Getting Back in the Groove…

Alright, it’s been a busy couple of weeks, but things are going pretty smoothly over at Bloody Elbow. Regular updates will resume shortly. For now, here’s my latest piece for BE, a breakdown of the different styles of Shahbulat Shamhalaev and Pat Curran, who will fight for the Bellator Featherweight title tomorrow evening. Enjoy!

It’s no secret that Bellator keeps the bulk of its talent in its lower weight classes, and one could argue that Featherweight is the organization’s most exciting division. Both Shahbulat Shamhalaev and Pat Curran would be key points in that argument. Shamhalaev went on an absolute tear in Season Seven’s featherweight tourney, putting away a pair of dangerous fighters, Rad Martinez and Mike Richman, in his last two fights, the latter a reputable knockout artist in his own right. But few featherweights in the world, not to mention the small pond that is Bellator, can compare to the complete fighting prowess of Pat Curran, whose five fight win streak includes two title fights and three brutal finishes. And before his featherweight run, Curran ended a four fight streak with a hard-fought loss to Eddie Alvarez, who hasn’t had more trouble landing on any opponent in years than he did against Curran in that bout.

So it’s safe to say that I’m excited for this matchup, and I think you should be too. Pat Curran, as has been pointed out by BE cohort Dallas Winston, is a three-dimensional martial artist. He is quite possibly the most well-rounded featherweight in the world, with excellent submission grappling, wrestling, and striking. Shamhalaev, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same set of tools — in fact, his only defeat is a submission loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov — but he is as much of a knockout artist as you will find in the lighter weight divisions, with knockouts comprising 75% of his total wins, and all of his wins at featherweight.

Fortunately for fans of striking, at least some of this bout is all but guaranteed to be decided on the feet. Let’s see what each of the fighters have to offer in that department. The biggest difference lies in positioning and footwork.

There is a marked difference in the way that Shamhalaev and Curran position themselves. If you’re unclear on what I mean by “positioning,” I talk about it a little in my Bloody Basics piece on stance, as well as my King Mo piece — but basically, the concept can be summarized like so: with proper positioning, you are facing him, and he is not facing you. This means you can hit him, and he can’t hit you. At the highest levels, it even sometimes means that you can hit him hard, and he can only hit you softly. Footwork is the means by which a fighter establishes his position.

Continued at BE…

Update!

Alright, everybody. Just a brief update on what’s going on with the blog currently. The kind folks at Bloody Elbow have recently decided to start paying me for the silly things that I write about fighting. Obviously this is some kind of horrible mistake, but I would kindly ask those of you who read this blog not to point that out to them, because this is a big break for me.

So it looks like I’ll be having one article on their site per week, though it’s not certain when those will be posted. The details are still a little fuzzy. But I will still be updating this blog once a week as well. Give it a few days for me to work out the new schedule, and then I’ll be getting back to you with regular updates, as well as weekly links to my latest pieces on BE.

Thanks for your patronage, folks. More good stuff coming soon!

Featured on Bloody Elbow

Sorry for another delay in posting, folks, but there’s a damn good reason for it. Check the front page of Bloody Elbow, or follow this link, and see that my latest work (an analysis of some of the holes in GSP’s standup) has been selected as a feature article for their site! Please help me show my appreciation for the much larger stage by reading the article over there. And, if you happen to think that it deserves a recommendation or comment, you’re of course welcome to contribute.

Thanks, all. I’ll have another piece for you Friday.

Nick Diaz: Highly Effective, Highly Overrated

A brief respite between fight events has given me the opportunity to do an in-depth analysis of two fighters whose contest is bound to be a very memorable affair. At UFC 158 we will be treated to a long-awaited contest between long-time welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre and long-time cannabis-user Nick Diaz. This will not be a prediction, per se, but rather a look at the skills of the combatants. Georges will get the treatment on Monday, but today we’re looking at the man with the confused scowl, Nick Diaz.

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(Note: I should mention before I begin that I’m not much of an expert on ground fighting. I’m far from an expert on striking, for that matter, but that is where the majority of my martial knowledge lies, and so I will be focusing more or less on the standup skills of these fighters.)

When it comes to Nick’s boxing, I’ve heard it all. A widely circulated article compared him to the bareknuckle great Daniel Mendoza. He has been lauded for his incredible CompuStrike numbers, as well as his body punching, by every commentator that’s ever worked one of his fights. The man himself isn’t immune to the hype, either: Diaz vaingloriously challenged Roy Jones Jr. to a boxing match after his win over Frank Shamrock. And since Nick’s next bout pits him against Georges St. Pierre, a man whose most obvious and dominant skill is his wrestling, many seem to believe that the Stockton native will have the advantage on the feet.

Well, I’m here to clear that up, and maybe piss off a few diehard fans in the process. And, one week from his fight with GSP, I figure there’s just enough time for the following statement to really fester. You ready? Here we go.

Nick Diaz’ boxing is overrated.

Now, before you give me the Stockton treatment, notice I did not say that Nick’s striking is ineffective. His record, including a recently snapped eleven-fight winning streak, six of those by TKO and the rest decided in large part by Nick’s fists, speaks for itself. But Nick Diaz does not have exceptional boxing skills. What Nick has are fast, accurate hands, incredible stamina, and the sort of pain tolerance that can only come with a healthy diet of In-N-Out Burger and medical marijuana. He’s unquestionably tough, and his punching-centric style has proven very effective in MMA. But with his latest outing against Carlos Condit, we saw how it can be nullified by someone who refuses to fight Diaz’ fight. Diaz’ style leaves a multitude of openings for a willing and able opponent, and he’ll certainly have one in Georges St. Pierre next Saturday. Let’s take a look at some of his liabilities.

STANCE

It has been pointed out many times by many analysts that Nick Diaz is susceptible to leg kicks. It’s hard to deny the truth of this statement. He spent the first round of his fight with Evangelista Santos getting his lead leg chopped to hell, until Santos ran out of gas and Nick was able to take over. I point out this fight not only because of Cyborg’s proclivity for leg kicks, but for the type of kick he chose to use. General consensus is that Nick’s stance, with his lead leg turned in, opens him up for outside leg kicks. In fact, there is a very common belief among mixed martial arts fans and analysts that such a stance is generally impractical for MMA for that very reason. But Cyborg didn’t land on Nick with outside leg kicks. He cracked him over, and over again with inside leg kicks, laying his shin across Diaz’ inner thigh with impunity. Simple logic tells us that if turning the leg to the inside opens one up for outside kicks, then it should provide some measure of protection against kicks from the opposite side. But that clearly wasn’t the case.

Nick’s weakness to leg kicks does have to do with his stance, but the orientation of his lead foot is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant to this issue. Rather, Nick’s problem is his weight distribution. Look at these stills from Diaz’ fight with BJ Penn.

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You can see clearly that Nick stands very heavy on his front foot. This is poor form for a number of reasons, but in Nick’s case it makes it difficult to check kicks with the lead leg, since a check requires the weight to be over the back foot. Nick has shown that he can make the adjustment, shifting his weight to the proper place when he deems it necessary, but this only ever happens after he’s eaten a dozen or more kicks, as against Santos.

Worse, a front foot-heavy stance is bad from a purely boxing perspective as well. Nick Diaz is probably the most jab-able “boxer” in history. For someone who is renowned for his skill with his hands, Nick has proven incredibly susceptible to the most basic of boxing attacks, all because of the distribution of his weight, and the resultant positioning of his head. He certainly can pull his weight back–he often shifts his weight and moves his head after throwing his lead right hook, and he does the same when he occasionally decides to evade punches rather than headbutting them. But his face after every fight will tell you that he’s quite susceptible to punches. To add insult to injury, it should be noted that the majority of mixed martial artists are not known for having good, technical jabs, which makes the claims that Nick would succeed in pure boxing with his current skillset all the more laughable. And, unfortunately for Nick’s easily-cuttable face, GSP is one of the few fighters in the UFC who does possess a crisp, accurate jab.

