Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch reviews fighters’ performances after the fact, with an eye for the fundamental improvements they could make going forward.
Welcome, friends, to the MMA Garage. This is your one-stop shop for all of your fighter maintenance needs. Have a journeyman in the UFC who could be a contender if only he were running a little more smoothly? Need to teach your prospect the skills to hang with the veterans, and fast? The MMA Garage has you covered, and our labor costs are a very modest ten times the value of the part you ordered. Disclaimer: we will change your fighter’s oil, but we won’t check it.
Okay, okay, let’s drop the joke and get real for a second. Fighters are not cars. Fixing a fighter is not like replacing a slave cylinder or upgrading from standard to synthetic oil. Improving and developing a fighter’s game can be difficult for many complicated and sometimes insurmountable reasons. Often, it takes years of training, both physical and mental, before an athlete can fulfill his or her potential. Other times, that potential goes unsatisfied, and those of us watching at home are left to wonder what might have been.
Then again, there are plenty of experienced fighters who nonetheless lack one or two techniques or tactics–often basic, fundamental skills–which could revolutionize their games over the course of a few training camps. These are the fighters we will be looking at in this series. After a major MMA event, we will duck into the Garage to take a look at the results, and assess where certain fighters could potentially improve. For the most part, we will stick to small, relatively simple adjustments. Not quick fixes, per se, but efficient, fundamental improvements.
This will require some conjecture, and it is not my place to tell elite combat athletes what to do. That is up to them, and their coaches. But from an analytical perspective, technical development makes for a fascinating narrative. Understanding how and why a technique works and then seeing it in action is one of my favorite parts of watching fights. Knowing how fully those techniques can transform a fighter’s career only makes it better.
For this first edition, we will look back at UFC Kansas City. Demetrious Johnson defeated Wilson Reis in the headliner, but I am not about to tell the man with 10 consecutive title defenses how to improve, especially after the most complete performance of his incredible career. Instead, we will look to some of the less established fighters on the card, those who are still in the process of discovering their fighting styles. In particular, we will be looking at Tom Duquesnoy, Rose Namajunas, and Aljamain Sterling. All of these fighters won on Saturday, but victory is no justification for complacency.
Tom Duquesnoy, a.k.a. The Fire Kid, was probably the most hotly anticipated UFC debutante since Thomas Almeida, a man whom Duquesnoy will fight someday if indeed there is a god. And with heavy expectations on his shoulders, Duquesnoy absolutely delivered the violence for which he was known on the European circuit. His trademark clinch game, a brutal pick-your-poison combination of stepping knees and smashing elbows, sent an overmatched Patrick Williams to the canvas at the end of round two. So vicious was the knockdown that many online were debating whether the fight should have been stopped between rounds, but Duquesnoy quickly settled the issue for good with an overhand elbow to the temple less than half a minute into the second frame.
Duquesnoy’s performance was not perfect, however. The Fire Kid has been dropped a few times in his MMA career, almost always in the first round, but few expected Williams to repeat the pattern. Let’s talk about the sequence that had every Duquesnoy fan wringing their hands–myself included.
1. Duquesnoy pressures Williams into the fence.
2. A hard step and a level change serves as a feint.
3. Williams bites hard, dropping his hands and ducking down as if not sure what to expect.
4. Duquesnoy thinks about an elbow, but this too ends up being nothing more than a feint.
5. Still standing in front of Williams, Duquesnoy loads up on a right hand.
6. Williams gets there first, landing a short but powerful straight left that snaps the Fire Kid’s head back.
7. And down goes Duquesnoy.
Simply put, there are too many empty feints in a row, here; too much time spent in the pocket without delivering any actual offense.
Feints are meant to be threatening, a way to gauge the opponent’s reactions and force a response without actually committing to a strike. Duquesnoy has not done enough up to this point in the fight to establish a threat, however, which renders those feints less effective, and he does nothing to actually, aggressively test the defenses of Williams. He simply stands in front of him and gives him a few looks. That is because Duquesnoy, a devastating knockout artist, is looking only to line up the kill shot. In doing so, he gives Williams the time he needs to gather his courage and let fly an almost-kill shot of his own.
Now Duquesnoy could just throw a little more in general. A salvo of punches or a quick move into the clinch would have been appropriate when he forced a big overreaction out of Williams with his initial feint. But that still wouldn’t solve all of his problems. For one, Williams can clearly see everything that Duquesnoy is doing. He might be too jumpy, but his field of vision is wide open. Plus, simply throwing more isn’t easy when you put maximum power into every shot. That’s a recipe for attrition, a sure fire way to poke holes in your own gas tank.
As promised, the solution is pretty simple. Duquesnoy needs a jab. And not just any jab. This jab.
That’s legendary boxer Fighting Harada in the white. He is fighting Brazilian boxer-puncher Eder Jofre, the greatest bantamweight boxer of all time. Harada was the only man to ever defeat Jofre in 78 professional fights, and his pumping jab was the key to shutting down the deadly mid-range offense of the Brazilian.
