This Saturday night at UFC on Fox 9, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson will defend his flyweight title against Joseph Benavidez. This will be the second time these two men have met in the Octagon, the first being in the final fight of the tournament to decide the inaugural 125-pound champion. The story of the first bout was Benavidez, the power-punching submission artist, attempting to cut off the cage on Johnson, the fleet-footed wrestler.
Cutting off the ring is one of the hardest facets of the mixed martial arts game because the Octagon's corners are so slight it’s almost impossible to trap a fighter in them. In a boxing ring a fighter is working with 90-degree angles. It's not easy to cut off a ring, but it's a great deal easier than trying to cut off an almost-circular cage. At its most basic level, cutting off the ring means herding the opponent toward the fence, not simply following him around the ring but pre-empting his movements and moving to meet him. It’s about creating pressure, and this often involves squaring up and momentarily making oneself a larger target.
Here is an instance of the terrifying George Foreman cornering Kenny Norton by stepping across ahead of him.
Notice that Foreman's stance widens out of necessity. Briefly he presents a larger, squarer target than he would be if he remained in a classical, bladed boxing stance.
Here are some more examples from one of the all-time greats of ring cutting, Julio Cesar Chavez. Notice that Chavez doesn't chase his opponent into the corner but rather moves across to meet him as he comes out of it.
Chavez's opponent, Hector Camacho, knew how to box. When he was stuck on the ropes he would fake going one way and change and go back on himself. But Chavez was such an experienced ring cutter, he was able to stay ahead of Camacho anyway.
The recurring theme you’ll notice with Foreman and Chavez is that squarer stance. The value of this technique is that it allows a fighter to zone off more of the ring. He is cocked to throw a good left hook or a right hand, depending on which direction the opponent attempts to escape through.
Let's return to the first Johnson/Benavidez fight. When Benavidez attempted to rush toward Johnson in a narrower stance, loading up his right hand, Johnson was able to sidestep him fairly easily because there was little to threaten him from Benavidez's left side.
Notice how inaccurate and tight Benavidez's left hook is from there. He had no hope of stopping Johnson from circling out to the left. The moment a fighter loads up and becomes a one-handed threat, he loses a great deal of the pressure from the other hand, which he will need to cut off the ring or cage. That's the reason Daniel Cormier could just run around to Roy Nelson's left when he wanted to take a break.
What Benavidez needed to do in order to cut Johnson off, and what his cornermen were telling him to do between rounds, was step across and meet Johnson's planned path. Notice how when Benavidez stood more squared he was able to pressure Johnson towards the fence, step out and across into a southpaw stance, and use a right hook to cut Johnson off. Benavidez was then able to get Johnson onto the fence, where he wanted him to be.
The problem was that getting Benavidez to square up was exactly what Johnson's corner was telling their fighter to do between rounds. Coach Matt Hume repeatedly told Johnson to get Benavidez to chase him then run Benavidez into a stiff right hand. One of the traditional counters to a great ring cutter has been to land a good stiff punch then immediately move into the clinch, and that is what Johnson was able to do throughout the fight.
Even when Benavidez could get Johnson to the fence, Johnson was able to move his hips out, escape, and usually land a good knee or punch.
The final seconds of the fight summed up the trouble Benavidez had throughout. Johnson's back was to the fence, and he faked as if to circle to his left. Benavidez charged in but Johnson was already off the cage and moving in the opposite direction. Benavidez was now on the fence and Johnson shot into a clinch and threw a knee from there.
That's good ring craft combined with creativity. Johnson was even able to punch on the pivot while coming off the cage, a skill that is rarely applied all that effectively, even by many professional boxers.
A final method for slowing down a fighter who circles a lot is the use of roundhouse kicks, particularly to the legs (keep an eye out for that when Dominick Cruz fights Renan Barao on Feb. 1). In the gif below Benavidez attempts to prevent Johnson from circling out by throwing a kick. Johnson catches it, throws it past him, and comes out behind Benavidez. How often do you see that?
