Photo by Vladimir Rys Photography/Getty Images Europe
We are in the middle of a wondrous period for mixed martial arts. The UFC presents cards almost every other weekend, sometimes two in one day, and when they aren't at it, Bellator, Glory or the boxing are! Fight fans are rarely short of content to watch or catch up on. I'll leave the talk of over-exposure and market saturation to those who are more qualified to comment on it but, personally, my enjoyment of a weekend seems to increase proportionally to the number of professional punch ups available for my viewing pleasure.
However, fight fans—at our hearts—don't just want to watch fights on weekends. The weekend is only fight night because the fight companies have made it that. We'll sneak onto Youtube and find PRIDE FC highlights while we're supposed to be working or watching the kids. We'll be reading other people's top ten lists on various websites and saying “who the hell is this guy? Better look him up”. And it is to those people whom I address this article.
If you are into MMA, you should also know that it is a game of combative elements. Top level grappling, boxing and Muay Thai are light years ahead technically of what we see in mixed martial arts competition, but progress in MMA is shockingly rapid. Put it this way—in 2005, Rich Franklin and Evan Tanner met for the UFC middleweight title and both fighters circled the ring awkwardly, crossing their legs as they did so—a cardinal sin in any striking style. Now we often see solid, exciting, technical boxing even in undercard bouts!
The men I list today are fighters you should be watching because they illustrate principles which I believe could become vastly more important in the future. But also because they are unique, exciting, and perhaps don't experience as much publicity as they should. You won't see any Floyd Mayweathers or Manny Pacquiaos—everyone knows about them—and you won't see any ultra obscure Thai boxers, but for the average fan, many of these will be names you have heard of, but never really watched in any detail.
What to watch for: Marching combinations, hooking off the kick, kneeing off the hook.
Ristie has surged to the forefront of my mind in the last two years and now I simply cannot stop thinking about him. I am utterly infatuated with his style and his results speak for themselves. He's no defensive genius but I don't think there is a more destructive kickboxer in terms of offense on the planet.
Ristie is the embodiment of the Lucian Carbin style of fighting which was so influential on Tyrone Spong. It's about combinations, and it's about each strike setting up another. What you will see in Carbin trained fighters is a love of throwing the low roundhouse kick, and using the recovery of the leg to fuel a hook.
Recovering the leg, and punching while seemingly off balance. It would look like chance if Ristie didn't do this ALL THE TIME.
Often when the kick goes in, an opponent will take the kick and try to chase Ristie down with punches. Makes sense—he's off balance and on one leg. But the act of retracting the kicking leg and placing it behind Ristie provides all the hip motion needed to power a cracking lead hook. What makes Ristie so brilliant is that he can do it off either leg and will walk forward, alternating stances, not caring where he ends up as long as he's throwing a hook while he's doing it.
It was, yet again, a punch while retracting the kicking leg which hurt the great Giorgio Petrosyan, but attention was stolen by the finishing punch.
But what makes Ristie such a whirling dervish is not just the relationship between his kicks and punches, but also between his punches and his knees. If Ristie's hook fails to do the job, or misses and goes behind the opponent's head, he will use it to hold the opponent in place as an opposite side knee comes up to meet them.
He has shown to have trouble in longer fights, but for quick finishes, there is no better than Andy Ristie. If UFC flyweight champion, Demetrious Johnson has shown anything new in his last two fights, it's an understanding of the low kick into the retreating counter hook. This relationship is the future of MMA, and no-one shows its potential in high level striking engagements as well as Ristie.
Saenchai Sor. Kingstar
What to watch for: Building off of the teep, destroying the breakfall.
Saenchai is probably the best known fighter on this list, he's been a legend in the Muay Thai world for quite a while. What Saenchai highlights best is just what a unique dimension full Muay Thai rules competition shows. He doesn't always out strike his opponents, but Muay Thai aficionados are always keen to point out better clinch fighters than him. The key is that Saenchai blends it together wonderfully.
Get a load of this guy...
Watching Saenchai strike, he really doesn't have all that many tricks. He has a good left straight to the body (he is a southpaw) and a nice Brazilian kick with his left leg, and—of course—that eye catching cartwheel kick (another rare example of a strike which enters through a vertical angle). But most of Saenchai's best work comes off of the teep / neb (depending on your terminology). The lead leg push kick is fascinating because it is not, by any means, a knockout strike. You can wind someone if you catch them breathing in, but a lot of the time it is a balance breaker.
The teep's real role, for Saenchai at least, is that of the jab in boxing—it's a table setter. If you take a teep while kicking, you fall over and look to be dropping points to Saenchai. If you're not kicking but just coming forward, you're giving force to the kick which he can, with his short, stumpy legs, draw up and fire in remarkably tight spaces. This simple, lead leg kick is just a pecking strike, but it serves to set up everything else.
Saenchai's teep is almost a side kick—similar to Samart's kick from his more boxing-like, side on, stance.
Firstly there is his excellent bicycle teep. Feinting his lead leg teep by raising his leg and hopping in (similar to the tobi-komi method of closing distance in karate), Saenchai will jump in with a rear leg push kick. And what I said about the lead leg push kick not being a hurting strike? Look at Saenchai's rear leg attack and try to dismiss it as just a point scorer or balance breaker. That hurts.