I would not call this a pawing jab, but it certainly isn’t a snappy, stinging punch either. There is enough weight on the punch to count–note how Harada bends his knees and settles his weight each time the jab extends–but it lingers in Jofre’s face the way a true pawing jab would. Harada takes short steps forward with every jab, sliding into close range while giving his opponent something to worry about.
Note how Jofre struggles to find counters as Harada fires his jab. The punch has enough thump to make him respond to it, but more importantly, it obstructs his vision. When Harada triples and doubles up on the punch, Jofre is compelled to cover up and move rather than countering with power, simply because he cannot see his target. And once Harada has established this jab, he can more effectively feint his way into the pocket, where his powerful hooks force Jofre into a dangerous exchange which quickly turns into an even more defensive shell on Eder’s part.
Essentially, Tom Duquesnoy needs something to bridge the gap between himself and his opponent. He needs a weapon that can put pressure on his adversary without eating up too much energy, and some way to disguise his intentions as he crosses the dangerous space between long range–where he has a vicious kicking game–and the clinch–where we know he is a fearsome knockout threat. The pumping Harada jab is the perfect tool for the job. Next time Duquesnoy steps into the Octagon, he will undoubtedly face a tougher and more seasoned opponent than Patrick Williams. Without a tool like this to aggressively close the distance, he may not survive the next counter that comes his way.
Rose Namajunas had one of the best performances of her career in the co-main event of UFC Kansas City. She utterly dominated Michelle Waterson on the ground, starting by smoothly turning a Waterson throw into an artful back take, and sent the experienced kickboxer to the ground with a devastating head kick. That Namajunas saw the opening for that head kick only once before unleashing it about four minutes later is a testament to her talent. She stated before the fight that she could pick Waterson apart at range thanks to “the best jab in the division,” and aside from a few knee-buckling side kicks from Waterson, she was right. One small detail stood out to me, however.
Take a look at this exchange.
1. Namajunas steps into range and Michelle Waterson drops her weight.
2. Sensing the attack, Namajunas hop-steps away from Waterson’s left cross.
3. Namajunas plants her feet to counter as Waterson continues coming forward.
4. But Waterson has already begun her attack. She clips Rose with a straight right shift.
5. Namajunas, feet firmly grounded, can’t get her punch to the target before Waterson connects.
6. And because Michelle has the initiative, she is just able to evade Namajunas’ follow-up cross.
On the surface, there isn’t much here that would give fans cause to worry about Namajunas’ boxing. Waterson barely lands an awkward punch, and Namajunas just misses on a mean-spirited counter. Her distance management is almost perfect, and she reads the attack well enough to more or less neutralize it. The exchange doesn’t exactly go Rose’s way, but it doesn’t exactly hurt or slow her down, either.
That right hand from Waterson deserves a bit of attention, however, namely because it could have very easily been prevented. Namajunas may not have the very best jab in the division, but it is certainly among the best. The only problem is that she only really throws it standing still, or going forward. As Waterson explodes forward, Namajunas quickly slides back, but Waterson keeps coming, determined to put some leather on Rose’s face. The only reason she succeeds is that Rose plants her feet before attempting to counter with a jab of her own, meaning that Waterson’s punch gets to the target first. A jab is an extremely versatile weapon, and one of the few punches that can be thrown with equal ease going backward or forward.
What Namajunas needs is a retreating jab, like this one.
This here is Mike McCallum (in the Jamaican yellow and green). He is facing Julian Jackson, arguably the hardest pound-for-pound hitter to ever set foot in the squared circle. Coming into this fight, Jackson’s sledgehammer hands had earned him knockouts in all but two of his 29 fights, and he plants them on McCallum’s chin a few times in the first round, buckling his knees on two occasions.
So you can understand McCallum’s desire to prevent Jackson from applying any kind of sustained pressure. The answer? A jab that pops out as McCallum slides out of range, a quick punch that would nevertheless do damage if Jackson were to run into it. Every time McCallum is slightly out of position, every time Jackson gets a little too close for comfort, McCallum sticks that jab in his face. And every time the left hand extends, the right foot slides back, followed by the right as the punch returns. Short, efficient steps, facilitated by an effortless but very effective threat.
This one might come across as nit-picking, because in truth Namajunas did not need a retreating jab against Waterson. Michelle barely came forward at all, and never put much sustained, forward pressure on Namajunas. But Waterson is not the only woman Namajunas has faced, and pressure has been a problem for her in the past, most notably in her bout with the relentless Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Namajunas got into trouble with Kowalkiewicz, who wanted nothing so much as to force the clinch over and over, because her only way of thwarting the onslaught was to plant her feet and throw combinations. They were good combinations, and Namajunas deserves tons of credit for the development of her boxing game in recent years, but because she had to either stop moving or start moving forward to let the punches go, Kowalkiewicz was able to get to the range she wanted by simply soaking up damage.
