Last year I wrote a list of four strikers you—as a fight fan—should be watching. Included on that list were Glory knockout artist, Andy Ristie, Kyokushin karate competitor, Valeri Dmitrov, Muay Thai legend Saenchai, and boxing world champion, Gennady Golovkin.
I'm assuming that if you wanted to research those fighters, you've had plenty of time since then. Therefore, I think it's high time that we look at a new batch of strikers, their quirks, and why they will help you to understand not just what is going on in MMA, but what is likely to catch on in the future.
What to watch for: Cross Counter, Right Hook—Right Knee Double Attack, Body Work
'Iron' Mike Zambidis has been a favorite in kickboxing circles for many years. The Greek fighter often comes in considerably smaller than his opponents, but is known for his tremendous aggression and ability to end fights with one punch. The left hook and the cross counter are the favorites of Zambidis and, just like the real Iron Mike, he does some of his best work when he gets inside of an opponent's jab and fires the right hand across the top.
Zambidis famously knocked out Kid Yamamoto in one punch, which is pretty cool, but Yamamoto was not a kickboxer. What really turned heads was knocking out guys like Albert Kraus exactly the same way.
Kraus steps in with a jab, Zambidis performs the inside slip combined with an overhand right, creating a Cross Counter over Kraus' left arm. Just beautiful.
Zambidis is fascinating for the reason that he fought as such a height disadvantage in kickboxing. In any sport which permits kicks and knees, a height disadvantage is much more difficult to deal with than in plain boxing, because bobbing and slipping can lead to eating a brutal knee to the face.
Speaking of knees, Zambidis was a great exponent of the jumping knee despite his height disadvantage. Pairing the right hook with the right knee is nothing new (we spoke extensively about how this is Errol Zimmerman's go-to), but Zambidis' does it very well.
Zambidis' powerful right hook forces his opponent to raise their gloves, this leaves them with a pair of upright forearms through which his knee can travel. Notice this beautiful feinted right hand to hopping knee strike against Stanley Nandex (followed by a bicycle knee for the second knockdown and the finish).
And it works the other way too. Raising the right knee will often bring an opponent's left hand forward for an instance. Zambidis exploits this with the superman right hook—you'll remember that this is the punch that made Lyoto Machida face plant straight into a guillotine versus Jon Jones.
Zambidis always had trouble with the truly elite, who ruthlessly exploited his height and reach disadvantages and took him over the distance. But his record is still nothing to be scoffed at and he served as the exception to a great many supposed rules about size and reach in kickboxing.
What to watch for: Combination work, setting up the left hook to the body, ring cutting.
Nieky 'The Natural' Holzken has made for a brilliant coming of age story. Where he was an also ran in his few K-1 showings, he has come on leaps and bounds and is mopping up in the Glory ring. The other month, at Glory 19, Holzken took a good decision from Alexander Stetsurenko, then crushed the flamboyantly dangerous Raymond Daniels in the same night with little difficulty.
What really impresses about Holzken is his left hook to the midsection. More specifically, how often he can get to it. Everyone knows it's his money punch, yet he lands it routinely. It all ties in with Matt Hume's philosophy—once you have a money technique you have to find as many ways as possible to get there, and then as many ways as possible to continue when the opponent grits his teeth and denies you.
And part of what I enjoy about Holzken is that he isn't afraid to try new, whacky things to get his opponent's mind off the hook. Hold your eyelids back to stop yourself blinking for this one: a right uppercut raises the head exposing the body to the left hook, then a cross hand trap to sneak a right hook behind the glove, then a wheel kick to the floating rib. A rare kick in a beautifully fluid sequence.
In the final of the one night tournament, Holzken cut the ring off excellently against Raymond Daniels. Every step that the two fighters took, Holzken stole a little bit of Daniels' distance. When he trapped Daniels in the corners, Holzken would simply melt Daniels to the floor under fire, retreat for the count, then do it all over again.
With the tournament win, Holzken set up a rematch with current Glory champion and old rival, Joseph Valtellini.
