Roy Nelson: The Art of a Hundred Overhands

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Everyone and their mother can tell you what Roy Nelson is all about, the right hand. His left hand is almost an afterthought at this point. But that is not to paint Roy Nelson as some kind of sloppy brawler, there's art to be found here.

The art of fighting is often considered to be one of eight limbs—the fists, feet, elbows and knees—nine if you include head butts. Nelson brings just one of those limbs to the cage and still gets it done.

Focusing on the punch and the effects of it, it's often easy to miss the bigger picture. What Nelson does so well is manufacture situations for his right hand against opponents who aren't thinking about where they're standing.

Let's look at some of the ways Nelson uses his right hand to fill highlight reels.

The Drying-Pole Swing

Nelson's game is often as much about ringcraft as it is about his natural punching power. He's a big hitter, no doubt, but Nelson is masterful at creating collisions. It's the phrase I use all the time, but it is of such tremendous importance in fighting that I might as well use it until it sticks. Ever walk into a lamp post while looking back to check if your date is watching you walk away? It smarts. Now imagine the lamp post was moving towards you at equal speed.

Any time a fighter gets dropped by a ramrod jab as he steps in, the internet is full of people claiming that fighter's chin has suddenly disappeared. Then a fighter like Andrei Arlovski weathers a few good right hands while he's moving away from them and folks are wondering how Arlovski has fixed his chin. There's no magic to it, just simple physics. Move with the blow, take power off. Move into the blow, ask your corner how hard it was when they wake you up.

Ring cutting in the cage is hard, so Nelson will often clinch and physically push his opponent to the fence, as he did with Cheick Kongo. The common feature is that when he has his opponent to the fence, Nelson will stay closer to the fence on his left side. The art of offensive ring craft—from Foreman to Tyson to Chavez—is about using your presence and the threat of punches to force steps from the opponent.

Kongo circling into the right hand, Nelson looking to pick his spot. For some reason Kongo decides to kick while backing up just as Nelson drops the bomb.

Nelson likes to get his man moving out into the right hand, then drop the bomb. Because of his short stature in the division and his wanting to be deep on his opponent's right side, the punch will often connect at about two o'clock and Nelson's arm will often be almost straight when he connects, often with the wrist or ridge hand area. As a basic boxing hook, of course it would be wrong, but as a knockout swing? You couldn't set it up or use it much better. This is fighting—don’t get bogged down in boxing form.

The opponent doesn't need to be running out into Nelson's right hand though, even the ambling Antonio Rodgrigo Nogueira suffered the Nelson right hand. It doesn't matter if a mobile opponent is circling out to Nelson's right, or if Nelson shuffles in to his left side, as long as he's throwing to two o'clock, he's reducing the flight time of the long swing.

Notice below, if Nelson tried to throw a wide swing like that against an opponent directly in front of him, even one as slow as Nog, they're going to see it coming. If they're moving towards is, it seems a hell of a lot quicker. We spoke about this idea in Lyoto Machida and the Illusion of Speed.

In another instance, Nelson shuffles himself deep to the left. Nogueira is not a mobile opponent but ends up deep on Nelson's right side anyway. Nogueira makes the mistake of attempting to jab all the way across his own body, the same flaw that allowed Dos Santos to knock out Velasquez in their first meeting.

But Nelson's right hand is not exclusively that drying-pole swing to two o'clock. His overhand is a versatile weapon. There's a reason the overhand is termed “the great equalizer”, at any time a good right hand can change a fight.

The Cross Counter and the Marciano Overhand

A younger, move tentative Nelson began to find success against Brendan Schaub on the feet in his UFC debut, almost to his own surprise. Nelson was connecting with good lancing straight rights, but getting hit a fair bit each time he stepped in. The end came as Nelson stepped in with a jab into a lovely cross counter.

A cross counter is any right hand which flies across the opponent's jab. Intentional or not, Nelson recognized his success and suddenly the right hand became his pet project.

This is pretty much the most effective means of scoring a knockout. If you can make sure that the opponent is doing something with his hands while you're looping your right hand across the top, you've got a good chance of knocking him stiff. Nelson's upcoming opponent, Alistair Overeem turned himself from a sloppy boxer into a dangerous counter puncher with this technique alone in his K-1 run.

The brilliance of the overhand is that it is a hybrid technique. Just as the shoulder roll is both an evasion and a cover, the overhand is an evasion and a power punch. A favorite of Rocky Marciano's was to duck in very low as if diving for his opponent's waist, dropping his right hand and then looping it wide over the top. Marciano loved to bend low at the waist, there's remarkable footage of him weaving underneath his heavy bag between combinations, though that might explain his later back injuries.

Opponents got so used to Marciano diving straight into the clinch and infighting that eventually he'd catch them with the overhand.

Leading with your face is pretty undesirable ordinarily. You generally want to avoid thrusting your face onto your opponent's attacks because of all that stuff about collisions I mentioned earlier. Just ask anyone who has lost their teeth by shooting into a knee in a wrestling match. But Marciano's sneaky overhand often proved something of an exception.

From Jesse Rodriguez's Manual of Advanced Techniques.

