by Dallas Winston
“Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
Bloody Elbow alum Luke Thomas of MMAFighting.com recently published a Q&A with Roufusport head trainer Duke Roufus pertaining to striking-centric evolutions in MMA.
Roufus is a widely respected MMA coach and a decorated kickboxing champion who dove into martial arts at age 4. As a wee lad under his father's tutelage, Roufus got his feet wet with a hodgepodge of Taekwondo, Kenpo karate, boxing and full-contact kickboxing, and later, at age 18, adopted the highly functional art of Muay Thai. Presently, the former IKF, ISKA, WKA and WAKO kickboxing champion boasts almost 40 years of experience in hand-to-hand combat.
Roufus discussed his star pupil Anthony Pettis' unorthodox style and impending collision with UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, but the interview also produced a wealth of technical gems and enlightening perspectives on contemporary MMA striking. The following is a collection of choice excerpts with some personal commentary included.
Luke Thomas: How would you describe Anthony's footwork, what about it is unique? Footwork for a really good striker is almost like a fingerprint. Dominick Cruz has his own type of footwork and Jose Aldo has his own type of footwork. How would you characterize the footwork of Anthony Pettis?
Duke Roufus: He's almost like a panther who pounces on his prey. One, he's a great athlete. My father was my first coach and I'm meticulous on footwork. Footwork is everything in mixed martial arts whether you want to avoid takedowns or create takedown opportunities, if you want to create shots or not get hit, you've got to be able to move your feet.
Mobility is the key to fighting in my humble opinion and Anthony is very meticulous on that. He understands and it comes from years of doing martial arts tournaments. He understands how to hit and not get hit. That's what style I brought to me from my kickboxing and Muay Thai career, the ability to hit and not get hit. I didn't sustain a lot of damage when I fought when I used that particular style. I was aggressive, but at the same time, when it came time for me to not be hit, I was gone, and that's what Anthony is awesome at. He comes in aggressively, steps at different angles and he's very good at putting himself in a position where he can hit you but you can't hit him.
The statement that jumps off the page is Roufus' opinion that "mobility is the key to fighting." I couldn't agree more -- though I would rather humbly assert "balance" as the most essential martial arts foundation that inevitably influences footwork and mobility -- which is why footwork, use of angles, attack patterns and the command of striking range was always at the heart of my pre-fight Dissections.
Balance, footwork and mobility are under-scrutinized aspects of MMA. While we're often preoccupied with more typical and obvious characteristics like striking, wrestling and submission prowess, the former elements are like cardio in that it often goes unnoticed until it leaves the equation. Just as you can't perform or draw from your technique and abilities to the fullest when your cardio has flat-lined, the success of executing any technique in the cage is largely influenced by your balance.
Some strikers are aggressive (Wanderlei Silva), some have knockout power (Dan Henderson) and others have elaborate footwork and mobility (Demetrious Johnson, Frankie Edgar), but what makes Pettis so unique as a striker is that he can maintain an obscene level of aggression with scorching foot-speed and creative mobility, but he does so with a level of composure and balance that doesn't leave him as susceptible to counter-strikes as Silva, makes him more technically complete than Henderson and still results in a steep 82% finishing percentage (vs. 53% for "Mighty Mouse" and 47% for Edgar).
In very rare instances, we've seen fighters with such an outrageous grasp of footwork and mobility that sometimes even a simple feint can have an overwhelming impact because their opponents are forced to respect their angles and movement so much. It's no coincidence that Pettis is one of those rare fighters, and flyweight champ Johnson deserves recognition here as well.
Roufus also touches on the way that bulletproof defense is essential to being an aggressive striker:
Duke Roufus: A lot of things, the evolution, everyone is getting better at defense more than anything. They need to get better and if your defense is good, you can be as aggressive as you want. I think a lot of people too have to understand that MMA striking is different than K-1 striking or Muay Thai kickboxing. It's a completely different fight when you put MMA gloves on when you have to deal with the takedowns and all these other moves that are a completely different fight. A lot of people don't necessarily train MMA.
Roufus is asked to build his own customized version of a perfect striker:
Luke Thomas: If you had to mold and create such that one exists, the perfect striker in MMA. Would he be primarily a kicker or primarily a puncher?
Duke Roufus: I think that kicking's cool, but if you don‘t have any weapons to set it up, it's a very, very manic style. It's like only living and dying as a basketball player that can only dunk the basketball or do lay-ups or only shoot three-pointers. It's like any other sport, you've got to be well-rounded with your attacks. The more attacks you can display, like play action in football. Am I doing a draw, am I pulling back, is it a sweep? The more options you have, it creates more openings.
Mirko Filipovic, anyone? "CroCop" was a fear-inducing murderer in the Pride ring after he crossed over from kickboxing, having booted a half-dozen heads into the cheap seats with his infamous "Cemetery Kick." However, the Croatian standout became painfully predictable by relying almost solely on just two weapons: his left high kick, which was constantly thrown with absolutely no set up (and left him predictable and easier to counter), and his straight left hand, with the occasional uppercut thrown into the mix.
Luke Thomas: I want to go to somebody else in your stable and that's Ben Askren. One thing we noticed was there seemed to be a little bit more steam on his punches. It's one thing to take a guy like Anthony Pettis who's a better fast twitch athlete than Ben Askren is and someone who has a striking background compared to a guy who almost is the opposite of Anthony Pettis in that regard. Reasonably speaking, what is the ceiling in terms of the striker you can turn Ben Askren into?
Duke Roufus: Man, he's gonna be kind of like Michael Chandler up in your grill. A guy like him or Cain Velasquez, if they're so good at wrestling, if they're striking isn't working, they can shoot and that's the key for wrestlers. Ben is getting a lot more steam on his punches and the next stage we wanted to work on with Ben was his ground and pound striking and that's a whole ‘nother area of mixed martial arts people don't understand.
You use a different muscle group to strike on the ground than you do standing and we trained a lot of that. Belcher used it against [Rousimar] Palhares and Jason MacDonald. Ground striking is a whole other level of the game that you have to focus on, too, and Ben, on his feet he's looking better and better. He's got Koch, Pettis, Belcher, little Pettis, all the other good strikers in my camp constantly striking at him. His defense is very solid and that's the reason he's able to take so many good fighters down easily like strikers like [Douglas] Lima and [Karl] Amoussou. He has a very good defensive base and a hard thing for a lot of wrestlers is their muscles aren't set up for punching. They're set up for pulling and pushing and they're triceps aren't built. Striking is more about snapping and wrestling is more pushing and dragging so you have to train whole new muscles and that's why we're getting loose with our strength and conditioning coach developing the muscles that will help Ben athletically punch better.
What I would've loved to ask Roufus was how the footwork, mobility and angles he discussed for striking so drastically increase the effectiveness of Ben Askren's takedowns. The same theme and variables apply to scoring or stuffing takedowns as well: the most difficult opponent to take down is one who is on balance, squared up, in a good stance and anticipates the incoming shot. Conversely, if an aspiring wrestler can lead with a few feints, knife into range with precise footwork and broad-side the opponent from an unexpected angle, the chances of success skyrocket because the opponent's balance and mobility are compromised, and his defense along with it.
Additionally, Askren is a special wrestler because of the way he constantly adjusts on the fly and hits myriad angles whilst transitioning to different takedown techniques, as outlined in the Bloody Elbow Judo Chop on Askren.