Out in the Open
Out in the centre of the cage it was all Mighty Mouse, as you would expect from a fighter with such balletic movement. Occasionally switching to a southpaw stance, Johnson would cut a nice angle to the inside of Benavidez's lead leg each time Benavidez jabbed, then come back with his own.
Notice how cutting this slight angle allowed Johnson's punch to travel right through Benavidez's guard. This is the angle from which Manny Pacquiao likes to land his up-jab.
To be fair, the fight wasn't all Johnson. In the early going of round four Benavidez switched to a southpaw stance and landed a nice stepping right hook while Johnson was kicking, which put Johnson on the mat.
On the Ground
Once Johnson was down, Benavidez pounced and attempted to secure the trademark Team Alpha Male guillotine from a mounted position. But Johnson was able to stop Benavidez from connecting his hands and Benavidez abandoned the attempt.
Something we see in the lower weight classes but less commonly at higher weights is effective escape techniques. These guys have rolled with bigger men their entire careers, and there's nothing like that experience to give a fighter a healthy foundation in positional escapes. Johnson was able to bridge up from mount, sneak his left knee in between himself and Benavidez and move straight into a heel hook attempt.
Benavidez was able to scramble to top position once more and pass guard to side control. Johnson executed yet another beautiful escape by using his near side arm to underhook Benavidez's hip and spin out--an excellent escape for no-gi scenarios because it benefits so much from a lack of friction. This escape saved Bas Rutten a couple of times in Pancrase.
A final beautiful piece of ground work came when Johnson shot underneath a punch and took Benavidez down, landing straight in his butterfly guard. As soon as Benavidez's hooks became inactive and pressed to the mat for a second, Johnson passed beautifully to side control.
Fighting in the Grey Areas
Any time Demetrious Johnson fights we are treated to extended gushing about how he might just be the most technically brilliant fighter in MMA, and I’m not going to buck that trend. One of the things Johnson does so well is work in the transitional areas, something you rarely see in the larger weight classes.
I want you to imagine that a fight is like a bar of music. Slap any time signature you want on it; the important point is that there is an awful lot you can do with a blank bar. You could put in a few quavers or semi quavers, eighth or sixteenth notes, punctuated by rests and dynamics, even break that bar down into hemidemisemiquavers, or sixty-fourth notes. In truth, what most fighters are doing is working in a few sixty-fourth-note actions between a whole lot of rests. But Johnson gets the most notes into every bar of music of anyone in the UFC. No one can capitalize on every opportunity, but Johnson comes closest.
Let's take a quick look at some examples of his takedown defence from the Benavidez fight. In this single gif Johnson fakes a single leg attempt and leaps in with a left hook. Benavidez has already shot underneath Johnson's punch but Johnson is still able to sprawl his right leg back, force Benavidez down onto the low single, then turn his knee down and slip it out. He then hits Benavidez with an uppercut and a knee to the midsection as Benavidez stands, before stepping back to evade a right hook. More actions per minute than a Korean Starcraft player.
Here's another stuffed takedown, again as Benavidez has shot in deep under Johnson's punch. Johnson lands a hammerfist as Benavidez rolls, sprawls on him again, and hits him with a knee to the face as soon as Benavidez's knees are off the mat and a left hook as Benavidez straights up.
These opportunities to hit opponents when they are between techniques or as they recover exist in every fight. The vast majority don't get capitalized on. Working between the phases of a fight is what makes Johnson so unique.
Now, it may sound like the picture I’m painting of Benavidez's chances is bleak, but let's not forget that Joseph Benavidez is a power puncher and a submission machine. Adjustments can be made to cut off the ring more effectively or force Johnson to come to him. He has been working extensively with coach Duane Ludwig, a very accomplished kickboxer with much better boxing than most in the kickboxing world. Ludwig is also an excellent counter striker. We might well see Benavidez allow the fight to stay in the centre of the Octagon and simply refuse to lead, forcing Mighty Mouse to come to him.
Check out these earlier breakdowns from Jack Slack:
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