The unofficial MMA off-season is winding down and soon the stacked UFC 209 card will be upon us. Though even in this relative drought of top-flight action, the weekend’s cards had a few moments that impressed and a couple of standout performers. Derrick Lewis continued to be the unlikely heavyweight contender, looking technically awful but suffering through a horrible first round to rally heroically in the second. Travis Browne, in defeat, looked the best he has in years. Even UFC newcomer, Todd Grisham, was spot on with his Mike Goldberg impersonation right down to the pauses on “will have a two – inch – reach – advantage.” But the stand out fight of the night, to this writer’s eye, was Paul Felder versus Alessandro Ricci.
Why was this one such a beaut? Well that is quite simple: it consisted of two fighters whose blows carried consequences, each attempting to set traps for their man. Those are some very basic criteria for a great fight, but when you see two fighters who know the striking game and who aren’t afraid to use themselves as bait while setting these traps, it rarely comes out being anything short of a treat.
From the get go it was clear that both men were playing to their opponent and not simply there to—as they put it in the wrestling business—‘get their shit in’. Ricci hung back and as Felder flicked out a non-committal jab, Ricci swung out a check hook. An instant after this failed counter Ricci stepped in to jab and was wobbled by that same check hook from Felder! Ricci’s eye began to bruise immediately and we had a fight on our hands.
When Ricci stood southpaw, Felder attempted to step in with the jab on the inside angle as Michael Bisping did so successfully against Anderson Silva and Luke Rockhold. Except it was jabbing onto this inside angle carelessly that saw Luke Rockhold lose the middleweight crown to His Fistic Majesty. In this instance Felder found himself having to curl up as he found himself in the line of Ricci’s left hand without the opportunity to retaliate.
And here Ricci shows exactly why this inside step worked out so poorly for Manny Pacquiao against that master ring general, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Ricci simply pivots past Felder as the latter steps deep.
Soon Felder was finding the mark with a good straight right and he demonstrated wonderfully that great offence isn’t simply hand speed and volume, but often the simplest of mind games. A one-two down the pipe found Ricci flush. Felder feinted to come in again and Ricci’s hands came up high. Felder stepped in with a jab into a right hook, attempting to circumvent Ricci’s high guard. The next was a right straight to the midsection. Next, rather than coming back upstairs, Felder doubled down with a one-two to the midriff. This was all in the space of a few seconds but was a masterful exploitation of Ricci’s expectations: both in terms of level of attack and angle of attack.
Ricci, an experienced Nak Muay, showed some interesting looks of his own throughout the fight. Using the front snap kick (not especially Thai) and gliding in behind it with strikes. This was nice to see because often front kicks are treated as a standalone attack or as the end of a combination, when really they can be almost as versatile as a jab: starting combinations or encouraging counter attacks to set up counter-counters.
Later, Ricci showed a silky smooth Machida special, kicking into a stepping punch.
Felder also found himself in with a man who was happy to check kicks and competent in doing so. This is, disappointingly, still not especially common in MMA—hell, there are still gyms that insist a fighter should just learn to take low kicks with gritted teet—but Ricci was getting his shin or knee in the path of Felder’s long, powerful kicks and Felder certainly didn’t enjoy it.
If you ever find yourself getting bored of fighting and saying “there’s only so many ways to hit a guy”, fights like this one are a fantastic tonic. The sheer variety of set ups and counters on display in just a round of action was sublime. Here Felder demonstrates how rhythm can be used to set traps just as well as feints and deliberate tells. Felder eats a counter on his first jab, throws out another on the exact same rhythm—which Ricci again attempts to counter—and on the third attempt shows the lead shoulder feint but spins into a back elbow: a gorgeous car crash of a counter-counter if it lands.
Things like this are why the smartest strikers can often be the most skittish about exploiting what seem like obvious habits to those watching the contest. The better a striker gets as a counter fighter the more aware he is that there are holes and traps everywhere. In fact this was the kind of fight where you could be forgiven for getting excited for the counters that didn’t pay off. For instance, Ricci went to throw his left kick from a southpaw stance, but decided against it, leaving Felder to fail the kick-under-kick counter he was attempting. It came out looking like this:
But the thought of the payoff was pretty tantalizing:
Felder grabbed the attention of the hardcore fan when he debuted in the UFC by stopping Danny Castillo with some of the nicest intercepting knees to grace the cage since Jose Aldo was busting sternums back in WEC. Strangely Felder will lift his lead knee straight out of the stance, with no switch step, and allow the opponent to run onto it.
As Ricci flicked out the jab and pulled back ready to evade and counter, Felder looked for his signature knee.
But it was a different intercepting strike which was to turn a competitive fight into a first round KO: the intercepting up-elbow. Something we talk about extensively in hypotheticals when discussing the means to counter swarming brawlers and pressure fighters, but it often stays in hypotheticals because most fighters would rather swing a punch than hold an elbow out for the other guy to dive onto. Tony Ferguson sliced up Edson Barboza with this strike, Nate Corbett has starched half a dozen men with similar intercepting elbows, and at UFC: Browne vs Lewis, Felder smashed Ricci’s nose all across his face with it. And the thing about intercepting elbows and knees? Ricci did most of the work.
This fight was full of tricks and adjustments so if you didn’t catch it last night it is without a doubt the one to catch up on. It was a cracking display of striking in MMA and, frankly, of striking generally. A sterling win for Felder—who now owns a knockout by spinning backfist and by upward elbow—and the kind of stuff on the feet from both men which I would love to see everyone in MMA attempting to incorporate.
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