Jack Slack: Swanson Bests Stephens, Oliveira's Grappling Masterclass

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack


June 28th was another 1-2 punch of fight cards in the UFC's increasingly packed schedule. The UFC held events in both New Zealand and Texas within just hours of each other, and mixed martial arts fans were just spoiled for fights.

Charles Oliveira added an enormous feather to his cap by becoming the first man to ever submit the great Japanese grappler, Hatsu Hioki. Nate Marquardt got back on track by submitting James Te Huna, serving the Kiwi his second loss in as many bouts. And Cub Swanson showed his fleet footed side as he took a decision over the dangerous puncher, Jeremy Stephens.

With so much to talk about, let's delve straight into the best fight of the night.

Charles Oliveira versus Hatsu Hioki

A lot has happened since Kazushi Sakuraba versus Carlos Newton—typically considered the benchmark for great grappling matches in MMA. New techniques have come along: the Peruvian neck tie, D'arce choke and the X-guard are just a few of them which turned up in last night's bout between Oliveira and Hioki.

When two skilled grapplers meet, we are normally treated to a mediocre kickboxing match. Not here! Oliveira took Hioki straight to the clinch and they began battling from chest to chest, and didn't stop until Oliveira secured the tap out in the second stanza.

The bout was one of the most competitive, skillful grappling displays we have ever seen inside the Octagon. Though Oliveira walked away the winner, it was tough going. He was playing guard against the consensus best guard passer in the sport.

From the opening moments, both men were taking risks and showing their confidence in all positions. Hioki channelled the spirit of Genki Sudo and even attempted to jump into a triangle choke from the clinch!

The first beautiful exchange of the bout came as Hioki attempted his usual man-handling trip from double underhooks. Oliveira freed his leg and countered with a trip of his own. As Hioki went over, he used the fence to fight back to his knees. Oliveira attacked with an Anaconda choke, but Hioki squirmed free and went straight to Oliveira's back.

Another beautiful exchange came as Hioki attempted to cross Oliveira's legs from butterfly guard and secure dope mount / the weave—an excellent position to pass from. Oliveira was able to kick Hioki out and attack with a leg lock.

Oliveira looks the compression lock which Eddie Bravo calls the ham sandwich, but as Hioki's leg extends, Oliveira switches to work  for a heel hook.

Or how about Oliveira's guillotine from the bottom of half guard which forced Hioki to throw himself into bottom position, only for Hioki to come up attempting an X-guard sweep. When was the last time you saw X-guard in MMA? Its value as a sweeping guard is incredible, but few fighters are confident enough to attempt it.

The most impressive part of the bout, though, was Oliveira escaping back mount straight into the Anaconda choke / Peruvian neck tie hybrid which he used to finish the bout.

Oliveira's success in this bout can be attributed not just to his technical ability, but in his confidence. He knew he was going to get his guard passed and end up in bad positions—it was his ability to survive these positions and always come out holding Hioki's neck (or leg) which kept Hioki on defense and which allowed Oliveira to stop himself from being ground down like so many other Hioki opponents.

Nate Marquardt versus James Te Huna

Hioki and Oliveira were a tough act to follow, but Nate Marquardt and James Te Huna had a decent crack at it. Marquardt showed his usual deficiencies in footwork and ringcraft, as he backed himself onto the fence repeatedly from the start. As Te Huna rushed him, however, Marquardt landed a cracking knee and put the Kiwi on his back.

From here it was standard Team Jackson / Winkeljohn treatment. Take the can-opener grip, land elbows, and stifle submission attempts. Notice how Marquardt can land elbows, but every time Te Huna attempts to move his hips, Marquardt sucks his hips in close, shutting down the attack.

Elbow, elbow, hold. Rinse and repeat.

Rather than fighting to open the guard, Greg Jackson's fighters will stay in closed guard, landing these elbows and stuffing attacks until the opponent is forced to open the guard and attempt to place a foot on the hips or shrimp away. Then they look to kick one leg over and trap a butterfly hook.

Standard GSProcedure.

Georges St. Pierre was the master at this, of course. Once he had trapped a butterfly hook—pretty much a worthless guard for both submissions and sweeps, and one which Saulo Ribeiro, Pablo Popovitch, Andre Galvao. and many others advocate forcing an opponent into—St. Pierre would force the his way into half guard proper, then begin working for a no-hands pass.

As soon as Matt Serra places a foot on St. Pierre's hip...

He steps over it and begins driving to half guard.

GSP traps B.J. Penn's hook. Pablo Popovitch calls this position his “lockdown”.

And begins driving to half guard.

Against Te Huna, Marquardt had a much easier time because when Te Huna opened his guard, one of his legs was  just hanging out, and Marquardt was able to give it a quick tap and step straight into half guard with no intermediary stage.

Marquardt finished the bout with a lovely arm bar. A decent scrap and worth a watch just to see the almost flow chart like progression in top positions which many of Team Jackson / Winkeljohn's fighters seem to follow.

It is good to see Marquardt, one of the most instinctive finishers in the business, looking comfortable and competitive at his more natural weight. He might never be a champion, but he has plenty more top notch finishes left in him.

Cub Swanson versus Jeremy Stephens

In the main event of the Texas card, Cub Swanson took Jeremy Stephens to school with variety and volume. Stephens is as tough and as dangerous as they come, but his skills are very much limited to power punching.  The threat of that alone can throw off some top fighters—Anthony Pettis looked almost reluctant to engage Stephens on the feet in their bout—but other quality strikers have been able to feint him into knots.

Swanson's kicking game has always been under-appreciated because of his effectiveness with his strange, swinging punches. The effect that these punches have, however, is to raise the opponent's elbows. On the occasions when Swanson does kick, he can normally land something good.

The body kicks which Swanson landed against Stephens clearly took their toll. In the third round Swanson was able to bend Stephens double with a nice liver kick. Most fighters can grit their teeth through head shots until they are knocked unconscious, but if they get caught hard enough in the bodyalmost anyone will go into the fetal position.

Stephens coaches were really on the money in this fight each time the camera showed them talking to their fighter between rounds. Firstly they wanted him to focus on low kicks—which proved effective early and seems to be a real Achilles heel of Swanson—and they insisted that he force Swanson out of southpaw stance each time the latter changed stances. They realized that the angle on the southpaw left kick was what was eating Stephens up, unfortunately Swanson wasn't making these switches obvious.

If you stand in front of an opponent and switch stances there, he will see it and he will likely start to hit you as you change. If you do it coming forward, the opponent will probably assume you are loading up (for a Kikuno / Schilt style kick or Overeem style knee) and run. But if you retreat, you can normally disguise your stance shift quite well, then step back in with the angles on your techniques all different.

Just last week we saw Artem Levin do this to the aggressive power puncher, Alex Pereira. Levin gives ground (while stepping back into the opposite stance) then comes forward to meet the chasing Pereira with a southpaw left straight.

Swanson's best kick of the bout was in the fifth round and came off of a retreat. Swanson changed his stance and before anyone realized it, he was coming in with the liver kick again. As Stephens struggled for air, Swanson turned on the usual Swanson madness and attempted a cartwheel kick mid flurry.

The fight was a great showing from Swanson—body jabs, feints, body kicks, assorted madness, it was all in there—but Stephens did highlight that constant issue in Swanson's game. He even showed some of the feinted back kicks which made Andy Hug so unpredictable. I am an unapologetic Swanson fan and he is probably my favorite fighter to watch in all of combat sports, but the man eats low kicks.

Swanson will spring in and out with his attacks. It is on the exit when he will eat kicks.

Part of it is his side on stance, part of it is his constant footwork, but part of it seems to be a disregard for the threat. Of course, Jeremy Stephens isn't going to put on a low kick clinic, but if you have Jose Aldo hacking away at your leg and leaving you off balance, he's not just going to leave it at that. Aldo will pounce on a man while he's recovering from having his leg punted across his body, and that is where Aldo does much of his best work. Not to mention the fact that Aldo's A game is the low kicks. Stephens was trying to be someone he isn't and gave up on his kicks after one round when Cub Swanson started hitting him. When Aldo gets hit, he goes to his usual game and throws more low kicks.

Swanson truly deserves his shot at the crown, but Aldo's low kicks might place a ticking clock on the fight. If Swanson can't get it done early, he could be ground down through his refusal to check kicks.

Pick up Jack Slack's new ebook, Fighting Karate at his blog Fights Gone ByJack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


Check out these related stories:

Jack Slack: Glory's 'Last Man Standing' Preview

Fighting Motives: Britain Versus America

Jack Slack: Henderson Puts the Pace on Khabilov