I say that Nick’s susceptibility to kicks and jabs is due to his weight distribution, but this is really all indicative of a larger flaw in his overall style. A back-weighted stance, advantageous though it would prove for a fighter who prefers to box, just does not suit Nick’s fighting mentality, one in which he wins by always, always coming forward and readily absorbs one punch to give two back. And, given that Nick has fought this way in every fight, and will continue to do so until he’s physically incapable of fighting any longer, he will probably always be weak in this area.

FOOTWORK

Footwork is a bit of a buzzword in combat sports these days. You’ll hear it get tossed around by commentators as if it were the panacea for all fight-related ills, but its definition often proves elusive (there’s a joke in there, somewhere). Broadly defined, footwork refers to a fighter’s ability to put himself in a position to attack his opponent, or to avoid attack himself. The best uses of footwork accomplish both goals simultaneously. And whenever you hear cookie-cutter commentary teams offer axioms like “finding angles” or “stick and move,” they are referring to the fruits of effective footwork.

Footwork is not a word you will hear uttered in the commentary of a Nick Diaz fight, unless immediately preceded by the words “bad” or “Carlos Condit’s.” Behold, Nick’s utter inability to cut off the Octagon against the Natural Born Killer:

footwork

Diaz backs Condit into the fence. His weight is back this time, but it’s obviously to load up a straight left, and Condit spies the telegraph. Nick throws his left hand, but his feet aren’t in the right position for the punch to land. Condit has already moved well out of the way of the punch and, with a deep step to the outside of Diaz’ lead foot, he throws a hard right to the body and pivots out, leaving Nick to cumbersomely turn and follow after him. Much to the frustration of the Stocktonian corner, this happened again and again throughout the fight.

Unfortunately for Nick, the footwork that lost him the Condit fight has won him every other fight for the last five years. This is how he fights now, and I fear it is too late for him to make any significant change to his style. He may not even see a need for change, as he and his head coach, Cesar Gracie, thought that he had done enough to beat Condit. Rather than assess what the judges saw that gave Condit the decision, Nick and his team chalked it up to bias and called it a day. This reluctance to acknowledge weakness means that Nick’s footwork most likely won’t be undergoing any radical improvements in the near future.

THE POSITIVES

Despite all these flaws, Nick’s boxing has proven undeniably effective for years now. There are a lot of positives to his style, and I don’t mean the drug tests. He  was able to beat KJ Noons by drawing him into his fight as he has so many other opponents, and outlasting the ex-professional boxer with his typical relentless pace and pressure. Nick is also one of the few fighters in MMA to regularly and effectively utilize body punching in his game. BJ Penn often catches criticism for his poor stamina, but some credit must go to Nick for causing the Prodigy to fade in their three-round bout with his rib-cracking assault.

Nick’s head-forward style is at its most effective when he manages to get the fight to his preferred place, up against the cage. He bullies the opponent, grinding into them with his forehead and shoulders, crushing them against the fence and leaning his weight into them, all while digging to the body with accurate punches and occasionally pulling back to whallop his foe in the head with short overhand shots. This is why Nick faltered against Condit, as he wasn’t able to consistently get his cardiovascularly gifted opponent’s back to the wall. But it has worked against dozens of opponents in the past, and will continue to work against anyone willing to grant Diaz his will in the Octagon.

Time will tell if Diaz’ ugly but dangerous striking will be enough to give GSP pause. The French-Canadian phenom is equally dangerous in all the same areas, but in very different ways. That’s a story for another article, though. Check in Monday to see how the champ stacks up. Until then…

209, bitches.

Peace out.

The Diamond

Combat sports lost a hero last week. Wednesday, February 27, 2013 Muay Thai legend Ramon Dekkers passed away after an afternoon bike ride at the age of 43. The world of fightsport expressed their grief and condolences as one following the unexpected news. And though it might seem absurd to some for so many to mourn the death of a man they never knew, Ramon Dekkers’ impact on the world of combat sports was immeasurable.

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Though in the wake of his passing it will go mostly unmentioned, some considerable controversy has surrounded Dekkers’ status as an all-time great in the sport of Muay Thai. As is often the case with celebrated people, many critics have striven over the years to damage Dekkers’ legacy by calling into question his opposition and his skill.

Asking whether or not Ramon fought the best, or was the best, is a meaningless question. Or rather, the answer is meaningless. It is irrelevant. We may as well ask whether or not Fedor Emelianenko always fought the greatest competition (he didn’t), or whether Muhammad Ali always displayed the cleanest technique (he didn’t). These men are not judged by the finite aspects of their fights, but by their incalculable impact on their respective sports and the world. And Ramon Dekkers belongs in this Pantheon, among these men, for bringing the sport of Muay Thai to the biggest international stage it had ever known at his time. For fighting every fight like it might be his last. And for being ever willing to face whatever opposition stood before him.

So let’s celebrate the deeds of the great Ramon Dekkers with a brief look at some of his finest exhibitions of talent and skill. Today we’ll be examining his fighting methods, and how he utilized his proto-typical Dutch style and trademark aggression in four of his most legendary bouts–those with his longstanding rival, fellow great Coban Lookchaomaesaitong. Let’s start at the beginning.

(Note: If you hadn’t guessed, it’s bound to be another long one. But I promise, this one deserves the in-depth treatment. Each fight’s description will be liberally sprinkled with times to help you find the correct moment in the fight. I will be referring to the timestamps of the embedded videos, not the times on the fight clocks.)

DEKKERS VS. COBAN I

The first matchup shows us a very young-looking Dekkers against a very confident-looking Coban. In some very ridiculous shoes.

It doesn’t last long.

Immediately after the bell rings, Ramon switches his stance. The first time I watched this fight, I was taken aback by this. Stance-switching is not something that Dekkers was known for, or at least not to this degree, and he doesn’t look particularly comfortable doing it in this fight. His motive seems to be to match Coban’s southpaw stance so that he can use his jab and outside low kicks as he normally would on an orthodox opponent. But in reality, the serial switching only causes him to become less cognizant of his defense and his positioning.

2:14 is the perfect example of this. Dekkers steps outside Coban’s lead foot to line up his straight right to the body. This is basic orthodox vs. southpaw technique, and it’s executed well at first. But Dekkers’ doesn’t add any shots to the head with his lead hand as he exits, which would have dissuaded Coban from countering. Worse, he exits straight back to his starting position, standing straight up and leaving his right hand lowered. He pays the price for it, and is knocked out by a titanic left from Coban before the end of the first round.

This first bout shows us a tentative Dekkers, looking unsure about himself and not-so confident against his experienced Thai opponent. There are glimpses of the overwhelming fighter that Dekkers would become, such as the all-power combination at 0:35, but all the pieces were not quite in place. Despite rumors that something else was wrong with Dekkers that night, we can chalk this one up to inexperience and anxiety losing out to experience and confidence. Coban would prove the only Thai to ever knock Dekkers out, and he would never be able to do so again.

DEKKERS VS. COBAN II

Though it came not four months after their first meeting, Dekkers came into his second round with Coban looking like a much different fighter. Gone is the constant switching of stances–and the silly shoes as well. The fight begins and Dekkers meets Coban in the center of the ring, justifiably patient and reserved for the first few seconds.

Wait, never mind. Dekkers immediately tests Coban’s defense with a lead right and a graceful high kick.

Of the four Coban bouts, this one gives us our first real look at the dichotomy that was Ramon Dekkers. In his time as a fighter, Dekkers was called by two names. One, the title of this article, “the Diamond.” Not so much an intimidating fighter name as much as a compliment to the fighter’s prowess. His other name, however, is a different story. They also called him “the Turbine from Hell.”

Polished and clean, but hard and unbreakable, like a diamond. Dekkers had great technique and skill, and you can see that in this fight. Unlike his last bout, he seems very cognizant of his position at all times. He is constantly circling away from Coban’s powerful left hand, jockeying for the outside position with his foot. At 4:39 he changes levels as if to strike the body and, when Coban covers up, he shoots an uppercut between the gloves followed by a left hook that catches the Thai off-guard, trying to throw the same counter that ended their last fight.

