“The basics are very much the building blocks of fancier, flashier tricks, but there are no fancy tricks without the basics, and with too much de-emphasis on the basics those fancy tricks will inevitably begin to fall apart.”
Motivational Monday: Fundamentals & How An Undefeated Legend Was Dethroned in 60 Seconds
6 min read
I want to start today by sharing a martial arts story. Even if you’re not a martial arts fan, bear with me through the example because I promise it’ll make sense, and it’s a story to learn a lot from.
From May 2000 to June 2010, professional mixed martial arts heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko was undefeated, with the one lone mark on his record being largely considered an illegitimate loss due to a cut. So in the eyes of most watching, Fedor Emelianenko entered the Strikeforce MMA cage on June 26, 2010 as a fighter who had not lost a single time in a 31 straight fights, a feat essentially unheard of in mixed martial arts. He was largely considered one of the greatest of all time, and many did consider him as such.
So that’s why it came as such a surprise when, in his 34th professional fight, he chased 4-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion Fabricio Werdum to the mat and was within seconds ensnared in a triangle choke applied by his opponent. A mere 69 seconds into the fight, Fedor Emelianenko was forced to tap out, receiving the first legitimate loss of his career in stunning fashion.
In betting odds terms, Fabricio Werdum had never been, and has not since been, a bigger underdog than he was in that fight: Emelianenko opened as a -1100 favorite, meaning one would have to stake $1,100 on his victory in order to win $100. Following this fight, the previously invincible Emelianenko went on to lose two more fights consecutively; Fabricio Werdum by contrast went 7-1 in his following 8 fights, claiming the UFC heavyweight championship in 2015 in a performance that had the world talking about Werdum as a contender for the title of best heavyweight fighter in mixed martial arts history.
So what happened in that fight between Emelianenko and Werdum? Without getting too into the details, Emelianenko dropped his foe early in the round, and in his eagerness to claim his impending victory, he pounced. Nearly immediately, he made a fundamental mistake: he left his left arm between Werdum’s legs. Emelianenko ferociously attempted to punch through, but never extracted his arm from between Werdum’s legs during the exchange. This allowed Werdum enough leverage to execute a very basic roll across his shoulders, positioning him to apply a move called a triangle choke. Emelianenko essentially ignored the threat, insisting instead on pursuing his victory with punches. In this process, he made another fundamental mistake: he kept his posture hunched and close rather than straightening his back and looking up to defend the threat. At this point, Emelianenko starts to recognize that he’s in trouble, but by then it’s far too late, and he’s trapped in the double threat of a triangle-armlock submission applied by a 4-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion. Emelianenko has no choice but to tap out, finally surrendering his legendary winning streak.
What happened in this fight is a perfect example of why, no matter how good you get at something, you must never neglect the basics. Emelianenko is absolutely no slouch when it comes to ground combat — he himself was a 4-time combat sambo world champion and 6-time Russian champion. But by making a few basic errors — and I mean very basic errors — one of the greatest combat sports competitors of all time was defeated in one minute by a man nobody expected to be the one to dethrone the king.
This lesson is invaluable to basically anyone who does anything. So presumably that includes me, and it includes you. Never, ever ignore the fundamentals. The basics are very much the building blocks of fancier, flashier tricks, but there are no fancy tricks without the basics, and with too much de-emphasis on the basics those fancy tricks will inevitably begin to fall apart.
There are so many examples for this, and so often you can find the experts effortfully dedicating themselves to the basics. If you’re a drummer, you have to keep practicing rudiments. If you’re a singer, you sing scales. A baseball player practices throwing and batting. A basketball player has to practice layups. Many of the artists I know wake up and do something small and basic to start their day — the show’s producer Steve doodles beautiful to-do lists every morning to flex his basic lettering and art chops every day. Even in professional work this can’t be compromised on: a salesperson has to practice the delivery of the pitch, a programmer has to always be focused on the details to avoid tiny mistakes that have major ripples, an accountant has to remember to sweat every number, detail, and rule.
Rededicate yourself to the fundamentals. It can be the very thing that makes you the expert who can be flashy and fancy and quick, with the deep down secret of having done thousands of perfect repetitions of the basics. Get out there and tackle life undefeated.