Matt Brown has, in just over a year, gone from a gritty if unremarkable, middle-tier mainstay to one of the toughest gatekeepers in the welterweight division, and is quite possibly just one fight away from breaking into the Top Ten. As far as late-career comeback stories go, the unexpected impressiveness of Brown's recent five-fight winning streak is rivaled only by the similar accomplishments of UFC heavyweight Mark Hunt. And, like Hunt, Brown is quickly becoming a Bloody Elbow staple. Sure, no one's rallying for him quite yet, but the Immortal was recently granted BE's Fighter of the Year status for his unparalleled 2012 run, and he certainly won quite a few new fans by absolutely crushing Jordan Mein at last weekends UFC on Fox event.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a Muay Thai seminar taught by Dorian Price. Though Price proved too one-dimensional for MMA after his stint on the Ultimate Fighter 6, he is a skilled nak muay and an excellent Muay Thai instructor. During the seminar, Mr. Price mentioned that he thought Matt Brown had the best Thai clinch in the UFC, better even than Anderson Silva's, he said. Of course, my initial response was to make excuses for the comment: Price and Brown are friends that sometimes train together, so of course Dorian would talk up his friend's prowess.
But seeing Matt Brown's recent tear has changed my mind on the matter. Brown's standup game has plenty of flaws. It is workmanlike and serviceable at best. But his Thai clinch is the glue that holds it all together, and the only thing he does exceptionally well. Let's break down why.
What is the Thai Clinch?
Let's first clear up a common misconception. This...
...is not the Muay Thai clinch, no matter what Joe Rogan and Kenny Florian tell you. This is a double collar tie. It is part of the Thai clinch, of course, but it's only one position of many. The double collar tie is no more "the Thai clinch" than the over-under is "the Greco clinch." Bodylocks, overhooks and underhooks of every description, and hand and arm fighting are all aspects of the Thai clinch. Suffice to say that the Thai clinch is truly defined as any standup grappling sequence the primary purpose of which is to land strikes.
Now that that's cleared up, back to Matt Brown. What about the Immortal's clinch game makes it so special?
Range and Initiation
This is perhaps the most important aspect of Brown's clinch game, and the element that really puts him above the rest of the MMA world. Yes, even Anderson Silva. While Silva's famous use of the Thai clinch in his first fight against Rich Franklin was very impressive, his approach was to more or less walk forward, grab Rich's head, and throw knees. And Rich, unaware of the danger, allowed him to do this, thinking to block the knees and concede head control. It was brutally effective, but a relatively simple approach that would not work on an opponent with a better Muay Thai or wrestling background. In short, Anderson was either kickboxing with Franklin, or trying to double collar tie him.
There is a misconception that clinch range is distinct from punching range, but this is not the case, and Matt Brown knows it. The commonly held belief is that clinch range exists inside of punching range: when you're too close to punch, you clinch. In truth, the clinch begins at the point when you can start to hand fight with the opponent, which actually means that the clinch can be initiated from far outside punching range. Rashad Evans and most of the people watching his most recent attempt at the belt were shocked when Jon Jones stepped in from the very fringe of punching range to land elbows. Oft-misinformed commentator Joe Rogan attributed this to the champion's massive reach advantage. But in reality, Jones was simply exploiting Rashad's outstretched hands with a technique seen often in Muay Thai: the pull-down elbow. Matt Brown has been using this technique for years and continues to put it to great use. Take a look at this sequence from his recent fight with Mike Swick:
1. Swick, oversensitive to Brown's reaching hands after having eaten some heavy leather already, backs up and extends his own hands to keep the immortal at Bay.
2. Brown takes hold of Swick's hands, gripping from the top. Think of that game in which you place your palms against the upraised palms of a friend, and they try to slap the backs of your hands before you can pull them away. Usually, your friend will struggle to hit your hands because you can sense their movement, and the straight line your hands must travel to avoid a smack is much shorter and more direct than the curved path their hands must take to give one. Similarly, with his hands on top of Swick's Brown can sense any attempts his opponent might make to strike him, and counter before he has the chance. Jack Slack broke down a similar technique used by the great Joe Louis, in which Louis would cover the lead hand of his opponent to negate the counter jab before landing his own jab (I'll be happy to link to that article when Jack's site comes back up).
