Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
A technical breakdown of the ground striking of the UFC's Weleterweight Champion Georges St Pierre
Most technique articles break down a particular technique taught in a competent art of Mixed Martial Arts then explain how the technique works through a particular example of it being applied in an MMA context. Instead, this article will look at something almost completely unique to MMA, ground striking. Yes, Combat Sambo has ground strikes, old school Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gyms have been training with them for almost 90 years, and other street fighting arts have trained to use strikes on the ground. However, it wasn't until Vale Tudo and Mixed Martial Arts really started to emerge that fighting with full force strikes on the ground with minimal protection became a wide spread reality in training.
As Mixed Martial Arts evolved it became more and more clear that there is far more to ground striking than simply mashing someone's face with punches. When two trained fighters meet there is a great deal of technique and strategy that must be mastered to be an effective ground striker.
St. Pierre is lauded for his all around skills, but when it comes to ground-and-pound he has some clear weaknesses along with his strengths. Let's start by looking at his weakest areas and then working towards his strengths.
St. Pierre weakest area is undoubtedly striking from inside the guard. When in the guard and on his knees St. Pierre tends to throw arm punches, meaning strikes that only have the power of the muscles of the arm behind them, as opposed to proper punching which makes use of the entire body.
While these strikes can add up and top position does afford the advantage of gravity to striking, these strikes are often not fight changing. These strikes are often used to either step up other, more powerful strikes or sometimes by top position grapplers that wish to stay busy. (G)
Now sometimes it is simply a matter of the top fighter wanting to look busy, so that the ref will not threaten to stand him up. But there is also the fact that in an MMA fight both combatants have to stay busy at all times, if the top fighter has a free arm he needs to be using that arm, or the bottom fighter will attempt to tie up that arm and it will require some grip fighting to get free. (G)
When striking from inside the guard, the gold standard is Fedor Emelianenko, who would sit back on his heels in guard, getting high posture and then turning his hips into his punches, creating impressive power from the inside the guard
(skip to 3:00 to see Fedor demonstrate his punching from inside guard)
What allows Fedor to create so much power is his wide knees in guard, giving him a strong base, and his up right posture. From there Fedor turns his entire body into his strike, putting serious power into them. When this style of punching is done in a live match it can generate a great deal of power. (G) (G) (G)
St. Pierre doesn't make use of this kind of punching from the knees is because he uses a low posture in guard.
While this posture limits his ability to attack with strikes, it gives St. Pierre better control of the bottom fighter. Today in MMA, partially due to judging, the majority of fighters prefer to escape to the feet rather than play guard, and St. Pierre takes away that option.
The trade off is that St. Pierre cannot effectively punch from the position, and he is normally working to pass guard from that position. He steps over to half guard, works to side control and from those position his is very good at tying up limbs to create openings for strikes. Again though, St. Pierre will prefer to throw arm punches rather than generate more power and giving the bottom fighter a chance to escape. (G)
St. Pierre does display good fundamentals when it comes to ground striking. Strikes on the ground can be used in combinations, as once the bottom fighter is being punched he has to committing one or both hands to stopping it, creating an opening for another strike. And the Champion will use this concept to create openings for his most effective strike from the guard, the elbow.
Notice how St. Pierre uses his punches, while weak, to set up his elbow strikes. The old Bas Rutten rule of punching to the body to open up the head still is the foundation of most ground-and-pound games. St. Pierre punches to the body and then either postures suddenly to deliver an elbow strike while turning his body into it (G) or drives with his legs, almost leaping into the strike. (G) Both the quick posturing and the driving off the legs are strategies to create more power in the strike, making his elbow strikes more damaging than his arm punching.
The best St. Pierre ground striking comes from very particular positions, from which he can make maximum use of his body to create power. His favorite position to deliver power strikes from is the stacked guard.
Stacking the guard consists of lifting the bottom fighter's hips off the mat, putting all his weight on the head and shoulders, this takes away almost all the guard player's ability to move or attack. In this position St. Pierre is able posture up, standing to his feet and drive into his punches to generate more power. (G) It also has the added benefit of bouncing his opponent's head off the mat. (G) (G)
Standing St. Pierre is able also fully extend his arms into strikes and follow through on them, making them far more effective that the majority of ground strikes seen in MMA. In addition the position also offers St. Pierre a chance to pass the guard.
The idea of transition striking is not new in MMA and is often the calling card of excellent fighter. Transitions are the time times fighters are moving from one position to another in grappling, and in MMA the great fighters fill that space with strikes.
Here is an example of transition striking, in this case passing guard while punching:
Notice how the act of passing guard, the turning of the hips and the strike all flow together in a way that creates very powerful strike that will likely land at an unexpected time. This is an aspect in which St. Pierre does excel, landing hard strikes while his opponent is focused on changing their position. Here notice that St. Pierre executes the above technique almost perfectly against B.J. Penn. (G)
While there are drills to train certain strikes into certain transitions, a certain amount of transition striking is pure reaction. A fighter needs to recognize an opening and react quickly, and in this respect St. Pierre's ground striking shines as he is able to deliver powerful strikes in an instant. (G)
So while St. Pierre's relatively weak punching from most positions is likely one of the causes that he can struggle to finish fights at times, he is also brilliant in other aspects of an aspect of MMA so complex it could be a martial art unto itself.