How Stipe Miocic and Misdirected Aggression Killed the King

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

The long awaited heavyweight reign of Fabricio Werdum came crashing to an end before it even started at UFC 198. The man with the finest record in the heavyweight division slumped face first into the mat at 2:47 of the opening round and the heavyweight belt changed hands once again, part of a continuous game of hot potato. This wasn't quite as sloppy as Werdum versus Velasquez last year, where the two simply traded one-twos with the occasional break to throw a naked low kick and eat a straight right while on one leg, but it was pretty darn sloppy.

What you saw in the knockout was the simple principle that we see constantly in MMA. Knockouts are about creating collisions, which involves both parties moving into each other. Consequently it is much easier to get yourself knocked out when you're chasing after someone than it is to knock someone out while they retreat. In the first instance you are providing the opponent the opportunity and most of the force for the blow, they need only plant their feet and touch your chin. In the second instance you are providing force to a collision as they are mitigating it by moving in the opposite direction. It's the difference between a head on collision between two cars and slamming your foot down to bump the rear of someone who is driving half a mile an hour slower than you on the motorway.

We can talk about Fabricio Werdum having a lapse in concentration because he is normally so wily, but he often breaks stance to chase opponents and he almost always leads with his face. Against Browne, Velasquez and Nelson it was pretty obvious.

And breaking stance is another great way to make the impact of a blow far worse on yourself. Get hit in a stance and even if your legs stiffen, they prop you up for that brief instant and you stumble. Get hit between stances and you are guaranteed to fall—it's why every fighter who switches stances a lot: Demtrious Johnson, T.J. Dillashaw, Dominick Cruz, Prince Naseem back in the day, has been knocked down with blows which certainly didn't take their head out of the fight or 'rock' them.

At any rate, Miocic looked to have a good gameplan behind him—his team are underappreciated in this regard and even in his worse performances it can normally be seen that his gameplan is working until he gets clipped, or wild, or emotional and it comes apart. An interesting tool which Miocic was using extensively was the inside low kick, which works well with an upright fighter with a good jab because it can be paired with that jab and peck alternately at the nearest targets. The low kick can sneak in while hidden by the jab, the jab can snap in on the recovery of a low kick. Georges St. Pierre used to do this a far bit and Nate Diaz has been doing it lately.  Checking the outside low kick (which Werdum throws constantly) and immediately delivering an inside low kick with the leg that did the checking has always been a solid staple counter in Muay Thai.

Props are due to Werdum, his problem of stepping in with naked kicks and keeping his head upright and in line for a right hand seemed somewhat mitigated this fight. He kicked from distance, held his hip back, and if he did kick hard he got his head off the centre line by what many coaches refer to as 'laying down'.

Miocic's jab might be the most under-rated weapon in the heavyweight division now that everyone has caught on to Junior dos Santos' body jab. Miocic has mastery of those simple amateur boxing combinations of feinted jabs into real jabs, a half jab and then a slight pause before extending it all the way and so on. If you want to explore rhythm and cadence, footwork and level, and psychology in fighting you should allow yourself to only use the jab for a while and see just how many ways you can use just this one weapon when you have level changes, feints, pauses, lateral movement and so on to play with. The jabs which land don't look like much because they flick through so quickly and don't send fighters reeling, but for men like Werdum who have grown accustomed to making opponents inactive through volume and aggression, it is visibly upsetting.

Every method of training produces different fighters: there is no right answer. Hard sparring under the great Rafael Cordeiro has taught Fabricio Werdum the value of offence. It's dangerous to judge fighters too much from snippets of training footage but that famous round of Werdum and Wanderlei Silva simply swinging at each other in a training session demonstrates exactly what that kind of sparring will teach you. You get on offence and you stay on offence to avoid the other guy hitting you back. Werdum is not a defensively gifted fighter, he does his best work when his opponent tires or stops attacking him. When you watch his fights against fresh opponents as they step in on him he simply tries to throw back harder. There is no defensive subtlety or exploitation of windows for countering through, Werdum's counter is to swing back hard and fight fire with fire.

So annoyed by inside low kicks and licking, well hidden jabs, Werdum upped the aggression. Notice how often he breaks his stance and lunges in behind his face. Just as Jose Aldo so famously did against Conor McGregor—more pressure is good, more Diego Sanchez style theatrical aggression is rarely helpful. The fighter tenses up, his movements become exaggerated and telegraphed, the unprotected windows between strikes become larger, he is easily sidestepped, and often his chin is just hanging out on a platter.

Notice how Werdum holds back on the low kick, a marked improvement in awareness.

Aggression both brought Werdum his career resurgence, and cost him this fight. But that is not to say he should have sat back and let Miocic jab him up. What he needs in a rematch is what Rafael dos Anjos (also a Cordeiro student but a master craftsman defensively even while constantly moving forward) has: what Cus D'amato called 'elusive aggression'. To use ones presence to force the fight into corners, but to always be doing so with a mind for making oneself hard to hit.

