John Hathaway versus Dong Hyun Kim, the headliner of this weekend's UFC Fight Night card in Macao, is a strange main event in anyone's book. Kim is coming off arguably the most exciting finish of his career, a knockout win over the intimidating Erick Silva. He's ranked eleventh in the world at welterweight, and he's on a three-fight win streak over decent opponents in Silva, Siyar Bahadurzada, and Paulo Thiago.
John Hathaway, meanwhile, is on his own three-fight streak. The problem is that the most recent of those wins came in September 2012. He has been out for over a year due to injury. What's more, while his most recent opponents have been respectable, they are certainly not comparable with Kim's. Hathaway does not appear on the UFC's official rankings, and indeed, hasn't fought since they were initiated.
The cynic in me recognizes that this is a match between one of the UFC's highest-ranked Asian fighters and a relatively safe opponent, set up as part of the UFC's efforts to get a foothold in China. Hathaway hasn't finished anyone since January 2009, and there isn't much risk of him starching Kim and ruining the night. But a healthy degree of cynicism in the fight world is never a bad thing, and recognizing the tricks of matchmakers doesn't sap the fun from fights.
Both men are good enough fighters to trouble the other man and put on a good fight. Let's take a little look at Dong Hyun Kim and the habits he displays.
Kim in the Clinch
In a division full of wrestling-based takedown artists, Kim holds his own as a representative of judo. A fourth dan judoka, Kim has all the strength of posture and prowess in the clinch that you would expect. One of his quirks, and something that testifies to his skill as a well-rounded mixed martial artist, is that he initiates most of his takedowns off level changes and shots, like a wrestler, rather than the tie up that you usually see in a judo purist, like Ronda Rousey.
Notice here how Kim shoots in on the hips of Nate Diaz, picks up the single leg, then hits a tasty trip to land inside Diaz's guard. Diaz being a Diaz immediately begins redirecting Kim's head as one would for an omoplata or a BJ Penn-style kick-out to the feet, but Kim displays the iron-rod spine that a lifetime of Judo experience will give you, postures out of the threat, and starts putting his weight on top of Diaz all over again.
Of course Kim is still enormously strong in the clinch when he doesn't shoot for leg attacks, and as one of the larger welterweights out there he can really weigh on his opponents. Here's a nice trip he hit against Karo Parisyan (himself a great judoka) early in their match.
And here's a trip from later in the fight.
Here's a beautiful foot sweep to front headlock. The moment we see knees to the head of a grounded opponent become legal, the front headlock will become the king of positions.
Kim's judo is certainly not as spectacular as Parisyan’s, but it's effects are easy to see. Where Parisyan's fights were back-and-forth affairs with occasional beautiful throws, Kim's are just a grind in the clinch as he throws his weight down and tries to drag his opponents to the mat. To see the effects carrying Kim's weight like this can have, take a look at his fight with Erick Silva.
The fight with Silva was memorable for the unexpected knockout, but Kim had been putting it on Silva all night, rushing the Brazilian to the clinch and keeping him close to the fence throughout. Silva's hands were low to fight off the constant threat of the takedown and because he was clearly tiring under Kim's efforts, leaving him open to the eventual knockout punch.
Of course, Kim has the trademark head-and-arm judo throws in his arsenal, as well. These are really not seen as often in MMA because of the threat of the opponent coming out the back door and gaining back control. Ronda Rousey is so special because of her ability to apply these types of throw so consistently and effectively.
Here is Kim attempting a head-and-arm throw against Nate Diaz off a failed single leg, which allows Diaz to slip his head out and take Kim’s back. This happened about three times in the fight. Giving your back to a grappler like Diaz is a worst-case scenario if you do it just once.
Though he is known for his strength in the clinch, Kim is far from unbeatable there. Most recently, Demian Maia injured Kim with a takedown along the cage and picked up a TKO win.
On the Feet
Having this strong clinch game and ability to grind away rounds really opens up doors for Kim on the feet. He’s not a particularly gifted boxer, but he has some heavy kicks and he can punch hard enough when he needs to.
