In a recent Judo Chop, I detailed the knee used by new UFC Interim Bantamweight Champion Renan Barao to drop Brad Pickett back at UFC 138. One of the key aspects of that knee that I discussed was the way Barao rotated on his lead foot, bringing the hips around in a style reminiscent of Muay Thai roundhouse kicks.
For this Judo Chop, I wanted to dive into that specific aspect of Muay Thai kicks just a bit more. Here, we'll take a look at a series of roundhouse kicks from Muay Thai great Yodsaenklai Fairtex, taken from his fight last year with Artur Kyshenko (my pick for best kickboxing fight of 2011). We'll focus on Yod's footwork and the way he uses his lead leg to pivot, plus we'll check in with resident Bloody Elbow analysis experts Dallas Winston and Jack Slack to get some perspective on how well this footwork translates to MMA.
When UFC fighters throw kicks, you often hear Joe Rogan or Mike Goldberg talk about "turning their hips over" but what exactly does that mean? The basic idea comes from the Muay Thai style: for the most effective kick, the attacker should fully rotate his hips. By the end of the kick, the pelvic bone should be almost vertical, with the attacker's body completely turned to the side. Take a look at this gif of Yodsaenklai in action to get a good idea.
Gifs and more in the full entry.
Note here how Yodsaenklai turns his hips, bringing his left hip directly above his right hip, while also swinging his body to the left. (A quick note: Yod is fighting southpaw here, with his left leg in the rear position. For most fighters, this position will be reversed). By doing that, he adds power to his kick. He is not just striking with the leg, he's using the full power of his body, rotating everything into the kick for maximum impact.
That full body power comes from the hips, but it begins at the foot. Watch Yod's lead right foot as he throws the kick. Note how he comes high up on the ball of his foot, bringing his heel completely off the ground. This is picture perfect Muay Thai technique. The idea is that it allows him to pivot on that lead foot, increasing the rotation of the hip and bringing a whip like motion to the kick. It also adds a few inches of height to the kick, so as Yod goes to the head with his kick here, it's easier to bring the kick high. When done correctly, this Muay Thai style of footwork can add a lot to your kicks, and Yodsaenklai does it perfectly here.
One more aspect to this footwork is the idea of stepping into the kick, which can be seen in this body kick (right). Again, Yodsaenklai is pivoting on the lead foot, turning the hips over, and turning his body, giving him extra momentum. He's also stepping in slightly with that lead leg just before throwing the kick - watch his right foot at the start of the kick. This both closes the distance and adds more momentum to the kick.
The last piece to point out in Yod's form here is his hands, which are a point of some debate in kickboxing circles. As Yod throws the kick, he brings the arm on his kicking side down, helping add to the rotation, and therefore making the kick more powerful. But there's a sacrifice being made here. As Yod brings that arm down, he exposes the left side of his head completely, leaving an opening that a strong counter puncher could capitalize on. Traditionally, most Thai fighters use their arms like Yodsaenklai here. They often get away with it due to the speed of those kicks, but there is a definite school of thought that emphasizes the defense and keeping your arms up, even if it means losing a bit of power.
For a slight contrast in styles, take a look at Kyshenko's own roundhouse kick (left). He keeps his right hand up slightly and also sweeps it across the front, allowing him to more easily block a counter punch (but, as you can see, also negatively impacting his balance a bit). Also, watch his lead foot. Like Yodsaenklai, he pivots on that foot, but he uses a slightly more conservative style of rotating the foot, planting it as the kick lands, then rotating it back. It's a minor difference, but this is the style more favored outside of Thailand. Comparing the two kicks, you can see a much greater degree of fluidity to the Thai style shown by Yodsaenklai.
Although this is the common Thai style of kicks, it's not often seen in MMA. Most often, fighters either do not fully pivot and turn the hips over, or they use the style we see in Kyshenko's kick. Bloody Elbow's Jack Slack talked about this recently in his Judo Chop on Mauricio Rua:
Mauricio Rua, having trained Muay Thai from his teens, has grown up kicking the pads almost every day and as such has arguably the finest Thai style roundhouse kicks at the highest levels of MMA. Where Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva use reserved, snapping kicks into openings, Shogun's kicks have the power and bodyweight behind them for him to comfortably throw them at his opponents arms or legs without a visible opening.
The roundhouse kick of Shogun is truly beautiful to behold when he does it well. One instance of Shogun implementing an excellent kicking game was against Chuck Liddell. Here I will re-use the stills that I used in an earlier article. While the picture quality is extremely poor, you can still see Shogun's back foot pivoting on the ball of the foot to point almost backwards as the kick is completed. This allows Shogun's kicking hip to turn all the way through. These kind of kicks are far more committed than those routinely used by Anderson Silva or Jose Aldo - who routinely perform kicks where they hold their kicking hip back so as to retract their leg as soon as it lands. This means they are hard men to take down off of their kicks, but lack the enormous power of Mauricio Rua.
I agree with Jack that Shogun's kicks are among the best in MMA, yet he still doesn't full extend on the ball of his foot like Yodsaenklai and other Thai fighters. Why is this? As Jack says, many MMA fighters don't want to fully commit to the kick for fear of opening themselves up to a takedown. To test this idea, I checked in with our Dissection guru Dallas Winston to get his thoughts - does this Thai style of kick leave the fighter too open for counters, including takedowns?
In MMA, there's a tradeoff with everything. The more offensively focused you are, the more your defense suffers -- and that applies to all three phases of combat (Free-Movement/striking, clinching and grappling).
Implementing more of the traditional Thai technique when throwing these kicks is not unlike committing to a proper punch, which also generates power from the hips and core and is influenced by foot pivoting. MMA has become a standalone proficiency because every technique from traditional martial arts has to undergo an adaptation.
This is why boxing purists scoff at the level of finesse in MMA striking. In boxing, you can stand taller, hold your stance higher, throw tighter punches and use footwork that's only attuned to defending counter strikes. In MMA, at any given time, the opponent might drop levels and attack your hips for takedowns -- which requires a wider base, a lower hand position and guard for defending with underhooks in the clinch or sprawling and the necessity of accounting for a much greater range of movement.
In straight Muay Thai, fighters aren't concerned with their opponent dropping levels for a takedown, and a good wrestler will keep driving through on his takedowns relentlessly, which means the attempt could span the full 30-foot breadth of the Octagon. An intelligent wrestler will also time his shot when his opponent is amidst committing to a punch or a strike to catch them off-guard.
Chuck Liddell is the perfect case study for MMA punching in the context of offense versus defense. 80% of Liddell's punches were non-committed so he could react defensively. This is why he'd often paw lazily with a jab or left hook or pester with "distraction strikes": by throwing half-hearted punches without digging his feet in and turning his body into them, he could shuffle left or right, back pedal out of the pocket or quickly shift into clinching or sprawling mode to defend takedowns. The key to Liddell's success is that he knew just when to pick his spots, change his rhythm and/or direction, plant his feet and unleash a scorcher. His moderately powered punches and active movement then served as a brilliant set up for the home-run shot.
It's all about commitment -- the more you commit to a punch or kick, the more vulnerable you are to counter attacks. As Jack Slack mentioned above, this is why notable kickers like Aldo and Machida don't always fully commit, as "turning your hips over" could also translate to rotating your hips and core directly into a wrestler's embrace.
So, to summarize, would fully committing to a Thai roundhouse like this leave the thrower more vulnerable to a takedown than only slightly torquing the hips over and pivoting on the balance foot? Well, yes ... but that applies to any offensive technique -- the more you commit, the more susceptible you are. This is where the oft-cited Fight I.Q. comes into play, because there are instances where loading up on a power kick and relying heavily on offense is appropriate and other scenarios where defense is more essential.
So perhaps the answer is not that fighters should always use this Muay Thai style of kicking - to do so opens them up too much, too often. But it would be a benefit to MMA fighters to utilize this technique from time to time, both as a way to mix your kicks up, and also to make those carefully chosen kicks really count. As the striking game of MMA continues to change and improve, I'd like to see this as one of the next steps in that evolutionary ladder. And with a new generation of MMA fighters coming up the ranks, I'm hoping that evolution comes soon.