For a card ravaged by injuries, UFC on Fox 9 still managed to bring the excitement in a big way. And, more than any other UFC event in recent memory, it was a treat for technique geeks like myself. Every type of fighting imaginable was on display, from boxing to Muay Thai to wrestling to submission grappling. So rife was this card with brilliant moments of technique and strategy that I've managed to choose sequences based around a common theme, and that theme is distance.
In many ways distance is the most important aspect of fighting. Whether grappling or striking, attacking or defending, countering or leading, he who controls the distance controls the fight. Let's take a look at the various ways that distance played a role last Saturday.
IN THE CLINCH
Featuring: Abel Trujillo
If Abel Trujillo's first fight with Roger Bowling was a closely contested affair with a controversial no contest ending, this one was a striking clinic that ended with a perfect referee stoppage. Bowling has long been known as a stagnant fighter: despite great potential, he just hasn't been making the right adjustments and the sport is passing him by as a result. Trujillo, on the other hand, responded to his limited success in his last bout by putting in some quality work at the gym, and the improvements were clear.
Where so many others on this card showed the importance of distance control in a free striking context, Trujillo's most pronounced success came in the clinch, where he manipulated Bowling with ease. Though we often think of distance control as an element of range striking, it is just as important after contact with the opponent has been established. The space between the two fighters' hips is of key importance.
In a word, hips close together = takedowns. Hips far apart = knees and kicks. Here's an example.
1. Trujillo whiffs on a left uppercut and gets countered with a takedown attempt from Bowling, who pins his body to Trujillo's hips, putting his own hips beneath them.
2. Trujillo establishes an underhook with his right arm early, and he turns, wrenching up on Bowling's left arm to disrupt his balance and creating a gap between his and Bowling's hips.
3. He takes advantage of this space by spearing Bowling in the gut with a hard knee, pulling him into the strike with his left collar tie.
4. As Bowling attempts to tie up, Trujillo disengages, cracking Bowling with a right hook as he separates.
Trujillo not only shrugged off Bowling's takedown attempts with this control of distance, but used the threat of his knees to secure some pretty impressive takedowns of his own.
1. Bowling has secured a single leg. Once again, he glues his body to Trujillo's hips.
2. Bowling tries to run the pipe on Trujillo, who kicks his left leg out of the single attempt (you can just see the blur of his foot) as they turn.
3. Trujillo has now defeated Bowling's attempt. He pulls his hips back as Bowling stands back up.
4. Trujillo uncoils, launching his knee forward into Bowling's midsection.
5. Now Bowling, sensitive to the threat of the knees, allows Trujillo to bring his hips in close.
6. Trujillo takes advantage of the leverage-enhancing position, stepping to an angle and tripping Bowling to the ground.
This is the sort of game that the world's best strikers constantly play. Not long into the fight, Roger Bowling is left with a feeling of "damned if you do, damned if you don't." If he separates his hips to keep from being taken down, he eats a knee. If he keeps Trujillo's hips close to his, Trujillo can use his superior takedown abilities to take the fight to the ground, with Bowling on the bottom. Even with small adjustments like this, it's all about distance.
ON THE OUTSIDE
Unfortunately for Danny Castillo, this fight was a clear example of a fighter failing to control the distance. In the first round, Castillo hurt the Brazilian striker with a vicious punch, brilliantly set up.
(Click to enlarge)
1. Castillo steps in behind a jab, lowering his elevation for a takedown.
2. Barboza forces him to defend a rising left hook.
3. And Castillo jumps back out of range.
4. Seconds later, he tries again, this time faking the jab.
5. And changing levels. Barboza buys the takedown feint, throwing a right uppercut at the spot where he expects Castillo's head to be.
6. Castillo uncorks a vicious short right hand from his lowered stance, sending Barboza to the canvas.
This is the Kevin Randleman special (GIF)-historically the best way for wrestlers to outstrike kickboxers is to utilize the threat of their takedowns, and Castillo does that brilliantly. Unfortunately, he was unable to put Barboza away, and punched himself out in the attempt. Despite a valiant showing after a pretty unimpressive second round, Castillo found himself consistently on the end of Barboza's kicks, rather than in the range where the double threat of his wrestling and boxing could be put to use.
1. Castillo steps toward Barboza with a jab.
2. And another. The double jab is one of the best and simplest ways to enter range; Castillo does everything right up until this point.
3. Barboza dips and feints a jab. Immediately Castillo pulls back. From here he could still come back with a strike of his own-a short overhand right would be perfect.
4. Instead he completely overreacts to the feint, bounding so far out of range that neither he nor Barboza can do anything effective.
Tired from his first round blitz, Castillo unfortunately regressed to his instincts, thinking only of defending without offering any offense of his own, and counterintuitively getting beaten up the worse for it. Barboza did what Barboza does, and ended up stealing the final two rounds, mostly with simple jabs and leg kicks.
