Ronda Rousey vs. Bruce Lee: What Progressives Can Learn from Mixed Martial Arts & Game Theory

by Terry Marshall

So I love Mixed Martial Arts. I mean looooovvee it. I’m part of an underground cohort of progressive social justice oriented people (mostly men and a growing number of women) who follow MMA relentlessly unbeknownst to most of our colleagues. Perhaps my love of the sport arises from my obsession with creativity, innovation and always reaching for a higher level (searching for a higher truth). Strangely these things seem to come most readily in body movements. Very few other sports have seen the rapid evolution that Mixed Martial Arts has undertaken in such a short time. In 20 years the sport mutated from an Enter The Dragonesque whose singular style is the best to a form of liquid movements that flow from one style to the next in seconds. The only thing comparable to it is Breakdancing which seems to evolve per competition (nothing actually beats B-boying/B-girling in terms of rapid prototyping, evolution and creativity).

It is with this backdrop that a pre-answer is delivered to your most likely question of why I would write an article mixing up the unlikely combination of Ronda Rousey, Social Justice Movement strategy and Game Theory. Well, besides all three of these things being interests of mine, my organization; Intelligent Mischief; uses pop culture to affect social change, draw lessons for movement strategies and learn how make our work irresistible. I decided that this is a pop culture moment here, let’s see if there are any lessons. With that let us begin.

Beware. Serious nerdiness is about to follow.

Ronda Rousey

The world shattering event known as Ronda Rousey’s most recent defeat has been analyzed a million times by now. Blame for her lost has been evenly distributed between the subpar skills of her coach, non-fighting career distractions to the psychological state of her mind still recovering from her 1st lost. There was one article that stood out to me from the digital herd, largely because it didn’t use click bait headlines of “Ronda exposed” but rather looked for a scientific reason for Rousey’s defeat. The article “So Meta: Ronda Rousey and the decline of the grappler” by Phil Mackenzie uses the method of Game Theory to describe the reason for Ronda’s decline. In Game Theory one can use the extensive form, basically a decision tree, to help a player predict the outcome of a game. In a typical game tree you have a node, a circle, which represents each point of decision. From each node flows lines, or edges, which represents the action taken from the decision which connects to the next node/decision. Game trees usually end with a terminal node aka the the payoff of the decisions/nodes. If this spiderweb of words is in any way confusing don’t worry a graph is coming up soon.

Mackenzie goes on to show how this can be applied to Mixed Martial Arts fighting styles in general and to Ronda Rousey’s style specifically. It goes something like this: If Mixed Martial Arts fighting can be looked at through the lens of a game tree then what develops is a series of nodes and bottlenecks. Each move in MMA leads to another move that puts the fighter in a better position to either finish their opponent or defend themselves. A series of moves strung together creates a combination that should always be leading to a winning blow, better positioning or a submission. Let’s take a look at Rousey’s fighting nodes :

Ronda’s main node when facing an opponent is her jab. She uses the jab primarily to step in closer to her opponent in order to grab them. From there she can then use either of 2 techniques (nodes) which are head control or collar tie. Each of those nodes/decisions then leads to 2 options for each. This series of nodes leads all lead to the same point, to get Rousey’s opponent down to the ground where Rousey can then use her best skill grappling (Ronda is a Olympic Judo medalist). Now if all nodes are a series of combinations to get to another combo, the lines/edges act as bottlenecks. Therefore any good strategy for a fighter would be to find the shortest combination to reach their goal. For Ronda, who is not proficient in striking/boxing, she used the singular jab to set up her ground game. In this next graph we will see what Ronda’s opponents have started to figure out.

In her last two bouts her opponents simply figured out how to stop her bottlenecks. Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes realized the limited number of nodes that Ronda applied to her game plan and used efficient counter moves that cut her bottlenecks from her next nodes. If you attack Ronda after she jabs then she can not get to her next node of moving in to grab. If she does move in then the opponent’s node needs to be to run away and reset nodes. These series of counter moves leaves Ronda stuck with with only 2 nodes to operate from , a jab and a cross, none of which she is proficient at. The reason why Ronda Rousey’s recent losses have looked so devastating is because what has been revealed is that she does not have enough of a combination of nodes.

Amanda Nunes

The pioneer in using this method to train MMA fighters is Greg Jackson who is the most successful coach in the sport (his fighters win about 80% of their matches). Jackson has been using game trees and game theory to improve his fighter’s chances in the octagon since the mid 90’s. Jackson believes that the best fighters game tree should look something like this:

Numerous nodes/decisions, numerous edges/bottlenecks, numerous options. It makes sense that Jackson is a big believer in using logic because the strategy resembles the Vulcan creed of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”. Any opponent can stop anyone’s bottleneck. That taken as a truth, then the best option is to have as many nodes and edges as possible and leave your opponent guessing as to which one you will use, unable to anticipate your next move and left unbalanced. Jon Jones (the fighter pictured above), Greg Jackson’s best known fighter, is known for being one of the most creative fighters in the game. He has never lost a fight (one disqualification from a wrong call by a referee) and is a big user of Jackson’s game tree method of setting up the right combination of nodes to win.