If he can get the opponent lifting their lead leg to check or attempt their own push kick, Saenchai will leap in through the distance and throw them to the floor. Just beautiful stuff.
It is in the counter kicking game which Saenchai really does the damage though. If you want to learn how to catch a roundhouse kick, watch Saenchai. He takes it on the same side forearm, scoops under with the opposite, drags the leg across his body, and steps in behind.
What Saenchai does so well is to destroy his opponent's ability to fall properly. The key of falling correctly is, of course, keeping your head off the damn floor. By raising the opponent's leg and forcing their head back, straightening their back out and ensuring the head falls first, Saenchai can cause the opponent to go—as we say in England—“arse over tits”.
Rabbit punching—striking the back of the head—is illegal in most civilized combat sports because it is so disproportionately effective and flat out dangerous to a fighter's health. But if you drop an opponent's full weight on the back of his head—it's totally legal! That is the power of the dump, and Saenchai has made a fair few opponents woozy from his simple trips.
Also, it's totally legal to kick someone on the way down in Muay Thai.
What to watch for: The Valeri kick, the spirit of Andy Hug.
Kyokushin karate seems like an awfully silly sport to most. The fact that punches to the head are illegal but that high kicks and knees aren't prohibited means that most bouts devolve into chest to chest battles of attrition. It teaches little about evasiveness or defending oneself from the most common strikes in any martial art—head punches—but it does, undeniably, produce men who are as hard as nails.
It also has a habit of forging creative and dangerous kickers. Andy Hug, who I would rate as the most versatile kicker of all time, was a Kyokushin expert. As were Glaube Feitosa, Francisco Filho and so many others. The fact that kicks must be thrown from in close, and are the main weapon of damage, means that kickers are developed with all the dexterity of Olympic Taekwondo, but they can actually kick with power.
Valeri Dimitrov is on this list because you have probably already seen Andy Hug, and he died—far too young—a decade ago. Dimitrov is part of the current crop of Kyokushin competitors and he lists Andy Hug as one of his main inspirations—and it certainly shows in his body of work. Not only can he low kick, combination kick and axe kick with the best of them, but Dimitrov is making up new stuff.
You will remember, from my writings on Andy Hug, his brutal Hug Tornado. A wheel kick, with the heel, into the thigh of the opponent. Valeri Dimitrov shortened the path but kept the same target and contact. The so called “Valeri-geri” is an axe kick to the thigh—sometimes thrown as a roundhouse kick, sometimes as a crescent kick, but always with a spiteful connection.
Why do I consider this technique to be so important to the future of not just MMA but the fight game in general? The best fighters in the world have been coming to terms with the fact that if you power kick an opponent's check, you are likely to injure yourself (Anderson Silva and Tyrone Spong are great strikers, but they can hurt themselves just the same). The Valeri kick takes a similar path, will inspire a check, but kicking with the heel into the shin is not an equal trade as in shin to shin connections. Because so few Kyokushin fighters check well, we haven't seen Dimitrov use his kick against checks as much as we should, but the first kickboxer to work it out and start playing with it will have a distinct advantage.
What to watch for: Palm down hooks (Russian style), punches to set up more punches.
Gennady Golovkin or “GGG” is a middleweight boxer from Kazakhstan, and he's just as hard nosed and awkward as you would want an Eastern block champion to be. I don't believe that the idea of national styles should be given too much thought in this day and age, but there are certainly still coaches who learned on one side of the iron curtain or the other, and this is reflected in their fighters.
In the 1960s, '70s and '80s the U.S.S.R and U.S.A boxing teams went through a strategic arms race. The United States coaches famously worked on lateral movement and linear punches to keep the Soviets turning. The Eastern block countries were characterized by a more straight line, in and out approach, with more looping blows. Essentially in the U.S style, the angles were created with the feet, in the Russian style, the punches themselves came in at angles.
Among the most obvious examples of these kind of punches are the long, thumb down or even thumb outward hooks to the head which loop behind the guarding forearms. Or, as Golovkin demonstrates here, the long hooks to the body behind the elbows.
Gennady Golovkin is a sublime example of these looping punches in action. Jabbing and hooking alternately—using one to set up the other—he lands thudding single shots, before moving in to combination punch. The beauty of Golovkin is that he is a full fledged power puncher, he rarely punches just for the sake of it. But his power blows help to set each other up.
Here he uses a right hook to the body and pivots on his lead foot to line up his lead uppercut, a favourite of his but normally quite easy to avoid.
Notice the pivot as he throws the right hook to the body from in close. This lines up his lead uppercut, which in turn sets up the overhand and flurry. Everything leads to something else.
When he had his opponent, Ishida, standing upright to mitigate the threat of the uppercut, though, Golovkin used a jab, lead uppercut to overhand to score the knockout. Notice the drawing of the rear foot underneath GGG after the jab. A lovely set up.
This has only been a brief look at some of the fighters I find exciting to watch in my down time, and whom—I believe—provide a glimpse at the future of striking in mixed martial arts. I hope to make this segment a semi-regular feature and we can start talking about some genuinely obscure fighters.
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