The upcoming UFC 144 event will feature the two most resilient lightweights in recent memory at the very top of the card as Frankie Edgar defends his title against Ben Henderson. Neither man has cruised through their careers with ease and both have had to claw back victory from the jaws of defeat several times. Iron wills, nearly limitless energy and the calm retention of technical skills under pressure have allowed Edgar and Henderson to survive and thrive in the shark tank that is the lightweight division. This two-part Judo Chop takes a look at what exactly the little things are that Bendo does to work his near-miraculous escapes and to stave off defeat until he can find and exploit a route to victory.
In his last bout, Edgar capped off the finest trilogy of fights in MMA with his dramatic comeback from near defeat and subsequent knockout of Gray Maynard at UFC 136. Edgar has retained his UFC title with quiet tenacity and is now one of the most respected people in the sport for his heart and desire to win. Benson Henderson, the man who will stand across from Edgar in Saitama Super Arena, took a hard lesson from his last defeat. The loss of his WEC title to Anthony Pettis at the end of the bittersweet, but great WEC 53 card ended with Benson reeling from the now-legendary Showtime Kick. After that defeat and the subsequent absorption of the WEC by the UFC, Benson roared like the lion his frizzy mane emulates throughout thrilling matches with Mark Bocek, Jim Miller and Clay Guida to claim this title shot. All four fighters have had Bendo in trouble at some point and every single time, he has escaped.
This first part takes an in-depth look at the WEC 53 fight against Anthony Pettis and the UFC 129 bout with Mark Bocek. Hit the jump for the fight breakdowns combined with the GIF goodies from Grappo.
The Showtime Kick was for a time the most vivid image in recent mixed martial arts history. The visual poetry of the kick was so strong that it overshadowed the actual fight itself, a back and forth battle between two closely matched competitors. Both Pettis and Henderson had the other in trouble in all phases of the game and in particular, the rear mount position figured heavily in the action.
At approximately the 3:30 mark of the third round, Pettis managed to work out of an open guard position and slide around to the rear mount position with a body triangle modification. In IBJJF competitions, he would achieve no points for this particular back take, but in real grappling and in MMA, such a position is extremely powerful. Finish opportunities open up and the body triangle can slowly constrict the energy and fight out of an opponent.
Pettis was on Henderson's back for over three minutes, but achieved no finish despite working constantly to generate an opportunity for the rear naked choke (RNC) or punching Henderson in the face. The lack of a finish is due to Benson's calm controlling of one hand at almost all times. In this gif, you can see Benson get a two on one grip on Anthony's right arm and stretch it out. In MMA, if one hand is controlled, the other hand can generally be allowed to wrap around the neck without fear of a choke. In submission grappling, it is possible for grappling wizards like Marcelo Garcia to do a one handed RNC on high level opponents (as demonstrated on Ryan Hall in a practice session), but that takes a certain confluence of skill, position and mastery of technique.
At that point in time, Pettis does not have such a confluence, so Henderson need only disrupt the choke attempts by controlling one hand. The full fight (very much worth watching) shows that Pettis constantly attacked by alternating which arm was going for the choke and which would complete the RNC, only to be frustrated by Henderson's grips. The two on one is usually a powerful grip in grappling as very few people outside of Mark Coleman or other immensely strong individuals will be able to power a single arm through the grip of two. In an earlier interview, Dave Camarillo mentioned that he believes the kimura grip (a variant of the two on one grip) is the strongest grip possible in grappling and utilizes it heavily within his own grappling and teaching.
Note that Benson also alleviates the discomfort of the body triangle and carrying Anthony's weight to some degree by struggling upright and leaning against the cage. Pettis has to fight gravity in a small way himself and cannot take the easier route of staying on top of a turtled up opponent and driving his hips forwards to create immense pressure and discomfort. Those who remember the DaMarques Johnson and Mike Guymon fight from UFC: Fight for the Troops 2 can remember the power of that particular body triangle. Benson survived three minutes of this and looked unusually placid while doing so - as if this threatening back take was merely something to tolerated and worked through until he could get free and fire off more clinch knees.
Jumping forwards to the next time Henderson was in significant trouble leads us to right after the Showtime Kick. Rather than dwelling upon the already much heralded burst of violent creativity, we should focus on how a very dazed and tired Bendo weathered a full minute of Pettis trying to finish the fight. Yes, there was a minute of the fight after the kick and smart tactics combined with an unfortunately timed lack of improvisation by Pettis is what allowed Henderson to survive to the decision.
Immediately after the kick, Benson knew he had to get up off his back and do something or risk taking big punches from Anthony. He glommed onto the legs of Pettis and held his head tight to the legs in an instinctual clinch that played into the rule proscribing blows to the back of the head. Pettis had to pick and choose the spots to launch his strikes and the singleminded determination of Henderson to grab a leg and stay on it makes it difficult for Pettis to do anything other than end up in a crucifix position - as the GIF shows.
However, right after the kick and scramble, Pettis stalls out a bit. Here, Pettis displays positional dominance in a way that often leads to the end of fights. The legs are controlling one arm and the head looks ripe to rain down damaging blows upon. This is an MMA fight, bound by rules and regulations and thus Pettis cannot punch away at the back of the head a la Hayato Sakurai against Nick Diaz. Fortunately for Henderson, Pettis never makes the logical leap to the Gary Goodridge style crucifix hellbows that left Paul Herrera a crumpled heap on the floor of the UFC 8 cage. With this oddly hesitant pattern of strikes, Ben is never fully overwhelmed and can prevent the referee from stepping in. Eventually, time ran out on the round and on the last, most brilliant card of WEC's existence. Benson would stand ready to hear the judges' decision and watch Anthony Pettis's hand be raised in victory.