And then we see how the Dutchman earned his other name. He smells blood, and the Turbine from Hell whirrs to life. At 4:42 Coban, still stunned by the left hook, tries to force the fight with Dekkers in an attempt to regain the advantage. Dekkers is having none of it. As Coban leans in to shoeshine the body, Dekkers grabs him by the neck. And though the Dutch style is well known to be inferior to the Thai style in terms of clinching, Dekkers knee and follow-up left hook are beautifully done. Coban staggers back into the corner, trying to tough it out in typical Thai fashion, refusing to step back without giving Dekkers a shot of his own. But the Turbine from Hell cannot be stopped. He pummels Coban mercilessly. No longer the young fighter that switches stance to land with his dominant hand as lead, he pounces with left hook after left hook, using his right hand as a jab to pin Coban against the ropes between shots.

Mercifully, at 5:02, the referee gives Coban a standing count. And Coban, to his credit, strides boldly after Dekkers as he returns to the neutral corner, staring at him steadily while the count is given. But confidence can’t save him. 5:13, and Dekkers walks calmly from the corner to meet his opponent and catches Coban, still busy posturing, out of position. A glancing right hand sets up the killing blow, a vicious left hook that has Coban crumpling into the ropes on rubber legs. A final right hand lands, but it’s mostly academic, and Coban spills to the floor like a corpse.

Finesse when desired, and unstoppable aggression when necessary. This was Ramon Dekkers fighting his fight.

DEKKERS VS. COBAN III

Now we get to Dekkers’ and Coban’s pair of decision fights. Obviously there is a lot more to break down in a five rounder than in a first round knockout affair, so I will just focus on a few highlight moments.

As in most Thai fights, the first and second rounds of this bout are largely throw-aways. If you scored every Thai fight with the first two rounds as draws, effectively none of the final verdicts would be different. This is just the way the Thais fight, and Dekkers obliged in this match. But rounds three through five are a must-see–start at 6:53 for the good stuff.

Perhaps Dekkers’ most impressive attribute in this fight is his incredible toughness. He sticks his chin out at Coban multiple times despite being laid on the canvas in the fourth. But there are some interesting techniques at play. Ramon incorporates a right-handed high block several times throughout the fight–8:10 and 8:15 for just a couple of examples. Apparently prepared at first to fight a cautious fight, he seems to expect Coban to respond to this with that looping left he’s so fond of–the same punch that floored Dekkers in their first encounter. But the Thai frequently lands a chopping left low kick whenever this bait presents itself, and Dekkers is usually unable to counter with punches as he hopes to do.

At 11:33, Dekkers pounces on the cornered Coban with a combination of punches, but forgets his positioning, and allows the Thai a slight angle. Much like in their first fight, Coban responds to Dekkers’ carelessness with a blistering left hand that plants Dekkers about three feet into the canvas and plywood. But the Dutchman stands and clinches, covers up, and survives the round.

At 15:54 Dekkers powers forward with a barrage of punches, using his new high block to defend against counters, and timing his right hands so that they enter inside of Coban’s looping lefts, forcing the Thai to clinch for protection. Watch as Dekkers does something next that I’m sure no one expected from the Dutch stylist: he dumps Coban with a slick throw, the Muay Thai equivalent of a back-arch suplex. He squares himself with Coban and drops his hips beneath those of his opponent. At 15:59 he bumps Coban’s thigh with his left knee and steps around the outside with his right foot, pivoting and pulling the off-balance Coban to the ground.

Coban takes the decision this time around. True, this fight saw Dekkers soundly outmatched, but the fire and talent was still there. And the story would be different for their final meeting.

DEKKERS VS. COBAN IV

One of Ramon’s finest performances, this fight really highlights his excellent kicks, and he shows some of his most technical boxing. At 5:37 he launches into a beautiful high kick that catches Coban on the arm, and then throws a punch with the same-side hand. Coban is caught off guard trying to counter the kick, and his hesitant right hook whistles past Dekkers’ head. This is a fine example of how to properly kick with the head off-center, and Dekkers brilliantly utilizes the right hand following the right kick throughout the fight to keep Coban from closing on him and countering with his own rear hand.

There’s another moment that many would overlook at first glance, beautiful in its subtlety. Readers of my blog will have heard me mention positioning before, and here is a fine example of what I mean by that term. At 6:25, Coban and Dekkers are standing before one another, jockeying for position. Watch their feet. Using typical southpaw vs. orthodox strategy (Jack Slack has popularized the term “open guard” for this type of engagement), Coban is vying to get his right foot outside of Dekkers’ left. But Dekkers is comfortable keeping the inside position here, and as he senses his opponent stepping to the outside, he lifts his front leg and effortlessly knocks Coban to the canvas with a perfectly placed teep. This demonstrates that, even with 110 fights under his belt, Dekkers was still learning and improving. Dominating the center line is key to controlling space, and sets the opponent up for the outside step and following rear hand or kick. And whereas Coban is simply trying to walk into that position, Dekkers is utilizing strategy to work his way there intelligently.

This willingness to take the inside also opens up angle for the rear inside leg kick, which Dekkers utilizes beautifully throughout the bout in conjunction with his middle and high kicks and his rear teep, constantly keeping Coban guessing and waiting on Dekkers to initiate. This fight gets a lot of criticism because of the fact that Coban was allegedly duped into fighting Dekkers, and the fact that elbows were not allowed. But Dekkers showed that, despite the lack of elbows, he was fully able to beat Coban in a more kicking-focused, Thai-style engagement. He showed that he knew when to switch on the turbine, and when to keep his attacks clean and polished like the diamond.

There is a sort of poetic symmetry to Dekkers’ four matches with Coban. A knockout replied with a knockout, a decision loss followed by a decision win. And though he returned to kickboxing briefly in 2005, Dekkers never challenged Coban to a fifth, deciding match. I’d like to imagine that he didn’t care about proving that he was the best, so long as the score was even, and so long as he got to fight. And you’d be hard-pressed to deny that Ramon Dekkers did that like nobody else.

So here’s to you, Mr. Dekkers. You gave us some of the greatest fights this sport has ever seen and inspired generations of fighters with your skill, your toughness, and your indomitable will. You survived more than two hundred wars against some of the best in the world. Now it’s time rest in peace. Thanks for everything, Ramon.

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Follow Connor on Twitter @ConnorRuebusch for updates on blog posts, most of which are much funnier than this one, I swear.

Prediction: Struve vs. Hunt

It is fitting that the UFC’s 8th Fuel event will be taking place in Japan. The card is chock full of MMA stars whose careers were made in the land of the rising sun, languishing though some of them are now in the UFC. Headlining the card we’ve got thawed Brazilian caveman Wanderlei Silva vs. Brian Stann, a man with Captain America’s patriotism, Batman’s jawline, and Aquaman’s personality. Also on the card, born-again Templar Diego Sanchez will be trying to put the fear of God into professional haymaker Takanori Gomi as both men strive to regain some semblance of their former glory.

But even more exciting than the cavalcade of Pride-era stars is the fact that this card follows one of Japan’s most beloved traditions: freakshow fights! Yes, since time immemorial brave men like Fedor Emelianenko, Royce Gracie, and Ikuhisa Minowa have walked the earth, challenging representatives of the extremes of the human physique, testing the limits of their relatively small frames against these giants. They happily crushed the likes of Akebono, Hong-man Choi, and Zuluzinho in a multitude of freakshow matchups, all for the pleasure and glory of the Emperor (and the Yakuza).

And, in the spirit of giving Japanese fans two very different-sized men to look at, the UFC is pitting the tallest fighter in the organization against the shortest man in the heavyweight division. Sunday March 3rd, “The Super Samoan” Mark Hunt (8-7) squares off against Stefan “Skyscraper” Struve (25-5). But the UFC has made a titillating change to the usual freakshow fight format: this one isn’t a guaranteed one-sided beatdown.

