The art of footwork in MMA is a mysterious thing to most fans. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was an utterly novel and unknown martial art to American fans before MMA sprang up in the 1990s, most MMA fans today know the basics: the guard, the mount, the back mount, half guard, etc.
Because of the effort that the UFC and others have made to give fans the basics of BJJ and even wrestling, most fans know when a fighter is out of position on the ground or in the clinch while fighting for a take down. But the standup game has been neglected. Therefore fans often have no idea which fighter is out of position on the feet.
So before we get to Dallas Winston's excellent analysis of just how Rick Story capitalized on Thiago Alves' unconventional approach to the sprawl and brawl let's discuss the basics a bit.
Here's Frank Shamrock explaining the basics, using the metaphor of an analog clock:
The theory behind the clock is your opponent should always be at twelve o'clock and never at another time. So think of that as concept. Every time I'm going to get into any kind of altercation, this guy has to be right in front of me at twelve o'clock. If I let him slip off into any of these other timezones, I'm going to get hurt because it's not going to be effective.
Now you have safety in angles and what that means is: if I step in here at twelve o'clock, I'm going to step right into whatever he's doing. I can't have that. It's not safe. If I want to strike him, the safest thing for me to do is constant movement, forward motion, and step off at another time. Step off at ten or two, it's just like driving. Step off at eleven. Step off at one. But don't step in at twelve o'clock. That's where the shortest, fastest strike is and that is down the straight line.
Since we're talking about the straight line, let's address it. Punching straight is the quickest, powerfulest, and most effective way to get in there and punch first. So I want to avoid that unless I have the advantage. Assuming I don't have the advantage, I'm in a self-defense situation. I always want to step off to some of those angles. Let me show you what it looks like when I step off at one of those angles. Right now my man's at twelve o'clock and I am always going to leave him there. I want to step off over here to ten o'clock and throw my punch. That way, when he punches down a straight line, I won't even be here to get hit. That's the kinda striking you wanna do. Safe. Effective. Without damage.
The same holds true if I step to the other side. I'm going to step over here where he is not and then throw my punch and it will allow me to be out of the way of the straight line and then cut that angle and make the strike. Now kicking, kneeing, everything comes on that same clock theory. So if I wanna kick him, I'm going to step over here at ten o'clock and I'm going to kick him in the leg where he is not able to strike me. That's what the clock is about.
Think about that. Think about it when you're doing your shadow, you should always be at twelve o'clock, turning your body so you're facing and seeing yourself. Any time you're doing any sparring or shadow sparring or partner sparring, he should always be at twelve o'clock. Take a step to your left. Always at twelve o'clock. Take a step to your right. Always at twelve o'clock. Those little foot turns and things we did earlier, that's what will enable you to make that easy transition to so that he doesn't get over here and be striking when you're not seeing. That's the worst thing that can happen to you.
Alright with that basic intro out of the way, let's let Dallas G. Winston talk about sprawl and brawl footwork -- using the great Chuck Liddell and Lyoto Machida as examples of how it's usually done in MMA -- with gifs. Then he'll look at Thiago Alves' unique approach in his past bouts with Karo Parisyan, Josh Koscheck and Matt Hughes -- all with gifs. Then he'll break down exactly how Rick Story capitalized on Thiago's tendencies to get the win at UFC 130.
Alves vs. Story gifs by Grappo
All other gifs from MMA-Core.com
I give credit to Joe Rogan for picking up on this immediately when it started to shift the momentum strongly in Rick Story's favor, a few minutes into the second round. Thiago Alves exhibited solid takedown defense in his breakthrough fights versus Karo Parisyan, Matt Hughes, and Josh Koscheck, but did so with a style that differs from the norm.
The two best sprawl-and-brawlers of all time are Chuck Liddell and Lyoto Machida. They exemplify the more traditional strategy of staying afoot, which is facilitated by a lexicon of cunning footwork and angles. Liddell showed how to bolster your strengths by turning two of the most basic tools -- the left hook and the straight right -- into nearly unstoppable weapons with uncanny footwork.
