Part 1, which focuses on the striking of Fedor Emeleianenko can be found HERE.
Fedor Emelianenko is, to my mind, the most rounded fighter to have ever competed in MMA to date. Very few men can claim to have Olympic alternate level judo and still able to out-strike the best kickboxer in MMA history. What Fedor will always be remembered for by fans who saw him compete in his prime, however, was his revolutionizing of ground and pound.
Ground and pound had existed since the early days of MMA - and Mark Coleman found his way to the UFC belt through holding men down and mauling them with short strikes from the top position. The difference between the ground and pound utilized by a Mark Coleman or Matt Hughes type fighter and Fedor is significant. I would call the majority of wrestlers' ground and pound techniques Static Ground and Pound, in that their job is to hold a man down and hit him while he cannot move.
Fedor Emelianenko, on the other hand, brought a unique brand of Dynamic Ground and Pound to the fore. I refer to Fedor's ground and pound as dynamic for two main reasons. Firstly, he moved routinely between being postured up and broken down in his opponent's guard when he sensed his opponent changing grips or loosening their hold. Rather than struggling to post up against his opponent's strength, or staying down and throwing muffled strikes, he would stay down, and bait them with a hand to the mat, then punish them by posturing up and landing a pair of strikes while they changed grip.
Secondly, Fedor's best work was done while changing positions. He is remembered for bouncing Nogueira's head off of the mat with 4 successive power punches from the guard, but a great many of his more punishing shots were landed when:
- He was passing guard.
- His opponent was attempting to recover guard.
A Personal Note: This is the first grappling piece that I have written, and I make no great claims about my grappling knowledge or skill. I have only a few years training in grappling compared to a life spent in striking disciplines. I do, however, assert that dynamic ground and pound is the same as stand up fighting in it's reliance on trickery, misdirection, and the shutting down of some of the opponent's options while preparing to counter those he leaves open.
Additionally this article will feature storyboards in place of my regular gifs, to give some indication of how my future pieces on UFC fights, fighters and strategies will look. Let me know what you think of them in the comments so I can know whether to take the idea forward!
Fedor Emelianenko's attitude to posture in the guard is somewhat unique for an active guard passer, in that he spends much of the time in his opponent's guard "broken down". Often with his hands on the mat (traditionally a technical taboo) or with bicep control (his hands cupped over his opponent's biceps, frustrating and limiting their movement).
By placing his hands over the opponent's biceps (similar to Jack Johnson's clinching technique) Fedor could frustrate the opponent, as they could then not gain wrist control, clinch their arms over his back, or circle their hand to the inside. The position shown below was typical of Fedor's attitude in the guard and could be acted upon in one of two ways - he could throw his right hand (which was controlling the biceps) in short punches to the head or body (returning it to the biceps each time), or he could tear his left arm from Herring's already loose grip and posture up to unleash his vicious arcing punches.
Posting his hands to the mat was largely a tactic which Fedor developed exclusively for Nogueira, in order to bait the Kimura attempt from the champion, though he was not opposed to allowing his opponent to overhook his arms. Bicep control or holding an underhook was the main hub position from which Fedor began his ground and pound game.
Not being a terribly skilled grappler myself, when I first began training with MMA fighters I found myself enjoying the guard position much more when strikes were allowed due to my love of hand fighting in my striking game (see the Southpaw Guide for some of my hand fighting principles while striking). Fedor's use of hand fighting on the ground was brilliant, and I learned a great deal from watching his first match with Nogueira.
Nogueira's closed guard arsenal consisted almost entirely of two techniques: the Kimura armlock, and the triangle choke (with occasional use of the omaplata thrown in to mix things up). All of these involved Nogueira gaining control of Fedor's wrists. Throghout their fight, Fedor showed a number of effective ways to break free from Nogueira's infamous grip strength - one of the most practical for the average mixed martial artist was the smooth breaking of Nogeuira's grip with Fedor's knee.
As the fight progressed Nogueira, whose incomparable desire to win has hurt him greatly over his career, became more fixated on keeping his grip. This allowed Fedor to pull his own hand back so that Nogueira's arm was extended, then slam his knee down on Nogeuira's wrist. Throughout the fight Fedor accomplished this several times, and was able to land several blows of varying efficacy on the chin of Nogueira as the latter struggled to withdraw his hand from under Fedor's knee and return it to guard his face before Fedor could strike him.
A simple trick, but one we don't often see utilized against an opponent's wrist control. As with most of Fedor's techniques, this is founded on simplicity but could be jammed down the throat of world class guard players.
Bicep Control and Pummeling
A second method used by Fedor Emelianenko to land punishing shots against Nogueira's infamous wrist control was to remain postured down and maintain biceps control on Nogueira's free arm (top middle still). This biceps control prevented Nogueira from getting control of Fedor's head (to set up triangles and omaplatas), and from linking up his hands in a figure four around Fedor's trapped wrist to secure a kimura lock.