In fact, Hunt vs. Struve is a very promising matchup. And I have a good idea of who takes it. But first, let’s take a look at what these fighters have to offer.

hunto

Mark Hunt is a badass, and no mistake. If you doubt that statement, then I would direct you to watch his K-1 bout with Ray Sefo, in which he openly invites the fellow power puncher to hit him square in the chin several times, and then smiles, nods, and asks for more. Watch it on Youtube here, and behold the brotherhood of violence.

But Hunt is more than just tough. He brings a special skillset to the UFC, especially so in such a technically limited division. Mark’s striking is superb as far as heavyweights in MMA are concerned. He proved that in his bout against touted kickboxer Cheick Kongo, who simply had nothing to offer the seasoned K-1 veteran. In fact, there is a laundry list of things that Mark showed in the Kongo fight (his most impressive UFC win) that most heavyweights seem completely unable or unwilling to do. For one, he checked kicks like it was nothing, which seemed to baffle the Frenchman instantly. So Kongo quickly gave up on the kicks and charged Hunto with his usual barrage of power punches. The thing is, normally Kongo is fast enough and strong enough to get away with less-than-stellar technique. Not so with the Super Samoan. Check it out:

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Kongo’s lunging punch leaves him wide open for a counter. And Hunt’s footwork and head movement is just too much for him: almost effortlessly Mark fades the right hand and pivots into a cracking left hook that floors Kongo. This left hook is Hunt’s money punch. He likes to use it in conjunction with the right uppercut to keep opponents from changing levels on him and trying to take him down, or on its own, either as a counter or as a leaping lead that slips around and through leaky guards with ease.

And, on the subject of Hunt’s punches, how about his knockout power?

UFC-144-Hung-finishes-Kongo hunt-kongo-1

Note how little wind-up Hunt’s hands require to do significant damage, and how little clean contact. Even the glancing blows he landed on Kongo connected like sledgehammers. The same can be said of his famous uppercut knockout of Chris Tuchscherer–the man can crack, and what appear to be pawing or slapping shots regularly put his opponents to sleep.

Hunt also showed in his Pride meeting with Mirko Cro Cop that he’s perfectly willing to attack the body, as well as reminding everyone that he can take a flush Cro Cop head kick and keep coming. The body will be even more wide open on a towering opponent like Struve, especially considering the Dutchman’s cover-up style of defense, which we’ll get to in a moment. Expect Hunt to feint his way in and pound the torso of Struve with malicious intent, using those shots to bully the larger man into opening himself up for the knockout blow.

A final, and perhaps overlooked, aspect of Mark Hunt’s style is that he is a naturally gifted mixed martial artist. He has a great base, helped by his stocky stature, and he has quick, powerful hips. His fight with Cro Cop is further evidence of this. Despite being soundly beaten by Mirko in his K-1 days, under MMA rules Hunt was able to rough the Croatian up soundly, despite the fact that the head kick aficionado is remembered far more for his success in MMA than in kickboxing. Hunt was able to get in close and tire Mirko out by roughing him up and tossing him around. He was able to do the same to the big powerful Ben Rothwell in the UFC. The only trouble is that this natural tendency to pounce on his opponents and stick tightly to them is exactly what has landed him in so many submission finishes in the past. Hunt will have to be very cautious about following the Skyscraper to the ground in Japan this Sunday. His potential success depends largely on his ability to learn and improve his game.

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Stefan Struve has made his career getting his ass whooped and coming back to knock out or submit his foe. He’s tough, and he’s survived a lot of wars for his age. But the problem is not Stefan’s durability. It’s the fact that he gets his ass whooped in the first place. Stefan Struve is seven feet tall with an 84 inch wingspan, and yet when he fights it seems anyone who wants to is able to hit him in the face. This should not be.

Here, look at these stills of Stefan in his recent fight with Stipe Miocic.

Shitty defense

That is not the way a man of Struve’s considerable dimensions should be defending his space. Struve should present a very great threat envelope, and yet Miocic, a man eight inches shorter and with four fewer inches of reach is able to close in on the Skyscraper by simply feinting his jab. And the holes left in the sides of Stefan’s double forearm guard are more than large enough for a Mark Hunt leaping left hook to squeeze through. And, thankfully for Hunto, Struve unwisely hunches his back and leans forward when he covers up, making the openings easy for even 5’10” Mark Hunt to take full advantage of. Worse still, Struve is completely out of position in those stills, allowing Miocic to easily get dominant angles on him. This passive method of defense is far from optimal.

Stefan should be using his own jab or a stiff teep to maintain his space, but he doesn’t. In fact, the lack of a teep may be the most mind-boggling aspect of Struve’s game in light of his natural kicking ability and freakishly long legs. The addition of such a kick, or a sharp up-jab would help tremendously, and yet Struve only ever paws with his lead or throws a cumbersome, telegraphed power jab that invariably goes sailing over his opponents’ heads.

It isn’t simply that Struve doesn’t have a handle on his game yet. Despite his young age, the Skyscraper has been in 30 fights, and he fights practically the same way that he did in his first UFC outing three years ago, a beating at the hands of future champ Junior Dos Santos that saw Struve unconscious less than a minute into the first round. Despite the constant praises of Joe Rogan every time the young Dutchman steps into the Octagon, Stefan Struve has not shown much improvement in his striking. Rather than bettering his boxing ability and learning to utilize his reach to get underneath his opponents’ guards, he still fights as tall as possible (which means very tall for Struve) and throws constant, short range power shots without setups. Mark Hunt’s style of boxing is suited perfectly to his frame, whereas the looming Struve seems to get himself caught in mid-range wild exchanges that he should be able to avoid simply by jabbing and circling his smaller opponents.

stefan-struve_christian-morecraft

Despite his success in the above .gif, that is not the type of exchange that Struve belongs in. His chin happened to outlast the static jaw of Morecraft, but there’s no chance it will prove superior to the iron beard of Hunt. Unfortunately, the habitual Struve has given us good reason to believe that he’d be more than willing to get into a similar exchange with the Samoan this Sunday.

The real danger that Struve presents to Hunt is his ground game. For all his obliviousness to the advantages of his long limbs on the feet, Struve knows exactly what to do with his miles of legs on the ground. He has a very dangerous triangle and arm bar, and the straight arm bar has proven to be Hunt’s nemesis more than once in the past. The difficulty in accomplishing such a victory will be in getting Hunt to the ground, which is actually no easy feat, especially for someone with Struve’s lackluster takedown ability. The greatest chance that Struve has of submitting Mark is if, like Pat Barry before him, the stout kickboxer follows the Skyscraper to the canvas after hurting him. That is Struve’s domain. Unfortunately for him, the ref can make both fighters stand; he can’t make ‘em both lie down. Fortunately for him, Hunt has shown a dangerous tendency to get sucked into his opponents’ superior ground games many times in the past.

In this matchup, the power punching and clever footwork of Mark Hunt will outclass the clumsy boxing of Stefan Struve. The Skyscraper will have difficulty if he expects to outwork Hunt with his kicks, since this gameplan already proved futile for Mirko Cro Cop, a fighter with far quicker and far more powerful kicks than Struve. Hunt and Struve both have more than enough cardio to make it to the end of this fight, which will come before the end of the third round, so endurance shouldn’t be a factor. If Hunt avoids following Struve to the ground too carelessly after the knockdown, he should be able to take this fight. That’s a very big if, but still… My prediction: Mark Hunt by TKO in Round 2.

Follow Connor on Twitter @ConnorRuebusch for blog updates and more exceedingly accurate fight predictions.

Breakdown: Henderson vs. Machida

Well, the day came, and it went. The historic UFC 157 was a success and, while it didn’t possess the greatest card of fights, the event delivered what was promised. There were plenty of exciting moments: Urijah Faber clambered onto Ivan Menjivar’s back and sunk in a thrilling rear naked choke while the Salvadoran-Canadian stood helpless. And apparently unafraid of inviting even further comparison to the California Kid, Liz Carmouche attempted the same submission against Ronda Rousey, but ultimately failed to prevent the Rowdy One from adding yet another arm to her collection. And, as I predicted in last week’s article, Lyoto Machida walked away with the decision win over Dan Henderson.

victory

The decision didn’t come easily, and I mentioned last week that Lyoto would have some struggles in this bout. The nature of the struggle, however, was not one that I predicted. Yes, Dan was a game opponent, and he remained a threat until the very last bell. But it wasn’t Dan that gave Lyoto trouble; it was the judges. Shockingly, the first score announced after the fight was in favor of Dan Henderson, 29 points to 28.

