UFC 157 Henderson vs Machida - The Minimalists

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Lyoto Machida and Dan Henderson are men who use a couple of techniques better than anyone else in the world. They are truly minimalists but have beaten the stiffest competition out there. Today we have a look at some of the factors at play in their hotly anticipated match up.

You don't have to be a Ronda Rousey cynic to admit that by far the most exciting bout on the UFC 157 card is Lyoto Machida versus Dan Henderson. In this bout you have a gritty, old school wrestler turned knockout artist against possibly the finest timing and distancing in MMA. Bas Rutten caught some flack earlier in the month for declaring that Machida has a very small arsenal of weapons, but in truth Machida AND Henderson have quite a limited arsenal of techniques - they simply apply them better than almost any other fighter in the UFC applies their own. Rutten himself was hardly a bottomless bag of tricks on the feet - it is a case of quality of attacks and counters over quantity. What Henderson and Machida really demonstrate is the brilliance one can achieve by focusing on mastering the concepts and set ups of just a few techniques.

I have spoken about both fighters on several occasions before but today we will focus on how well they match up against each other.

Lyoto Machida

Machida is known for his counter punching and for good reason - it seems that everyone he fights, no matter how well prepared or skilled, ends up eating at least one hard counter on the snout. Machida's counter punching is not the James Toney or Anderson Silva type - looking to bring partial punches through unexpected openings by using punch variety. Machida relies entirely on countering with the rear straight (usually his left straight as he is a southpaw). I have stated before that Machida is a master of the intangibles of fighting - something which Japanese martial arts tend to focus on - timing, distancing, feinting, drawing etc. What Machida does so well is firstly to feint - his striking output is incredibly low for a fighter with such a high connect percentage - and the secondly is his constant baiting of his opponent into a chase.

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A young Machida baits Rich Franklin into chasing him and then steps in with a counter straight.

The most power one can manufacture in a strike comes from creating a collision and to do that requires that the opponent in moving into one's strike. Machida doesn't block or cover up in his bouts - instead his go to defense is to retreat out of range - basic Shotokan kumite 101. He will do this numerous times and his opponents will often go back to their corner complaining about him "running" as TIto Ortiz memorably did.

Once Machida is happy with how committed his opponent is to chasing him - he will simply stop in his tracks and step into a hard straight punch. It sounds simple, and it is, but it isn't a style that MMA fighters, boxers or kickboxers encounter often. Because Machida's opponents are so often running onto Machida's punches he creates a far greater impact than his actual punching power would allow him to.

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The same is true of his springing knees - he will back up several times and then spring in with his knee as the opponent runs forward - winding even well conditioned fighters who are happy to take body shots on defense.

If you want to learn more about the specifics behind these concepts I suggest reading my articles on Lyoto Machida's Sen no Sen and Tai Sabaki.

The downside of Lyoto's baiting strategy is that he is very susceptible to low kicks when retreating. Of course, as shown by Jon Jones, simply kicking at Machida's legs straight off the bat is not a great answer to the problem because he is happy to take a low kick and dive in with a counter punch. No, the blueprint for landing low kicks on Machida is to force him to break his stance and retreat by throwing punches at him. Mauricio Rua threw dozens of winging punches which were way off the mark in his first bout with Machida but they made Machida move which left one leg or the other trailing and in the path of Shogun's powerful low kicks.

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I said earlier that kickboxers don't encounter this style often and that is largely because there are very few benefits to using it in kickboxing competition. If one is wearing big gloves, covering up is a great excuse not to learn defensive movement (just look at Alistair Overeem), but also against a fighter who will throw dozens of low kicks a round, backing up constantly is not viable. In kickboxing you will not last the whole fight if you cannot pick your leg up and check kicks - Sergei Kharitanov's terrible performances in K-1 should be ample evidence of that.

By turning the bout into a kickboxing match and not being as hesitant to throw low kicks as most MMA fighters are, a fighter can really give Machida trouble. Machida will occasionally trip or throw an opponent - but his output on the ground for the most part is really nothing that a top level MMA fighter has to be worried about.

Lyoto's tendency to counter with his non-punching hand low is perhaps the most dangerous flaw in his game. Diving into collisions with his straight punch and no guard turns Machida into something of a glass cannon in such a heavy punching division. Jon Jones exploited this by drawing the counter from Machida and landing a hook on the unguarded side of Machida's head. If you would like to learn more about that I recommend reading my article on it or my conversation with the brilliant and insightful Mike Winkeljohn.

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Machida goes to counter a faked kick and eats a jumping hook on the same side on which he is dropping his hand.

Dan Henderson

Dan Henderson is a brilliant inspirational tale, similar to that of Bernard Hopkins or his friend Randy Couture, the aged athlete who continues to beat young, hungry opposition. In truth, however, Henderson has benefited enormously from the competition he has faced. Obviously Feijao doesn't have much outside of a strong sprawl and a good right hand - but I would never want to play down Shogun or Fedor Emelianenko - a light heavyweight legend and the greatest heavyweight to ever compete in MMA.