What to watch for: Covering up effectively, the cross guard, counter punching and dirty tactics.
In old kung fu stories, there's always one great master who has many students and that trickles down into a dozen different styles. Archie Moore is the great master of boxing. Moore was called 'The Old Mongoose' for a reason, he was the craftiest man in the game. Moore's actual age is pretty much a mystery as he lied so often about it, but it's certain that much of his best work came in what would be well into the retirement years for most successful fighters.
'Ageless Archie' was far from infallible, in fact in his title defense against Yvon Durelle, Moore was decked four times before rallying to finish Durelle in the eleventh round.
Why is Moore such a fascinating character? Well, all the textbook old timer tricks are there. The shoulder roll to the counter right straight, a beautiful jab, the inside slips, pinning of the opponent's hands to his chest or head, and that crafty clinch stuff we talked about in my article on James Toney and Floyd Mayweather's clinch work.
But more than that, Archie Moore was—and remains—the most effective fighter with a cross guard. The cross guard is utterly bizarre in concept. Rather than putting on his ear muffs, or getting down behind his upright forearms, Moore would cross his forearms in front of his face. Norman Mailer recounted in The Fight that even in 1974, out in Zaire as a coach of the young George Foreman, Moore was still being asked about this technique by the boxers present. They just couldn't get their head around it—if your arms are crossed, how do you throw punches?
The secret is that just as the shoulder roll sets the hips and shoulders to return with a right straight, the cross guard squares the body up to return with a left hook. And Moore played the two off of each other beautifully. In fact, were he alive today I'm sure that he'd believe the shoulder rollers of today are playing with only half of a system.
But the left hook wasn't the only technique out of the cross guard. Champ Thomas recounts a nice little “chopper” from that position. A short hammerfist blow with the right can do wonders to stun the opponent before the left swings through.
Moore's belief was that to age well in combat sports a fighter has to learn to deflect the damage and counter punch hard enough to end fights inside of the distance. The knockout was of tremendous importance to Moore (he remains the man with the most knockouts in professional boxing history) and, when he was tasked with coaching the young Cassius Clay, the two disagreed over approaches and Clay soon left the camp.
Moore's ideas were vindicated as an older, slower Muhammad Ali relied more on his tie ups to avoid damage and wear opponents out before landing heavy punches and looking to finish. Certainly, one man who learned all he could from Moore was George Foreman. Aged 45, Foreman recaptured the heavyweight title, being the oldest man to do so. How did he do it? Covering up behind the cross guard and knocking guys out when he could.
What to watch for: Combination punching as a gangly man, the Kronk Gym long right hand, the left uppercut to the midsection.
A product of the legendary Kronk Gym, Gerald McClellan could have been Tommy Hearns 2.0 had his career lasted a little longer before he was tragically left blind and almost entirely deaf by a blood clot that began to show its effects in a fight with Nigel Benn.
McClellan's gangly build resembled Hearns a great deal, and Emannuel Steward crafted McClellan's right hand into the spitting image of Hearns' great show-stopper. But McClellan seemed to have more—he threw his combinations more fluidly and readily than Hearns and punched in sequence remarkably well for such a lengthy man.
McClellan's best punch, in my humble opinion, was his terrific left hook / uppercut which came inside of the opponent's elbows. Many of his opponent's crouched to evade his right hand, and this allowed his left to swing up and wind them.
And McClellan could mix it up well for such a big man. Much like Riddick Bowe, he was surprisingly effective in close despite the traditional thinking about long limbed fighters being cramped and muffled in close. Check out this neat 1-2, into a single collar tie, a move as if to clinch tight, then a sneaker left hook as he leaves.
McClellan never became anywhere near an all time great, his career was cut short long before any of that, but he was certainly a unique fighter and a spectacular knockout artist—and those two factors make a fighter much more fun to study.
With the striking skill in MMA increasing exponentially year by year, it's worth studying as many top level strikers as you can, all their favourite tricks are going to start appearing in the octagon before too long.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.