After the absorption of the WEC into the UFC, Henderson was largely viewed as a mid-level entrant to the division and Pettis waited for a potential title shot. Four months after the WEC 53 battle, Henderson fought Mark Bocek as part of the general "American vs. Canadian" vibe of the UFC 129 card. Henderson won a unanimous decision, but there were moments of real trouble for him due to Bocek's grappling prowess. Three such moments will be looked at this Judo Chop:
For the first, Henderson has had a takedown stuffed and is on his hands and knees below Bocek, who has established head control. After some time securing the position, Bocek shifts to an anaconda grip. The angle for the cameras unfortunately obscures the placement of Bocek's hands and the beginnings of the choke, but there have been multiple Judo Chops done on the submission before. [The first is Judo Chop: Breaking Down the Groundwork of Maia/Munoz at UFC 131 and the second is Judo Chop: Carlo Prater Uses a Novel Finish to the Anaconda Choke.]
Bocek is squeezing Henderson's left carotid with the placement of his right biceps and wants to force Henderson's right arm next to his head in such a way that the right carotid will also be squeezed. By making a series of motions somewhat similar to a RNC, Bocek has his right hand in the crook of his left arm and wants to roll to his left to off-balance Henderson and create more pressure on the carotids and thereby gain the submission.
However, the cage and Henderson's positioning block Bocek from really turning over to get the proper anaconda finish that the grappling gods want. For a better idea of what a real anaconda choke looks like, check out the Judo Chops mentioned above or watch the old PRIDE fights of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira - better known as "Big Nog" or "The Really Old Looking Brazilian Who Made The Anaconda Choke Famous". The nicknames sounds better in Portuguese, trust me.
Mark bails on the anaconda and gets back to his feet, while retaining the head control that keeps Ben from getting a counter-takedown or punching Mark in the face some more. While they are along the fence, Bocek repositions his hands and arms in such a way that makes for a great guillotine - if he can get in position. The angles are not quite right for a guillotine in the style of the one Jake Shields pulled on Robbie Lawler back at Strikeforce: Lawler vs. Shields, so Mark moves a bit to his right to clear his legs from Ben's control and Ben sinks to his knees as he loses the grip on the legs.
When the legs are clear and Ben is fully on his elbows and knees, Bocek goes for a classic variation of the guillotine. The far side leg is swiftly thrown behind the opponent's back to prevent a move into side control, which would allow the alleviation of the pressure on the carotids and thus safety from the choke. The opponent's head is tucked into the latissimus dorsi muscles, which allow for a better, tighter squeeze and the left arm comes up to link and possibly throw the elbow over the opponent's right shoulder. Some Brazilian jiu jitsu people call this the Marcelo-tine, but a large number of grapplers from any discpline can get finishes with this move if they can hit it right. This is the second submission that Ben had to defend.
Ben defended by bringing his right hand up to give some modicum of space within the choke and by simultaneously rolling - which may not always work against high level grapplers. The roll and the "not-quite-finished" status of the choke allowed Bendo to knock the left hand free and escape yet again. This might be the single closest time that Ben Henderson has come to being finished in the cage in the last several years and he reacts by storming Bocek with a flurry of punches.
In the third round, Bocek ends up in an open guard position as Henderson has dominated nearly the entirety of the round by dealing out vicious punches and knees. Bocek places his left foot on a hip and leaves his right leg free (in a cautiously optimistic way). Ben walks in as if completely unconcerned about anything other than controlling the feet to prevent an upkick. Bocek uses that opportunity to grip the left leg of Henderson at the ankle and swims his right leg under and around the knee. This is a move that is banned in IBJJF competitions due to the risk of the submission Bocek initially sets up - the heel hook.
Ben probably realizes as soon as his leg is gripped that he has left the door wide open for a heel hook. The best way to get out of a leglock is to keep base carefully, stay calm, work the escapes techniques and to avoid panicking and ripping out the wrong way. Mark decides to control the hands of his opponent instead of going straight for the heel hook, which is a sort of judgement call in the damage versus submission opportunity debate. Henderson turns his right leg outwards to try and keep balance as if he were bullriding, but Bocek is a great grappler and uses his free left leg to kick out Henderson's base. As Ben falls over, Mark follows him and locks hands around the waist.
Some of you may already know what submission Bocek has the opportunity for and have seen it broken down in an earlier Judo Chop covering how Charles Oliveira defeated Eric Wisely with the calf slicer. In contrast to Wisely, Bendo is extremely flexible, quite strong for his weight class and does not make the mistake of trying to launch vertically upwards to escape. Bocek looks like he wants the submission, but realizes that the slicer is probably not going to work as desired. Mark bails on it to go for an eventually unsuccessful back take. But for Benson's calm grappling defense and diligence in stretching, we could have seen the first UFC calf slicer in April of last year...
That is all for Part 1 and stay tuned to Bloody Elbow for the next installment. Part 2 will take a look at the Jim Miller and Clay Guida battles Ben Henderson went through to reach his title shot complete with analysis and more pretty visuals.