Namajunas has also struggled with confidence issues throughout her career. Despite the quality of her competition, Rose is still only 24 years old. She began fighting a little over four years ago. So while the frontrunner mentality may always haunt her, she will find ways to overcome it, as she already has started to do. One very small addition to her game could make that task much easier, however. If Namajunas learns to keep a jab in her opponent’s face as she takes short backward steps, rather than after, she will be able to keep the fight at her optimal distance without throwing herself into risky exchanges and tie-ups.
And so we come to Aljo. Frequently touted as one of the flourishing bantamweight division’s most promising young talents, Aljamain Sterling has run into some problems lately. First, Bryan Caraway used mild but unrelenting pressure to close the distance and shut Sterling down on the feet before exhausting him with a scramble-heavy wrestling attack. Then, savvy veteran Raphael Assuncao kept Sterling at bay and picked him off with punches and kicks from long range, all while denying every one of Sterling’s takedown attempts.
Before this latest fight, Sterling was a man with two distinct ranges, and limited ways of exploiting them. He was somewhat effective from the outside, where he relied heavily on a dynamic but relatively impotent kicking game to bedazzle his opponents. To make this work, Sterling had to run circles around the Octagon, using movement to make up for the fact that his kicks frequently left him out of position to defend a swarming attack. He was significantly more effective on the inside, where he coupled a well-timed shot with smooth clinch takedowns to bring his opponents to the ground, the only place where he ever truly looked comfortable.
If I’d written this article before UFC Kansas City, I might have merely pointed out that Sterling needed to box more and kick less. The constant juggling of dramatic footwork and flashy kicks was not only ineffective, but inefficient, requiring a great deal of energy to execute for three rounds. And because Sterling rarely committed to punches, he had little hope of either defending himself or scoring offense against opponents who knew how to collapse the distance. That Aljo came out throwing jabs and combination punches in his fight with Augusto Mendes, therefore, is already a massive improvement, and one that more or less assures that he will stick around for some time as a bantamweight contender. Good news after the two consecutive losses he suffered prior to this outing.
Still, having only just rediscovered the fundamental art of, you know, throwing punches, Sterling’s boxing game needs work. Look at this.
1. Sterling circles Agusto Mendes, who stalks him in pursuit of a thudding punch or power takedown.
2. Smartly, Sterling goes first, giving Mendes a hard level change to threaten a takedown.
3. As Mendes’ hands drop to defend what he thinks is a shot, Sterling pops back up and winds up on a haymaker of a right hook.
4. Mendes leans back to avoid the punch. Sterling might have followed up, but he has thrown himself off-balance with the force of the strike, and he stuffs an awkward backfist into Mendes face, fearing a counter.
5. By the time Sterling has regained his balance, Mendes has pulled out of range, and both fighters reset.
Now, we could talk about the way that Sterling throws his punches, winding up and throwing his whole body around with nearly every blow. But at this point in Sterling’s career, it might do more harm than good to tell him to stop committing so heavily to all of his punches, especially when he has just begun committing to punches at all.
Instead, Sterling’s trainers might begin teaching him to think a few steps ahead to make those winging punches more effective. Take precise moments, and teach Sterling to throw punches without trying to land them, in order to set up punches that will. In boxing, this is called “throwing away punches.”
For this example, we turn to the underrated great Sumbu Kalambay, decked out in green and gold. Here, he takes on another underrated great by the name of Herol Graham, one of the best boxers never to win a world title.
In the first of the two sequences shown in this clip, Kalambay pops out a double jab, and gets a read. He sees that Graham pulls his head back and then ducks down to avoid an expected straight right. Immediately after collecting this information, Kalambay puts the data to good use. He fires his next jab at Graham’s glove, putting the punch out there to establish a threat, but not trying to land it. All he wants is the reaction. When Graham ducks again, Kalambay is ready with a vicious right uppercut, one of his best punches.
In the second sequence, Kalambay applies the same logic, only this time he knows that Graham is ready for the throwaway jab. So after snapping out the jab, and noting that it gets no reaction, he tacks on a classic follow-up: a left hook. This too is merely a throwaway punch, however. Graham is wise to the uppercut now, and he is not keen to duck into another one. So Kalambay uses the hook to force the level change, feeding Graham a punch that he cannot safely evade by pulling back. Graham rolls under the hook, and Kalambay’s trusty right uppercut meets him halfway.
In Sterling’s case, a simple straight left would serve as a sharp follow-up to his right hook. Against Mendes, Sterling threw every single punch with the intention of connecting, and because he throws so much weight into his strikes, he was unable to throw many combinations. As a result, Mendes was usually safe so long as he spotted the wind-up. For Sterling, the next level of boxing skill would be to force those reactions and then capitalize. And for a man who has finally learned to love throwing hands, the best way to do that is to throw punches away. Let ’em fly, and think about what comes next.
So that’s the MMA Garage. If the fighters we have looked at today go on to implement these techniques to good effect, we here at the Garage will get to enjoy the exciting results of real, tangible improvement. If the fixes don’t work, after all… well, I guess your fighter could always come back in for another tuneup.
For a technical recap of UFC Kansas City’s biggest winners, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.