Cub Swanson: Winning Without Moving Forward

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Cub Swanson might just be my favorite active fighter to watch. He's not a textbook fighter, in fact you could call his style a little goofy, but he sums up what I believe to be the most priceless property in a fighter: creativity. A lot of so-called technicians simply go through the motions, which they are told are the best. I love to watch fighters who work out their own methods and produce results.

There have been heaps of them from Muhammad Ali, to Roy Jones Jr., to Prince Naseem Hamed—all did weird things because they wanted to and because they worked out how to get them working. Lazy writers chalk it up to athleticism, but Angelo Dundee would be the first to tell you that Ali's style got him a pasting in the gym daily, before he worked out the kinks and started to have success with it. Those fighters could have been great by simply fighting in the textbook fashion, but their own strategic and technical quirks were what allowed them to surprise and confound world-class opponents.

I love a textbook technician as much as the next guy, but when I see a fighter reject the norm and do it his own way it's a real treat.

Treading Water

The problem for Cub Swanson, however, is that he's treading water. He continues to starch elite competition and look incredible while doing it. Yet, he never progresses.

George Roop, Ross Pearson, Charles Oliveira, Dustin Poirier and Denis Siver—that is far from a list of bums. Yet fight after fight, Swanson just gets lined up against another opponent. There is little talk of a title fight for Swanson despite his results.

Look at it this way, in the UFC's own rankings Swanson crushed the currently number six and number seven ranked fighters. Yet his next match is against Jeremy Stephens who has just moved into the number ten spot.

The problem is that Swanson will forever be haunted by the memory of his loss to champion, Jose Aldo.

Respect and the Art of the Bum Rush

There is a great deal of talk, when two fighters are too tentative to engage, about how much they respect each other. The truth is that if an opponent is considered a real threat, there is no better time to throw that surprise lead you've been practising. Test the chin early—it was the philosophy of a lot of top fighters. Remember Muhammad Ali leaping in with right hand leads after telling George Foreman for months about how he was going to dance and jab?

How about Fedor Emelianenko hand trapping into a leaping left hook against Tim Sylvia—his biggest test in quite a while?

Did we see what Sylvia could really do against Fedor? No. We just remember that it was all Fedor.

And that's exactly what Aldo did. A faked switch kick into bicycle knee. A beautiful and befuddling little sequence which caught Swanson cold and finished the fight in eight seconds.

The other upshot of finishing a dangerous opponent quickly and decisively is that it mutes all talk of a rematch. Look at poor Chad Mendes. He looked to be catching up with Aldo near the end of the first round round (Aldo's cheeky fence grabbing saved him from ending up underneath the great wrestler) then ate a well timed knee and was finished. Mendes, like Swanson, has finished all but one of his opponents since, but has to do twice the work to earn a rematch with the champion because all anyone remembers is the finish.

Of course, that is not to take anything away from Jose Aldo, if anything it highlights his genius. He is constantly accused of “coasting” when he doesn't feel threatened by opponents—but he sure as hell didn't coast against two of the most dangerous opponents who came knocking in Mendes and Swanson.

Beautiful Destruction

It isn't a snappy nickname for a fighter, but you couldn't sum up Swanson's style better. He is sublime to watch. There is a grace in his movements, even in the recognizably wild ones, and it captivates both the hardcore fan and the casual alike.

There are a lot of wrinkles to Swanson's game but I want to focus on that idea we talked about earlier. Doing things not because they are textbook, but because you can make them work. Because catching someone with a loopy uppercut or hook is better than throwing a dozen technically perfect but expected jabs into their ready palm.

Against Dustin Poirier, the sole opponent to take Swanson the distance since his current streak began in 2012, Swanson truly showcased the varied and eclectic methods which I rate him so highly for.

Much is made of Swanson's hands and improved boxing, but in truth his kicking plays an enormous role in setting up his punches. Swanson's looping, palm down hooks can often sneak around a guard, but they can also be ducked or fall short against a mobile opponent. Swanson's kick game ruins that escape and stands his opponents still for his strikes.

It can be as simple as this inside low kick to the shin (ouch) into a left hook.

Or as elaborate and situational as this jumping knee while fending off a single. After the knee Swanson immediately rings Poirier's bell with a hook.

If you start moving your head against Cub Swanson, and especially ducking low, you're going to have a shin bone or knee swung at your head pretty quickly to stand you right back up again.

Kicking Just to Punch

The kicking game, or more appropriately the threat of it, severely stunts defensive head movement. It isn't the case that you need to kick and then start punching in combination to benefit from this though. If you throw a hard kick against an opponent who likes to move their head a lot, they will normally be tentative to move their head so actively for a little while from then on, expecting to need to be upright in case of a kick.

