I recently received an email from a BE member which directed me to Ben Saunders' appeal for info on Bryan Baker on the congratulations thread, following his victory over Raul Amaya at Bellator 63. Ben will now face Bryan Baker in the next round of the Bellator tournament on May 4th and I wanted to see if I could add any insight for a man who is doing his part to bring some Muay Thai excitement to MMA. I'm sure Ben's coaches have already spotted most of this, but I thought I'd put in my 2 pence, maybe I'll hit on something new!
Baker's Head Movement
The first flaw which I noticed in the game of Bryan Baker is the complete absence of head movement. This was clear in his fight against Rory Singer at MFC 20 in 2008, but I assumed would be something that he had trained out of his game by now. A quick look at this fight will show you how atrocious his stand up was, relying entirely on 1-2s and 3-2s with little more than a hope of landing.
I had assumed that because this match was from 2008, it would hold little indicator over how Baker strikes today. It has been 4 years, Baker's boxing should have improved by then. A look at his recent tenure in Bellator seems to confirm this, at least on the surface, as Baker bounds around on smooth, relaxed footwork. But this is only ascetically pleasing; similar to Frank Mir or Rashad Evans' head movement, it disappears whenever they actually engage. Take a look at this clip from Baker's KO loss to Vitor Vianna.
The knockout is not the important part - that was Baker getting lazy after he missed his wild flurry - the important part of this sequence is Baker's bouncing from one foot to the other, jiggling his head, then standing bolt upright and running forward with his same old left hook - straight right combination. Vianna could have closed his eyes, ducked, and thrown a punch during that combination and would have had a good chance of catching Baker clean. Vianna is no great striker himself, his most famous performance being his sparring axe kick on trainer Wanderlei Silva, who proceeded to run him down and beat him like a red haired step child. It stands to reason that our own Ben Saunders, who holds excellent Muay Thai, should be able to land on Baker as he steps in.
Saunders' Left Straight
If I have one criticism of Saunders it is that he under uses his excellent southpaw left straight. As a southpaw fighter, it is very hard for Ben to land with the jab as the opponent's lead hand will almost always be in the way (check out my Southpaw Guide for further details on this). I feel he sometimes sticks too firmly to trying to lead with the jab, as he did against Matt Lee in the first round of their meeting. Once Saunders switched to simply using his right hand to hand fight with Lee, and leading with his left straight, he really began to take Lee apart in the second and third rounds. Here's a nice gif of a barrage in round one, where a break in the action is punctuated by a slick lead left from Saunders.
I am not sure if Ben Saunders is right handed, but he seems to favour his right hand at times and fire it more dexterously. That same fight with Matt Lee showed the effectiveness of his short right hook early on, which might explain the bias toward that hand. It was one of these southpaw right lead attempts that Lima slipped and countered with a strong right hook, which will have little bearing on this match, but shows that Saunders' jab can become at times predictable.
As a southpaw, Ben should lead 80% of his attacks with his left straight, as it simply has a better chance of slipping through the opponent's guard. This should prove especially effective against Baker, who holds his hands wide anyway, providing a nice gap through which to throw straights.
If Ben forces Baker to lead, as Baker has proven so uncomfortable in doing in the past, he should be able to counter almost every one of Baker's forward rushes with a hard left straight combined with a step outside of Baker's lead foot to slip Baker's offensive.
Front Snap Kicks
One can watch almost any Ben Saunders fight and walk away with one piece of information about him - "That dude really likes high kicks". And why shouldn't he? He's got very technically solid Muay Thai. The downside is that all of his opponents know this, so almost all of his high kicks in Bellator and the UFC have been blocked by wary opponents.
There is a bandwagon which every fighter, including grapplers like Stun Gun and Josh Thomson, is hopping on; throwing front snap kicks to the face. While the aforementioned grapplers had no real reason to throw front kicks other than in hopes of a highlight reel KO to change public perception of their conservative styles, Saunders can genuinely benefit from it.
Almost all of Ben's opponents compensate for his powerful high roundhouse kicks by blocking with their forearms high and away from their head. If Ben establishes this high kicks, then takes a set up step (as if to throw a powerful roundhouse kick) but instead throws a front snap kick under Baker's chin, he could easily acquire a KO of the year candidate. Much of the failure to score front kick knockouts by the many fighters attempting them is due to their poor set ups. Ben already has a natural set up in place, people are scared of his round kicks, and have never had to contend with his front kicks to the head. Combine this with Baker's already exaggeratedly wide guard and the fake roundhouse kick to front snap kick is looking like an excellent technique for this fight.
This is far from my wheelhouse, and I usually avoid doing deep breakdowns on grappling technique, but I feel this area might be dangerous for Ben. Baker seems ludicrously easy to catch in submissions, a quick look through his fight film will show him in a fully extended armbar against Rory Singer, and he came dangerously close to being choked out by Jared Hess, but he ultimately muscled his way out of these submissions and pounded out his exhausted opponents.
In Ben's last match he showed some slick Jiu Jitsu, but Baker's modus operandi for picking up TKOs seems to be exhausting his opponents through falling in to their submissions (maybe not a clever way to fight, or a deliberate one, but it's working). If this fight goes to the ground, it is likely that Ben will be able to catch a submission against Baker, but Baker has not been submitted in his entire career, so Saunders should proceed with caution before wearing himself out attempting to finish the fight.
Having seen plenty of footage of both fighters, my humble opinion is that Ben can put Bryan Baker away spectacularly if he forces Bryan to lead and puts the fear into him with counters (in the form of that long left straight primarily). Baker has seemed reluctant to take opponents down if they don't attempt it first in the past, and far too keen to test his relatively mediocre standing skills.
If Ben can force Baker to lead and counter his strikes it will put Saunders in the position to a) finish the fight instantly, or b) begin to work offense and utilize his height and reach advantage over Baker.
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