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Waiting for Uriah: Strange Decisions and the Occasional Spinning Knockout

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Rising from season seventeen of the show that just won't die, the UFC's The Ultimate Fighter, Uriah Hall was the hottest prospect in town. Due to his flashy spinning techniques and heavy counter strikes, many were comparing him to the then UFC middleweight champion, Anderson Silva. The wheel kick, which Hall used to dispatch Adam Cella during one of the show’s exhibition matches, was plugged and replayed throughout the entire season. A repeat of Badr Hari's famous “Leko Buster,” Hall used a thudding jab to bring Cella's right hand in towards his centerline before turning into the kick and sneaking his heel around Cella's compromised guard.

When Hall met Kelvin Gastelum in the live finale he was the heavy favorite but Gastelum didn't much care for that and immediately got to work pressuring the counter fighter. It was here that cracks in Hall's game began to present themselves. It was not so often technical flaws as it was baffling strategic decisions which cost Hall. As Gastelum walked in on Hall, rather than changing directions, showing fake steps, and circling like a mad man to stay off the fence, Hall squared his feet and put his butt on the fence like he was Anderson Silva. The problem is that he wasn't Anderson Silva doing it against a washed up Stephan Bonnar, he was a guy with an equally able opponent who had a significant amount of wrestling experience on him.

Also present was Hall's inopportune dropping of his hands. It is absolutely fine for a fighter to drop his hands where appropriate, but Hall does it every time he an engagement—even when he hasn't actually left range. This means that when fighters put him under pressure and he gets towards the fence, he will often try to pivot off line or circle out while dropping his hands well within hitting distance of his opponent. His reach advantage allows him to do this comfortably out in the open but when he finds himself short on space it becomes a dangerous flaw. It was this dropping of hands as he circled that cost Hall his fight with a young Chris Weidman.

Since the Gastelum fight, Hall has become a staple of the UFC's middleweight division but has had very mixed results in the cage. After managing just one fight in 2014, Hall was able to squeeze an incredible five bouts into 2015. Dropping a decision to Rafael Natal in May of that year, Hall rebounded with a knockout victory over late replacement, Oluwale Bamgbose. It was the last two fights of 2015 which raised further questions about the 32-year-old's potential.

Against Gegard Mousasi, Hall was on his back and struggling for much of the first round. In the second round he caught Mousasi with a remarkable jumping back kick to the face which would have made Chuck Norris or Raymond Daniels proud and followed up for the TKO.

It was Hall's most recent bout against Robert Whitaker at UFC 193 where it all really came apart at the seams though. Though Hall was the fundamentally crisper striker his baffling tactical decisions cost him the bout. Though credit must also be given to Whitaker for worming his finger into these seams and tearing away at the cloth.  Whitaker came out push kicking the lead leg, getting Hall's feet up under him.

Noting Hall's tendency to pivot off around his lead foot, Whitaker began to pound the back of Hall's lead leg. Readers will recall that this pivot was a large part of Jose Aldo's game against Frankie Edgar's linear charges and this kick went unanswered each time Edgar remembered to throw it.

Hall's answer to this kick was to repeatedly reach down to catch it. Breaking a cardinal sin of good kickboxing form but one of those rules which is made to be bent and broken occasionally if it serves a useful and unexpected counter.

Except this only served to allow Whitaker to repeatedly land a superman punch, faking the kick and leaping in with the right hand instead.

Midway through the first round, Hall decided to go on offence for a moment and performed a couple of jumping spins into a wheel kick which he was then too close to land. The crook of his knee bounced into Whitaker and he fell to the mat. This is the difference between kickboxing and MMA. When Raymond Daniels throws out two dozen spinning kicks a round he can afford to make mistakes because if his opponent ends up behind him he can drop to a knee, fall to the mat, or even poke his head through the ropes. When the opponent can grab a hold of you and keep you in that position of disadvantage that would otherwise be momentary, you're in trouble. Whitaker pinned Hall to the mat for the rest of the first round, mounting him, taking his back and otherwise just making Hall's life extremely unpleasant.

Being a counter fighter Hall is susceptible to feints. When it looked like he was setting up to spin, Whitaker would just mime a step in and then step out of the way. Hall's tendency to load up on these spinning strikes also means that any time Whitaker stood still for a moment, he knew what would be coming.

Hall's overcommitment on his punches and attempted elbows also played directly into the hands of Whitaker, a skilled counter puncher with a dynamite left hook. On many of his attempted right hands Hall would even turn his back. Sometimes he got away with it, other times he got hit, other times Whitaker would grab a hold and Hall's chance of winning the round would disappear down the drain.

Certainly Whitaker's gameplan was on point, but Hall's constant turning of his back and throwing himself out of position made it a much easier night of work for Whitaker than it should have been. This weekend Hall fights Derek Brunson. Despite their inconsistency Brunson, Hall and Mousasi are all top ten ranked middleweights. The field is wide open and with Michael Bisping or—God forbid, Dan Henderson—as the middleweight champion anyone is in with a shot. But putting together consistent wins at the top level of the game will be damn near impossible if Hall isn't able to recognize the time to spin, the time to turn his back, and the much more frequent time to do neither of those things.

 

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