Shawn Jordan and the Art of Sprint Chess

"When you’re just on and everything’s working together and going your way and you’re fighting well, it’s peaceful." - Shawn Jordan
UFC heavyweight Shawn JordanHopefully at this juncture in the history of mixed martial arts, the misguided idea that you can watch the sport and then believe you can jump in and do the same things that Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, and Jose Aldo do is a thing of the past. Yet if there are still a few of you out there, maybe you should listen to Shawn Jordan.

Already a top level athlete who played college football for the LSU Tigers, Jordan made the move to mixed martial arts, and over the last five years, he’s become a legitimate prospect in the UFC’s heavyweight division, one who will face Matt Mitrione this Saturday in Macao, China.

Yet while watching Jordan and Mitrione go at it may make you say ‘okay, these are two big guys swinging for the fences, and the first one who lands wins,’ you wouldn’t even come close to truly knowing what’s going on when those fists are flying.

“Muscle memory is huge, especially in this sport,” he said. “Yes, you mentally have to plan things out and think about movements and train those movements, but then when you fight, you have to recognize them and react off it. I call it sprint chess. You’re trying to play chess as fast as you can and sprinting through it - making the right moves, countering moves, but having only a split second to pick each move out. That’s the best way I can explain it.”

Now think about playing that chess game against someone trained to do to you what you’re trying to do to him. And he’s over 200 pounds and wearing four-ounce gloves. It means that the slightest error could be the one that leaves you staring up at the lights. Jordan knows both ends of that equation, knocking out Pat Barry in 59 seconds last June, and then getting halted by Gabriel Gonzaga in less than two minutes four months later.

“Pat is an amazing striker and I beat him in under a minute, then I come back and get knocked out by Gonzaga in under two minutes,” he said. “It’s deceptive. You’re still fighting the best guys in the world, and I think that’s what people misunderstand.”

It’s the reality check of all reality checks, and one that will almost certainly keep you grounded. But even after wins in four of his five fights leading up to the Gonzaga bout, the 29-year-old refused to think that he had arrived.

“I’m never gonna think I’m there, even when I’m there,” he said. “I have to keep competing and learning and improving. As soon as you stop learning, that’s when you start getting beat up.”

These days, the education process for Jordan includes work with two of the best teams in the sport – American Top Team and Jackson’s MMA – and one of the biggest lessons he’s embraced has been learning how to get into the fight as soon as the bell rings.

“For me, getting started was an extremely mental part of fighting,” he said. “And that’s something I had a rough go at in the Cheick Kongo fight. Going into fights and feeling guys out and knowing when to start trying to push, inflict punishment, strike, or what not, that’s a huge mental part for me in starting out fights. But after you get a feeling for it and get your range down, it’s cognitive, but you’re still reacting.”

It’s the perfect storm for any fighter, and Jordan’s wins over Mike Russow and Barry showed that he had bounced back from the disappointing decision defeat to Kongo in July of 2012. The loss to Gonzaga was a setback, and while he doesn’t like losing, it was a defeat he found easier to rebound from than the one against Kongo.

“Any loss is really difficult for me to handle,” said Jordan. “I’m so competitive, and no one does this sport to be second best. It’s a rough sport and it takes a lot of sacrifices to improve. But mentally, the Cheick Kongo fight was harder for me to shake than this fight (against Gonzaga) was. You get caught, you get caught – it’s a bad day at the office, you go back and start working on it. But when you fight a three round fight and it’s frustrating and aggravating and you still come out on the bottom, that’s rougher to shake. It affects you mentally.”

His mind is clear now though, and as he approaches the Mitrione bout, he’s ready to start playing some sprint chess.

“When you’re just on and everything’s working together and going your way and you’re fighting well, it’s peaceful,” said Jordan. “My first fight in the UFC (against Oli Thompson in 2012), I was just on. It was a complete fight and it was just fun. I was enjoying it. Even though you’re getting hit, it was still fun.”


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