TJ Dillashaw has had a stroke of good fortune.
In October his four fight winning streak was snapped as he dropped a split decision to the always awkward, Raphael Assuncao. Yet after man-handling Mike Easton, Dillashaw found himself getting the call for a title fight with Renan Barao after the initial UFC 173 headliner was postponed due to inujry.
Instead of fighting the #6 ranked Takeya Mizugaki as expected, Dillashaw is being thrown in the deep end against the best bantamweight in the world, and arguably in mixed martial arts' short history, Renan Barao.
Later in the week I will be compiling my first Killing the King article in quite a while, where we will discuss the minor weaknesses in Barao's spectacular all around game. But today, I want to talk about some of the nicer looks which Dillashaw showed against Mike Easton.
That Wrestling Work Ethic
Mixed martial arts has brought us so many new realizations about fighting in general. The biggest one in recent years is that if you take an accomplished wrestler—with all the will power, work ethic and unbending obedience to coaching instructions—and put him with a great boxing or kickboxing coach, the results can be startling. Nothing highlights that so well as the improvement in Team Alpha Male.
Urijah Faber, the old man of the team, still relies on timing his overhand right and little else. But the changes in the formerly one note Chad Mendes, in Joseph Benavidez, and in TJ Dillashaw have been remarkable. It seems to have come from the acquisition of brilliant kickboxer, Duane Ludwig as a coach. Ludwig has since announced his intentions to move on, but what he has taught the TAM boys has gone down so well that I doubt they will stop practising the skills and drills he has been running them through.
Dillashaw has always been able to move well, which seems to be a requirement for most bantamweights, but his striking chops have become so sharp lately that he looks little like the young man that John Dodson caught coming in and starched.
When a wrestler starts to improve his striking, and starts to gain confidence there, he benefits enormously from a synergy between his wrestling game and his striking game. Let's talk a little about how to make the most of that synergy.
Wrestling and Ringcraft
The problem with great wrestlers who learn to strike, generally, is that they turn their matches into kickboxing bouts instead of combining their skills. Phil Davis is a perfect example of a fighter whose striking style does little to play into his wrestling. He sits back and throws low kicks and high kicks, rarely getting into range to use his shots or clinch. It was incredibly obvious against Anthony “Rumble” Johnson that Davies was always either just kicking, or just running in after the takedown. Neither skill was working to the benefit of the other.
The thing is that wrestlers shouldn't be trying to circle the cage and counter strike like Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva. Their styles came from nothaving that strong wrestling pedigree. Machida and Silva can't always push the pace as actively as a strong wrestler could because they would expose themselves to takedowns. Both men wrestle well, of course, but their success is far more to denying the opportunity to wrestle, than simply trying to counter wrestle all the time.
What elite wrestlers should be doing is playing the part of the aggressor and, most importantly, learning the ringcraft.
If two men of equal skill kickboxed on an infinite plane—no ropes, no ring, no anything—the man who did more damage would be the man who was always back peddling. The best way to hit hard is to get your opponent running onto your punches (creating collisions as we always say) and the best way to do that is to retreat until you have him stepping in recklessly. This is the Machida method, and the Silva method.
The thing is, with ropes or a fence, it is impossible to retreat forever. That is where circling out comes into play for the retreating fighter, and ring cutting comes into play for the offensive fighter. Once you hit a fence, or the ropes, or get cornered in a dark alley, your beautiful movement means naught. And that is where a wrestler should want to be.
Now back to TJ Dillashaw. In his bout with Mike Easton, Dillashaw showed exactly the striking you want to see from a man with such a strong wrestling pedigree. He took Easton to the fence and flurried on him. He hit him on the way down, and hit him once they got to the mat, and hit him on the way up.
When you're trapped on the fence or ropes and the opponent starts throwing you can:
- Cover up (and get battered)
- Clinch—and give the wrestler what he wants
- Or you can swing back.
Looking at that list, the smartest option seems to be to swing back. Well swinging back from the ropes or fence in a boxing or kickboxing match doesn't tend to work so well. Your feet are squared under you and your opponent can move inside your punches with his own, and duck into your chest if he ever feels like taking a break. Take this battering that Jon Jones dished out to Glover Teixeira a couple of weeks ago. Notice how Jones is always inside of Teixeira's punches.
This is why the ropes are traditionally death in boxing. Many old coaches will tell their fighter to act as if the ropes are on fire—if they feel them on their back, they should get the hell out of there. An offensive fighter should be doing everything in his power to put the opponent on the ropes, flatten out their stance and take away their power, then start battering them.
Just take a look at this highlight of the legendary “Fight of the Century” between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. It starts out with Ali doing his magnificent boxing at range, but that all disappears each time he gets moved to the ropes.
