Mixed Martial Arts is a complex sport that includes many different aspects. Here, I'm taking a look at a key upcoming fight and breaking down just one of those aspects - the stand-up.
Evans's stand-up game has been called everything from superb to abysmal. Part of the reason for this wide range of views is that his stand-up style is constantly evolving. When he started in the UFC, he was primarily a wrestler. Starting with the Michael Bisping fight, he began focusing on his striking, almost to the exclusion of his wrestling. Following the loss to Lyoto Machida, he began bringing the two together, using his striking game to set up his takedowns.
Strengths - Rashad's greatest asset to his striking is his speed, both in his movement and his hand speed. He is able to move around the cage very easily, and can typically beat his opponent to the punch, particularly on his jab. In his last fight against Rampage, he began really using this speed effectively, taking the Machida style of moving quickly inside to strike, then getting back out of range. He also uses a left jab, left hook combo often, which he can use effectively due to his hand speed. Defensively, the hand speed also lets him deflect shots as they are coming in.
Outside of just the hand work, Rashad also uses speed in his overall movement. He has been pushed into bad spots against the cage many times (which he should work on improving), but typically uses his feet to get out of those positions quickly. Those fast feet also allow him to step to the side of his opponent, creating angles for his punches. His final use of speed comes in his head movement, as Rashad does a lot of ducking and slipping punches - a very effective way to avoid your opponent.
Weaknesses - While that hand speed is a big plus, Rashad's reliance on it does lead to a strong negative in his defenses. Evans often leaves his hands out of position, either hanging them low or leaving the left dangling outside to throw off his opponent. These create gaps in his defense, and good strikers have been able to use those gaps to bring punches into Rashad's head. Lyoto was able to drop him because Rashad was leaving his head exposed (see gif on right), and Bisping had similar success in round 2 by cutting through Rashad's defenses. He also has problems with this when he gets in exchanges, as he tends to get his hands out of place once he's stunned. Again, you see this against Lyoto. One other defensive weakness - against Forrest Griffin, Rashad began to drop his hands to deflect Forrest's leg kicks. This is a terrible move, as it allows your opponent to fake a low kick, bringing your hand down, then connect with a high kick to your now exposed head.
The most common weakness often mentioned for Rashad's striking is his footwork. It's true that his footwork is not technically correct, as he often gets his feet behind each other, putting his feet in a straight line and getting off balance. But he has made this footwork effective for himself, as it contributes to his speed. The only time he has really gotten into trouble from that footwork was against Thiago Silva, who caught him in the 3rd round when Rahsad's feet were out of position - watch Rashad's left leg at the start of the gif. But normally, he makes that non-traditional footwork work for him.
Known primarily for his ground and pound and takedowns, Tito's stand-up skills are not often discussed. But it was those skills that led to his win over Ryan Bader, and they deserve a close look. I should add that, because Tito has been around for years and gone through a lot of injuries in that time, I'm focusing this analysis on his fights since his 2006 return, as earlier fights seem less relevant to the fighter he is today.
Strengths - While they are not going to set the world on fire, Tito's striking skills are overall very sound. It's that overall skill that is his best asset as a striker. Tito brings a surprising amount of variety to his striking with punches, kicks, and both knees and dirty boxing in the clinch. Those kicks in particular show a lot of variability, as he will use leg kicks, body kicks, head kicks from both the lead and rear leg, with the front inside leg kick being one of his best strikes. What this variety does is throw his opponents off balance and keep them guessing. It's hard to know exactly what kind of strike Tito is going to throw next, which makes it hard to defend that strike. It also creates openings for Tito to transition from strikes to takedown attempts, which remain his strongest area.
Weaknesses - Despite his solid overall game, there are definite weaknesses for Tito in striking. Perhaps the biggest is his speed. Tito's had a series of injuries that have slowed him down considerably, and he just does not have as much speed in his movement or strikes anymore. You can see this in his stance as he remains very flat footed and heavy on his feet. This problem worsens as the fight progresses and Ortiz tires. You saw this speed most clearly exploited in the Machida fight, as Tito had no answer for the superior speed advantage Lyoto showed. This slower movement can also cause him problems defensively, as he doesn't always get his hands in tight to his head as the fight progresses. Matt Hamill used a lot of feints to bring Tito's hands away from his head, then was able to connect before Tito recovered.
HEAD TO HEAD
Both men have a weakness that plays to their opponent's strengths: Rashad allows himself to be pushed back towards the cage, a move that is not good against a fighter like Ortiz who knows how to use the cage to help his striking, takedowns, and ground work; while Ortiz is a bit slow in his striking, a problem that is exacerbated in this fight by Rashad's speed. The trouble for Ortiz is that I think Rashad can overcome his weakness of positioning, while Tito can't overcome that speed disadvantage.
ADVANTAGE: RASHAD EVANS