On the right is when he folded Kevin Randleman in the opening moments of their UFC 31 bout way back in 2001. Although it's subtle, it was the first sign of his clever use of angles. Put yourself in Chuck's position with 12 o'clock being straight ahead, and notice he's shuffling back at a 4 o'clock angle instead of directly back at 6 o'clock; measuring distance and sighting in his left hook.
When Liddell explodes forward, he does so slightly to his left at 10 o'clock instead of straight forward, and hangs his hook out wide to give the strike a timing and trajectory that's more difficult to defend. His stance is also aligning Randleman dead-center in the crosshairs of his straight right for a follow up that he doesn't even need.
Also notice how Randleman is bouncing too obviously and emphatically on his toes, and Chuck times his attack so it lands just when Randleman is at the peak of one of his little hops. This leaves Randleman with no center of gravity or balance to react. It's not rocket science, but just a nice little example of how timing, angles, and footwork make this more than just a lucky punch.
Here, Liddell adds a twist that Thiago Alves desperately needed against Rick Story at UFC 130. Randy Couture, the greatest of all time at forcing foes into a corner and clinching, hurls a volley of strikes while trying to cut off the center of the cage. Watch Couture's very distinct move toward 10 o'clock during his second left-right combination to steer Chuck into the ninety-degree angle of the cage wall, after which he cuts a 2 o'clock to pin Liddell directly against the fence.
Just as Randy zig-zags from 10 to 2, with great locational awareness by avoiding having his back against the fence, Liddell circles hard to his right. This is highly applicable to the Alves-Story fight, because Story wasn't giving up any angles, so then the sprawl-and-brawler must create his own.
You can see that Chuck doesn't wait for an outlet to appear, but instead, makes his opening by throwing a right hook to clear a path. This is more of a distraction and a set-up than a punch intending to do damage, which is why Randy lowers his head and dives forward, expecting to clinch with a stationary Chuck Liddell.
That isn't the case, as Chuck sweeps his right hand across the pocket and pivots behind it, circling to Couture's vulnerable flank. This simple use of the angle is so perfectly executed that Chuck actually stands there for a second, pausing with his right hand cocked, waiting for Randy to turn and face him before drilling his chin.
Lyoto Machida has so many pivots, circles, and angles that he's done an instructional video just on footwork techniques. What I love about Machida is how, just when you think you have a read on his backward movement, he'll plunge straight forward and attack head-on at the 12 o'clock angle.
Watch Lyoto bomb forward with a left-right combination, and notice that he's already moving directly sideways at 3 o'clock to close out the combination. In what is his most devastating 12 o'clock attack, he knifes forward with a leaping knee to the midsection, using his opponent's surging momentum to his advantage while changing up his movements.
In the past, Thiago has relied much more on his raw strength and dynamic striking to keep takedown artists at bay. Alves has an atypical stature compared to most other sprawl-and-brawl strikers in that he is short and stocky with a wide base. Let's take a look at how he shook off his most voracious takedown threats leading up to UFC 130.
In the fights that vaulted him up the contender ladder and demonstrated his formidable takedown defense, instead of relying on evasive footwork like Liddell and Machida, Alves valiantly locked horns and deliberately met his attackers head on. The animations above depict why Alves is such an exciting fighter, as he employs the theory that "good offense is the best defense".
Capitalizing on the predictable "down" motion in a takedown, Alves fills the middle space in the pocket where the head of a takedown practitioner must be with brutal strikes. While you can see his lightning quick reactions versus Parisyan and Koscheck to snatch the Thai plum and control the head for his knees, watch the Matt Hughes sequence and notice how Alves predicts where Hughes' head would be in the traditional level drop. Even though the former champ tries to protect himself by putting his head over his left knee before dropping down, Thiago's power is too much and the spear-headed knee wrecks the unprotected midsection under the right arm of Hughes when he extends it to wrap him up.
Now that we've established how Thiago's takedown defense differs from the more popular style, let's analyze how Rick Story and his camp planned and executed a brilliant strategy to defuse it.
Story is very patient and methodical in the capture to the left.
His footwork is very intentional as he carefully shuffles to the right to cut off the center. What Story does next is another subtle example of how intelligence plays into his win.
