When you think of heavyweights you don't tend to picture them as defenceless or weak. Certainly, heavyweight mixed martial artists are neither of those things, physically, but what you will notice in a vast majority of heavyweights is a tendency towards mental fragility. Watch any heavyweight fight and you will not be treated to a graceful dance with changing dynamics, as you would in any world-class flyweight bout. Instead you will see one fighter come storming out of the gate to pick up a knockout win or get knocked out trying.
Think of every great heavyweight you can. The top three names that will come to mind for most MMA fans are Fedor Emelianenko, Cain Velasquez, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Each was only 230–250 pounds at their peak, but each has fought giants, and each has been on the receiving end of one of those opening heavyweight charges. Yet each pulled through, turned the momentum, and watched the bigger man crumble.
But most heavyweights cannot endure as well as those three men. Most heavyweights cannot deal with a change in momentum at all. And no two heavyweights personify this fragility better than Frank Mir and Alistair Overeem, who are fighting each other this weekend at UFC 169.
Frank Mir: The One-Shot Opportunist
Frank Mir has been around forever. He's a real company man. When the elite of the heavyweight division were fighting on the other side of the world in PRIDE FC, and the UFC had no other quality heavyweights to speak of, Mir was propping up the division with his exciting submission wins.
Submitting Tank Abbott and Pete Williams and knocking out Wes Simms might not sound like much, but Mir did it entertainingly enough to make those fights worth watching again even today. Hell, the rarely seen overhook Americana (now dubbed the Mir lock) that Mir hit on Pete Williams is still a stunning finish to contemplate.
Williams lands in the guard of Mir. Williams' right hand is on the mat, which essentially means a free overhook for Mir.
1. Williams postures up and attempts to yank his arm out. He frees his elbow but is unable to free his forearm. Mir turns to his side and begins applying pressure on the shoulder.
2. Mir inserts his left knee shield as a buffer. It both maintains space and gives him something to push off with.
Now, an important point about Frank Mir is that he has one of the better guard games in the heavyweight division. When he's on his back he's just as likely to throw up a submission and tap his opponent out as when he’s on top.
The problem is that Mir isn't (and never has been) a strong position grappler. While he might have submitted as many men from inside his guard as Nogueira, I can’t remember the last time that I saw him sweep an opponent or get up from his back. If Mir can’t lock in a submission, he is often held down and pounded out.
It happened most memorably in Mir's fight against Ian Freeman. All Freeman had to do was weather the storm of Mir's first hernia-inducing submission attempts then hold Mir down and pound him out. Pé De Pano did exactly the same thing to Mir once he found himself on top, though not nearly as brutally. Mir was a gift matchup for Brock Lesnar for this very reason. Before Lesnar gave Mir that momentary opening to sink in a leg lock (which Mir was excellent at exploiting, don't mistake that) all he had to do, and all he did, was flatten Mir out, hold him down, and hit him.
Trouble Against the Fence
Mir has similar trouble in the standing clinch. Mir's takedowns and clinch work have never been his strong suit (awesome judo throw on Roy Nelson aside) and almost everyone who's tried to maul him against the cage has pulled it off. Daniel Cormier and Josh Barnett achieved it. Shane Carwin brutally TKO'd Mir against the fence. Even Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, neither a strong wrestler nor a strong puncher, ground on Mir along the fence despite a weight disadvantage.
In fact, Mir's shortcomings in the clinch along the fence have been readily exploited by every quality opponent he has faced lately. Where flattening Mir out on the ground is a dangerous game of dodging submissions until he gets tired, in the clinch Mir has few means of offence to threaten with before he fades.
1. Shane Carwin controls with a right underhook on Mir's left side.
2. Carwin uses his head to control Mir's posture and straighten him up against the fence.
3. Now it is a case of handfighting, with Carwin hitting Mir every time he's able to free his left hand.
This underhook along the fence provides a great deal of control. Having even one underhook against a strong wrestler can make the game a lot more even, but Mir is not a strong wrestler. Nogueira and Carwin were keen to simply keep the underhook and free the other hand to punch. Carwin was able to break free and melt Mir with a flurry of punches. This he did nicely by throwing an exaggerated hook, which Mir raised his elbow to block, then coming inside with short uppercuts. And when you're Shane Carwin, short uppercuts are more than enough.
There are numerous offensive options from the underhook along the fence, though. In fact, freeing the other hand to punch, à la Carwin, is one of the least imaginative. Daniel Cormier, for instance, used his underhook to raise Mir's arm and expose Mir's ribs to knee strikes from that side.
Cormier has a strong underhook on Mir's left side. Cormier rests his arm on top of the fence, something which is completely legal but rarely seen outside of a heavyweight fight.
1. Cormier joins his hands …
2. And begins forcing his left forearm in front of Mir's right collarbone. Notice how he has been able to raise Mir's left elbow, exposing his body to knees.
Most recently Josh Barnett used a variety of grips and strikes to work Mir over along the fence.
1. Barnett holds the underhook on Mir's right side.
2. He then brings his right hand underneath Mir's chin, raising Mir's head.
As Mir fights against the cross face, Barnett is able to bring his hands together and pull Mir's head downward into the path of the fight-ending knee.
Frank Mir has picked up wins from his back, but those were quick submissions, not true changes of momentum. Once a shift does come, Mir is usually powerless to stop it or adapt to it.
Alistair Overeem: The Glass Cannon
I have tremendous fun studying Alistair Overeem. His combinations are inventive, he switches stances frequently, and he clinch-fights and works the body like few others in the game. The problem is that he has a tendency to throw fights away.