When a short fighter ducks in low and does it fast, there is a worrying tendency for a taller fighter's hands to go to him. The taller man knows his job is to stop the shorter man getting in close and, without thinking, his hands will go down to push his opponent off. And to quote Joe Frazier, if they do reach down, the shorter fighter has “got something for them”. 

Our instincts are often dumb, and fighters spend a long time training to keep their hands up no matter what, but circumstances can get the better of all of us. I'm sure that you've seen plenty of instances of exhausted fighters literally hunched over and resting on their thighs mid fight, when they know they might get kicked in the face.  This face first overhand just has a way of bringing out bad habits even in the elite.

Notice how Nelson lunges in behind his head below, and Dave Herman's hands immediately move to push him off. Nelson's right loops over the top and knocks Herman silly.

Vertical Overhands and Adventures in Cheating

And that brings us to yet another use of the overhand, as a near vertical weapon versus much taller opponents. And nowhere was this more obvious than in Nelson's knockout of Stefan Struve. Struve, who almost always backs himself straight onto the fence when attacked, was easily corralled and laid out.

You'll remember that Chuck Liddell used to throw an overhand that entered through the top of his opponent's guard like Andy Hug's axe kick. It's a goofy looking punch, but not one that the traditional boxing or kickboxing arsenal prepares a fighter to deal with.

But the versatility of the over hand goes beyond that. The great carnival boxer and writer of hilarious boxing manuals, Champ Thomas considered the overhand the greatest fight ender. Setting it up with a repeated winding jab to the solar plexus or sternum, Thomas would look to follow with the overhand with the wrist bones. The famous kote-uchi / forearm smash of karate which you'll see dudes like Kiyohide Shinjo breaking baseball bats with.

Thomas noted that this technique is completely illegal in boxing, but travelling town to town and fighting dozens of excited young men a night, Thomas considered this the quickest means of ending bouts and avoiding punishment.

Junior dos Santos throws his overhand with a straight arm—making it almost impossible to land with the knuckles—and so connects with the heel of his palm. A brutal and jarring blow responsible for dropping Mark Hunt and Cain Velasquez.

Rocky Marciano, the king of the overhand, used to throw overhands at bent over opponents. How does that work? Well, you just club down on the back of their head. Totally illegal, and remarkably Marciano was rarely called on it by referees.

Marciano also showed to be a little faster than most would expect as he parried jabs and threw straight arm swings in before the opponent could recover.

Up and Under

Writing Nelson off as just an overhander would be a little harsh though. Yes, he is almost completely one-handed, but his uppercut has shown to be tremendous and he knows when to use it. Nelson unveiled it in a barn burning brawl against Matt Mitrione where it caught the bigger man by surprise.

But against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, this was the punch which did the damage. For years, Big Nog has been dipping low as he jabs when his opponent steps in, in every match. If the opponent can't work it out—as Brendan Schaub and Sergei Kharitonov couldn't—he'll look like he's made terrific strides in his boxing. If they can, he usually eats a lot more punches.

Nelson was ready for it. Jabbing in to force that duck, Nelson used a terrific uppercut to put the Brazilian legend on queer street. When Nog stood still, wham the overhand came across the top. The uppercut to overhand and the overhand to uppercut have been staples of a great puncher's arsenal for decades now. They just work so well together. Opponent standing too tall to uppercut? Overhand. Opponent ducking down to avoid overhand? Uppercut him. And so on, ad inifinitum.

The great weakness of Nelson's game is that firstly, he is one handed and secondly, he's a headhunter. If Nelson's opponents continually circle to his left, he'll swing wild with his right trying to reach them. And because he's a headhunter, even when he has his opponent trapped along the fence, they can time him and duck out underneath his swing.

Daniel Cormier demonstrated this beautifully. Sandy Saddler used to have similar problems in his many matches with Willie Pep—how did he fix it? He'd aim for the body, even if he hit Pep's arm, he'd pin him in place. Saddler's student, George Foreman, broke a lot of ribs in this manner.

On other occasions that saw Cormier along the fence he would fake to move into the overhand, then reverse direction as Nelson swung and run out the other side. If you want to be a good ring cutter, you really need a threat from both sides of your body.

Nelson is now so one handed that he was even throwing back handed rights off of missed rights against Mark Hunt. A little ridiculous that he'd rather do this than learn to use his left, but as Jeff Curran got laid out by a back hand last week maybe Big Country is on to something.

Realistically, Nelson is never going to be a top five heavyweight. He eats low kicks, he can't take body shots all that well, and he hasn't won a fight that has gone three rounds since 2007. But his style, like his appearance, is deceptive.

Nelson is smarter than the vast, vast majority of heavyweights and he knows how to force the fight into what he's good at. I wouldn't be surprised if Nelson can't keep knocking out top 20 heavyweights well into his forties. This is a sport that heaps praise on the well rounded and the super athletes, but it is pleasing that there is still room in the upper echelon for a specialist.

Roy Nelson meets Alistair Overeem at UFC 185, and it is almost certain to be a thriller. Get back here on Sunday for the breakdown.

Pick up Jack Slack's ebooks at his blog Fights Gone ByJack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


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