Miocic looked good but still has some noticeable holes. He is an upright fighter, which makes him susceptible to looping right hands, but he is so active with his lead hand that it is rarely in position to defend these rights. You deal with a strike one of three ways: you block it, you slip it, or you move yourself with your feet. If you're an upright fighter, your footwork needs to be on point and against Werdum, Miocic's feet looked a little sleepy at points.

The idea of a feint is to reap the benefits of the opponent dealing with a blow, while not actually exposing yourselves to the counters of the feinted blow. Miocic would feint jabs without committing and then eat counter right hands anyway.

Miocic had the better plan and came out the winner, but it was hastened along by Werdum engaging in a sprint to catch him all around the octagon.  In the three minutes up to the knockout Werdum had been showing the same frustration and lunging to get on offence on numerous occasions though. I would have liked to see the fight go longer to observe just how successful Miocic could continue to be, and if Werdum could adapt on the fly once he had been back to his corner, but they're both under forty and this is heavyweight so there's a good chance we'll see them fight again in the future anyway.

Odds and Sods

In terms of other interesting things which happened at UFC 198, the grapplers stole the show. Particularly Demian Maia who clambered all over Matt Brown and finally caught him with a choke in the third round. What you will notice is that even the best grapplers in MMA do struggle to get the submissions at the highest level, but Maia's is a game which seems to benefit from more rounds and his opponents tend to succumb late rather than simply be caught clean in the early going nowadays.

The single leg takedown—which is so much more powerful because Maia is happy to just drop to his back and then come up on it again—and the back take as the opponent wall walks to their feet have become mainstays of the Maia style. He's added some pop to his punches on the floor to facilitate getting in the chokes and it seems to be working wonderfully. Another top fighter gets submitted and Maia seems like the clear front runner for greatest submission artist in MMA.

Matt Brown was by no means bad in this bout, in two of the three rounds he wound up on top of Maia after fighting from the worse end of back control for the whole round. Fighting Maia's hands for three rounds is a feat in itself and he never looked resigned to failure. I would also like to express my support for Matt Brown in his lashing out at what was at least the second idiot in the crowd to hit him in the back of the head during his entrance. Fans and pundits complain about Brazilian crowds a lot because of the booing of any non-Brazilian (in an individual sport where most top Brazilian fighters live and train in the United States), the 'you're going to die' chants and so on, but anyone from any country who goes to a show and thinks that some pro wrestling antics at the weigh-ins entitle them to lay hands on an athlete is out of line, pure and simple. If you are personally offended by a fighter flipping the bird and think you'll show him by striking him during the walkouts, you need to get some thicker skin and some perspective.

Vitor Belfort versus Jacare Souza served to confirm Belfort's status in the post-TRT era as a fighter who is good for the first few minutes but quickly drops off. Jacare was able to move Belfort to the fence early and time his press to the clinch well, avoiding two attempted jumping knees from the former champion and mitigating the threat of the hailstorm of hands which so often catches Belfort's opponents. Souza's work along the fence recalled that of Georges St. Pierre against B.J. Penn where the welterweight great reported that his strategy was to exhaust Penn's shoulders in the clinch so that he would not be able to box so well. Belfort has had a strange habit through his career of pulling guard as soon as he is out of ideas on the feet. Against Kazushi Sakuraba, Alistair Overeem, Jon Jones and now against Jacare Souza he has made some bizarre flops to guard with very little success. Against Jacare, Belfort flopped to guard, was quickly mounted, and was brutally pounded out. Souza picked up easily the biggest name victory of his career, and Belfort suffers his first loss to a non-champion since 2006.

Finally Cristiane Justino performed as most expected in what was thought to be a squash match, but gave her a victory over arguably her second most legitimate opponent in the last few years.  Cyborg looked great in timing her right hands and working the body—there was none of the swinging wild which most casual viewers will remember Cyborg for from the Carano fight. The only downside of the bout was the strange stoppage. Recorded as a TKO, at one point it was claimed that Smith submitted though she didn't seem to and protested vehemently. She had taken a shellacking as she was knocked down and pounded with strikes but was working her way back to turtle, suffering only a couple of short hammerfists from Justino, mostly on the arm or shoulder, when the fight was called off. 

Just a weird time to call the fight when Smith was actually getting battered three seconds earlier.

However accurate it was to say Cyborg was a sloppy, wild brawler a few years back, she genuinely seems to be learning and growing. There were straight right hands, body shots, kicks to the body, none of the inefficient Wanderlei Silva style windmilling of a few years back. She still finds herself falling into accidental clinches far too regularly against fighters with just a handful of bouts who have no business being in the cage with her though, which doesn't bode well for the much desired Rousey fight.


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