FightNoob is a recurring series on Single Blog Takedown where we help new fans and neophytes understand the sport of mixed martial arts. This is the fifth edition. Previous editions can be found right here.
So after a few weeks of getting our bearings in the world of mixed martial arts, it’s about time we had a look at the action inside the ring.
It’s entirely possible to acquit yourself in a conversation about MMA knowing simply results and fighters. At the very least, you’ll know who won every fight. (Hint: it’s the guy with the raised arm when it’s over.) But to understand things like WHY Anderson Silva is so feared and WHERE the flaws in Brock Lesnar’s game are, you need to understand the principles behind effective mixed martial arts.
I may not be able to teach you as well as a top-tier professional fighter, but I do know what’s good out there and can impart that to you when you’re checking out the fights.
For this week, we’ll start with the first position every fighter finds himself or herself in after they touch gloves: the stand-up game.
This is not a friendly sort of hug.
Volume 5: Get Up Stand Up
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most fans of MMA have seen much more boxing than they have grappling sports (with amateur wrestling fans being the major exception). That means generally that MMA fans have a better understanding of standup than they do the ground game. Partially, it’s because most of the actions are results-intensive. To wit: while it’s hard to immediately understand the tactical significance a fighter passing from full guard to half guard, the stand up game simplifies the equation to “Man hits face. Face goes unconscious.”
Guys who get in the ring and just start throwing bombs, though, tend to have short careers. In MMA, that’s even more true, as one-dimensional stand-up gunners tend to have serious deficiencies when getting to the ground.
When you’re watching MMA and trying to pick out the good strikers, here are some of the basic things you should be looking for.
Footwork and distance: One of the first things you’ll notice about a good striker is their stance. As opposed to a classic boxing stance, the MMA stance (see here for Silva showing how it’s done) tends to have the legs spread much wider with a fighter sitting back over their base. (Boxing stances tend to emphasize a more forward position.) Why the difference? After all, if a boxing stance can generate explosive punching power through the hips and body, why wouldn’t MMA fighters want to leverage that?
The answer is takedown defense. There’s no leg-shooting in boxing that would require you to have a wide base; generally, your center of gravity will be over your base unless you’re getting knocked down anyway. MMA fighters keep a wide base because it allows them to “sit into,” or use their legs in punches, while still having a dominant position when their opponent attempts to shoot the legs. A good striker can transition from throwing hammers to leaning on a takedown attempt very quickly.
For further study of stances, I refer you to PunchKickChoke which has a good brief treatise on stance types.
As far as proper distance goes, it will depend on the type of fighter. Larger fighters with effective clinch and takedown will generally try to keep close and cut the angles of the ring off to play to their up-close strengths. To counter, better hit-and-run type fighters will try to use circular motion to make sure they have room to backpedal, dodge clinch attempts, and stuff takedowns. (Of course, there is such a thing as too much running.) When you watch the fight develop, keep in mind that the more aggressive fighter will generally fare better on the scorecards, but also realize that if a fighter is trying to keep distance, it’s usually to play to his strengths.
Head movement and blocking: As in boxing, striking defense in MMA tends to be less about getting your hands in the right place as it is about effective footwork and reflexes. This is especially true in MMA when you factor in leg kicks, which can’t be guarded as effectively (although it is possible: see this shot of Brandon Vera getting stuffed). An effective standup game has lots of defensive head movement. I keep going back to Anderson Silva because he’s one of the best, but look back at his UFC 101 fight against Forrest Griffin: he kept his head bobbing back to slip punches and was able to counterattack effectively into an exposed Griffin. The most effective striking defense absorbs blows rather than repel them; a fighter who’s absorbed a shot now has his opponent off-balance and open. A fighter who repels a shot just continues the status quo.
Punching power and accuracy: I’d go over who the most accurate fighters are, but if you’re not reading FightMetric after every major card, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Comparable to CompuBox, they do a great job of breaking down high and low percentage strikes in addition to accuracy.
A fighter connecting on most of their shots is important, especially power swings. But just as important is the speed of punches. Yes, Chuck Liddell has made a career out of his big, looping power hook, but he’s the exception. Most good strikers will come “right down the pipe” with shots, looking to eliminate wasted motion by getting their fist to the opponent’s face in the straightest line. This accomplishes a number of things: it cuts down on fatigue, gets most of the body’s power behind a punch (instead of just using your arms), and reduces the amount of time an opponent has to react. A fighter throwing big lazy hooks will tire quicker and connect less. While we all love the spinning back fist, it’s a very low-percentage sort of “surprise!” punch, equivalent to a flea-flicker in football.
Strong body/leg kicks: Because most fighters will generally keep distance as opposed to getting up close and trading, a strong kicking game lets an MMA fighter wear down the body and legs in the same way a boxer uses shots to the body. Body shots tire out a fighter and affect his breathing, stance, and posture. Leg kicks take away a fighter’s base, destroy his footwork, and make him more susceptible to takedowns.
For an example, look at the UFC 31 fight between Randy Couture and Pedro Rizzo (video). While Couture won the fight, Rizzo did serious damage to the Natural by repeatedly loading up and firing shots to the legs. Even Couture’s toughness couldn’t stop him from hobbling around the ring by the time the fight was over.
And of course, no discussion of striking would be complete without noting the most feared of all body punches, Bas Rutten’s legendary liver shot. That thing could floor an elephant. (Video – NSFW, language. Fast forward to about the 50 second mark.)
The clinch: A clinch can be used in the standup game for both defensive and offensive purposes.
The traditional clinch, where a fighter gets under or overhooks on their opponent’s arms (as shown here) is commonly used for two reasons. Defensively, if a fighter is taking a lot of kicks, they can use the clinch to take away almost all kicks from distance (although a clinch still allows effective knees and stomps). Offensively, a wrestler will often attempt to clinch in order to take down their opponent via a throw or sweep (and here, not only wrestling but judo techniques are frequently applied).
A more offensive style of clinch frequently employed in MMA is the collar tie, also known as the “muay thai clinch”. It’s used to control the opponent’s head and body movement while setting them up for a variety of devastating moves: dirty boxing (elbows and short punches) and vicious muay thai knees to both the body AND the head. The tradeoff for the increased offense is that it’s generally easier for a fighter to escape a muay thai clinch than a hook clinch, and it’s also more difficult to throw from the clinch; a good collar clinch can sometimes lead to a guillotine choke, however, one of the few submission moves that can be applied from a standing position.
Summing up: Obviously, you need more than a good standup game to survive in MMA, but a good standup fighter can keep an inexperienced standup fighter on their feet and taking shots; and frequently, a bad standup fighter will attempt to move the fight to the ground, leaving them open to knockout opportunities. (Jiujitsu wiz Demian Maia found that out the hard way at UFC 102 when Nate Marquardt cleaned his clock in the first round while Maia attempted to close distance.) When watching, don’t just look for the power puncher; look for the guy with the sound fundamentals. He’ll likely have the longer, more successful career.
Photos and links from The Sun, PunchKickChoke, Christina Sears, Defending the Takedown, ESPN, The One Two Punch, The Mirror, FightMetric, BoutReview USA, MMACore.com, MMAForums, Warrior’s Realm, and MMA Fanhouse.