Lyoto’s face at the sound of that announcement mirrored my own. “What?” I thought. “How could anyone have scored that bout with two rounds in Dan’s favor?” I began having vivid flashbacks of Henderson vs. Ninja Rua. But my dear friend Machida and I were both relieved to hear that the next two judges had given Lyoto two of the rounds, securing him the win. Granted, I was convinced that Lyoto had won every round. But I wasn’t about to complain about the victory being given to the right person.

Looking it up later that night, I saw that this man was one of the judges:

tumblr_m0y5gmrBQw1r3t53lo1_500…and immediately knew who to blame the pro-Henderson score on. I happily attributed the bizarre scores to the fifteen minute smoke break that Mr. Peoples undoubtedly took during the fight, and called it a day.

So imagine my surprise when I checked the message boards in the morning, and saw that a great number of people had scored the fight similarly. Machida was accused of running, being overly tentative, and failing to engage. I was puzzled, because the fight I watched gave me a different impression. The fight I watched looked an awful lot like, well… a Machida fight. I had expected no different. But lots of folks were disappointed with the Dragon’s performance, so I decided to review the fight and see if my initial assessment was wrong.

Well, people, I watched it again. And a third time, and a fourth. And, fortunately for me, I don’t feel there is any cause for me to rescind my initial opinion. I can go on being unrepentantly proud of my fight prediction skills, because that fight was Machida’s all the way. Furthermore, I still think there’s a strong case for giving him all three rounds. Let’s break down why.

(Note: This will not be a “Winning the Round” style of breakdown, despite the decision result. I just can’t limit myself to three techniques here. I hope you’re down for a long one. Grab a beer or fix some coffee–I’ll wait.)

ROUND ONE

Immediately after the fight began, Dan Henderson made his strategy clear. Machida struggled with defending low kicks against Mauricio Rua, and clearly Henderson’s camp thought this would be useful. Unfortunately, Hendo isn’t close to the kicker that Shogun was, and this was evident as he threw the first of many awkward, stiff-hipped low kicks.

kicking prowess of Dan HendersonThere was some reasoning behind this. It’s well known that Dan loves to throw the lead inside leg kick as set up for his right hand. And if you didn’t know about it before the fight, Mike Goldberg saw fit to inform the audience appoximately seventeen times per round that it is, in fact, Dan’s favorite set up. But not everything Goldie talks about is stupid. It’s a smart combo. The opponent is immobilized by the kick, and the simple action of setting the kicking leg down leads very smoothly into the massive slobberknockin’ overhand that Dan favors. It’s worked well many times in the past.

hendo shogunBut Lyoto is (usually) a southpaw. You could see Dan hungrily leap for the lead leg kick whenever Machida went orthodox in the first round, but Machida was wise to it and danced out of range, and otherwise the classic H-Bomb set up wasn’t an option. So Dan was relegated to throwing arthritic rear leg kicks instead. These kicks account for the relatively high number of strikes listed under Dan’s name in the CompuStrike summary, but they certainly didn’t count for much in the fight, and they’re no reason to give Henderson the first round.

A good jab would have really helped Dan here. If Hendo had prepared himself to step in behind a jab, he might have actually been able to pin Lyoto down or catch him mid-counter. Simple boxing suits Dan much better than the “Muay Thai” he was trying to bust out throughout this fight. And whereas a simple 1-2 is far from a guarantee against Machida, Dan’s kicks couldn’t have been hurting the Dragon any more than they were hurting his own toes. Very ineffective.

Machida, on the other hand, spent the first portion of the round just watching Henderson. He’s well known for his feinting movements, including the lady-killing rear-leg hip twist that he’s so fond of, and the Machida dance was on full display tonight. For over two full minutes the Brazilian read Henderson’s reactions carefully and avoided his strikes, only attacking himself with a handful of front kicks to the body. And then:

Left straightLyoto unleashes his legendary straight left. This punch went largely unnoticed because of the camera angle and Machida’s blinding speed, but it lands solidly. As proof, Dan was wearing a shiny new contusion under his right eye for the rest of the fight. Notice how Lyoto intercepts Henderson–his left hand connects while Hendo is still in the process of loading up his right– and then immediately takes the angle and puts himself in a position to defend. Dan bullrushed him after this, but to no avail.

This little encounter proved to be the model for the rest of the night’s exchanges. Dan would jump in loading up the big punch, and Lyoto would intercept. Moments after this straight left, a hard left body kick interrupted another of Dan’s awkward kicks, followed by a pair of punches. Seconds later Dan lunged forward into the first knee of the night, which didn’t land perfectly, but certainly stopped the All-American’s momentum well enough.

And then Dan’s only real success in the entire fight.

h-bombBlammo! Lyoto takes the H-bomb to the chin, and another one to follow up. I’d like to say that I was impressed with Dan’s quickness on these shots, but at the time I was shitting myself. I was sure that Hendo had just knocked out Lyoto Machida. But the Brazilian ate the punches like Acai and, tying up with ten seconds remaining, sealed the round for good with a beautiful takedown.

sasae

Machida has a very strong underhook, and he walks slowly backwards, feeling for Henderson’s weight to shift. As soon as he feels Dan step and put his weight on his left leg, Machida kicks out the right leg and twists the Greco-Roman wrestler down to the mat. Seconds left and Machida connects with a hard left hand and a forearm to the temple before walking away, mouthing the Portuguese for “like a boss” to himself. Meanwhile, Dan staggers back to his corner breathing hard, undoubtedly haunted by the ghost of Thiago Silva, whose fate he almost just met.

ROUND TWO

Round two showed us an increasingly frustrated Dan Henderson. Aside from those awkward kicks and one solid left hook, Henderson still finds it nearly impossible to lay a hand on the dragon. But far too many people are making the mistake of blaming this on Henderson. No, Dan did not present a wide array of attacks. He was pretty much always looking for that right hand, and his assault was further hampered by his reluctance to commit himself to that one attack the way he might have against a slower striker like Shogun. Granted, that conservative attitude might have saved Dan from suffering his first knockout at the precise hands of Machida.

Regardless, Dan’s frequent overhands couldn’t find their mark because of an adaptation that Machida has made recently to his game, one that I, for one, am very glad to see. Dan very well might have knocked out the Machida that fought Shogun, or even the one that was knocked down by Jon Jones just over a year ago. But not this Machida. Check out these stills:

chudan haishu ukeHere we have what I believe is called Chudan Haishu Uke, or a high back hand block. It’s basically a variant of one of the first techniques you would learn as a six year old at a Karate dojo. And wouldn’t you know–the damn thing works! The Machida who used to backpedal away from strikes with his hands down and his chin in the air is no more! Well, he still carries his chin high, true. And yes, he still backpedals an awful lot. But by gum, he blocks when he does it now!

Would this sort of defense fly in high level boxing or kickboxing? Probably not. But Lyoto Machida proves once again that the simple self-defense minded techniques of Karate can be very effective in MMA.

Aside from defending, the Dragon was also able to land a front kick to the face followed by a series of punches, a spinning back kick at the end of the round, and a whole slew of vicious knees to the body. But the one attack that stood out in the second frame was this tremendous body kick.

body kick

Dan wants to throw a right hand. It would be nice for this one to catch Machida off-guard, but he’s Dan Henderson, damn it, so he telegraphs the shit out of it. Machida, of course, sees it coming, and immediately hop-steps into a huge left body kick. Notice how his head pulls back and slightly off-center when he kicks. Also, I don’t know if those two days in the company of Melvin Manhoef had any real effect, but this is much more of a powerful Thai-style kick than we’re used to seeing from Lyoto. He catches Henderson right across the liver with his shinbone while the American is reaching with a pawing jab, still cocking back his right hand. And the kick is so powerful, and catches Henderson at just the right moment, that it rips Hendo clean off his feet. Dan sprang right back up after this blow landed, and seemed determined to teach Tito Ortiz a thing or two about absorbing body shots, but the kick was spectacular nonetheless.

