ring Rust as being an excuse. When you are a pro and you’ve been in lots of fights and been training at least 3 to 6 months to get ready. . the ring rust should be off.

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  • Rece Rock says:

    Ring Rust is a figment of our imaginations… ;)

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  • Dufresne says:

    I agree that Ring Rust exists. We’ve seen it too many times for it to be complete fiction. I haven’t trained or competed in combat sports to a level where I would ever have noticed it myself, but I’ve also never been in a situation where there were even hundreds of fans cheering, much less thousands.

    I’m sure when you’re competing against the elite of the elite, and if you’re fighting on a big card you probably are, any hesitation or slight misjudgment can mean everything. I don’t know if “ring rust” is a physical problem that comes from not being able to train at the level you have to be at in an actual fight, or if it has something more to do with the mindset, but either of those could be the difference when you’re in a fight with a like Rashad.

    Personally, I think the reason Randy has been seemingly immune to ring rust is due to his gym. It’s HUGE. He’s got countless top level fighters that either train there on a daily basis or who make passes through there while training for their fights, so he’s got quite a variety of potential training partners. Plus I can’t imagine it’s too difficult for him to find willing training partners abroad if he needs to bring someone in. Could you say “No” to an invite to roll or spar with The Natural? I couldn’t.

    P.S. What is it with people rocking Rashad and backing off? Why does this happen? Talking to both of you Silva and Rampage.

    P.S.S. Thanks for not backing off Lyoto.

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  • MCM says:

    Speaking of Ring Rust and fighters being out of the cage for extended periods of time….What the frack ever happened to Heath Herring? He hasn’t fought in almost 2 yrs. Could ring rust be a factor in him not returning to the cage? He got embarrassed pretty bad by Lesnar in his last outing, is he now afraid that with the long lay off he may not fair so well against a lesser opponent. Is ring rust really that big a deal?

    Didn’t mean to go off topic, but this article got me thinking about him.

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  • Dr.Stoppage says:

    Rece Rock said it best.

    According to the scientists at,(Wins After Ring Rust)
    The official math equation to a win after a long layoff is:
    TO x 0 + PC x 0 + EoT x 0 + 100% TF( 50B + 50H) = 1 V

    I ain’t no rocket surgeon, but after looking this up on Wiki, here’s what I think it means-

    Time Off x 0 + Physical Conditioning x 0 + Evolution of Technique x 0 + 100% Testicular Fortitude (where TF = 50% Balls + 50% Heart) = 1 Victory

    Hey,I ain’t no scientist, but I can’t argue with logic.

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  • Dr.Stoppage says:

    Please change the title to “Rusty Business (except for Brock Lesnar)”

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  • boomnutz says:

    i agree with ring rust, but i would look at the fact that he seems small for a middleweight, although on paper he should have been the bigger man against Leben. Asians don’t like to cut weight (or so they say) they’re going to need too to keep up with the behemoths that populate most weight classes. Except for Frankie, which imo there must have been something wrong with BJ, he just didn’t look the same, but other than Frankie, every champ in the UFC is big for their weight class. There’s plenty of proof out there, look at Yoshida’s fights vs Koscheck and Rumble, or Uno’s fight against Teibau

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