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Melvin Guillard and the Wasted Potential Fallacy

January 21, 2012

Last night in the main event of UFC on FX: Miller vs. Guillard, Jim Miller and Melvin Guillard had a fight where both showed everything they were known for. Jim Miller showed there is no shot hard enough to stop him from searching for a submission, while Guillard showed dynamite in his hands and looked helpless on the ground against a superior grappler. No sooner had Miller taken Guillard’s back and locked-up the fight-ending rear naked choke than fans on the web the world over began tweeting and commenting with one main theme — “Why won’t Melvin just work on his jiu jitsu, already? He’s got so much wasted potential.”

Well, that’s a load of BS.

Allow me to present a quick case study of two fighters.

Fighter A is a hard-nosed fighter. After every fight he diligently breaks down his performance to find holes in his game, win or lose, and spends his time working his ass off to fill those holes. This hard-working style works well and he grinds his way into the top half of the division in the UFC. Fighter A finds himself fighting for the title more than once, but ultimately he just does not have the physical tools to get over the hump and be the best, no matter how hard he works.

Fighter B is a physically gifted fighter. While his work ethic in regards to assessing his problems, learning from them, then drilling until they are no longer so glaring is often criticized, nobody can deny the natural gifts that Fighter B possesses. He fights with a speed and strength unmatched by anyone in the division, but ultimately fails to ever put together a long run at the top of the division as he finds his weakness exploited by top fighters every time he starts to sniff a title shot.

By the masses, Fighter A is considered somebody who maximized his potential, and just never was somebody destined to be physically capable of winning a title. Fighter B is bemoaned as a waste of talent, somebody good enough to win the title if he could just get his mind straight for a couple years in a row. For some bizarre reason, a fighter with a physical deficiency who achieves more is considered less viable as a true potential-champion than a fighter whose flaws are mental but has never reached the heights of his counterpart. Why is this?

The problem comes primarily from the way a mental weakness and a physical weakness are viewed in general. At some point we are willing to accept that a body has achieved all it is destined to achieve within the legal methods available to a professional fighter. Without the use of steroids or other outside agents, there’s only so much efficient muscle mass a given fighter can put on. The muscle he does have will only be able to be used so fast. His body will only be able to handle so much resistance before he tires. When a man has reached the physical limit that his genetics allows, he’s reached that limit. There’s no shame in that and we accept it.

Mentally we hold people to higher standards. “The Secret” tells you that anything you set your mind on and want hard enough can be yours. When we see somebody who we know is, in the short term, capable of accomplishing great things, we often assume that any failure to maintain that as a long-term payoff is not a deficiency that they can not fix, but is instead simply the individual being weak willed. They don’t want it enough to fix it. They aren’t determined enough to try. They’re happy just wasting their potential.

Here’s the rub, though. At what point do you have to just accept that, no, they don’t have the potential to do what everyone thinks they can. When a rookie bursts onto the scene and is clearly a naturally gifted specimen but he doesn’t fight smart with it, there’s potential. You need to look no farther than another of Miller’s recent victims, Charles Oliveira. Having breezed through his first two UFC opponents, he expected more of the same. You could hear it in his interviews before the fight where he said he would use his purple belt to show the black belt Miller “what real jiu jitsu is.” In the cage, Oliveira didn’t fight smart. He threw up Hail Mary subs, didn’t identify that they were not just being stuffed, but being more and more stuffed each time, and ultimately got stuffed so bad it opened up a counter which he failed to identify the danger in until his knee was bent the wrong way. That’s a young fighter who is inexperienced doing an inexperienced thing against a better fighter. He has the potential to learn from that mistake.

Now let’s look at Melvin Guillard. Guillard looked strong early, as everyone expected of him. He dropped Miller with a punch and, while Miller’s legs didn’t ever appear weak during the ensuing takedown efforts, Miller admitted his body was working on auto-pilot for much of the fight after. Then Guillard got too flashy, as many expected of him. He threw one too many flying knees and got dumped on his back. Then he got quickly tapped when the fight hit the ground, as everyone expected of him. After the fight, Guillard made excuses for his two straight losses, calling one a fluke and claiming no errors in the latest bout, as everyone expected. Guillard didn’t shock us with his errors, he did exactly what people expected of him, and yet we still maintain that he is capable of not doing things he always does.

Guillard isn’t a rookie still learning by trial-and-error. Guillard has 42 fights officially, and will never hesitate to let you know that number is too low. With some 60-odd fights or so under his belt, then, he is still doing the same things wrong time and time again. A fighter who can not bring his body to the physical level he needs to get over the hump isn’t failing to live up to potential, he is being who he is. A fighter like Guillard who can not bring his mental game to that level he needs to get over the hump is just doing the same exact thing.

When I was in college I helped a friend get through her required math classes, because math comes easy to me. She was not a dumb woman by any stretch of the word, but the way her brain was wired it just never fell in line and made sense the way things did so easily for someone who is math-savvy. If she wanted to be a math teacher, she would struggle, despite having all the skills required to be a great teacher in general. An element of mental make-up required for the job isn’t there, and it doesn’t matter how capable you are for the other elements of a job if an important part of you isn’t wired for it. Similarly, whether it’s a failure to be able to honestly assess himself, a failure for his mind to be able to grasp and truly internalize the intricacies of the ground game or a combination of both, Melvin Guillard is not wired to be a consistent world beater. No differently than the guy who has a certain arrangement of cells in his body that prevents it from doing what it needs to to win, Guillard just does not have the right arrangement of cells in his brain that lets him fix his deficiencies.

More than 9 years later, Guillard still has the same problems he had when he was handed his first defeat by Carlo Prater. That’s not a waste of potential, that’s a fighter being who he is. Guillard is a fighter who, on his day, can beat anyone in the world, but something with the way his brain works means he doesn’t have the ability to consistently win at the top of the division against fighters who are capable of achieving more well-rounded skill sets. It’s comforting to think that anybody can just will themselves to be a better person, that physical limitations can only be battled so much but with hard work any mental block can be overcome, but it isn’t the case. You are who you are, and hyping up somebody to a level that everyone knows he has failed repeatedly to match just because his weakness isn’t a physical one just leads to disappointment all around.

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