In the first installment of this series, we looked at positioning from a static perspective relative to one’s own body. With that understanding, we have a solid foundation to approach the more dynamic aspect of positioning; that relative to the opponent.
Facing the Opponent:
This type of positioning boils down to the placement of each fighter’s feet. It all starts by properly facing the opponent. In this excellent thread, boxing coach Luis Monda discusses the importance of aligning the lead foot, hip and shoulder with the opponent’s center line. By doing this, a fighter essentially accomplishes two goals; ensuring that the opponent is always in their line of sight and presenting a threat that must be neutralized. When two fighters are both standing properly and both facing the center, they end up in a sort of standoff. Theoretically, either fighter should be able to attack and defend effectively: there is no advantage in defense or offense for either fighter, and both should be able to see any power shots coming. This is why the jab is considered the most important punch. In boxing, it is the tool best suited to creating openings as one fighter moves into dominant positions, as well as the one best suited to punishing an opponent who tries to engage from a neutral position. When kicks are allowed, the teep shares this same defensive utility and can even be used to obtain dominant positions on offense with some creativity.
What are These "Dominant Positions?"
Angles. Everyone loves to talk about angles. Unfortunately, few people know what they actually are in the context of footwork. At the most basic level, an angle is simply when you are facing the opponent and he is not facing you. There are two main kinds:
The Inside Angle:
As you might have guessed, taking the inside angle involves moving to the inside of the opponent’s lead foot. At the most extreme, it might look something like this
Assume that this is an overhead view where the circles represent the heads of each fighter and the straight lines represent the direction the feet are pointing. In this case, fighter A (for angle) is in an extremely dominant position. Fighter B (for bad) is squared up and directly in the line of fire. If no adjustments are made, Fighter B will lose an exchange from here 9 times out of 10 because his defense is badly compromised. He no longer has a lead shoulder or lead hand between his center and the attacks of the opponent. There is a clear path to all his vulnerable targets and his head is now the closest part of his body to Fighter A, besides his hands. All linear attacks (uppercuts included) are completely unobstructed and they will come inside any punch Fighter B tries to throw at the same time. Worst of all, Fighter B has no leg behind him to resist force in that direction. Any shots he takes will be coming from an angle that makes it nearly impossible for him to stay balanced, making him very easy to knock down.
In terms of offense, Fighter A is able to throw anything from his stance with little adjustments. Fighter B, however, is only lined up to throw hooks with the lower body. In the previous article, I wrote that the only two places you can possibly transfer weight are to the rear leg and the front leg. Applying that knowledge, Fighter B can only transfer weight from left to right while Fighter A can transfer weight to the left, right, forward and back due to the angle of the feet and hips. This means that the only punches Fighter B can possibly throw with decent mechanics are also the easiest to see. Going back to my positional analogy from the first article, you can view this as similar to the mount in grappling.
The Outside Angle:
Also known as the blind angle, this is the angle most fans tend to be a little more familiar with primarily because of typical southpaw vs. orthodox strategy of moving the lead foot outside the opponent’s. However, please note that having the lead foot outside does not guarantee you have an angle unless you are also turned to face the center properly. Anyway, this is what it might look like:
Fighter A has moved relatively far outside the lead foot of Fighter B, while still keeping his lead foot pointed towards Fighter B’s center. The most obvious advantage of this angle is that Fighter B can no longer see Fighter A and can especially not see any attacks coming from the rear side, hence the name "blind angle". In terms of defense, Fighter B is only able to guess what may be coming. The real danger here is that hooks from the lead side will come between the guard of Fighter B, while any attacks from the rear side come behind it. The defenses are bypassed and the opponent cannot see what he needs to react to when the outside angle is established.
On top of that, Fighter B can throw almost no attacks with any sort of proper technique. He is in a position where it is completely impossible to throw any punch correctly and without reaching across his own body. On the other hand, Fighter A can attack with anything comfortably and with almost no fear of being countered. The only attacks that can be thrown when giving up the outside angle are spinning attacks (backfists, elbows and kicks) and sidekicks. Once again, all of these should be very easy to see and counter because the opponent will have no real ability to set them up. You can think of this angle as comparable to back control in grappling.