Now in boxing, you can't hold someone along the ropes at the end of a flurry. So you have to keep getting them to the ropes. This means that men like Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson had to keep getting the fight to the ropes until they could wear their opponent down or get the knockout. In MMA, however, a wrestler can flurry with his hands, elbows and knees, then move back into the clinch and smother his man. And if you're great at it—like UFC heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez—nobody can work out a way to deal with it.
(It is worth noting that there are different ways of exploiting having your man on the ropes or fence. Some men are great working against the ropes, like Joe Frazier in boxing or Cain Velasquez in MMA. Some men are better at actually striking while their opponent moves along the fence—a boxing match with no option to retreat—like George Foreman in boxing or Roy Nelson in MMA. That is why Ali could use the “rope-a-dope” against Foreman, who swung clumsily around Ali's arms, but couldn't in his third bout with Frazier, who was on the inside and digging at exposed areas at all times.)
Returning to TJ Dillashaw's bout with Mike Easton, each time Dillashaw got Easton to the fence, he'd break free, open up with strikes, and as Easton tried to swing back, Dillashaw would get in on his hips.
Dillashaw flurries, and as soon as something comes back, he's in on the hips.
And on the way up, Dillashaw flurries as well. This is the secret to a truly gruelling wrestling game in MMA.
Of course, written like that it sounds simple, but as with everything in the fight game it is a fine art which requires many hours of training. For instance, there's a difference between crowding an opponent during flurries along the fence—as Jones, Velasquez and Dillashaw do—and making so much distance to punch that you fail to smother the opponent's punching power and flatten his stance. The most memorable instance of this in recent history is Ryan Bader teeing off on Glover Teixeira. Rather than swing away and stay close enough to duck in when he needed to, Bader stepped back and gave Teixeira his full range of motion.
Bader steps back to take full swings, and gives Teixeira a much greater range of motion than he should. Compare this to Jon Jones, whose reach is considerable longer, but who stayed inside Teixeira's swings.
If you're going to take your hands and your head off of the opponent, so that you aren't actually pinning them to the cage, it's very important to be moving your head after your flurries. Whether that is simply dipping, or shooting in on the hips, it's important to avoid being on the receiving end of what happened to Bader.
There are a ton of other little quirks to Dillashaw's game which I enjoy watching—for instance this angling right hand, a favourite of Nonito Donaire and Eddie Alvarez.
Dillashaw angles out to his left with a straight right, and even doubles up on it. Just lovely.
I asked Alvarez about it and he told me that they call the technique “The Dart” and that he learned it from the great Bernard Hopkins.
Alvarez himself has confused plenty of opponents with this technique. Against the very defensively savvy Pat Curran, Alvarez used the dart more aggressively and frequently than in any previous fight because it was something which Curran wasn't used to. And Patricky Freire's attempts to slip Alvarez's lightning straight right caused him to duck into a rare Alvarez high kick.
It's a solid technique which is well worth playing with. Also it's just fun as anything to do—and there should always be room for fun.
TJ Dillashaw is looking so creative nowadays that he even attempted a couple of Ray Sefo switch step right hooks. Switch step punches (withdrawing the lead leg, then stepping in with the opposite foot) aren't at all common—a variation on the “shift” in boxing, or hiki-komi in karate—but they can mess with fighters' heads.
And if you get them just right, as the aforementioned Sefo did against Jerome Le Banner...
Although Dillashaw has tightened up and clearly understands what he is doing a lot better now than he did just a year or two ago, he still engages in that type of stepping combination which caused him to run onto John Dodson's counters in the only knockout loss of his career.
When you step mid combination, you are—whether it is too fast for most to catch or not—squaring your gate for a moment, leaving the safety of a bladed stance, and compromising your balance. Your feet will pass each other so if you do get hit you're likely to fall over even if it doesn't hurt that much. Finally, the human walk being a series of controlled falls, you are committing your weight to the charge. Once you have started there is no turning back if the opponent feels like countering. We talked about this a few weeks back in relation to Chad Mendes' knockout of Clay Guida.
It's arguable that Dillashaw wasn't really knocked out against Dodson, but his feet clearly weren't in position to take a shot, and he couldn't recover in time.
Getting a little bit wild against Easton.
I've given up speculating over whether fighters are ready for title shots or not—many rise to the occasion when the length of their record says they shouldn't—but win or lose, Dillashaw is showing the kind of rapid and consistent improvement which eventually wins titles. Even if it takes a few shots and a jump to a different division, the guy has a bright future and you'd be mad to miss UFC 173 and a chance to see him in with one of the best fighters ever, Renan Barao.
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