Be it the UFC on Fox show, the past season of the Ultimate Fighter, that classic match between Henderson and Shogun or UFC 140 that convinced you to come looking for more MMA, welcome!
Now maybe you throw a mean double jab followed by a 5-8 or maybe you don't know a triangle from an octagon, either way this article is for you. This piece looks at the arts, techniques and strategies that make up this quickly evolving sport. And we will start the way every fight starts, on the feet. While the striking technique of MMA fighters is often decried, the sport boasts some of the best functional strikers in the world and the skill is a critical one for success at the upper levels of the sport.
Now if you are a fan of striking arts the one thing you might notice right away is the range at which MMA striking exchanges take place. Because of grappling, takedowns and knees, an inside boxing game consisting of shoulder rolls and counter punching is not practical, so those looking to strike keep a healthy distance from their opponents.
This longer distance makes the most foundational punch in boxing, the jab, even more important in MMA. While there are plenty of fighters who don't use the jab effectively in MMA but those who do command the distance at which the fight takes place.
Here is UFC Welterweight champion using his jab against then UFC Lightweight Champion B.J. Penn. As you can see a jab is a simple straight punch with the lead hand, and it is not meant as power punch. The jab is meant to hurt, notice how Penn's head snaps back, but it also disrupts the vision and can stop an attack before it starts. The jab can also be used to measure distance and test an opponent's defensive reactions. As a result the jab is often the lead punch in combinations, the most famous being the 1-2 or jab-cross. Fighters who don't use the jab effectively are often reduced to simply lunging in for simple one or two punch attacks that can be easily countered.
While the hands are the place most fighters feel most comfortable starting to learn striking, it is important to remember that in MMA there is more than just punching. Kicks are just as effective offense tools and next to nobody kicks more effectively than Muay Thai fighters.
In Muay Thai the head kick is devilishly difficult to land, requiring deception and timing to use effectively, the body kick is dangerous because an opponent could easily catch the kick and then throw the kicker, and as a result the leg kick is the primary offensive weapon. This kick is like a body punch in boxing, it is used to sap an opponent's energy and add up over the course of a fight.
Here is UFC Welterweight Thiago Alves showcasing his excellent leg kicks against John "Doomsday" Howard. There are two basic types of leg kicks: inside and outside. The inside leg kick is normally thrown with the lead leg and targets the inner thigh and the groin muscle. Most low blows in MMA are often the result of inside leg kicks gone wrong. The outside leg kick targets the outer thigh and is often throw with the back leg and so has hip rotation behind it making it very powerful.
The ideal leg kick results in contacting shin bone with the meat of the thigh, and since there are major nerves traveling up both sides of the leg, the pain can be extreme. The damage done by repeated leg kicks can be serious and can stop fights, but it requires repeated kicks to the same spot. Now unlike the jab, the leg kick is often the strike used to finish combinations with targeting the leg the opponent is putting his weight on to maximize its effectiveness.
These two techniques are just small steps in the world of striking. A wide array of strikes are open to MMA fighters; hooks, crosses, uppercuts, knees, head kicks, spinning strikes and many other exotic techniques. Integrating all these together is part of the challenge and appeal of MMA.
While the offensive abilities translate very well from other arts, were accomplished strikers often run into trouble in the defensive aspect of striking. One of the culprits of this is the gloves, MMA gloves are much smaller than boxing gloves.
The boxing guard uses the arms to protect the body from hooks to the liver and uses the padded gloves to protect the face. While this works well with the large gloves, the smaller gloves of MMA leaves too many places for punches to slip through if a fighter simply 'puts on his earmuffs'.
Here is former UFC Lightweight Champion and UFC Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell unleashing one of his signature salvos of punches. His victim is another former champion Tito Ortiz, who employs a class boxing guard and while it does stop a few strikes many of Liddell's punches slip through all the openings.
As a result MMA fights more frequently use a block that comes from Muay Thai.
Quinton "Rampage" Jackson used this block to perfection in his final fight with Wanderlei Silva. Instead of using his gloves to defense his head, Jackson brings up his entire arm to cover his chin when Silva comes in throwing hooks. He sweeps his hands over his head bringing up forearms, biceps, and elbows all to deflect the incoming punches. This guard is very effective for protecting the head but leaves the body wide open to punishment.
Head movement is an important aspect of defensive striking in MMA because of the reduced effectiveness of gloves for blocking. Slipping punches, using slight movements of the head to avoid a punch by a small margin and then counter (often called slip-and-rip), is a vital skill in upper levels of MMA striking. Dramatic bobbing and weaving is not often seen in MMA, though it is sometimes, but there is a serve risk of weaving your way right into a knee or head kick KO, so most fighters tend not use this.
The most effective defense in MMA against strikes is footwork. Fighters cannot hit what they can't catch and proper use of angles and footwork can keep a fighter out the proper distance to be struck.
There is no fighter in MMA better at this than former UFC Light Heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, who because of his karate background has light and quick footwork. He uses that footwork to dictate the distance at which the fight takes place. He throws a quick leg kick and when Rampage Jackson looks to respond, Machida quickly retreats. Anyone from a boxing background may be appalled at his straight back retreat but the space fighters are given in the cages of upper level MMA promotions is much greater than a boxing ring and this make short bursts straight backwards more practical.
Machida creates enough distance that Rampage's punches don't land and when Machida reaches the cage he begins to move sideways and with no more space to open the distance he throws a quick punch and enters into the clinch, too close to be struck. The horn then ends the round.
The difficultly of developing high level defensive skills in striking means many MMA fighters tend to either rely on their offensive skills to stifle any offensive output of their opponent or their own natural ability to absorb blows (often called 'chin') to make up under-developed defense.
So that is the bare basics of the standing striking in MMA, catch this series next time for a break down of when fighters close into the clinch.