After seeing this one may wonder how was Rousey able to be so dominant in her sport for so long. Mackenzie offers the simple explanation that Ronda was so aggressive and good at her grappling that she simply bullied her way down the stack of options in the game tree. Once she encountered skilled enough opponents that wouldn’t allow her to go that route her options become limited. And this is where we turn our attention to the Left.

So what can we as social justice movement organizations and participants learn from this?

Let me share a story: Shortly after the rebellion in Ferguson, MO broke out, numerous adhoc groups in another city far far away, sprouted up in order to combat the injustice of police killings. These groups had formed a coalition that was a mixture of neophytes and seasoned activists. One of the first things the group did was call for a march in solidarity with the Ferguson protests. The march was one of the biggest marches in the city in the last 10 years. Many people began to look at the coalition for leadership around the issue of police brutality and the local media started to give them a lot of attention. As more cases of police brutality began to be exposed across the country the coalition called for more protest, more actions. Pretty soon they started to make local demands to the city government but the Mayor refused to acknowledge them. As the big nationwide actions started to die down many in the local group started to debate what they should do next. Some argued that they should focus on education and awareness around the issue of police brutality. Others argued they should engage in direct service activities to their target population. What the group ultimately decided on was to keep doing what had they had gotten good at, more direct actions. They got more DA trainings and did higher risk actions. Soon after, the actions got smaller, less people came out, none of the coalition’s local demands were ever met and eventually so many people left the group that today they no longer exist.

An example of protestors being kettled by Police in Montreal

Now using the game tree method what can we tell happened? The group’s first node was a march/action. That led them to the next node of gaining media attention which led to another node of gaining more members and more people for the next action. That in of itself could be a victory but once the group stated local demands that included police accountability for unlawful killings its goal changed and therefore what counted as a victory changed. In this new environment the group began with the same node, an action, which in turn set off the same stack of game trees none of which resulted in demands being met. When the group began to debate other actions which would have been other nodes that would have led to different game trees and different results the group decided to stick to what they knew. Much like Rousey the group tried to bully their way down the stack to get to victory. They did more actions, riskier actions hoping that this would get their demands met. It went no where because also like Rousey they limited their nodes to choose from. The opposition, the police & city government, was able to predict their moves, if their game tree simply led to media attention then the police and the city began to manipulate the media before the group could. The police began to control the action which made them seem lackluster. The police and the city effectively attacked the group’s bottlenecks cutting them off from reaching any goal. With the group’s nodes being cut off eventually infighting took hold because of frustration over not being able to accomplish anything and the group disbanded.

We can argue that this is an inevitable result of an ad hoc group with no formal training nor base. But I can point to numerous examples of more established groups that begin to fetishize a particular tactic or school of thought and remain stuck for years. Many Alinsky style organizing groups that only engage in lobbying and base building but when faced with a new crisis that can not be voted on refuse to do direct action. A direct action oriented group working on a long protracted issue that gets translated into a ballot and the group is not equipped to do base building or voter mobilization. All these groups have shrunk their game trees, fewer nodes fewer paths to victory. Even though in many organizing schools of thought it is taught that there are many tactics one can choose from, more often than not these very schools are what limit organizers’ choices in what tactics to use.

Hence this is what many activist share in common with Ronda Rousey’s team, this belief that there is only one way to win. In order to change this we can’t just change up our fighting style. We must attack the very Dichotomous thinking that this idea comes from.

Enter Bruce Lee

The inimitable Bruce Lee

I earlier said that the best fighter would have prepared multiple node combos in order to leave their enemy guessing and off balance. A fighter should be as fluid in their thinking as in their moves to achieve this. In fact this very thinking is embedded in the DNA of MMA itself. It starts with Bruce Lee. Yeah thats right I said Bruce Lee. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Most people only know of Bruce Lee as action Kung-Fu movie star. Few know that Bruce Lee was a philosopher, writer, cha cha champion of Hong Kong and an actual Martial Artist who created his own form of Martial arts! Bruce Lee called it Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Fist) which included a mix of Chinese Gung Fu, Western Boxing and Fencing. It was important to Lee that it not be called “the style of the fist” but instead “The WAY of the Fist”. Bruce Lee believed that styles were locking martial artists into rigid ways of fighting and thinking. He believe that the more you broke boundaries between styles and schools of thought the freerer a human being became. Bruce Lee’s most famous quotes sums it up pretty well “You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Be water my friend.” In other words: have as many nodes open as possible to win.

What does this look like for a social justice organization? The lessons that can be drawn in order for an organization to form the an ecology of game trees can be summed up in 3 values:

  1. Creativity: organizations have to deeply embed this into their organizational strategies. This is more than just “what poet will we have perform at our event”. As I have shown, once you become stale in your thinking and actions it is easier for your opponent to deliver a knockout blow.
  2. Agility: Social Justice actors have to be able respond to crisis as they erupt. Strategies have to be able to change at a moment’s notice. Multiple nodes must have many edges/bottlenecks to get to.
  3. Scalability/Be Water: We must be able to stretch and bend and be open to different schools of thoughts and actions that are attuned to the time. If we are frozen or stale then we die.

These lessons are even more valuable when we are facing a new opponent such as President-elect Donald Trump (who Ronda Rousey did defeat in a war of words) who has changed the landscape in which we fight. When a group applies these 3 lessons by combining tactics, getting rid of dichotomous thinking , and being open to unorthodox collaborations they will become more resilient especially in these troubling times.