What I will say, however, is that both Fedor and Shogun have had several occasions (particularly on the downside of their careers) where they thought far too much of their own physical ability and treated a striking advantage on paper as an entitlement rather than something they would have to create through strategy in the fight. Both Fedor and Shogun simply waded forward swinging in 50/50 exchanges against a man with both a legendary chin and right hand. The only way that Dan Henderson is going to knock out many of his opponents is if they choose to fight him rather than hunt him.

Shogun and Fedor both have excellent left hooks, serviceable jabs and ludicrously hard kicks - but both men opted to move into Hendo's right hand and trade rather than throw the left hook and circle away - looking to land their right hand from an angle which took away Hendo's.

Henderson's striking style is very peculiar because he does not fight out of a stance that allows him to use all of his techniques - he instead stands almost side on in a slight crouch. Henderson does a good job of hiding behind his lead shoulder and arm, looking to land his loaded right hand at every opportunity. I have previously likened Dan Henderson to Rocky Marciano because of how both men stand crouched over their right leg, then throw their weight forward onto their left leg as they step into a right hand. It's not beautiful from a technical boxing standpoint, but for generating power there are few methods which allow even the average Joe to throw a knockout punch as well as this one.

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Notice how Henderson is crouched back over his right leg - this stance is completely different to the stance he is in when he lands his right hand. It is the huge movement of weight from back to front which allows Henderson so much power.

To see this transfer of weight in action, compare the gif of Rocky Marciano landing his legendary right hand to these gifs of Hendo (1) (2).

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The enormous transfer of weight from back foot to front foot is everything. Both men could throw their lead hook with power, but not from their basic stance - they have to square up first to throw it. Marciano had to use slapping left hooks to get his opponent directly in front of him, or get them against the ropes or tired to land his right hand effectively because like Henderson's it was so obvious what was coming. Henderson, however, benefits enormously from being able to throw the inside low kick before he throws his weight forward into the punch. If his kick connects it lifts the opponent's leg from the floor, if they check it they are on one leg in front of him - either way it can stop them circling away from his right hand.

If this article only embeds one thing in your mind - let it be this.

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This is not how to fight Dan Henderson. Right hand for right hand Henderson can beat almost anyone in the world - or at least have a good crack at it.

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This is how an opponent should look to engage if he hopes to even begin to trouble Dan Henderson. Keep circling away from the power hand - lengthening it's path - and look to sneak your own in around the side. One should also use his left hand continuously and ruthlessly in taking this angle. No-one will let an opponent keep an angle on them because it is just plain silly. What most fighters will do is turn to face the fighter who has taken the angle. While turning, however, it is almost impossible to power punch.

Lyoto Machida has shown to enjoy turning fighters in the past - such as Thiago Silva and Quinton Jackson. Lyoto hopped off line, then jumped in with punches while they were turning. To outsiders it looked like Machida was just fast, but in truth Silva and Rampage could not do anything of note until they were back in stance. (G) (G).

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Lyoto hops to his left, Silva turns to face him and gets hit while turning.

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Lyoto hops to his left again (lead foot inside of Rampage's) and comes in with a punch as Rampage begins to pivot.

Now this is of course what I'm talking about when I speak of turning an opponent but you will have noticed that Lyoto turned both fighters by stepping toward their right hand. This worked wonderfully against them because Silva and Rampage both use their left hook as their money punch - standing very square on to begin with - but against Henderson this is simply a risk not worth taking. Machida should be looking to get his lead foot outside of Henderson's all night rather than attempting flashy turns into his power hand.

Conclusion

The reason I am so excited for this fight is that I have no idea what will happen. Both men are the best in the world at their particular techniques and not too skilled in any others. Both men know how they like to fight and don't often fight in a different way - and each man knows exactly what the other wants to do. Lyoto is what I already described as a glass cannon, while Henderson is the durable, one punch can turn it around type fighter. Even if one fighter fights the perfect fight, one step into Henderson's right hand or one rush into a Machida counter could spell disaster for the man on the receiving end.

Don't forget to check out my first piece of video analysis and leave brutally honest advice - I've only had about 40 minutes with the software but would love to start a high level video analysis podcast in the future. Let me know if you'd be interested and what you'd like to see / hear.

Mike Tyson's Angles (via Jack Slack)

Jack can be found on Twitter,Facebook and at his blog; Fights Gone By.

Learn the techniques and strategies of effective striking in Jack Slack's ebook:Elementary Striking.

20 of the world's top strikers from boxing, kickboxing and MMA have their techniques dissected in Jack Slack's first ebook, Advanced Striking.

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