ROUND THREE

Final round, and Dan is getting frustrated. He threw up his hands in exasperation before walking back to his corner after the second round, and he comes out in the third still breathing heavily. Machida blasts him with a cracking bodykick, and then decides to play around with some sort of Zab Judah-esque 52 Blocks hand movement. You could call it feinting, but I call it too much time spent hanging out with Anderson Silva.

After another right hand is blocked (kiyah!), Dan tries a new technique. Wait, no. He tries an inside leg kick. Except this time it has a visible effect.

Dan takedown

He catches Lyoto while the Brazilian is trying to counter him, and knocks his leg out from under him. The Karateka falls to the canvas with Dan inside his guard. This, right here, is the only justifiable reason I see to give Hendo a round. He controls Machida from the top and tries to land elbows to the body and leg, but Lyoto’s closed guard is very strong. I was a bit disappointed by this at first. I was hoping to see some submissions or sweeps from Machida. At one point he could have taken Dan’s back, but he seemed content to protect himself and ride out Dan’s assault. But then he showed us that there are some facets to his ground game with a slick hip bump sweep. He couldn’t put Dan in mount, but he managed to disengage and get back to his feet.

And, for those detractors of Machida’s evasive style, I would point to the final minutes of this fight as a counter. For the rest of the round, it’s Machida on the front foot and the gassed Dan Henderson retreating. The roles are reversed, except that Lyoto’s aggression is actually effective.

final minute

Lyoto first teaches Dan a lesson on throwing inside leg kicks with a vicious blow to the thigh. Soon after he throws the jumping front kick that he used against Couture, and follows it up with a blistering roundhouse kick. Both land directly on Dan Henderson’s granite chin, and he smiles at Lyoto. In response, Lyoto makes sure to do even more absurd hand movements for the rest of the round, including what appears to be the Lyoto Machida version of Nick Diaz’s favorite taunt.

Considering that Hendo was unable to do any considerable damage from his top position and spent the rest of the round retreating and defending without countering, there is still a very strong case for giving this round to Machida.

Throughout the fight, Machida landed the cleaner shots and avoided being hit himself, taking only two punches in the entire fight. Octagon control is a factor, but Lyoto displayed more of the coveted generalship than Dan throughout the bout. Remember, walking forward is not control. Allowing a guy to walk into your strikes while avoiding his is. Pat Barry recently said it best, and I’m paraphrasing: “Guy A is walking forward, Guy B is walking backward. If Guy B is landing more shots, then it’s time for Guy A to start running forward.” Simply walking into counters is not effective aggression.

So, Dan: I love you, buddy. But you knew coming into this what Machida was going to do. And Lyoto, despite all the detractors and booing goons in the crowd, I thought you did your work beautifully.

So. Who’s up for another try at the Machida Era?

‘Cause I sure as hell am.

Edit: For those who still have doubts about who won that fight, or those who love watching Machida work as much as I do, there is a lovely thread on the Sherdog forums with tons of .gifs from the fight. You can find that here.

Follow Connor on Twitter @ConnorRuebusch for blog updates, or if you prefer his writing in much, much smaller portions.

Winning the Round: Gunnar Nelson vs. Jorge Santiago

In the wake of a multitude of shocking and inappropriate fighter releases following UFC on Fuel 7, I figured I’d try to lighten things up by going through the positive aspects of the seventh Fuel card. If you watched the fights, then you know that the card possessed a record number of decision fights; nine of the bouts went to the judges, and of the two TKO’s, one was due to a calf injury. So on paper, you might expect it to be a boring card. But you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.

Fuel 7 was one of those rare stacked cards (if not stacked with huge names then with promising matchups) that really delivered, despite the lack of finishes. And, in the spirit of these many hard-fought decisions, I’d like to formally announce the start of a new feature on PEB: a little segment called “Winning the Round.”

Yes, yes. Finishes are awesome, and everyone prefers a devestating, definitive victory. But winning rounds is an important aspect of almost every combat sport, and often the fate of the round can come down to a single move: a powerful takedown, a hard right hand, a technical sweep or pass. Other times, a fighter will have repeated success throughout the round with a particular technique: his jab can’t seem to miss, or he consistently lands low kick after low kick. In Winning the Round, I’m going to break down the most important move of each round of a recent decision fight. Think of it sort of like the UFC’s “Move of the Fight,” only I don’t have to pretend that Metro PCS or whoever came up with the idea.

So here we go–Winning the Round, brought to you by me.

If you read the title (and statistically speaking it’s the only part you read), then you know what fight I’ll be going through for today’s installment. Last Saturday Gunnar Nelson, the promising and still undefeated Icelandic prospect, battled it out with Jorge Santiago, a man whose confusingly pronounced name makes it even harder for Americans to get behind any of these Brazilian fighters. (Make up your mind Brazil. “Hor-hey” or “George,” it’s one or the other.) Despite the decision, it was an entertaining fight. In fact the only person not entertained by the bout was probably Gunnar Nelson himself.

Photo by Haraldur Dean Nelson

Photo by Haraldur Dean Nelson

So let’s break it down.

ROUND ONE – Clinch Knees

The first frame proved to be more or less a feeling-out process. You could call it a draw, but it wasn’t quite that close. And despite the fact that one of the judges obviously thought so, I think you’d have to be pretty delusional to give this round to Nelson. His only real success was in a takedown that, however beautifully executed, didn’t lead to any successful groundwork. He did very little damage aside from a handful of kicks. And though I’m tempted to reward him for throwing side kicks, a rarely seen technique that the Scandinavian nonetheless utilized very cleverly, I have to say that Santiago stole this one with his striking.

It’s always hard to pick a definitively successful technique in such an uneventful round, and no technique did colossal damage, by any means. But it was the collective success of Jorge Santiago’s knees that earns him the ten points in my scorebook.

The fight begins with both men in very different stances, Gunnar with his peach-fuzzy chin high in the air, Jorge hunched over like a bulldog ready to pounce. Before a minute has expired, Santiago swings a few wild punches at Nelson, failing to connect. But as he crashes into Nelson against the cage, he slams the first of many knees into the Scandinavian’s abdomen. In characteristic style, Nelson gives no indication that he’s hurt at all by these knees, but I’m not sure the robo-viking’s face will ever be a trustworthy indicator of his feelings.

As the round progresses, Nelson begins seeking the clinch to look for the takedown, and it is here where Santiago has the most success with his knee strikes. As Nelson leans into him looking to control his upper body, Santiago cracks him in his exposed ribs with a series of knees that visibly shudder the Scandinavian’s body. Knee 1

The same happens after the takedown, with the Brazilian landing knees against the cage to thwart his opponent’s clinch work.

And there’s not much else to say about this one. Some hard knees, but not enough to stop the always in-shape Nelson or slow him down whatsoever. 10-9 Santiago.

ROUND TWO – Double Leg Takedown

Now things start to pick up for Gunni. A series of wide but accurate punches forces Santiago to cover up against the cage, and Nelson pounces, entering the clinch and initiating a seemingly effortless takedown.

Here he is looking for a double leg, but Santiago immediately fishes for an underhook.

takedown 1After Santiago, apparently confident in his hips, makes the mistake of switching to wrist control, Nelson drops hard to one knee and drives forward.takedown 2Sensing that Santiago has lost his base, the Scandinavian runs a very short pipe on his foe, circling and dropping the Brazilian to his back. takedown 3And proceeds to smash him with elbows and accurate punches from the top.takedown 4

Not only was Nelson able to keep Santiago down after this takedown, but he managed to pass his guard, mount the Brazilian, and land hard punches and elbows all the while. Furthermore, Santiago walked to his corner looking absolutely worn out. Thanks to that double leg and the beating that followed, round two goes to Nelson, 10-9.

