Another year winds down and as you look over the carcass of your Christmas binge and dread getting back to training and work, you might well be thinking back over the fighting year that was. When we're in the middle of the hype for an unbeaten champion who is using a certain method we often think they are unbeatable, until we're kindly reminded by a man with the right strategy that this just ain't so and never has been or will be.
Things in the fight game are cyclical and strategies go in and out of fashion. For instance, passing on the knees went out of fashion in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a while back in favor of standing passes, then the berimbolo game became popular and now some of the best passers are going back to their knees in order to avoid that game. There's nothing new under the sun and really the lessons in this list were more reminders than anything else, but 2015 had some textbook examples of fight principles and they are well worth reminiscing over.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk versu Jessica Penne – It's About What Happens Between the Punches
When Joanna Champion stepped in with Jessica Penne most thought that Penne had little hope of getting the fight to the ground on her terms and that a long night on the feet might be on the cards for her. As expected, Jedrzejczyk went to work dissecting Penne with her excellent all around kickboxing game. Jedrzejczyk is not a fighter of clever set ups, or extreme mobility, but she is a fighter who excels in the building blocks of striking and has zero gaps between them.
You don't have to be Joanna Jedrzejczyk to throw a jab or a right straight or a left hook with a degree of polish (pun absolutely intended), it is how Jedrzejczyk moves between the punches and kicks which makes her special. While fans want to talk about 'neo-footwork' as the only future of the game, Jedrzejczyk is a perfect example of minimalism at the highest level. Bruce Lee always harped on about economy of motion and small, phasic, bent knee movements between stances. Jedrzejczyk embodies that perfectly.
She maintains a distance where with a small thrust from the back foot she can land, and a small thrust off of the front foot she is just shy of the opponent's return, and ready to come in again with a counter of her own.
Whereas when Penne rushed to close the gap, breaking her stance and running at times, Jedrzejczyk remained disciplined and perfectly in control of that distance.
Control is a constant theme in the fight game because even the best fighters have so, so little control over their opponent's will. Mastery of fighting in any sport is gaining small degrees of control amid what is essentially a clash of two people's wills. Finding moments of order and working with the opponent in harmony when all they want is chaos. That is what you will see in moments of Jedrzejczyk's fights.
Slight pivots off line change up the angle of the exchange and Claudia Gadelha, with her less polished power swings, must reset herself.
It is the moments between the punches—the retreats, the advances, the pivots which make Joanna special. Not marginally faster combination work.
Benson Henderson vs. Brandon Thatch – Size Matters, But So Does Pace
As much as I love seeing fighters go up in weight and not put themselves through the arduous and sometimes dangerous weight cut, there is no denying that weight matters. When Benson Henderson took a fight at welterweight against the enormous and undefeated Brandon Thatch it seemed a dangerous move because Thatch dwarfed Henderson when they got in the cage, and any brief moment in the clinch saw Thatch ragdoll Henderson in the early going.
But after walking Thatch forwards for four rounds, and sinking in beautiful body shots against the bigger man, who had never gone past the three round mark, Henderson was able to slow him. After some success on the feet, Henderson had Thatch convinced that a striking match was on the cards, and timed his shot under a rear straight perfectly.
Early on Thatch had been a match for Henderson in the grappling but in the fourth round the conditioned and experienced Henderson's edge was tremendous. Henderson advanced to the back and sunk in the rear naked choke. Just a few months removed from Henderson's putting the pace on extremely talented Rustam Khabilov. Giant killers are rare in combat sports, because everyone must fight with a different game to the one they would use at their own weight when they are giving up so much weight. Henderson's performance was one of his best to date.
Stipe Miocic vs. Mark Hunt – Feints Kill Counters
I was going to include Mir versus Arlovski, Cro Cop versus Gonzaga, Duffee versus Mir, Struve versus Rosholt and a whole host of others under the heading “heavyweight remains the same”, but why bring the mood down? You already know that. Instead lets focus on one of the few fine gameplans I saw out of a heavyweight this year, that of Stipe Miocic against Mark Hunt.
Against a power punching counter fighter, Miocic used feints and multiple jabs. Hunt would see a jab, swing his counter, and find that it wasn't a jab at all and that he was eating a real jab an instant later. Hunt's gas tank has never been the best, but by forcing him to swing his tremendous power at nothing but air Miocic could tire him quicker. Hunt's choice was to stay on the trigger all fight and exhaust himself, or hold back and try to determine the legitimate jabs, which saw him eat dozens.
Miocic paired beautiful boxing with level changes underneath Hunt's returns to secure takedowns. From there he would force himself into half—even if he was in position to pass directly off the takedown—and sit on Hunt's leg while he teed off with elbows and threatened kimuras.
Miocic is arguably the most talented heavyweight in the UFC all around, and if he can stick to the smart gameplans he can provably beat the best heavyweights in the world. The effectiveness of feints could just as readily be seen in T. J. Dillashaw versus Renan Barao II, but that's on this list for a different reason.
Renan Barao vs. T.J. Dillashaw II – There's Nothing Prettier Than a Well Placed Weave
We don't often seen good counters out of the weave, but T. J. Dillashaw's hurting blow against Renan Barao was a perfect example of the classic left hook out of the weave. Igor Vovchanchyn was doing it ten years ago, and still only a handful of fighters are pulling it off in MMA. Where generally ducking under blows in MMA should be done with a dip at the knees, a level change, the weave is a bend forwards at the waist as the head is arced from one side to the other. Edwin Haislet advised practicing it with a sparring partner's hand on your shoulder, going under and coming up each side.