Accounting for Positioning in Kicking Arts:
The observant reader may have noticed that I barely made any mention of kicks when discussing these angles. This is because the optimal starting position to throw most kicks is vastly different from the optimal position to throw punches. In fact, many of the starting positions for kicks actually involve risking giving up angles. For example, practitioners of Muay Thai are often taught to stand much more square so that round kicks can be thrown and defended more quickly. They are also taught to stand tall and narrow for the same purposes. As a result, people from that background may be inclined to believe that the inside angle isn’t as dominant as I make it sound because correct positioning is taught differently in that sport. Similarly, fully side-on stances are extremely common in Taekwondo where sidekicks and spinning kicks are among the primary attacks. Apologies to those people, but I believe that basic boxing positioning is greatly superior to kicking positioning in MMA for several reasons. Please don’t bring out the torches because I used the word "boxing" to describe the positioning I feel is ideal, I’m not saying boxing is the ultimate style and has all the answers. I’m just saying that the ideas about positioning more commonly found in it than other combat sports are more applicable to MMA than those generally found in rule set that favor kicking.
You simply can’t get away with throwing as many kicks in an MMA fight as you might in a Muay Thai fight against a smart opponent. They take more energy, leave more openings and are much easier to see coming than punches. I don’t believe that standing in a way that facilitates the least likely aspect of striking to win a fight on its own is preferable. In other rule sets, kicking is much more heavily favored for different reasons, whether culturally based, as a product of the rule set or both. This causes their fundamentals to differ and become unrealistic in terms of what is favorable for an MMA fight. Once more aspects of a fight are allowed, kicking becomes less viable as a primary weapon and giving up angles for the sake of kicks is only a good idea when done at specific times. An excellent rule to follow is that if you are going to risk giving up angles in order to throw a kick, you step off line so that the opponent is also not properly aligned and there is no angle for them, while there is a kicking angle for you. As long as you face the center properly, you should be able to exploit the weaknesses in positioning of fighters who choose not to face it.
That said, proper positioning as I have explained it can be beneficial for landing kicks as well. Moving to the inside angle allows a kicker to land front snap and push kicks, sidekicks and other linear kicks to the head and body with greater ease. Moving to the outside angle makes circular kicks much more effective, especially from the rear leg. Furthermore, if you can get an opponent to give up an angle then you know you are free to attack with kicks and not worry about their counters nearly as much, all while being ready to use your offense. A great example of this concept is Anthony Pettis, the best kicker in MMA. The majority of his success comes from his kicks, yet he has excellent footwork from the perspective of keeping his lead foot pointed towards the center and establishing angles of attack. This allows him to use feints to set up his devastating kicks, while being in position to counter punch if opponents try to come forward. Naturally talented kickers should look to him to see how knowledge of positioning can be used to enhance kicks from a stance that isn’t typically designed for throwing them.
Angles in a More Realistic Sense:
So the overview above of each angle is very much oversimplified because it still looks at positioning as static. In reality, it is highly unlikely that an educated fighter will allow another to stand at either angle for any more than brief moments. Furthermore, it is exceedingly rare for angles to be secured to the extreme that they are shown in for illustrative purposes in my diagrams. More often, a fighter will step and pivot to threaten one of those angles then catch the opponent as they are turning and open to strikes. It should also be noted that angles tend to be very subtle. They are usually achieved by taking small steps and pivoting slightly, rather than large steps. Positioning tends to be best when the opponent is unaware that it is being used against him. I can’t stress enough that small movements at the hips and small steps are much more effective and efficient than large, obvious movements. It’s about manipulation and the ability to trick the opponent into making mistakes. The best fighters are always making tiny adjustments before, during and after exchanges. They are often very difficult to see but make the difference between winning and losing every exchange.
It also needs to be said that angles do not guarantee victory. It is still possible for a fighter who is giving up an angle to win an exchange. For a recent example, check out the gif:
Glover was in a pretty terrible position here; pinned against the cage and giving up the most clear example of an inside angle you'll see. He is completely square and should be very easy to hit. Lucky for him, Bader gets very predictable and stays in place, giving Glover the ability to see his punches coming and time them easily. Thus, Glover is able to block the first two right hands before slipping the third to land his counter right. While we're talking about positioning, notice that Bader's foot position is good but his positioning within his own stance is pretty terrible as he gets caught. He stands up tall and narrows his stance to throw the uppercut, two huge fundamental mistakes. This takes away his balance and makes him very easy to hurt with punches. The general rule is that foot position is the most important thing but as is seen above, if the fighter with a dominant angle is making a lot of other (positioning and predictability) mistakes then it is possible for him to lose anyway. A fighter who doesn't make these mistakes however is almost always going to win the exchange, especially if he knows what attacks to use in each situation and how to take small steps to change the angle slightly and prevent the opponent from getting a fix on where they are.
Putting it All Together
That's the basics of positioning when striking. When watching fights or training, pay attention to all these factors. Consider what movements best help accomplish what goals. Always keep in mind what advantages and disadvantages are associated with different types of positions. Fighters should always be looking to threaten angles, even though it is possible to win without establishing one. There are many aspects to positioning and I hope this overview, vague and generalized as it is, gives you a lot to think about.