In the UFC, 2011 was the year of the front kick. A weapon that has long been underutilized in MMA, the front kick took center stage last year thanks to two astounding, jaw-dropping performances. First was Anderson Silva's front kick KO of Vitor Belfort at UFC 126. Then, Silva's friend and occasional teammate Lyoto Machida upped the ante with his memorable Karate Kid style jumping switch front kick KO over Randy Couture at UFC 129.
Watching MMA in 2011, the impact of these kicks was immediate. Right away you saw numerous fighters trying to emulate Silva and Lyoto, throwing their own fancy front kicks in an effort to earn their own highlight reel KO.
At the last Strikeforce show, Josh Thomson became the latest fighter to follow the Silva/Lyoto model, attacking opponent K.J. Noons with not just one, but both variations of those famous front kicks. In this Judo Chop, we'll take a look at Thomson's technique. What did he do well? And why didn't he get the KO?
First things first, it has to be said - Josh Thomson has an exceptional front kick. He's long used the Muay Thai style teep kick as one of his primary striking weapons, and he's used it very effectively (he's long been my go-to example of an MMA fighter who knows how to use a teep). So his decision to use the Silva and Lyoto kicks is not without precedent. To start, we'll take a look at the basic Thomson teep, then move on to the front kicks.
More on the front/push kick:
At its most basic level, the teep is essentially the jab of kicks. It can be thrown from either the front or rear leg. In a teep, the fighter lifts his leg straight up, and drives his foot into his opponent's abdomen, sending the momentum forward and through the opponent like a piston. This contrasts most kicks, where the energy comes in sideways at an angle. The teep (like the jab) is straight on, and can either be used to simply create distance, to stop an incoming opponent, or, if thrown with power, to cause real damage.
More analysis, plus gifs, in the full entry:
On the left is a series of three teeps thrown in quick succession by Thomson. He starts in orthodox stance with his right leg back and throws a rear (right) leg teep. This creates distance as both men circle away from the cage, forcing the boxer Noons outside of punching range. He then throws a lead (left) leg teep that again pushes Noons back. When thrown with the lead leg, the kick creates greater distance between the two men, and Thomson uses it accordingly. Note the way he turns his body to the right slightly with this kick, maximizing the reach on his left leg. Once his left leg returns to stance, he quickly follows up with another right leg teep, using the forward momentum from the previous kick to add to his momentum here.
None of these are thrown with tremendous force, and seemed designed to both move Noons back, and get him to drop his defenses. Note the way Noons keeps bringing his hands low to block the kicks, which is a bad habit that leaves his chin exposed. Again, because Noons is a boxer, these teeps don't allow him to get inside and work his own game, keeping things squarely in Thomson's zone. These aren't the most vicious kicks, but they are doing the job.
Now, from the opening seconds of the round, here's Thomson's Silva-style front kick. Again, he's in orthodox, and throws the kick with his rear right leg. He brings the knee straight up, then snaps up the foot, looking to use the bottom half of his leg like a whip and drive the momentum into Noons's jaw. Unfortunately for Thomson, it doesn't work. Noons sees the kick coming and steps back while using his hands to block the kick. Part of the trouble here is that Thomson doesn't really set the kick up at all. He offers a small stutter step to confuse Noons, but then simply throws the kick. Noons has his hands up and is keeping them very active, ready to deflect any incoming shots, and he is not fooled by Thomson. Two little details I do like here. First, note how Thomson always keeps a hand close to his face while kicking - first the left, then the right. This keeps him safe from a Noons counter. Second, I love how he strings together kicks. When the front kick doesn't land, he uses the forward motion from the kick to step towards Noons and throw a nice left body kick.
Now, let's contrast that kick with Silva's. The big difference clearly is that Silva's lands clean, but why? At first glance, it would seem Silva does even less to set up the kick than Thomson, and while this is true, I would argue it's actually a better set-up. The shuffle Thomson uses draws Noons's attention to his feet, which is exactly where the strike then comes from. Silva on the other hand becomes completely still before the strike, leaving Belfort to wonder what will come next.
It's also a better choice for Silva because of Belfort's stance. Vitor has his legs wide, and he's slightly bent down, bringing his head to a lower point. Contrast that with Noons, who is standing high and straight, moving his head further away from Thomson. Silva also has long legs and a high waist, meaning that his foot does not have to move up as high as Thomson's. He is able to both bring it up and drive it forward at the same time, more like a teep. Because Noons has his head so high above Thomson's hip, Thomson is forced to send all his momentum up in an arc. Silva can send it both up and forward into Belfort, which makes it much more effective.
So the difference makers for Silva - better set-up and better positioning to make it a higher percentage strike.
On we go to Thomson's Machida-esque crane kick. Thomson starts with his right leg back, and at first looks like he will throw a jumping knee with that right leg.
Then, in mid-air, he switches from the right leg to left leg, and from the knee to the kick. It's similar to the flying knee Carlos Condit used to KO Dong Hyun Kim, just with the knee turned into a front kick.
As you can see more clearly in the slowed down replay (below), the faked right knee does an excellent job catching Noons off guard.
As Thomson jumps, Noons brings down his left hand to block what he perceives to be an incoming knee on that side. Once Thomson switches to the left kick, that dropped hand gives him perfect access to Noons's jaw, and the kick lands clean. I also love the way Thomson uses his arms to add to his momentum here, first dropping the right in order to add to the right knee, then switching to the left when he switches to the left kick. Nice detail there that adds to the kick.
Comparing this with the Lyoto vs. Couture KO, the two kicks are very similar. Lyoto begins with his left leg back, so his motions are reversed (faked left knee, followed by a right front kick), but everything else is, as Mike Goldberg would say, virtually identical. In fact, Couture manages to keep his hands tighter than Noons, giving Lyoto less of an opening, yet it's The Dragon's kick that earns the KO. Why?
Honestly, unlike the Silva comparison, it's hard to say. Both Thomson and Lyoto land clean, both Couture and Noons have their heads snapped back, but only one is down and out, while the other is simply briefly staggered. There are a lot of intangibles that come into play here - Counture's chin vs. Noons's chin, Lyoto's power vs. Thomson's power, the exact positioning of the points of impact - so it's hard to isolate any one. If forced, I would say two things. First, Couture is holding his head low, his shoulders up, and steps down and somewhat into the kick when Lyoto throws. Noons on the other hand is high and away from Thomson. Second, Lyoto catches Couture just a bit more on the side of the face, which causes his head to not just snap back, but also to twist slightly (whereas Noons is caught dead on and just has his head snap straight back). That twisting of the neck is a big factor in KO's. Add in the fact that Couture was 47 years old and at the end of a long career, and you can see why it did more damage.
Again the difference makers for Lyoto - his opponent's positioning, his target, and his opponent's chin.
This contrast between these two remarkably similar kick is, to me, part of what makes this such a fascinating sport - one man's career ending KO is another man's momentarily successful kick that is quickly forgotten. And what separates those two kicks, and in turn the two kickers, is sometimes the merest fraction of inches.