Getting kicked absolutely sucks. Even if you do everything right, against a power kicker, it's going to hurt. Keep your arm in the way of the body kicks? A top-notch kicker will just punt your arm until it starts to feel like a tube sock full of gravel. With kickers improving all the time in MMA, and no one wanting to pick up extra points of articulation in their forearm, it's time to talk about making a kicker pay.
It's pretty simple psychology: if you do something, and something bad happens to you, your brain can join up the dots and say “hang on a minute...” Some folks take longer than others—everyone has that one idiot friend who wants to crush cans or break bottles on his head on every night out, but they're not the kind of guys who get to the pinnacle of the fighting world.
So often in the martial arts, the intention is to lie to the opponent. You want them not to notice that x and y lead to z. But when dealing with kicks, you want to make it as blatant as possible and build that Pavlovian recognition—if you kick me, something bad is going to happen. Every. Single. Time.
There's all manner of ways to counter kicks but today, after being inspired its brief appearance in Bobby Green versus Edson Barboza, I want to talk about the catch.
The Classic Catch
I say the catch but really, there are a number of catches. There's the classic Thai catch, there's the karate cross catch, there's a few different Sanshou catches. But even the karateka in me recognizes that easily the most valuable and safest is the Thai method of catching round kicks.
This is the one that you'll see everyone from Saenchai to Giorgio Petrosyan use, because it is invaluable. The catch alone is pretty simple—you take the kick on your same side forearm (which still sucks), then scoop the opposite forearm underneath to catch the leg between the back of your blocking forearm and the inside of your scooping forearm. Why is it the most valauble? Because when you make a pig's ear of it, you still take the kick on the arm instead of in the ribs or face.
Notice how in step 1, the kick is sandwiched between Saenchai's forearms. His left arm stopped the kick, his right arm scooped underneath.
Now let's continue into the most common technique off of the Thai catch, the basic dump. Saenchai built his career off of this technique. Nothing looks better for you than the opponent flat on the floor after every kick he attempts. After catching the kick between the forearms, you step back, put it in the cradle like Dr. J, and step in behind the kicking leg to take out the standing leg. The free hand is used on the face to straighten the body and prevent proper falling technique.
This dump is as old as martial arts themselves. It appears in old Chinese and Okinawan forms (I had a little look at it in my Study in Seipai), and even made it's way into the Bubishi, an old chuan fa manual, copied by hand among the karate masters of Okinawa and thought to be a myth for a very long time.
The classic squat and thumbs into eyes.
Stylized karate versions have the arms opening like wings and normally end with that classic squat in sumo stance and double eye gouge. But age isn't a proof of efficacy; Dim Mak has been around for hundreds of years longer than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu after all. It just serves to show that the push-the-head-back, kick-the-leg-out dump has been recognized for it's power much longer than you or I have been about.
But it's just a leg sweep right? They'll just get right back up. Well, not really. Lift that leg and push the head back, and you'll get them going what we in England call “arse-over-tits”. You can't punch the back of the head in combat sports because it's so disproportionately effective that it's dangerous. But you can drop a guy's whole weight on the back of his head if you want. Ever fall badly on a slip-and-slide? Imagine that but someone's trying to knock your head off when you get up.
Switching It Up
But once you have the leg in the opposite hand, there's all sorts of options available. Buakaw has had tremendous success by pulling the leg across the body as if to sweep, but then dropping the leg and using the dominant angle to start power punching. Here he is leg dragging Kultar Gil onto a power left hook. If the opponent kicks with the other leg, Buakaw drags it across to his right side, drops it and throws an overhand. This simple catch, drag, punch has decked a dozen top tier guys for a pretty simple reason.
No can defend.
Taking a dominant angle is anything that moves you away from 12 o'clock in the opponent's vision, but keeps you in position to strike. Everyone's defense is set up to deal with things coming from in front of them. Start chucking strikes in from 45 or 90 degrees and it makes their life very, very difficult. How difficult? Well imagine if baseball pitchers or cricket bowlers were allowed to walk around to 45 degrees first. It just wouldn't be fair.
Redirecting the kick across the opponent's body moves their hips and shoulders, taking you to a dominant angle without having to do the footwork yourself.
But this leg drag can become humdrum. So here's a little creative moment from the great Giorgio Petrosyan. Petro drags the kick only to his centre line, then drops it like its hot and uses the same hand to fire an uppercut straight through the centre. So classy he might as well have worn a monocle to the ring.
Or how about this straight leg that Buakaw caught, only to leap in with a switch knee. Buakaw's left knee is easily his best hurting technique and often when he lands it, it looks as though it requires superhuman timing. This one has a nice trigger on it though, as soon as his man starts forcibly retracting the foot, Buakaw's right hand checks the opponent's left hand and he allows the opponent to pull him into the knee.
The Cross Catch
I place tremendous value on the first catch discussed, but there are plenty of other ways to catch your opponent's kicks and punish them for it. I won't go into great detail on them today but the first is the karate style cross catch. The cross catch opens up some unique opportunities which the classic catch does not, but it is not nearly so fool-proof. If you do it wrong, you'll eat a kick in the face, or get your arm broken.
When performing this catch, if you don't get your crossing arm all the way across so that the elbow and forearm take the brunt of the impact, the dangling arm (waiting to catch underneath the kick) will eat the punt full force and that's your favorite hand out of the fight for a while. As soon as the kick has been taken on the higher arm (the right arm in the photos above) the left arm turns, bends, and catches the leg on the biceps.
I outlined some classical methods from here in Fighting Karate, but for now I'll share one from the legendary Mas Oyama. By using the hand that performed the block to pull down on the knee, and punching the catching biceps upward, you can turn the opponent's knee down and run him into a wheelbarrow-like posture.
Not much good in Muay Thai or kickboxing competition. But Nick Diaz happily soccer kicked an opponent in the face from a similar position in DREAM. And the BJJ enthusiasts among you will recognize it as very similar to the position you'll get to coming up from X-guard. In fact, it was from this position that Demian Maia took Jacare's back in their most famous jiu jitsu match.
There's a hundred other ways to catch kicks—we've only talked about techniques for middle and high round kicks after all—but the basic idea should be clear enough. It was more the follow-ups which I wanted to sing the praises of today. The real lesson to learn is that it doesn't matter if it's Joe Average or Joe Schilling, nobody likes having their legs caught every time they kick. Obviously, Joe Schilling kicks a lot harder and faster than Joe Average, probably doesn't telegraph it, and he'll happily punch or elbow you in the face while standing on one leg, but everybody needs some hope!
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