Another weekend, another twelve hours of fight film to study. The UFC hosted two cards, Bellator held an event, and Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev fought one of the most anticipated boxing matches of the year. The stand out on the undercard of the Hall vs. Mousasi event was the unlikely Artem Lobov. Previously considered something like comic relief, Lobov looked crisp and thoughtful against the dangerous counter puncher, Teruto Ishihara.
Nice and Flowy
Being the favorite sparring partner of a great fighter can be a blessing or a curse. Kirill Sidelnikov was Fedor Emelianenko's friend and heavy bag for years and was even given the nickname 'Baby Fedor' but as an MMA fighter he never amounted to much else. That being said, training with a great fighter day in and day out will normally give even an average fighter some tools that they know can annoy that specific great fighter. The things that are interesting and unusual about Conor McGregor are just every day annoyances for Artem Lobov. Ishihara's best trick has been retreating with a left hand counter, something McGregor has made an art form out of, and Lobov did a great job of denying this opportunity while also getting in heavy shots of his own.
A couple of things were key. Firstly, Lobov used plenty of feints. Feint at a guy who wants to retreat and counter and he'll just back himself onto the fence—where Ishihara spent much of the fight. Secondly, Lobov's use of low kicks. Not just the powerful, hurting low kicks that he landed, but the short tapping lead leg kick into the calf or ankle which tapped Ishihara's lead leg off line. We discussed this when Rory MacDonald used it a couple of times against Stephen Thompson—if the other guy is going to give ground rapidly, a little tap on the ankle can be enough to knock his trailing foot off line and give the chasing fighter time to get in. It is an excellent technique against opponents who use a lot of linear movement. Sometimes to set up the right straight, but more often just to make them square up and slow down a bit out of concern for it.
Thirdly, Lobov used a nice shifting step to get in. Not punching as he stepped and opening himself up to a counter, but stepping into a southpaw stance and staying on guard, before opening up with punches after closing the distance. Tricky to do well but a nice way of staying 'on guard' while rapidly closing the distance—this is clearly a man who has Conor McGregor trying to catch him on the way in almost every day.
A final neat trick from the fight: a downward hammerfist from standing!
It’s peculiar but a favorite of Mendoza and Slack the Norfolk Butcher in the days of the London Prize Ring. The side kick came back after twenty years in the slop bucket, I wonder if 'The Chopper' can do the same after over a century there. Finally, a practical application for speed bag technique? It wasn't always pretty: Lobov's short arms and wide open swings are not easy on the eyes. But it was a performance led by principle and Lobov carried it off excellently.
The Bader Express
Ryan Bader ran through Antonio Rogerio Nogueira about as handily as expected in the main even of the UFC's Sao Paulo card, much to the disappointment of the Brazilian crowd. Nogueira, a pioneer of the deep half guard in mixed martial arts, demonstrated amply that lesson which Michael Johnson learned the other day against Khabib Nurmagomedov: that an underhook on the leg can just as easily be a hand trap for the other guy in mixed martial arts. Multiple times Nogueira attempted to get underneath Bader and Bader would set his weight and drop elbows on Nogueira's forty year old noggin with Lil' Nog's arm trapped under him.
Nogueira actually got to a position with Bader's leg extended a couple of times—deep half guard proper—but Bader was able to hold Nogueira's far leg, balance on top and land some elbows which really hammered home that almost no elbow actually qualifies as 'twelve-to-six- anymore. The difference that the miles on Nogueira and his advancing age have made was evident when Nogueira was able to use the deep half to get out from underneath Bader. Ten years ago, Nogueira would have scrambled up and tried to box again. This time? He just couldn't move with any agility and found himself in a front headlock, then with Bader attacking his back once again.
It was a tough bout to watch, but one neat moment almost made the whole thing worth it. Ryan Bader threatened to hammer lock the jiu jitsu black belt. Nogueira was working his way up to his hands from the turtle, hoping to stand up along the fence, and Bader hit a classical hammerlock entry—catching the wrist and driving his head in behind Nogueira's triceps as he force Nogueira forward and got his wrist away from his body and across his back.
In the heaps of other fights on the UFC cards this weekend a couple of finishes stood out. We heaped praise on Justin Scoggins a few months back but noted his tendency to shoot with his head low, bent at the waist, and throw himself straight into guillotine chokes. Over the weekend Scoggins tripped after having a kick caught, scrambled up and exposed his neck as he drove up into his opponent. A different way of falling into the same position but an interesting continuation of an unfortunate habit.
