McGregor Vs Mayweather. Boxing, Brawling or Motor Control?


Key Points:

  • Boxing is a highly skilled sport requiring great anticipation and rapid information processing.
  • Expert performers excel at detecting relevant information (cues) quickly and easily.
  • When expert performers are placed in uncertain or novel situations, their information processing and reactions are no better than average.
  • We think this fight will be much, much closer than most are predicting (read to the end).

“Man is troubled not by events, but how he interprets them.” – Epictetus

First and foremost, I am not an expert in boxing. I can’t offer an account on boxing skill, technique or strategy. What I am more experienced in, is motor control. I am in my 8th year of University studies and am completing a PhD in biomechanics and motor control. During these studies I have developed a fascination with the concepts of cue detection, information processing and anticipation, which I will discuss later.

This education, I believe gives me a relatively unique view of the way in which the highly anticipated Mayweather Vs McGregor fight may go. Instead of looking at the sport of Boxing, I think there is much to learn about this fight by looking at the research from Volleyball, Football, Badminton, Major League Baseball, Ice Hockey and even Chess. Sound nuts? Good. Read on……..

In the book The Sports Gene, author David Epstein tells the story of Jennie Finch, a professional Softball player, who, when pitted against best Major League Baseball (MLB) players of the time, including stars such as Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds, managed to consistently outpitch them. What is most surprising is that Finch pitched to these players from 17 feet closer to the plate than her male counterparts, with an underhand style at almost 30 miles per hour slower than the best MLB male pitchers; yet time after time, Finch was able to dismantle some of the best male hitters of that era. So, what happened? How was a slower female pitcher able to best some of the best hitters in the world time after time? Were these hitters just having a bad day? Was there trickery involved?

Well, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think.  It’s easy to think that the best hitters in the world possess faster reaction times than you or I. It is similarly just as easy to think the same of a professional NFL, NBA or AFL player who makes a fast cut, or a Tennis player who returns a lightning fast serve. They must simply possess faster reactions that allow them to execute these amazing feats. It is a convenient answer, except that it isn’t true (3, 4, 9)

When tested on simple reaction time (RT) tasks, for instance pressing a button in response to a light, almost all of us score the same. Fighter pilots, F1 drivers and pro-athletes fare no better than the average person. We all take around 200ms. Why? The reason lies in our hardware. 200ms is about the time it takes for light to travel from the retina along the optic nerve to our primary visual cortex at the rear of the brain (reaction time) and for our brain to then send a message along the spinal cord to begin initiating movement (movement time). 200ms (1/5th of a second) might seem lightning fast, but it is not nearly fast enough to accurately hit a baseball hurtling towards a player at 90mph.

From the time the ball leaves the hand, the typical MLB pitch takes about 400ms to reach the plate, and because Finch stood 17 feet closer to the plate, the ball took about the same time (400ms) to reach the plate after leaving her hand. That means in less than half a second the successful hitter has to recognise that the ball has left the hand, analyse the angles and trajectories of the ball and initiate movement to accurately hit the ball.  So, if we all have similar reaction/movement times to simple tasks and the ball took about the same time to reach the plate when Finch pitched it, then how was she so successful at beating her opponents?  The answer lies in cue detection, information processing and anticipation.

Interestingly, the coaching adage “keep your eyes on the ball” is almost entirely useless in such scenarios. The human eye is simply not fast enough to track the ball as it heads toward the plate. Instead, the best and most expert baseball players in the world tend to focus on body segments and the way in which they move before the ball is released (1). This is well documented across sports, the best Volleyball players tend to focus more on the top portion of their visual field as opposed to the hips and feet (2), while the best football players (across many codes) attend to different cues to that of beginners and pay closer attention to the lower portion of their visual field (2). Likewise, during penalty shots, more experienced and more successful goal keepers gather information rapidly from the kicking and non-kicking leg, while less experienced and less successful keepers tend to fixate for longer periods on the trunk, arms and hips (10).

Similarly, in boxing it has been shown that when asked to respond to a dimensional overlap task (think responding to a shape, colour, light etc.), that novice fighters are likely to act in a defensive way, while experienced fighters act in ways that resemble a counterattack. It has been further shown that the more experienced the boxer, the more likely they are to detect vital cues early and plan a counterattack. (9).

In a nutshell, the best players and athletes learn the typical body movements of their opponents from years of exposure and practice. Expert players are far more adept at successfully attending and reacting to cues or “reading” play earlier when compared to less experienced players or non-players (3). That is, expert players can detect the information sooner from less visual cues and learn to anticipate the likely outcome (2, 3, 4, 9, 10).