Featuring: Zach Makovsky, Demetrious Johnson
Who honestly predicted Zach Makovsky to beat Scott Jorgensen the way he did? Not only did the ex-Bellator champ create some thrilling scrambles, but he soundly outstruck Jorgensen, and I mean soundly. Watching the fight live, I said that this would likely be a battle of who could push the other fighter back, since "neither guy can fight very well going backwards." How wrong I was.
Makovsky put on a clinic of basic southpaw strategy, landing his left hand over and over again on the unfortunate mug of Jorgensen, who just couldn't predict his opponent's punches or get off any solid ones of his own. Guess what the key to Makovsky's success was?
If you guessed "distance control" well then... I guess you've been reading the rest of this article.
But you're still right. Distance control it was. In this fight, Makovsky would force Jorgensen to collapse the pocket, bursting through the gap between Makovsky and himself only to skewer himself on a knee or crack his chin on Makovsky's fist like a toddler on the edge of a coffee table.
1. Jorgensen presses forward slowly, and Makovsky stays just outside of range-from here Jorgensen would need to really reach to even touch him.
2. Jorgensen begins moving forward quickly, feinting his jab...
3. ...then half-throwing a long left hook to disguise a deep step to the outside of Makovsky's right foot. Makovsky continues to move back, staying out of range.
4. Then, just as Jorgensen commits to his step and is about to throw the right hand, Makovsky stops his backwards momentum, plants his feet, and pops Jorgensen's head back with a beauty of an uppercut. I've noted the starting position of Jorgensen's left foot (the yellow arrow) so that you can see how aggressively he closed the distance, and thus how much force he carried chin-first into Makovsky's fist.
This sort of movement is a Lyoto Machida classic-the southpaw fighter moves back and to the left, back and to the left, back and to the left, endlessly moving out of range until the opponent might as well just chase him and-CLANG! Runs right into the counter strike. Of course Lyoto himself still holds the best highlights of this variety too, but Makovsky made a very strong showing for himself, especially as someone formerly billed as nothing more than an undersized wrestler.
So that brings us to the main event, in which Demetrious Johnson knocked out Joseph Benavidez in perhaps the least anticipated knockout win ever. Few people expected Andy Ristie to knock out Giorgio Petrosyan. Nobody expected Chris Weidman to knock out Anderson Silva. But nobody, and I mean nobody expected Mighty Mouse to put Benavidez to sleep with his fists. That's just not what Mighty Mouse does, or at least it wasn't until now.
In my last article on Demetrious Johnson I discussed the flyweight champ's tendency to lean back away from punches, which is often effective, but risky. In short, a fighter can only lean back so far to avoid a blow. When he leans back as far as he can and still gets hit, the only other direction to go is down. Mighty Mouse still showed some of this tendency against Benavidez, but he relied much more on his footwork to avoid strikes than his upper body, not a bad idea for the fighter with the fastest feet in the UFC.
(Click to enlarge)
1. Johnson has backed Benavidez up against the cage.
2. To make some space and, ideally, to initiate some offense, Benavidez hops forward behind a teep feint. Mighty Mouse steps back, but just barely out of range (again, check the yellow arrow).
3. With no attack forthcoming from Benavidez, Johnson closes the distance again, checking Joe's right hand with his left as he begins to step outside and past his right foot.
4. Safe from all of Benavidez's weapons, Johnson lands a thudding right hook that puts the Team Alpha Male product to sleep.
Benavidez looked great in the first two minutes of this fight. In fact, his early success seems to have made him overconfident in the effects of his offense, as you can see him failing to put anything behind his feint here. Had he thrown a strike or circled away after pushing Johnson back, he would have been relatively safe. Instead, he seems to have expected Mighty Mouse to leap back much further, giving him space to circle away from the fence.
Before this fight, I wrote that this would be a battle between two great coaches in Matt Hume and Duane Ludwig. Even though we didn't get to enjoy any inter-round corner advice from either camp, I'm certain that what we saw was an example of Matt Hume's understated brilliance. In fact, Hume was giving Johnson the right advice way back in 2012 when he fought Benavidez for the first time. After the first round, in which Benavidez had found it nearly impossible to lay his hands on Johnson, Hume advised him in the corner: "You're shutting him down with your movement, but you're getting too far away. Okay? He's getting slow and he's missing big but you're too far away to counter."
Defense alone is great if your goal is to escape a fight unscathed. If, however, you aim to win a fight, your defense must be put to use. Johnson didn't go jumping completely out of range when Benavidez moved forward. Instead, he took a very small step back (moving only about six inches, judging by the stills), and then stepped right back into range on an angle to land a serious counter punch. If nobody took Demetrious Johnson's punching power seriously before, they'll damn well do so now.
Distance control isn't always a game of cat and mouse. In fact, at the highest levels of combat it is a battle of inches. Making someone miss is all well and good, but making them miss by just enough is true mastery.
For more analysis and fighter/coach interviews, subscribe to Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching.