There is a horrible tendency to throw around the expression “best boxing in MMA”.
Who has it? The problem with the question is that you can be astounding at one aspect of boxing technique or strategy, and absolutely woeful at others. For instance, Nick and Nate Diaz throw their hands excellently in combination, but can't cut off the cage for love nor money. But after last night's main event, I want to talk about Junior dos Santos.
Junior dos Santos has some of the nicest set ups and counter punches in mixed martial arts. That's one aspect of the boxing arsenal. He also has some of the worst defensive ringcraft in mixed martial arts, which is an equally important aspect in boxing. Folks who saw the fight watched Dos Santos drop two, arguably three, rounds to Stipe Miocic along the fence. It looked like wrestling, but it was Dos Santos' boxing flaws which put him there.
Most boxers with good coaches are taught that the ropes are the worst possible place to be. You lose your stance, your power, and 180 degrees of movement behind you. It's the worst. For this reason there is the old teaching that if you feel the ropes on your back, treat them as if they are on fire. Get the hell out of there.
But that is responding to a problem well after it has arisen. To paraphrase that old jiu jitsu catchphrase again, if you find yourself on the ropes you messed up a long way back. The main problem that most fighters have is that they can't see the ropes or fence that they are backing towards. They simply hit them at force, lose their stance, and are forced to cover up as their opponent comes in on them.
The U.S Olympic boxing team, traditionally, were taught to gauge their distance from the ropes behind them by assessing their distance from the ropes opposite them. Other teams and trainers have taught to assess distance from the middle of the ring. At any rate, if you know the rough size and shape of the ring or cage you're fighting in, you shouldn't need to look behind you to know roughly when you should start circling out.
For more details on how important ring position is, including the various judging layouts and favorable positions for action in the ring during an amateur contest, I highly recommend checking out Olympic coach Christy Halbert's The Ultimate Boxer.
Why am I making such a huge deal of this? Because it is slowly killing Junior dos Santos. Runs straight back onto the fence in almost every fight. But then he starts circling out, right? So why is it such a problem? Because that's too late. Your retreat has already disappeared, and there's a bad man closing in on your from the front, you have two directions to move, and you have a 50% chance of running into a power strike (creating a collision, as we always say) even if the opponent closes his eyes.
Notice here, Junior is so close to the fence as he circles out that he only really has two directions in which to move. Showing jab forces him to pick, and then Cain meets him with a powerful hook as he identifies the direction of Dos Santos' movement. Basic herding into punches. Cain then flattens Junior out against the fence. No stance, no power. No power? No worries.
And it's not just the wrestlers it's dangerous against, Mark Hunt did exactly the same thing.
And against Stipe, it happened time and time again.
It certainly doesn't help that Dos Santos had none of the smarts to realize that all of the punches he was running into were to the dome. Dipping at the waist against a head hunter is often all that's necessary to get off the fence.
To see a true battle of ringcraft wits, check out my study of Willie Pep versus Sandy Saddler.
This is not to take credit away from Miocic who fought the bout of his life. I must admit that coming into this fight I had little faith in a guy who got wobbled by Phil De Fries and knocked out by Stefan Struve of all people, but Miocic absolutely rose to the occasion. He knew exactly what he had to do—move Dos Santos to the fence and rough him up either against the fence or as he circled out along it—and Miocic did a remarkable job at it for the first two rounds. Where JDS started to get the better of Miocic was in his always dangerous body work. The single pot shotting jabs and right straights to the midsection, they add up and suck the life out of a fighter quickly. Miocic is not accustomed to a five round fight, and the experienced Brazilian's body work was exactly what was needed to make a sharper contrast between the conditioning of the two in the later rounds.
The most effective punch of the fight was not one of the most powerful, but was a short, slapping counter hook along the fence. Junior used the exact same counter hook to drop Mark Hunt, and boy, is it a weird one. Dos Santos throws his arm out lock, and slaps with the inside of his palm—an illegal blow in boxing but one which Muhammad Ali used to sneak in time and again.
It's what I sometimes refer to as a “bear slap”, and it's something you'll see a lot in expert bareknuckle fighters like Igor Vovchanchyn or in Lethwei fights because the palm heel is such a hard part of the hand to club with. Indeed, you'll remember that Junior connected with the inside of his hand when he knocked out Cain Velasquez with an overhand. It's worth remembering that with no defined scoring area on the gloves in MMA, you might as well hit them with the hardest, least padded bit of your hand when you can.
It was very clear, watching this fight, that Stipe Miocic could easily take a rematch with some adjustments. According to Fight Metric, just 8% of Miocic's strikes were to Dos Santos' body, where Dos Santos focused 36% of his ire on Miocic's. I don't even remember seeing Miocic's body work, so there can't have been much of it. But were Miocic to fight the same fight, avoid taking so many body punches, and land body strikes of his own, he could very conceivably grind Dos Santos down and knock him out.
The heavyweight division has always been scraping the bottom of the barrel for contenders, but with Miocic rising to the occasion against Dos Santos, that tedious “Cain first, then Dos Santos, then everyone else” hierarchy that we all were so used to might have just been smashed. Heavyweights are catching up, and the division is finally getting exciting.
For Dos Santos' part, I only hope that he can alleviate his errors in ringcraft before they become as detrimental as Nate Diaz's inability to check low kicks has become. It takes a while for opponents to catch on to a weakness, but once a few guys exploit it, the others will be sure to follow.
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