Finally, the rapid fire submission attempts of Zak Cummings. After cutting the ring well and landing good strikes on his man, Cummings stuffed a shot perfectly, took top position and immediate transitioned to a judo style top triangle. Without stalling for an instant Cummings attacked the far arm with a straight arm lock. The speed and fluidity of the sequence likely did much to secure the submission where many fighters would have moved through the uncommon sequence in paint-by-numbers fashion.
Kovalev vs Ward
The stand out fight of the weekend was obviously Kovalev versus Ward. The decision has become controversial, though the fight was a close one. Rather than dwell on the decision let's consider some of the things that made a difference to the flow of the fight. The first thing to note was that Kovalev's wrestling was a staple in this fight. Every truly great fighter you can think of had a few tricks on the inside and a few gimmicks in the clinch. Muhammad Ali held behind the head and over the biceps, behind the triceps. Floyd Mayweather and Vasyl Lomachenko try to bring the opponent's head down and underneath their armpit, stepping out to achieve an angle whenever possible. Jack Johnson made an entire career of using his palms and wrists over the opponent's biceps to prevent them from swinging at him.
Kovalev has gone one better and actually trains to wrestle. Footage of this is readily available online. Simple pummelling for underhooks and, crucially for boxing, attempting to stand up whenever his man begins to lean on the back of his neck. He's not Randy Couture but as far as boxers go Kovalev is a very strong wrestler and he completely killed Andre Ward's inside game with this knowledge and ability.
From the outset Ward was looking to get in on his man and infight, something he does very proficiently against most opponents, but Kovalev did a terrific job of preventing him at every turn. Initially coming in with his head low and hoping to consolidate inside position afterwards, Ward found himself on the receiving end of a front headlock each time. Better than that, a half or full stockade. That is wrapping the head and digging in an underhook on the far arm. A decent way to stuff the offence of that far arm, but more importantly a great position to put pressure on the back and neck of the opponent. A fairly standard extension of the 'if he comes in low, lean across the back of his neck / head' that Mayweather stuck to religiously. Kovalev was willing to hang out in this hold for a few seconds even after the referee had told him to break. If you want to see how tiring this can be for the 'stockaded' man you need only watch Katsunori Kikuno hold onto this position for the best part of a couple of minutes against Eddie Alvarez.
Kovalev was proving the more successful man at range with his heavy jab. Kovalev typically does especially good work feinting with his right hand, squaring his hips, and then rotating his hips and shoulders into his jab. Though at that point it is more like what Archie Moore would have called a 'left cross' than a jab. Consistently one of Kovalev's best set ups is the one two against the guard and a second stabbing left up the middle as the opponent is leaving range. Kovalev scored a good left with this set up early on.
Ward demonstrated the same principle by jabbing off the hook in a nice instance. A good many MMA fighters could do with recognizing the value of returning to the jab after a combination or non-linear blow.
While Ward is generally considered the man with the deeper bag of tricks, where Kovalev is more a meat and potatoes boxer-puncher, there were some slick moments from the big Russian including a couple of plays on Willie Pep's go-to side step.
Withdrawing his left foot and pushing it out as if to side step, Kovalev would lance in with another left straight instead. A very pretty and surprising little punch.
We covered Artem Lobov's shifting in before hitting, but Ward did the exact same against Kovalev in a couple of instances which allowed him to get off a couple of good shots without being snapped down into a headlock, tied up with overhooks, or pulled tight to Kovalev with underhooks.
For a couple of punches at least.
A final thought for Bellator and the Michael Chandler – Benson Henderson match up. Many were counting Henderson out due to his lackluster showing against the undersized Patricio 'Pitbull' Freire but there's still plenty of fight in the old dog. It just seems to be taking longer for Henderson to feel compelled to throw down. Henderson has always been better suited to a high pace scrap than a methodical outfight, and after being chinned a couple of times with Chandler's wicked right hand and threatened with guillotines, Henderson was finally getting back into the form of his UFC days. A solid late entrant for Fight of the Year and now readily available on Bellator's website, you have no excuse not to sit down with this fight for twenty-five riveting minutes.
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.