It's been a long time since I've written anything and after a night of explosive finishes I doubt I'll get a better chance to continue this series. The event was knockout city, so let's take a closer look at the techniques and fundamentals that led to those beautifully violent moments.
Jeremy Stephens vs Rony Bezerra
What a way to start off the main card! In only 40 seconds, Stephens starched Bezerra with a brutal head kick to counter a right hand. Edit: Had to post highlights because the gif got deleted. It's all good though, you can hear the interview where he talks about his coaches seeing the opening.
Stephens gets huge KO vs. Jason (via FOX Sports)
How was he able to time this amazing counter, you ask? Simple: Bezerra told him exactly what he was gonna do. In the post fight interview, Stephens said that he realized Bezerra would duck his head to throw the wide right hook, which puts him right in the path of a head kick. To capitalize on the weakness, Stephens steadily pressured him backwards while carefully maintaining distance. Notice that Stephens is sure to stay just a step outside of punching range, ensuring that Bezerra has to change directions and step forward to land a punch. Bezerra has no tools to cover that distance correctly. He simply steps forward, ducks his head and wakes up later wondering what happened. All Stephens had to do was watch for the step. Notice that as soon as Bezerra's lead foot steps forward and to the left, Stephens launches the kick and lands it easily.
This shows the difference between a striker who understands the principle of distance control and one who does not. What Bezerra should have been doing to cover that space was working in behind a jab, feinting or waiting til Stephens took a committed step. Without any of those tools, Bezerra is left with nothing but a predictable and easy to see overhand right. This is very exciting stuff and may be showing an evolution in MMA striking. For the longest time, it has been considered defensively sound to step the lead foot forward and to the left without any set up while throwing a right hand. What the fighters who do this don't realize is that on top of putting them in the path of head kicks, it gives the opponent an easy inside angle--leaving them squared up and defensively compromised if they miss. For an example of what that might look like, I give you John Makdessi:
In the future, the wild right hand just isn't going to cut it. People like Makdessi and Stephens are learning how to see it coming then counter it with devastating results. Men like them are going to force the development of more advanced set ups, otherwise their opponents will keep ending up asleep.
After an impressive UFC debut, I was very excited to see how this fight played out. Thatch definitely didn't disappoint, proving quickly why his striking is getting some serious hype. He took Thiago out with a beautiful knee to the body:
UFC Fight Night Recap: Thatch/Thiago (via FOX Sports)
Thatch does a fantastic job in landing this knee from start to finish. First, notice that he backs Thiago against the cage. Attacks like this that are short and/or require so much distance to be covered are best thrown either when the opponent can't back up (whether due to the cage or a clinch), or when the opponent is committed to coming forward. Otherwise, the opponent can simply take a step back and throw a counter. While in this situation, Thiago does have some room behind him, many fighters become much more likely to plant and throw the closer to the cage they get as they start to feel cornered. That's exactly what happens to Thiago, as it looks like he initially attempts to counter with a right hook to the body. Thatch is prepared for precisely this, and his set up is excellent.
Watch how he performs a hop step that takes him forward and slightly to his right; away from Thiago's predictable right hand. As he does this, his right hand moves to cover the left hand of Thiago. This set up is essentially a leaping lead hook, but the hook is thrown for control instead of for damage. With the left hand being checked and the footwork avoiding the right hand, Thatch moves into prime position to throw a knee safely. Using both footwork and hand trapping to set up the knee is something he shares with the Lyoto Machida, though Machida uses his knees when the opponent commits to coming forward as was mentioned above:
Back on topic, Thiago makes the impact worse as he rotates his torso into the knee, allowing it to drive flush into his liver and leave him in a crumpled heap of pain. That's genius execution, and anyone looking to land standing knees can take a lot from this finish.
Kicks and knees are really the theme of the night. Cavalcante reminded us just how dangerous knees from the double collar tie clinch can be:
Starting with his back against the cage, Cavalcante is able to lock in the clinch and use his forearms on the collar bones to create space for his hips. Once he has that space and starts throwing knees, it becomes clear very quickly that Pokrajac does not know how to defend. He makes a very common mistake; holding both his arms down to block the knees. First, this does not stop the knees as Cavalcante is still able to maneuver his knees around the arms. Second, it gives Calvalcante full control over his posture and the freedom to throw elbows if he chooses--something he could learn from the man with the best Muay Thai clinch game in MMA, Matt Brown:
Despite failing to throw any elbows and losing his grip a few times, Cavalcante does plenty of damage to an opponent who is unskilled in his defense. Pokrajac should have been doing everything in his power to get his hips close to Cavalcante to stuff the knees and regain his posture, then using his hands to control the biceps and weaken the control over his head while preventing potential elbows. From that position, it is possible to execute a number of escapes including cross faces, body locks and many methods of breaking at least one of the collar ties. Without that initial positioning however, he is left to eat knees and hope that he is able to duck out without being elbowed or snapped down on his face. Cavalcante beats him up, then when Pokrajab covers the front of his face with his forearms Cavalcante simply lets go and swings his right hand into the huge opening behind that guard, flooring the opponent and finishing the fight.
Vitor Belfort Vs Dan Henderson:
When asked about this fight, my first response was "It doesn't look good for Henderson. Belfort has been kicking people's heads into the stands lately". Little did I know he would show us some excellent boxing before fulfilling his face kicking obligations:
The most obvious thing that should stick out to anyone who has read any of my work (especially my series on positioning) is posture. Belfort's back is straight and shoulders are relaxed and as a result his eyes are easily on his opponent. Henderson, on the other hand, is MAYBE able to see Belfort's right foot. My best guess is that Henderson is trying to double up on the right hook to set up a take down while he has Belfort against the fence, but doing so with such horrible posture gives Belfort the ideal opportunity to throw the uppercut. Notice that as it lands, Henderson is so far out of position it's insane. He's squared up, his head is ducked, his back is round, his eyes are on the floor and both feet are off the ground when that uppercut lands. Oh yea, his hands are down too. Whatever...
Belfort, on the other hand, is in pretty good position. He too squares up a little, but with Henderson so far out of position it doesn't even matter. He has excellent control of distance as he sets up the uppercut. Notice that he uses his lead hand to measure the distance and aim the uppercut. Had Henderson been looking at him, that uppercut would also have served to blind him and make the punch harder to see coming. Plus, it makes it harder for Henderson to come forward. Most of all, notice he does effectively it with a fist, unlike many who prefer to stick fingers in their opponent's eyes. Belfort looks great in this gif. He bends his knees and throws the uppercut with serious leverage and nice built in head movement to avoid the right hook. The man knows how to throw a punch, and he apparently knows how to set one up on defense now too. In addition to his legendary straight blast style of swarming and lethal head kicks, Belfort is truly looking scarier than ever.
Here's a full gif including a very smart head kick, thrown as Henderson is trying to get up. This makes the kick harder since it is thrown at a lower target, and easier to land since Henderson is both trying to regain his balance (which causes his hands to drop) and unable to move in any direction.