Graphic by Dallas Winston
This is the introduction of a new series on Bloody Elbow. It will serve as an attempt to gaze into the future and analyze techniques and strategies that we might see applied more often and effectively in top-level MMA.
Way back in June of 2010, I connected with professional MMA fighter, BJJ black belt and Thai specialist "Magical" Ray Elbe for an interview that never went to print. At the time, Elbe was with the renowned Tiger Muay Thai gym in Phuket, Thailand, where he spent 5 years as the head MMA instructor, often overseeing the development of premiere MMA fighters who visited the training facility to sharpen up their striking repertoires.
With the "Future Evolutions in MMA" theme in mind, I questioned Elbe on his ideas and -- keep in mind, this was in 2010 -- his answer proved quite prescient.
Ray Elbe: Standing Elbow strikes are going to be the next evolution of MMA. If you look at the results of the UFC, Bobby Hoffman vs. Mark Robinson in 2001 was the last time we have seen a standing elbow KO an opponent inside of the Octagon.
That is almost 9 years since someone has KO'd an opponent with a very traditional Muay Thai strike in the UFC. At your local Muay Thai stadium, rarely, if ever, can you witness an 8-fight event that doesn't showcase a standing elbow KO.
Part 1: The History of the Elbow Strike
The elbow strike is a great example of how certain techniques can evolve in MMA. Elbows in the embryonic years of MMA generally consisted of those with a downward trajectory and were often applied from the standing position when an opponent had dropped levels and was attacking the waist or the legs for a takedown attempt. Though not every elbow strike was delivered in a straight line down from the ceiling and perpendicular to the floor, many were, with leviathan Paul Varelans' remorseless TKO of Cal Worsham at UFC 6 standing as the archetype.
However, when the sport came under fire for it's purported glorification of violence and marketing of brutality, the unified rules were adopted to promote consistency and safety. The institution of the unified rules brought about the addition of weight classes and the banishment of certain techniques. The 12-to-6 o'clock elbow and striking to the back of the neck/head were among the latter, which resulted in infrequent use of effective or fight-ending elbow strikes.
Continued in the full entry.
Our friend the elbow re-emerged with more regularity a few years later, mostly as a revolutionary new tool to complement a wrestler's ground-and-pound arsenal. Longstanding champion Tito Ortiz deserves mention here: Ortiz is often heralded for his ability to punish opponents from inside the full guard and without passing to a more advantageous position. The key catalyst for Ortiz' vicious ground-and-pound was slashing downward with a windmill of cleaving elbows.
It's not that "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" was the first to introduce elbows for ground striking, but Ortiz was very intelligent and technical with the way he employed his elbows. For a guard player to stabilize himself, avoid damage and start being effective with submissions or sweeps from his back, having full guard with strong wrist control -- both to prohibit being punched and to gain more control -- is the ideal strategy.
In this scenario, from the top position when his opponent secured wrist control, Ortiz would use their grip on his wrist as a pivot point and rotate his shoulder forward to fire down powerful elbows with a lot of torque. Though there is no grappling in traditional Muay Thai, the science behind "The Art of 8 Limbs" was reinforced by this technique. Typically, controlling the wrist of a top-player prevented them from punching, but Ortiz wisely capitalized on the diversity of Muay Thai's 8-Limb philosophy by striking effectively with the elbow even though his fist was being controlled.
During this era, Jeremy Horn unveiled another fairly groundbreaking type of elbow strike that's still used on the ground today. Horn, a talented grappler known for his slick guard passing, would open up opportunities from the top position with the Head-Palm elbow. At extremely close range -- too close to wind up for a punch -- Horn would open his hand and place his palm over his opponent's head, hold it in place by putting some weight on it and then slide his hand off while dropping an elbow down in its place. This technique was subsequently employed by many of the Miletich Fighting Systems representatives, Matt Hughes being the most notable.
While elbows had made somewhat of a comeback halfway through the 21st century, the gist of applications were still on the ground, though standouts like Anderson Silva and Kenny Florian offered rare exceptions of effective elbow strikes on the feet.
Fast-forwarding to contemporary times, standing elbow strikes have surged back into the spotlight over the last few years. Bantamweight Ivan Menjivar unleashed a cruel flurry of horizontal elbows to spark his TKO over Charlie Valencia at UFC 129 in April of 2011, and rising phenom Jordan Mein cracked Evangelista Santos with a close-quarters medley of elbows to trigger the TKO finish in his Strikeforce debut later that year. Then Nick Denis, also in his big-show premiere, came closer to replicating Bobby Hoffman's one-shot KO via elbow with his 3-piece sequence of horizontal elbows to vanquish Joseph Sandoval to kick off 2012.
That momentum has carried into the remainder of this year with a vengeance: Josh Neer countered Keith Wisniewski's wrist-control in the clinch (just like Ortiz did earlier with ground strikes) with a blender of various, short-range elbows that battered and gouged Wisniewski's face; light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones, one of the most artistic and creative when it comes to innovative techniques, greeted challenger Rashad Evans with a steady stream of tight horizontal elbows when they locked horns during standing exchanges; soaring prospect Chris Weidman, after showing astute mastery with submission attempts from the front headlock position, ended Mark Munoz' night with a brilliantly timed counter-elbow strike; making an indelible statement after a lengthy absence, Nate Marquardt made a highlight reel out of Tyron Woodley's head with a merciless combination of standing elbows that blasted clean through Woodley's defensive guard.
With the history of the elbow strike behind us, we'll dig farther into the specific techniques of standing Muay Thai elbows and the limitless scenarios in which they can be applied in Part Two of this elbow-version of the Future Evolutions series.