Overeem's masterful use of stepping knees, cross counters. and body-work in both MMA and kickboxing are worthy of appreciation, no matter where you stand on the performance-enhancing drug issue. You can cheat your way to bigger muscles but you can't buy creative set-ups and brilliant technique.
The single technique that revolutionized Overeem's skills was his cross counter. The cross, rather than a straight right hand, used to be a term used to describe a punch that arced over the opponent's jab. I talk about this a lot, but it's always good to recap for anyone who is reading my articles for the first time.
When a fighter throws a good jab, he’s leading with the safest offensive action there is. His lead shoulder covers his chin, and he strikes at the longest possible distance from himself. Unfortunately it is impossible to protect yourself completely at all times. Notice in this doodle I made how even if the chin is low and behind the lead shoulder as it should be, the lead temple is still exposed. (Ignore the legs; I've never been able to draw legs.) Add to that most fighters’ penchant for dropping their jabbing hand before retracting it and you have the potential for a very dangerous counter punch.
The most notable instance of Overeem utilizing the cross counter is in his fight against Ben Edwards. Here's one of the several instances of it landing on Edwards, almost all of which resulted in knockdowns.
Despite this ability with the cross counter, in K-1 Overeem generally focused on walking down his opponents with his gloves up then rushing in with a cheat punch or shift (a left-handed punch thrown while stepping into a southpaw stance), a knee, and a hook on the way out--or an illegal throw. In MMA, however, Alistair's approach has generally been to simply use his striking to get into the clinch and knee.
In his recent loss to Travis Browne, Overeem used his punches (one of which is a lovely body shot) to back Travis Browne onto the cage before checking Browne's right hand and stepping in with a right knee to the body. This checking of hands is so important to Overeem's game and really should be picked up on by more fighters.
It's a little hard to see in this instance because the camera is behind Overeem, but his left hand is in control of Browne's right, which allows him to step to that side for the knee strike with no fear of getting smacked.
Often when Overeem isn't in such a rush to get in with punches, he will pressure his way in behind his hands--in the style Muhammad Ali dubbed “The Mummy” in reference to George Foreman.
A cardinal rule of boxing is to always have your hands in a position where where you can defend yourself, but one of the few exceptions to this rule is that if your gloves are on your opponent's he's going to have a hard time punching through them. The reason you don't see this so much in boxing is that if a boxer uses his hands to check his opponent's, he's got nothing to attack with. In Muay Thai, kickboxing, and MMA, however, you can smother your opponent's hands and follow through with a knee, kick, or elbow.
Of course, where Overeem did his best work against Browne, and Paul Buentello, and Bigfoot Silva, was in the clinch along the fence. And a lot of it was in that position we talked about earlier--with a single underhook, controlling the other wrist and looking to make space for knees. Which, as we've already seen, could mean trouble for Frank Mir.
Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
I dislike focusing on fighters losing fights; I prefer looking at how fighters' opponents prevailed. Blaming losses on mistakes is daft because mistakes are going on all the time; it is the other fighter taking advantage of those mistakes that lead to victory. But in his last two fights Overeem has over and over again allowed his opponents the opportunity to hurt him. Both started as one-sided poundings until the tables were turned on the Dutchman and his night was ended quickly. Overeem’s skill is undeniable, as is his power, but he has a gift for throwing winnable fights away.
You could call these mental collapses, but plenty of fighters have crumbled emotionally in fights and not been immediately hit with crushing blows. Oliver McCall threw a tantrum in the middle of the ring against Lennox Lewis because he didn't want to be in the ring anymore and still managed to do enough to not get hurt before the fight was called off. No, fighters get caught for technical reasons, not emotional ones. Mental issues manifest themselves in technical and strategic errors.
Alistair's great fault is in his tendency to duck in low. His stance has always been something of a crouch, with his head well forward of his hips. This makes him very susceptible to strikes through the blind angle. This is the area below an opponent that is not encompassed by his peripheral vision. It's hard to exploit in boxing except with the occasional uppercut, but the front snap kick exploits it perfectly.
Notice how far forward of his hips Overeem's head is as he moves toward Browne. This allows Browne's foot to come from underneath almost undetected.
Browne threw more of these kicks than you can count on one hand, and Overeem never adjusted.
But that's a stance issue. Initially I mentioned Overeem's tendency to duck in. Overeem has decent head movement, but it's not something that actively improves his game. The more he does it, the more he puts himself in danger of getting caught. He's not a short fighter, not a quick fighter; he is a smothering power fighter and he should fight to that strength.
Overeem's issues come from ducking in low while looking down and getting caught in that position. The first great example of this was against Remy Bonjasky. Overeem ducked and got caught with a hard right straight while he was down there.
The exact same thing happened against Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva. Overeem had been ducking low all fight then got clipped with an uppercut on the way in that started his collapse. As Bigfoot chased him with blows, Overeem got stuck in a low duck again and hit with the exact same right straight.
Overeem gets caught while leaning.
On paper, since Overeem is the stronger striker and excels in the clinch, where Mir struggles, this fight should be all Overeem. Except the Dutchman's previous two matches were all Overeem as well ... right up until he got caught. Frank Mir isn't averse to throwing a weird kick, and he's certainly smart enough to recognize that he can time an opponent ducking (e.g., his knockout of Cro Cop, or the clinch knees with which he savaged Roy Nelson), so he definitely has a chance.
Whatever happens between these two heavyweights at UFC 169, it could be curtains for the UFC career of the loser. That alone is worth tuning in for.
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