Nowhere was this more obvious than against Ross Pearson. Pearson is another one of my favorites for his consistenthead movement into counters. He has some of the finest head movement based boxing in MMA. Yet Swanson was able to take that away with the threat of the kicks. The finishing sequence is a perfect example. A missed front kick to the face and Ross Pearson, never an easy man to hit, is suddenly walking in with a rod up his spine and eating Swanson's counter punches.

Though this is the finishing sequence, there were similar sequences like it throughout the fight.

It's not just magic that allows Swanson to pull it off either. The exact same threat of kicks took away Pearson's wonderful head movement against Edson Barboza. If Barboza were to simply box with Pearson he'd probably get torn apart, but because of his kicks he was able to land hard punches he never could have otherwise.

That Counter Hook...

That Pearson sequence brings us on to talking about retreating punches. A retreating left hook is a killer punch. Because it comes in from 90 degrees to the opponent's right, it's not something they tend to be ready for when running in with strikes of their own. Swanson's is arguably his money punch and he looks for it everywhere.

Here's an example of him tagging Poirier coming in:

And here's an instance of Swanson coming in behind a right lead (appropriate as he is facing a southpaw) and rocking back onto his rear foot in hopes of counter Poirier as he swings back.

We discussed Clay Guida earlier this week and talked about charging in. How the weight is out of control when a fighter is forced to step. Here Swanson enters with a significant lean and lunge.

But following his right straight, he rocks back onto his right foot, allowing him to bring his body upright and rotate the hips and shoulders powerfully on top of his stance, whipping into the left hook.

Slamming the right heel back to the floor is one way in which a fighter can generate power for the left hook. Some coaches focus on the lead foot pivot and drive of of the lead leg, some teach slamming the back heel down (off of a right straight or feint) and turning the back foot out. Both methods rotate the hips and like the palm in versus palm down issue, it's just a case of preference.

It is hard to generate the same kind of power on a chasing left hook because the weight must be moved to the right foot which is normally at the back (if you're not stepping). Consequently the left hook is the king of counter punches. This can be understood in the age old boxing adage that you should “only be hooking when he ain't looking”. 

Many times when a left hook is landed as the weight rocks back onto the rear leg, it looks as if the fighter is moving backwards when it lands, such as in the instance which has been called the most perfect punch of all time: Sugar Ray Robinson's left hook against Gene Fullmer.

Assorted Madness

What really sets Swanson apart from the pack is his creativity. It's the difference between following along with Bob Ross, and simply having a bash at it on your own. You can be taught what has worked best for those before you, or you can take to trial and error with your own ideas. The smartest fighters learn the former while experimenting with the latter.

Here's an example of a sequence which you could see and instantly say “Oh, that's very Cub”. Swanson lands a hard right hook to the body (body work, another reason I enjoy his fights), then feints as if to throw the same body hook again, instead dipping his head low as he throws a high kick.

Notice the way he drops his weight as he steps in. Ordinarily people come up when they high kick. It was a very deliberate set up and it almost paid off. Constantly attempting tricks like this can tire opponents out even if they don't directly result in a knockout.

The stepping right hook he landed on Denis Siver was a beauty too. You can find my extensive writing about the idea of the stepping right hook (a favorite of Ray Sefo and Demetrious Johnson). But for now, follow Swanson's feet. As he steps into a southpaw stance it changes the angle on the punch, placing his right shoulder closer to Siver, and punishes Siver for circling out.

Or how about this faked left hook into a lead low kick. It's a combination you'll see... but probably not in the same way. That's the thing about Swanson, his movement is simply quite unique, in the same way that you would struggle to emulate Igor Vovchanchyn's striking style, he's found what works for him and made it his own.

And all of that without mentioning his brilliant hip throws:

This is the first piece I've written about Swanson, and I'm an unapologetic fan of his style, but I am never in the business of pretending fighters are perfect or invincible. Swanson has a pretty serious problem in dealing with low kicks, which you'll notice in a number of the gifs above. They knock his stance apart underneath him and that's not something you want to see from someone who might fight Jose Aldo soon.

Furthermore, in the early stages of fights he tends to get over aggressive. Against Poirier, he went from charging in, losing track of his feet and over committing his weight, to the measured but still threatening striking of the second and third round. It seemed to change in an instant between rounds and he looked like a far better fighter for it.

Wanting to start aggressively put him in range of that Aldo knee five years ago, but you can't blame Swanson too hard for getting caught by such an unusual and telegraph free lead. It is more the moments of swinging wild which  are concerning such as when he was clearly overcommiting on his strikes against an overmatched George Roop.

Wherever you stand on him, Cub Swanson is a fascinating prospect in a cruddy position. Were it not for his previous loss to Aldo in WEC he would have likely been lined up for a UFC title shot already.

Pick up Jack's e-books Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By. Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


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