ROUND THREE – Uppercuts

The final round is characterized by two things: Jorge Santiago’s cardio, and Gunnar Nelson’s chin. As the round opens, both fighters look a lot more static than they had in the first frame. But Nelson proves to be the more willing competitor. He had already landed his left hand a number of times earlier in the fight by first parrying down Santiago’s lead hand with his own and lunging in with the reverse punch. He threatens with the same attack throughout the first minutes of this round. To prevent the left from landing, Santiago begins placing his lead hand on top of Gunnar’s, but this opens up the lane for an uppercut, and Nelson responds accordingly. He connects with a vicious right hand that threatens to send Jorge Santiago’s head into orbit.

uppercut 1Sensing that this might be his meal ticket, Gunni loads up another uppercut. The opening is there, as Santiago leans forward with his back to the cage, chin unprotected.

uppercut 2

Santiago still has a little left in him, though, and he shoots a right hand straight down the pipe into Gunnar Nelson’s chin.

uppercut 3

But it’s as hard to stun the viking as it is to make him smile, and Santiago’s counter fails to prevent the uppercut from finding its mark. The blow wobbles him and he struggles to defend a series of follow-up strikes. He throws wild, powerless punches and stumbles around the cage, completely exhausted. And while Santiago is busy perfecting his Drunken Master impression, Nelson nails him with yet another beautiful leaping uppercut to the jaw.

uppercut 4Despite Jorge Santiago’s best efforts, he proves powerless to sway the will of the uncaring Norse gods, and they lead their champion to victory. A last 10-9 round gives Nelson the fight, 29-28.

So that’s that! A thrilling fight indeed. Hopefully we’ll only see more of the same and better from Gunni in the future. If you’ve got suggestions for my next article, let me know. Comment, share, and tell me how you feel. Communication is important, you know.

Follow Connor on Twitter @ConnorRuebusch for blog updates, as well as updates on what he had for lunch today.

UFC on Fuel TV 7 Fight Breakdown: Smug Satisfaction Edition

Well, it happened just as I predicted on Twitter. On Saturday Cub Swanson (19-5) clashed with Dustin Poirier (13-3) for the co-main event of the UFC’s seventh stint on Fuel and walked away victorious. Okay, okay, I’ll admit: the win may not have come exactly as I guessed. I put out the notion that Cub would knock his opponent out, and instead he snagged a unanimous decision. But still, my prediction was correct enough for my taste, and thus correct enough to warrant me writing the rest of this breakdown wearing a smug little smirk. Let’s dive in.

The story of this fight’s standup portion was one of stance. More precisely, one of sound striking defense vs. poor striking defense. Cub Swanson, though not an incredible striker by any means, possesses an attribute overlooked by the majority of modern standup artists, even some of the world’s most dominant boxers and kickboxers. And that attribute or, depending on how you look at it, skill, is posture.

Take a look at the way Cub stands compared to Dustin.

posture

Cub’s back is more or less straight, his head off center, and his weight oriented over his back foot. This is good striking posture. Yes, he holds his chin a bit high at times. And his back does occasionally curl. But the small missteps in his stance are nothing compared to the many holes that Poirier’s presents. Dustin has his chest down and his chin up. No matter how high Cub carries his chin, his shoulders are naturally in a position to protect it. Not so for Diamond Dustin. Not only is his weight too far forward, but Poirier also has his head directly over his lead foot, just waiting for one of Cub’s vicious right hands to rip it off his shoulders.

Cub has caught some flak from commentary teams and fans about where he carries his hands. But the fact of the matter is that Cub’s defense is better than Poirier’s from the get-go, despite the fact that the Louisiana prodigy often carries his hands very high. Defense is not about hand placement, or at least it shouldn’t be–especially in MMA. It’s folly to count on 4 oz. gloves to protect you from strikes. Defense comes from stance. And one aspect of that is posture. Cub might hold his hands low, but guess who else did?

Gentleman JimThat’s Gentleman Jim Corbett, heavyweight boxing champion, genuine badass, and famed Kenny Florian lookalike. With his “scientific” approach to boxing, he unseated the great heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan and befuddled many larger, stronger opponents with his quick feet and clever defensive style. His stance and hand positioning flies in the face of what modern striking coaches teach their fighters, but Corbett is often credited with being the man who turned the sport of boxing from slugfest to art. And he and the many generations of knowledgeable old-schoolers that came into the sport for generations after him proved that defense has much less to do with hand positioning than it does with posture, footwork, and positioning.

And on Saturday it was shown once again. Cub was successful in his defense every time he would retract into this straight-backed defensive stance, pulling his chin down and his chest up to protect himself from Poirier’s punches. As a result, the only thing that Poirier was able to land convincingly in this fight were kicks to the legs.

In contrast, take a look at Poirier’s usual defensive reaction:

bad defense

He hunches his shoulders, curls his spine (counterintuitively bringing his head closer to his opponent), and covers up high with both hands. Worse, he takes his eyes off his opponent. Were Cub a better combination puncher, he could have really put a hurtin’ on Poirier every time he did this, taking angles and landing punches and kicks at will. As it was, he still managed to outwork and hurt Poirier.

And there are other problems with the stance. Though a front-foot heavy stance can facilitate kicking, which was obviously Poirier’s entire gameplan on the feet, it also opens the front leg up to counter kicks. As the second round opened, Cub faked a left hook into a left kick that shuddered into Poirier’s thigh like an axe into a very top-heavy tree, sending him stumbling off balance. He went on to land uppercuts and crushing body shots as the round progressed, all easily finding their way through Dustin’s porous defense. And Cub’s corner astutely pointed out every opening that Dustin was presenting. Even Kenny Florian was directing Swanson to throw uppercuts from the commentary table at ringside, but I don’t think Cub heard him. And we’d have known if Cub was paying attention to the Fuel commentary team; he would’ve dozed off mid-fight at the sound of Jon Anik’s nap-inducing drivel. (Joe and Mike, we never appreciated you…)

Many predicted that, though Swanson could land the more punishing blows on the feet, Poirier would quickly take him down and submit him. Poirier has a dangerous ground game, it’s true, but I suspected from the start that he would struggle with Swanson’s creativity and relentless workrate on the ground. Throughout the fight Cub displayed spectacular takedown defense, but when Poirier did manage to take him down, he thwarted his opponent with a relentless submission attack and consistent ability to get back to his feet.

When Cub whiffed on a flailing spinning backfist in the second half of round two, he got hit with a beautiful double leg. Unfortunately for the Diamond, Cub was thinking “attack” the moment he hit the canvas. Check this out; Dustin hits Cub with a powerful double leg:

takedown 1

Cub lands and immediately pops up onto one hip in an active, attacking posture:

takedown 2

And… boom. Omoplata:

takedown 3

Poirier’s shoulders proved freakishly flexible, but Swanson was able to use the omoplata very cleverly to stand up and go back to his boxing.

omoplata

It wasn’t until the third that Cub began to look a little vulnerable on the feet, probably as a result of his wild, lunging punching style gassing him out. And still, it all came down to stance, as Poirier was only able to land solidly on Cub when the better boxer took his eyes off his opponent. A solid jab would have served the Jackson’s MMA representative well here; though he was able to land with lead rights and left hooks throughout the fight by constantly flirting with the line of attack instead of using the typical jab set ups, a stiff left hand would have made a nice deterrent to keep Poirier from stalking him down in the final frame.

Regardless, the fight finished with a series of Poirier’s befuddled attempts to match Swanson’s pace on the ground after the So Cal native put him on his back with a beautifully executed takedown and stayed tight to him through every attempted escape and transition. Swanson was reading Poirier’s moves like Roy Nelson reads a value menu.

The bell rang (horn blasted?) just after Poirier squeaked out of a triangle/arm bar/kimura triple-threat and engaged the buttscooting Swanson in a final wild exchange Sakuraba-style, but all for naught. It wasn’t the knockout I was expecting, but Cub took this fight with relative ease. And I was pleased to see him prove that he’s a far better fighter than his long layoff and UFC debut loss had a lot of people believing.