While this effectively prevented Nogueira from attacking Fedor's wrist or neck immediately, it was not a long term solution. All Nogueira needed to do to begin advancing position was to swim his right arm inside of Fedor's left and assume his own control over Fedor's biceps - allowing him to control the Emperor's upper body and and work towards shooting his legs through for a triangle choke. Fedor's secret to breaking free was to wait for the moment that Nogueira swam his hand inside (top right photo still), whereupon he landed a rapid left hook to the jaw (bottom left) while posturing up and freeing his right hand - additionally using his left hand to push off of Nogueira's attacking arm after the punch (bottom middle), then sock him in jaw with a beautiful right hook (bottom right) before diving back into his broken down posture and returning the mat battle to his hub position.
Fedor's timing of his punches was what set him apart from a stereotypical wrestler / ground striker such as Chael Sonnen, who would almost certainly be submitted in the same situation. By waiting for the moment that Nogueira pummeled for position, Fedor could shock him with the first punch, freeing his arm from the submission set up and allowing him to strike Nogueira. Most modern ground and pounders from the guard tend to rely on their strength and blanketing the opponent until he gives up the submission.
Punching on the Pass
One of Fedor's signature techniques was also one of his simplest, and yet we don't see it used in MMA half as much as we should do even a decade after he began demonstrating it. After landing a couple of successful punches from the guard, Fedor would find his opponent had opened their guard under the pressure, from here he would stand, slap their legs aside, and throw a diving hook at their face.
This technique is simple, but it's success can easily be seen. BJ Penn stunned Matt Hughes with it, forcing Hughes to give his back. Dan Henderson knocked Babalu out cold with it. The simple fact is that to stop the guard pass most fighters will instinctively move their hands to the guard passer's hips to stiff arm back to guard. Nogueira can be seen doing this below, and almost has his head taken off for his trouble. If the opponent covers (as the hurt Heath Herring does below) the pass is almost assured.
One of Fedor's most successful techniques against Nogueira in particular was his seeming willingness to put himself in danger of being submitted. While Fedor had great success shucking off Nogueira's triangles, the most obvious show of submission baiting was the multiple times he placed his hand to the mat, then sat up as Nogueira gained wrist control in order to give Nogueira the opportunity for a kimura.
In his book, Fedor breaks down this rather simple (but as always, brutally effective) technique. As Nogueira grasps Fedor's hand and attempts to wrap his other wrist around Fedor's in a figure four, there is inevitably a chance for Fedor to rip his hand out before Nogueira can clasp his own hands (top right and bottom left stills). This leaves Fedor postured up, with his hand free above his opponent, and Nogueira on his back with both hands down by Fedor's hips. Another simple technique that allows a free Russian hook to the face.
Half Nelson Rabbit Punch
This technique took no special place in Fedor's arsenal, and he did not use it all that often, but it was one of my favourites nonetheless. Against Heath Herring, Fedor found himself on the way to the mount with Herring turning away from him. Instead of allowing Herring to turn his back, Fedor used a half nelson grip to keep Herring in limbo as he mounted, then unleashed a beautiful Russian hook while releasing his grip on Herring, allowing Herring to turn and take the brunt of the punch on the back of his head.
Crossing the Opponent's Legs
Another neat trick that Fedor used several times in his match with Heath Herring was crossing Herring's legs over each other into almost a reverse half guard. From side control Fedor obtained an underhook on Herring's right side and bicep control on his left (top left still). From here, he walked Herring's hips over and threaded his left foot between Herring's legs (top right). Fedor weaved his right arm over the top of Herring's left, cross-facing Herring and allowing Fedor to posture up (bottom left). From here, Fedor hurled down his left hook and Herring was given the choice of staying flat and taking the punch or turning into it and giving his back (bottom right).
This is not, by any means, a comprehensive guide to Fedor's ground and pound. His escapes from triangles (before he turned into the one dimensional brawler that dived on Werdum), not to mention the ground and pound he rained down while postured up against Nogueira's knee shields, were excellent examples of simple, violent counters to high level grappling. Additionally, Fedor also postured up from side control or took knee on belly to throw strikes, without regard for his opponent returning to guard. For those who wish to, there is a vast amount to be learned from watching Fedor's best ground and pound performances - many of which came under the RINGS promotion despite him suffering from the handicap of not being allowed to strike the face on the ground.
This article does also not mean to take away from Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who found great success against Fedor with his open guard to half guard sweep, and was getting the better of Fedor from his back for much of their second bout - forcing Fedor on to the feet in their third. But this technique is for examination another day. Suffice to say, anyone who could sit in a prime Nogueira's guard for half an hour and not get submitted, is arguably the best top player in the heavyweight division.
In the final installment of this Analyzing Fedor series, we will look at his trips, throws, and boxing into and out of the clinch. Keep an eye on Bloody Elbow to make sure you don't miss it.
Support Jack Slack and enhance your understanding of the striking game with Advanced Striking: Tactics of Boxing, Kickboxing and MMA Masters which examines the tefchniques and strategies of 20 of the world's top strikers from major combat sports (including Fedor Emelianenko, Junior Dos Santos and Alistair Overeem).