Kim loves to try unexpected things, but he does it so often that his wildness actually becomes predictable. He will take a beautiful, creative idea then run it into the ground like an over-egged joke in an SNL sketch.
Kim surprised Sean Pierson by throwing the “crane kick,” a faked back leg kick into a jumping front leg snap kick to the face. He then proceeded to throw it another dozen or so times. He eventually caught Pierson with it, but it was almost painful to watch him attempt it over and over with no effect.
Indeed, the crane kick shouldn't work at all unless you're been actively threatening with the leg with which you intend to fake! Look at Lyoto Machida versus Randy Couture. Machida kicked and kneed Couture all fight with his rear leg then faked it and leapt into the crane kick for the knockout as Couture braced for the rear leg kick.
Kim barely threw anything of note with his rear leg all fight against Pierson. That he landed the crane kick at all had more to do with Pierson's complacency that Kim’s technique. It was much the same with spinning backfists against Erick Silva. Kim threw several, came nowhere near landing them, and risked getting knocked out each time as he recovered.
Like many of the southpaw grapplers in the UFC, Kim loves to let his opponent jab at him and then try to swing back with the counter right hook. Just like Demian Maia, Kim can get some savage power on this punch, but he will often eat the jab that he is trying to counter and fail to connect with his own hook.
The real danger for Kim stems from his tendency to eat shots while running in with his chin up. Clearly he has a solid jawline--Erick Silva hammered Kim on the way in numerous times and couldn't knock him out--but it's not a particularly good habit for a fighter to have.
Conclusions and the Match-Up
Dong Hyun Kim is an incredible top player. The only reason I haven't written anything about this is because so much of his top-game strategy is simply stifling the man on the bottom, which doesn't make for particularly interesting viewing … or analysis. He’s also great at putting the pace on his opponents. His striking is pretty middling and his defence on the feet is fairly porous, but more often than not his opponents can't find that moment to put him away.
John Hathaway, for his part, is an unusual chap. His strength is more as a grappler than a striker, which is fairly unusual for a Brit, but if Mike Pyle could manhandle him in the clinch, Kim probably can, too.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I can tell you to look for in Hathaway is an incredibly fundamental flaw in his footwork. You don't get to see this much, but once you notice it on a fighter, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Did you see it? Every time Hathaway (in the red and black) wants to move forward, he steps his back foot up towards his front foot, then steps his front foot forward. Rule one of footwork in any sport is "outside foot, inside foot": You move the foot closest to the direction you want to move then you move the trailing leg. It's the difference between pushing off and re-establishing base, and dragging a foot under you then pushing off of it.
A fighter shouldn't bring his feet together because it leaves him off balance and out of position to throw, intercept, hit, or block. If your feet are directly under you, the only direction they can drive in is up, which means you can consider quick movement to either side out of the question. In wrestling, bringing your feet that close together while standing upright is an invitation to an easy double leg. One of the reasons Mike Pyle was able to have his way with Hathaway was because every time Hathaway stepped forward and expected Pyle to step back, he did so standing straight up with his feet almost together, which made him an easy target for strikes and takedowns.
What Hathaway does have is a lovely long jab and an ability to bounce in nicely with it. It's the kind of jab that is about the weight of the step, not the thrust of the arm. I really appreciated the way he picked apart Diego Sanchez on the feet back in 2010. He also has some beautiful knees, which he uses to intercept his opponents when they duck in low (like Sanchez did).
Kim doesn't do a lot to set up or hide his shots, so I suppose there's always the possibility of Hathaway landing the knee flush. Hathaway's upright style and slow pace, however, in addition to his penchant for leading with a wild left hook, often leave him open to hard straights, such as those Mike Pyle hit him with. So a knockout for Kim (who showed the power in his left hand with his ugly but astounding knockout of Erick Silva) is not out of the question.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Manny Pacquiao: The Man Who Reinvented Boxing
Jack Slack talks Manny Pacquiao.
The House of Rickson: An Afternoon in Rio with Jiu-Jitsu's Royal Family
Father Gracie's children Kron, Kauline, and Kauan do what they do best.
Team Lakay Has Turned Baguio into a Breeding Ground for Filipino MMA
A look at the top Filipino fighters.