The dangers of bending at the waist are readily apparent. Knees, kicks, uppercuts. Also while a fighter can move in the act of dipping at the knees, he may struggle if he is deep in a bend. But a good weave can often be accompanied with a shift as Dillashaw did against Barao. The act of taking the head and shoulders down into the opponent's blind spot, as opposed to bending at the legs, can cause a panic and completely hides the actions of the bending fighter. Often the opponent will drop his hands or throw a punch at his bending opponent, exposing himself beautifully to the counter punch.
K.J. Noons has been hitting these for years, and Kyoji Horiguchi's money punch is a left hook out of the weave. Nobody wants to see fighters ducking onto knees and kicks, but used frugally the weaving hook is a tremendous weapon to have in any fighter's arsenal. The weaving hook is more a set up than a counter punch though—the best fighters have gone into it off of a combination ended in a right hand and it has ended up being a counter punch, rather than waiting to react with a bend and throwing the counter. Though the second method worked nicely for Joe Frazier through his boxing career.
Notice how Horiguchi ducks down to his left, but comes up on the opposite side of his opponent with the hook coming through behind him.
Demian Maia versus Gunnar Nelson – Different Weaves, Just as Awesome
A different kind of weave this time around—leg weaves. Demian Maia had a great year in 2015, beating up Ryan Laflare, submitting Neil Magny to break Magny's eight fight winning streak, and battering Gunnar Nelson on the ground at UFC 194. What really stood out this year was just how effective Maia's guard passing is proving in mixed martial arts and how powerful the leg weave / dope mount / smash pass position can be. This was a favorite of B.J. Penn and you could see him use it extensively against Takanori Gomi and Jens Pulver, but since Penn retired it has been something of a rarity in mixed martial arts.
Maia used this position to pass and mount Rory MacDonald in 2014, and utilized it in every fight he has had in 2015 to tremendous effect. Adding some power strikes to his ground game, Maia was able to sit on Gunnar Nelson's hooks, pounding him with hammerfists and inviting Nelson to provide the push Maia needed to switch his hips, drive his right knee to the ground and smash Nelson's knees across each other, killing his guard.
There are so many elements of the grappling game which are visible in pure grappling competition that I would love to see applied effectively in MMA, from crazy stuff like Caio Terra's De La Riva footlocks to the numerous exciting entries into the ashi-garami leg entanglement which are ruling no-gi competition, but further exploration of smash passes is by far the highest on the list. Maia's smash passes continue to carry him past the division's best guards and straight into his tremendous mount, for other fighters even a poor imitation of Maia's grace and science could do wonders.
Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor – It Doesn't Matter Who You Are
A great fighter doing dumb things is in that moment a bad fighter. No theme ran through this year quite as beautifully. In a sport where fans get hung up on “levels” of striking and grappling, we often forget that it is what fighters do, and not who they are which makes them special. When I wrote Killing the Queen and laid out the flaws in Rousey's game which were apparent in all of her fights, the response of most was “doesn't matter, it's Rousey”. Then Holly Holm came along and did what none of us could have imagined in exploiting these flaws, reminding us that even a fighter as great as Rousey, making these mistakes, can be exploited repeatedly and brutally.
Another brilliant example is of Lyoto Machida. Machida's work on the counter, and with his pin point accurate body kicks out of nowhere has everyone ranking him as a top striker. The problem with that is that when you start ascribing 'levels' to things, you forget about the details of fighters games. Machida can't box for toffee, and when he steps in with punches he overcommits, leads with his rear hand, and breaks stance to run. This got him clipped over the back of the head against Luke Rockhold and thrown to the floor, whereupon he was pounded brutally by the excellent top player.
And this is stuff that he was doing back against Rashad Evans in 2009. It doesn't matter how good aspects of a fighter's game are, flaws are still flaws and habits are still habits and each is exploitable.
The most recent example, and the most glaring, was of Jose Aldo. Coming out clearly riled up, Aldo lunged after Conor McGregor, chin first, and ate the counter left hand that McGregor has been missing so much lately since his opponents have been aware of it. Jose Aldo is as accomplished a striker as you will find in MMA. He has boxed and kickboxed up everyone he has ever fought for the most part. But Aldo running in behind his chin and off balance is just like anyone else doing the same. It was Aldo's combinations, pivots, reactions, science. Aldo's craft was the means to transpose his physical talent and was what made him special. Abandoning that craft was what cost him the match against McGregor's own craft.
A striking advantage or a grappling advantage on paper is just that. A fighter can train with the best in the world and rack up a streak of finishes over tremendous competition, but every single fight is a clean slate and he must demonstrate his skill. The laws of the fight game don't care about a fighter's accomplishments or qualifications, you should know that from how harshly every legend in this game is made to age in the cage.
As we go into 2016, let us remember that every single fighter we watch is human. It is not doing anyone's “warrior spirit” a disservice to remember that. In fact, it simply makes the feats of those who are able to build up any degree of consistency in the wild world of the fight game even more impressive. Anyone can lose, and almost everyone will. Roll on 2016, more upsets, more excitement, and more chances to see those fleeting moments of control amid the chaos of the fight.
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