The reality of ring rust

The idea of “ring rust” has endured for decades in combat sports. It’s a narrative that dogs every prizefighter making a return from a long stay away from action. Even an elite talent like Conor McGregor is not immune to the narrative. After becoming a two-division champion in November 2016, he will compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship for only the third time at UFC 257. However, the “Notorious” one has not been labeled a ring rust victim in his career, even after his UFC 229 loss to lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov. Is he special? Does he know something we don’t, or is he applying techniques long used by his contemporaries?

It begs the question of what truly makes ring rust fact or fiction. Does it simply boil down to not competing in a paid fight for a long period time, or is it more about how you use that time away from real combat? I looked to history and spoke with a couple of mixed martial arts world champions to find clarity on this persistent pre-fight discourse in combat sports.

Differing results and opinions

Former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker was confident when he told media, before his UFC 243 title fight with Israel Adesanya, that he did not “believe in ring rust.” He returned from a 16-month layoff feeling he did everything necessary in the gym to prepare himself, and in the end, he was still soundly drubbed by “The Last Stylebender.”

After losses, some fighters are honest when admitting they underestimated the pitfalls of long breaks in-between fight camps, like Quintin Jackson did when speaking to ESPN following his UFC 114 main event loss to hated rival Rashad Evans. “I knew it was going to be a factor, but I kept trying to block it out. But tonight, I felt it. I felt it bad. I’m a little ashamed of myself that I fell victim to ring rust,” Jackson said. Without a doubt, his 14-month layoff had an influence on his performance. However, enjoying that time too much and reportedly weighing 251 pounds at the start of camp probably had more of an effect than the specific duration away from the Octagon.

However, there are also many instances where a long hiatus proved to be a non-factor in a fighter’s triumphant return. UFC great Georges St-Pierre returned after four years away, and at a division up, toppling middleweight champion Michael Bisping at UFC 217. Featherweight Chan Sung Jung provided similar magic in his knockout return of Dennis Bermudez after nearly four years away.

After coming back from a 16-month hiatus to beat UFC bantamweight champion, and pound-for-pound talent TJ Dillashaw, Dominick Cruz memorably proclaimed, “I tried to explain there’s no such thing as rust. How much have I said that? There’s only rust if you don’t train enough. Remember, ring rust is nothing more than mental weakness.”

Preparation rust proofing

Current ONE Championship light heavyweight titleholder Aung La Nsang recently confronted the question of ring rust. Before the former two-division king was set to defend his middleweight crown in October, he sat on the sidelines for a year because of COVID-19’s effect on how the promotion booked fighters for much of the year. Yet, the idea of ring rust was never on his mind in the lead up to the fight. He actually found positives in his extended break.

“Ring rust never came in my mind. If you have 20-plus fights, are actively training, in a room full of guys fighting actively, and cornering people for their fights, you aren’t really going to experience ring rust,” Nsang told MixedMartialArts.com. “Regardless of how I performed that one night, I know I’m a better mixed martial artist because of the time off.”

Although a first-round submission loss to grappling ace Reinier de Ridder ended his reign as middleweight champion, he doesn’t see ring rust as the source of his defeat. “I don’t think it’s was because of my time away. When you are a well-rounded mixed martial artist, and you fight a specialist, if you are not on point that night [a loss] could happen,” he said.

Hard training does fighter confidence good

Mirroring Nsang’s ideology about hard training, is two-time Professional Fighters League featherweight champion Lance Palmer. He is in the middle of a long break from action, after the league postponed their 2020 season a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The Party” will face a 16-month break from competition when he returns in season three, the longest hiatus of his MMA career. Yet he too does not have concerns about ring rust. In his mind, high-level competition requires the same ingredient for success: High-level training.

“I’ve had six and eight month layoffs in fighting. I had over a year between my last college wrestling match and my first pro MMA fight and I didnt feel a difference in my competition mindset,” Palmer told MixedMartialArts.com. “If you’re competing with high level people in the room every day, and have those dog fights, I think it’s as close to fighting as you can be. Fights don’t prepare you for fights. Training does.”

“Fights don’t prepare you for fights. Training does.”

Two-Time PFL Champion Lance Palmer

Is ring rust real?

Yes, it’s real, if you allow it to be. Being in fight camps consistently throughout the year seems beneficial for a fighter’s back account and athletic performance. When not in camp, how a competitor makes use of their time between bookings can be a greater decider of future results than the duration of their layoffs. Granted, training hard without a fight doesn’t guarantee victory in return. McGregor has had resounding wins and losses following year-plus breaks. However, if there are any lessons to take from the experiences of “Rampage” Jackson, Cruz, and GSP, it’s that maintaining the lifestyle of a professional athlete is fruitful. Despite his shenanigans and persona outside of the cage, few can question McGregor’s dedication to his craft. It’s why on Saturday night, when he returns to the Octagon to face Dustin Poirier, ring rust won’t be a concern.

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