So that’s that. If you want more fight breakdowns with loads more canned jokes, hit me up and let me know. I’m looking to analyze whatever you all want, provided that it’s a fight and not a worrying mole you discovered in the shower. Seriously, send me a message, find me on Twitter, or comment on this very page. If you’ve got a request or suggestion of any kind, I’m all cauliflower ears.

Mounted grin

Seeya Friday, folks.

Follow Connor on Twitter @ConnorRuebusch for blog updates and hilarious quips (hilarity not guaranteed).

Prediction: Hendo and the Dragon

Don’t let my last article regarding this event fool you. UFC 157 ain’t all about the ladies. In fact, there are a number of very enticing matchups to be had on this card: Josh Koscheck (hopefully) slugs it out with scrappy veteran Robbie Lawler, Urijah Faber comes back for a tune-up fight against a deceptively dangerous opponent in Ivan Menjivar, and suspect chin meets suspect skill in the sure-to-be tense meeting between Brendan Schaub and Lavar Johnson. But all of these, and even the championship main event, pale in comparison with the co-main, a long-awaited bout between two titans of the sport, and two masters of their respective arts.

Hendo Machida

That’s right folks! February 23rd, Dan Henderson (29-8) squares off against Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida (18-3) in a contest for number one contender status! If you didn’t just emit a tiny squeak of anticipation then, as Dana White would say, you’re not a fight fan.

This is one of those truly exciting, viscerally agonizing bouts to watch because, as a supporter of both combatants, I would hate to see either guy lose. Still, that doesn’t mean I want to see a draw. And I don’t think that’s going to happen.

It’s a fateful matchup for both combatants. Dan will be vying to prove that, while 42 might be too old to look inconspicuous at a night club, it’s not too old to fight for the title. And Lyoto will be stepping into the Octagon holding the same record possessed by Mauricio Rua in their first bout, a closely-matched fight after which the famed Karateka made the downhill slide from being undefeated, to going 2-3 in his last five. The Dragon will be trying hard to reverse that trend against Henderson.

So, who has the best chance? First, let’s take a look at the fighters.

Dan Henderson is a tough guy, and no doubt about it. He went from being Decision Dan, oft-boring wrestler of the early Pride era, to Hendo, Keeper of the Forbidden Punch. Fans went from complaining about his gift decisions to speaking in hushed tones about the malevolent spirit that lives inside his right hand.

But I’ve got news for you: Hendo has always hit hard. When he caught people in his early days they didn’t just wince; fighters have always gone down when he touches their chins. It’s an indisputable fact that the man has always packed a serious punch. No, Dan becoming a renowned knockout artist in his golden years has nothing to do with some sudden gain in power, but rather a much more serious devotion to standup training.

Most will, looking at this matchup, discount Henderson entirely as someone who possesses only a puncher’s chance. But Decision Dan was a puncher. Hendo, on the other hand, is a boxer.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s no Bernard Hopkins. He’s not a virtuoso fistfighter by any means. But it cannot be denied that Dan Henderson, over the past few years, has developed some respectable, if simple, boxing skills. When everyone knows what you’re going to hit them with and you still manage to hit them, calling “lucky shot” doesn’t cut it. Hendo’s got the power, but he’s also got the know-how to go along with it.

For proof, just watch his bout with Michael Bisping, an accurate and speedy, if defensively liable, fighter. Here, it’s free on Youtube. In that fight Dan very rarely eats solid punches; even Bisping’s lightning quick jabs can’t seem to find his face. Sure, he might sometimes present the illusion that he’s being outworked, but that’s only because Dan’s a patient fighter. He stalks, stalks, stalks, and waits for his opportunity. And then, when it presents itself, he pounces with stunning ferocity. I’m sure you all know the image well by now, but hey, it can’t hurt to be reminded what Hendo is capable of doing to “more technical” fighters:

Dan Henderson Michael Bisping

It should also be mentioned that this will be a three round fight. Those who watched Henderson vs. Rua will recall that Hendo tends to fade in the later rounds. But keep in mind that Hendo’s exhausted fourth and fifth frames came only after three rounds of administering a savage beating on an indestructible opponent. Machida will be disappointed if he expects the old man to gas early in this fight.

Still, Lyoto Machida is a challenging opponent for anyone. He’s certainly no Michael Bisping, with his cookie-cutter “MMA kickboxing.” His style is unique, and has proven hard to prepare for many times in the past. And whereas Dan has transformed into a moderately skilled boxer by MMA standards, Lyoto Machida is an excellent Karateka, both by MMA and Karate standards. He has speed, timing, and a wide array of attacks at his fingertips. Perhaps he no longer possesses the undefeated mystique of the karate master; we’re no longer expecting the Dim Mak to make an appearance in his bouts. But he brings a far greater variety of finely tuned, efficient techniques than Hendo, who only ever throws one of about four different attacks on the feet.

Machida’s wrestling will serve him well, provided he displays the high-level skills of old and not the curiously unrefined grappling we saw against Jon Jones. It’s well known that the Dragon possesses some of the best takedown defense in the UFC, particularly remarkable for a fighter whose every opponent must feel sorely tempted to take him down. Furthermore, Dan Henderson may have a dangerous clinch (he does), but the clinch is where Machida’s sumo background shines. If Couture couldn’t put Machida on his back, I’m not convinced that Hendo can, either. And that Karate/Sumo training isn’t just good for defending takedowns; I can absolutely see Machida taking the two-time Olympic wrestler to the canvas.

Speaking of takedowns, it is my desperate hope that Machida will employ some of his once-famous foot sweeps in this bout. Henderson keeps his weight back and off his front foot to load up his right hand, and this is prime picking for a sweepster of Machida’s caliber. If you’re not convinced, then behold these .gifs of the multi-faceted Karateka taking down two fighters also renowned for their excellent defensive wrestling.

Chito Ortiz didn’t see that one coming.

See that? There’s no way that fat BJ Penn is harder to take down than Dan Henderson. And that was absolutely effortless on Lyoto’s part.

The worrying thing is that Machida hasn’t been using his sweeps much lately. In fact, his fight against Jones, as I mentioned above, gave me the impression that he’s not been training much but his striking these days. I’m hoping to see a return of the Machida of old.

And maybe he could toss in a couple of those crushing knees to the body for good measure.

I’m predicting that this fight will ultimately look a lot like Machida vs. Couture (watch it, accompanied here by beautiful, musical Spanish commentary), but with Machida getting tagged a bit more frequently, and with Henderson being much harder than Couture to put away. To Henderson’s benefit, he doesn’t lean forward as much as Couture, so he’ll be relatively safe from the unexpected one-off kick that knocked one of the Natural’s teeth out.

As a final note: a lot of MMA fans will be tempted to employ MMAth on this one, since both fighters have fought Shogun in the past, Hendo in one of the UFC’s greatest fights, and Machida in one of its most controversial, as well as a rematch that resulted in a definitive knockout loss. We can compare opponents, but remember (stock explanation coming): styles make fights. And this particular comparison offers even less insight than usual. True, Lyoto had some difficulty landing convincingly damaging blows on Shogun during their bouts, at least without getting counter-kicked. But recall that those bouts were against “quick Shogun,” a potent fighter who has proved as elusive to Mauricio Rua these days as Machida is to most of his other opponents. You’d have to work pretty hard to convince me that the Shogun that fought Machida in 2009 is the same that gutted it out with Hendo in 2011.

And I mentioned that Hendo is patient, but patience can too easily become sluggishness. In waiting for his opportunity to strike, he tends to plod forward. That is not a tactic that has proved effective against Machida in the past. Furthermore, it is a near certainty that Henderson will only make use of his hands in this fight, making it even less likely that he will be able to match Shogun’s success against the Dragon.

So, my prediction? At UFC 157, the Karate Kid will get his wish of a rematch against the champion, but not without a fight. Machida by decision.