Watch him throw two feints for the sole purpose of keeping Thiago guessing, and more importantly, to get a read on how he'll react. Story flicks out a half-assed left, and Thiago steps directly backward, then Story crouches down to fake a level-drop, and you can see Thiago react by lowering his own level, then backing farther into the corner.
Instead of making the same mistake that Hughes, Koscheck, and Parisyan made above, Story cuts off the cage and waits for Thiago to plant his feet and throw a strike. This is just a mediocre jab from Alves, but Story pounces on the opportunity, and of important note, sets his shot up phenomenally with strikes.
While Story deserves credit for designing an airtight strategy and using footwork to his advantage, he also exploited the lack of evasive movement and circling of Alves. To the right, we see Story force Alves so deep into the corner that he loses his footing and literally ends up throwing strikes with his back against a wall.
The static graphic above showing the locations of each fighter and their available attack patterns rings true the loudest here. At the beginning of the action to the right, Thiago has already allowed himself to be stuck in a bad spot by eliminating all of his backward escape routes, or the entire bottom half of the clock.
It becomes a serious strategic flaw when you can't even dart immediately left or right. Alves is forced to strike his way out of the corner, and do so in an upright position, which reduces the torque of his punches and makes him an easier target for the takedown.
We see the same occurrence on the left. When the sequence first begins, Alves is moving to his left, but doesn't make enough of an emphasized attempt to break free to the center by just letting Story take a step in front of him, putting up his guard and shuffling directly back into the cage wall.
Again, there's no power on his right hand because he's practically leaning backwards when he throws it. With his cage generalship, Story has eliminated almost all of Thiago's escape routes and reduced the power of his striking.
At perhaps the most critical crossroads of the fight, with time winding down in the final round, we see Alves with open space to his left. Instead of urgently commanding the open space to his left, or even blasting his own opening with strikes like Chuck Liddell did in the second gif above, he just backs himself straight into the corner.
In this position, Alves is only left with the straight-forward 12 o'clock attacks that Story can easily account for. He has no room to set up his retreat angles with combinations, and is reduced to throwing singular strikes with no set up. Again, Story's cerebral motion and gameplan have halved Thiago's potent offense.
What Story deserves high accolades for is remaining unpredictable by refusing to be one-dimensional in his stalking. Were he to simply corner Alves and drop for takedowns, the chances of Alves catching him on the way down like he did with Koscheck, Hughes, and Karo would be much higher, even if the shot was set up with strikes.
Not only does Story set up his takedowns, but he keeps Alves guessing by committing to combinations with his hands. To the left, after trapping Alves in an unfavorable position and cutting off his escape routes, watch how Story ever-so-slightly bobs his head downward to mimic the beginnings of a takedown attempt. This causes confusion and hesitation for Thiago, who anticipates the shot, and leaves him more vulnerable when Story switches up his offense and unleashes a strong volley of strikes.
This final sequence is probably the most blatant example of how more intelligent cage motion and footwork would have enabled Thiago's offense. Without it, he ends up reducing the effectiveness of his normally fiery offense, and as indicated earlier, the way he stops takedowns.
Thiago pushes Story away and retreats to the open space, having the entire breadth of the octagon to work with if he wants it.
However, instead of taking the center of the cage and retaining the use of myriad angles to supplement his striking, he drifts backward, directly into the corner. This is more of a case of a flat-out error by Alves.
From a perspective of proximity and location alone, evasive footwork is the foundation to avoid clinching and takedown attempts. Thiago took a different approach by confronting his adversaries directly with strength and striking, but in this case, Story used both his mental wit and physical muscle to make him pay for it.
One of the biggest drawbacks from Thiago Alves' more physical approach is something else that Rogan noted on the broadcast, which is how severely fatiguing it is. When you dart out of range using circles and angles like Machida and Liddell, the only energy you expend is through footwork. When you remain stationary and try to power your way out of trouble, your cardio drains quickly, and your punching power with it.
Try hitting a heavy bag for five minutes and remember how it feels, then try it again, only first, shake off ten takedowns before hitting it. You'll feel as if you're swinging 50-pound bags instead of fists.
Here's the video of Frank Shamrock explaining the clock metaphor of footwork and basic angles: