Ahead of Dan Henderson's meeting with Jon Jones, I want to take a detailed look at what we are more than likely to see in the bout. Henderson's way to win is obvious to all - crowd Jones and catch him with a right hook or straight. Jones' ways to win are what we will look at in this article. While we will keep Jones in mind throughout this piece, most of the strategies discussed can be used by just about anyone against a dangerous right hand puncher like Henderson.
Dan Henderson has had one of the greatest career resurgences in mixed martial arts history, coming back from the middle of the middleweight mix to stop some huge names in the light heavyweight division. What many people fail to realise is that Henderson's career revival has been less to do with him and more to do with his opposition. Henderson hasn't changed; the right hand has always been there, as have the other Henderson trademarks such as the crucifix off of the single leg defence, punching on the guard pass etc - he simply hit a streak of opponents who were vastly overconfident in their striking or lacked the fight IQ to give Henderson the respect he deserved.
Mauricio Rua showed amply what a misplaced belief in speed and boxing ability does against a dangerous puncher such as Dan Henderson. Fedor Emelienenko also lost to Henderson not as much through Henderson forcing his game on the Last Emperor, but through Fedor rushing Henderson overconfidently and giving Henderson the hole through which to connect his power. Rafael Feijao is another excellent example of an overconfident striker - as with Murillo Rua, people are convinced that his striking must be great based on his training partners, and in truth he is even more limited to his right hand than Henderson is on the feet. You cannot make a mistake against Dan Henderson because no-one can change the direction of a fight with one punch as well as Hendo. Unlike most opponents it is not a case of if a mistake will be capitalised on, Dan Henderson always capitalises on mistakes.
What can't be denied is Henderson's ability to knock out just about any man alive. If any of Henderson's opponents fail to make specific preparations for Henderson and believe that the polish on their striking fundamentals will protect them from him they are very much mistaken. Striking IQ is what is needed to defeat Henderson on the feet, and that is something that Mauricio Rua never had and that Fedor Emelianenko abandoned in 2009.
To summarize the strategies in today's Judo Chop they will be:
- Circling Away with Punches
- Outside Low Kicks
- The Jab
Circling Away with Punches
Henderson's power is all in his right hand; he stands almost side on and cannot throw a strong jab or a left hook out of his stance. I'm sure many will remember the left hook that Henderson knocked Wanderlei Silva out with, but this was thrown AFTER using his right hand to square up - while Wanderlei was standing and trading with Henderson.
When one fights an opponent who is side on it is advisable to circle away from their rear hand, when one fights an opponent who is square on it is advisable to circle away from their lead hand. A square fighter may have a powerful right hand, but it will be an arm punch, and the same applies for the lead hand of a side on fighter such as Henderson.
Mechanics simply dictate that the side with less potential to swing from the hips will have less power. This rule almost always rings true. Felix Trinidad, Quinton Jackson, Paul Daley - all in love with their left hook, but you could know that within a moment of engaging them because they stand so square on. Dan Henderson, Gene Fullmer, Rocky Marciano, Butterbean, Rashad Evans - all stand / stood side on because they are / were in love with their rear hand.
It's not hard to note someone's strong punch even if you've never met them before, it's not even especially hard to circle away from it. What is hard is convincing experienced brawlers like Mauricio Rua or Rafael Feijao that they need to. Career longevity depends not on fancy footwork, but the ability to move away from an opponent's power consistently.
Notice in this still from the opening seconds of Henderson's bout with Jake Shields just how side on Henderson (back to the camera) is. His right hand is forward to somewhat disguise how side on he is, but a quick look at his right hip will reveal that it is pointing almost back towards the camera. When Henderson lunges onto his lead leg he swings his right hip all the way through and allows his shoulder to follow and his fist to complete the motion after everything else. This is where his incredible punching power comes from, not his musculature - which is hardly uncommon at light heavyweight and middleweight. You will notice however that Henderson's left hip is so far forward that he cannot rotate it forward any more to put power on a jab or lead hook.
The disciplined fighter will circle around towards Henderson's lead side, because anything Henderson throws from his left will be an arm punch. Henderson could attempt to turn his hips to the front to allow him to turn them back in a hook but this would be incredibly slow in an area of the fight game where split seconds count. Instead, Shield's threw jabs while circling into Henderson's right hand. This was, of course, foolish - yet Feijao and Shogun circled the same way and got beaten up just the same.
Dan Henderson's side on stance greatly inhibits his ability to pivot or stop his opponents from circling to his left side. For lack of a better diagram online I will use two paint images I used way back in February to describe angles on Head Kick Legend. These diagrams represent a top down look at two fighters.
Standing in front of an opponent is a 50 / 50 proposition. Both men can connect just as easily as each other and more often than not a man with a granite chin and a big punch will win here. This is Dan Henderson's world and no amount of sparring, training on the pads or hitting the heavy bag will take away the tit-for-tat dynamic of head on exchanges. Good striking is about not getting hit, therefore head to head exchanges are not good striking.
In an ideal world, this is what one wants to do against a stronger, tougher opponent. The top fighter has circled towards the bottom fighter's weaker, leading side. Notice how far the bottom fighter's right hand would have to travel to connect - a distance which it is impossible to cover with any power or weight behind the punch. Meanwhile the top fighter is in perfect position to throw both of his hands on target. Punches may also be executed during the step to the angle - such as the left hooks that we looked at earlier in the week from Ray Robinson and Joe Walcott.
In reality a fighter will almost never get a perfect angle, because the opponent will turn to face the fighter who has cut the angle, but this is just as much of a victory - because while the opponent is turning, he is essentially on one leg. No-one in the world can generate their full power while turning - it is simply mechanically impossible. After claiming a slight angle, a fighter may charge in with a flurry that looks like an ugly bum rush, but because the opponent is turning it is not a 50/50 exchange at all. Here is a look at Lyoto Machida taking an angle on Thiago Silva, then running in as Silva turns to face him. (G)
While this is obviously different to circling away from Hendo's power as Machida is a southpaw - it still demonstrates what coaches mean when they say "keep turning him" to their fighter. Silva's money punch is very much his left hook, and one could tell that from the way that he is standing with his shoulders squared. Machida circles away from Thiago's power hand, Thiago throws a weak arm punch with the hand that his hips are not loaded up to throw which Machida side steps and Machida hits Thiago as he turns.
Machida did the exact same thing to Quinton Jackson, a much heavier hitter with an iron jaw and wobbled him. Taking an angle is an enormously important facet of striking if one hopes to be able to do anything more than brawl. A quick watch of Henderson vs Feijao will reveal that Feijao moved to Henderson's weak side maybe twice in the entire fight. The entire second round was spent circling into Henderson's right hand, and this eventually got him knocked unconscious.
Now Henderson isn't a dumb striker, in fact he shows remarkable intelligence in landing his main weapon. Henderson will spend the majority of a match backing his opponent towards the fence in order to stop them moving backwards away from his right hand . More often though Henderson attempts to stifle his opponent's movement by low kicking inside of their lead leg.
Henderson's technique is not beautiful Muay Thai, but he boots the lead thigh with enough force to
- Lift the foot off of the ground, preventing movement, or
- Force the opponent to check the kick - thereby making their foot come off of the ground and again preventing their movement.
Two excellent instances of this are against Michael Bisping (who was circling into Henderson's power anyway), and Mauricio Rua (who was attempting to back up). (G) (G) I will be interested to see how Jon Jones - who certainly dislikes being low kicked - deals with Henderson's work on his lead leg.
Outside Low Kicks
This is an area that you will undoubtedly see exploited by Jon Jones, whose affinity for kicks is very well known. Henderson's side on stance leaves his lead leg very much exposed because there is little weight on it, but it is too extended to lift and check kicks. Rafael Feijao landed every low kick that he threw against Henderson, then reverted to brawling and got knocked out.
Notice in the first still that Henderson's stance is too long to check kicks but that his weight is on his back leg so he is forced to retreat as Feijao begins his kick. This simply means that Henderson's leg can be kicked across his body as he moves backwards. Henderson's punching power comes from his legs, so attacking them and making them swell early in the bout will most certainly pay dividends. It is an especially safe strategy because it doesn't involve getting anywhere near Henderson's punching range.
This is the strategy that we are most likely to see Jon Jones use in his meeting with Henderson. Jones will likely kick Henderson's legs and body for their entire bout. Jones will almost definitely make special use of his savate style push kick to the knee or "chasee" , which the Jackson's MMA camp like so much and which Brandon Vera used just the other week to keep Shogun off of him for much of their bout.
If in doubt, jab.
I feel bad writing this because I am not the type of analyst or coach who falls back on meaningless phrases such as "you need to pump the jab" or "double that jab up" when I am stumped for ideas. The truth is that Henderson doesn't respond well to the jab. While jabbing and circling into his right hand is, of course, idiocy - many of his opponents have had success keeping him on the end of their jab later in the bout. Feijao was able to drop Henderson by hiding his right hand behind a jab.(G)
Even Jake Shields - a terrible striker - and Mauricio Rua, a man without a jab, had great success jabbing Henderson throughout their bouts with him. The second round of the Henderson Rua match will show just how much difference a jab can make against Henderson. Shogun was rocked in the early going of the round as he traded punches with Dan, but in the latter half of the round he began landing jabs and 1 - 2s simply because the jab is such a short, fast punch and involves opening up so little for the opponent to counter. Jon Jones is a fighter who will ruthlessly use his reach - at his best he is not in the business of giving his opponents a chance - and I'm sure that low kicks and jabs in combination will be the story of this match up.
Henderson will doubtless have trained for the jab, however, and will likely look to counter over the top of it with a Cross Counter - though this will prove difficult when punching up at a 6'4" opponent.
Before we conclude that this is entirely an uphill struggle for Dan Henderson, however, we must not forget that Jon Jones does have weaknesses. I will cover this more when I write the "Killing the King" series on the current UFC champions, but for now I'll just tease you with a couple of ideas to look out for in this and previous bouts.
Jones seems to struggle with being kicked in the legs, as the unlikely Quinton Jackson showed, but the usually incredibly active low kickers, Shogun and Machida, failed to exploit. Jones' choice to use low kicks so frequently may reflect his own distaste for defending them. Many offensive fighters latch on to techniques that they consider hard to defend, which brings an interesting psychological element to fighting. Bas Rutten, for instance, began to use leg locks even more frequently once Ken Shamrock had injured Rutten's leg in a kneebar, similarly Mirko Cro Cop was not prepared to defend his own high kick and in fact circled into it against Gabriel Gonzaga.
Jon Jones has also begun abandoning his reach in favour of elbowing tactics. Against Rashad Evans, Jones could have put on a repeat performance of his last 4 fights - wearing his opponent down with body and low kicks - but instead opted to step in and attack with elbows which brought him into Evans' punching range. Evans' only effective offense on the feet is an overhand just like Henderson's, but he lacks the power and set ups of Dangerous Dan - yet he was still able to land cleanly several times on Jones.
I say again; Dan Henderson may be what Jon Jones described as a one trick pony, but he is exceptionally good at that one trick.
Support Jack Slack and analysis in the MMA Media by picking up the Advanced Striking ebook.