So what happens when the cues change? When the expert performers are forced to react to cues they are not used to? Well, put simply, they choke. Expert performers tend to fare no better than average performers when the cues are altered. (6, 7, 11)

When the best chess players in the world (grandmasters) are briefly shown images of chess boards in a typical playing format and then asked to recreate the scenario, they can do so with over 90% accuracy when compared to city players (70% accuracy) and club players (50% accuracy). However when asked to recreate chess boards of random arrangements which would never appear in a game, the grand masters fared no better than average players (6). Similarly, when elite badminton players view footage of an opponent’s stroke depth, they are able to detect more information than novice players and in a shorter time period, but when the footage is altered so that the racket and forearm are occluded (blocked out), expert players are no more able at predicting stroke depth than novices (7). The same is true for Ice Hockey goaltenders. When early vision of the ice hockey stick and puck are occluded, saving skill dramatically decreases (11).

This explains why the best MLB players were incapable of hitting the slower balls of Jennie Finch out of the park. The hitters were simply inexperienced at reading the relevant cues.  Players such as Pujols were used to looking at cues from a fast throwing overhand male, but when pitted against a slower pitching underhand female, their skills proved next to useless. There was simply not enough time to accurately detect and attend to the relevant cues.

To simplify, expert performers are able to chunk information into smaller pieces based on patterns that they have seen before and anticipate the likely outcome. When the information is different, the players are unable to accurately anticipate and tend to perform no better than average players.

Further, when there is more information to respond to and the more complex (or unfamiliar) the information, the slower the response will be and the less likely it will be correct (8).  Simply, information processing takes time and the more we try to rush it, the more likely we will make the wrong decision. If we do make the wrong decision, then there is a time delay before initiating movement to correct that decision (8). In effect, when the situation is complex, unclear or novel, then our history of sporting practice means very little.

So why is all of this important?

Because this fight will be unlike any boxing fight we have witnessed before.  In one corner we have McGregor who moves like an MMA fighter and in the other we have one of the best defensive boxers ever, in Mayweather.

Surely you have heard many boxing pundits say something along the following lines: “Conor McGregor doesn’t move like a typical boxer” or “McGregor has a very unusual boxing style” and they’re right. McGregor adopts a fighting stance much more akin to that of a Muay Thai Fighter. He stands at an arm’s length away and reaches out to see if he can hit his opponent. McGregor has also been known to stand with his hands behind his back making it difficult for opponents to “read” him.

Likewise, Mayweather possesses incredible boxing proficiency, speed and accuracy. Even out of his prime, the man is sure to be devastatingly fast. McGregor will never have faced a boxer with such pedigree before and likely never will again.

So what can we safely say about this fight? Well, based on all of the above studies on expert performers becoming average with altered cues, it is reasonable to conclude that these two fighters will have tremendous difficulty “reading” one another. The cues and patterns they are used to responding to will not be present and it is likely that both men will perform far below their capabilities compared to their typical fights.

If this proves to be the case then this fight will be far less about boxing skill and far more about reach, speed, power, strength and fitness. Much more about brawling and much less about skilled boxing.

For what it’s worth, I cannot decide on a winner, but I think the fight will prove much closer than most expect.

Ryan

References:

1: Ranganathan R, Carlton LG. Perception-action coupling and anticipatory performance in baseball batting. Journal of Motor Behavior. 2007 Sep 1;39(5):369-80.

2: Nicoletti R, Umiltà C. Attention shifts produce spatial stimulus codes. Psychological research. 1994 Apr 1;56(3):144-50.

3: Aglioti SM, Cesari P, Romani M, Urgesi C. Action anticipation and motor resonance in elite basketball players. Nature neuroscience. 2008 Sep 1;11(9):1109-16.

4: Tomasino B, Maieron M, Guatto E, Fabbro F, Rumiati RI. How are the motor system activity and functional connectivity between the cognitive and sensorimotor systems modulated by athletic expertise?. Brain research. 2013 Dec 2;1540:21-41.

5: Ottoboni G, Russo G, Tessari A. What boxing-related stimuli reveal about response behaviour. Journal of sports sciences. 2015 Jun 15;33(10):1019-27.

6: Chase WG, Simon HA. Perception in chess. Cognitive psychology. 1973 Jan 31;4(1):55-81.

7: Abernethy B, Zawi K, Jackson RC. Expertise and attunement to kinematic constraints. Perception. 2008 Jun;37(6):931-48.

8: Magill RA. Motor learning and control. Concepts and Applications,. 2011.

9: Müller S, Abernethy B. Expert anticipatory skill in striking sports: A review and a model. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 2012 Jun 1;83(2):175-87.

10: Savelsbergh GJ, Williams AM, Kamp JV, Ward P. Visual search, anticipation and expertise in soccer goalkeepers. Journal of sports sciences. 2002 Jan 1;20(3):279-87.

11: Panchuk D, Vickers JN. Using spatial occlusion to explore the control strategies used in rapid interceptive actions: Predictive or prospective control?. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2009 Oct 1;27(12):1249-60.

12: Baumeister RF. Choking under pressure: self-consciousness and paradoxical effects of incentives on skillful performance. Journal of personality and social psychology. 1984 Mar;46(3):610.

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