3. Brown steps in and simultaneously pulls down hard on Swick's left hand, rendering it momentarily useless for either offense or defense.
4. In the same pulling-down movement Brown follows through with his elbow and cracks Swick on the jaw. From here, he is free to disengage or advance to a more dominant clinch position.
Few fighters in MMA realize that the clinch is something which begins at hand-fighting range. Hand traps lead directly to underhooks, overhooks, collar ties, and strikes. Brown is quite adept at first getting his opponent into a defensive mindset, and then using a unique combination of long-range grappling and advancing strikes to enter the clinch, where he is capable of causing massive damage. Though his Muay Thai assault is nowhere near as effective as that of this all-time great, you can see many of the same entries being used by Muay Thai legend Langsuan Panyuthaphum.
Watch this highlight and notice the way that Langsuan enters range, and constantly works from one attack to another to change position and cause damage. And on that note...
Variety of Strikes
The pull-down elbow detailed above is but one of many attacks in Matt Brown's Muay Thai arsenal. He uses long stepping knees, side knees, uppercuts, hooks, uppercut elbows, overhand elbows, and one strike that I can only call a "slapping elbow" which I've never seen in MMA before, and which Brown used with great effectiveness against Jordan Mein.
1. Mein, hurt from a hard knee to the sternum, has his hands low to prevent another knee from Brown, or perhaps to follow up on his previously effective body punches. He is curled forward, effectively giving posture control to Brown, and taking the upper body of his aggressor out of his line of sight. In other words, he's wide open for an elbow, and he won't be able to see one coming.
2. Brown pulls his right hand away and throws an elbow, using the same body motion as that of a right hook to smash Mein in the jaw with the point of his elbow. He used the same attack later in the fight, also just after having hurt Mein with a clinch knee.
As I said, this elbow strike is not common in MMA. It is, however, used with brutal effectiveness and relative regularity by one of Muay Thai's most well-respected elbow aficionados, Kem Sitsongpeenong. Check out his knockout of the overmatched Alejandro Asumu Osa from last June. The knockout occurs at 7:47, but the entire fight is well worth watching.
Kem's opponent, just like many of Brown's, was caught with the elbow when his hands were out of position. Alejandro looked to be working for a different hand position in the clinch, and Kem took advantage of the brief opening. It was excellent timing from an expert on elbow strikes.
Matt Brown has an easier time using clinch elbows in MMA, however, because so many mixed martial artists, whether because of their wrestling backgrounds or because they don't understand the Thai clinch, drop their hands to control the opponent's hips and block knee strikes. This is a mistake for multiple reasons. Once you remove your hands from your opponent's head, arms, or body, you give up the clinch fight. Not only does this mean that you have very little chance of keeping your posture, but it means that you open yourself to elbows, which require very little room to generate power as the slapping elbows of Matt and Kem prove.
Matt Brown's exploitation of these openings is excellent. His wide variety of attacks, including trips, elbows, knees, and punches, make him a very dangerous man in the clinch. Check out this sequence from his fight with Luis Ramos.
1. Matt begins his attack with a pair of knees to the body, utilizing a double collar tie to pull the opponent into his strikes and keep him off balance.
2. As Ramos stumbles forward, Brown takes a small angle and hits his antagonist with a footsweep that sends him to his hands and knees.
3. Ramos stands up, right into the waiting hands of Brown and, his posture already broken, eats a hard knee to the face for his trouble.
4. Desperate to stall the attack, Ramos forgoes the counter clinch and throws a looping punch at Brown which glances off of the Immortal's impervious head. Brown, seeing the opening left by Ramos' ineffective attack, blasts him in the cheek with a vicious elbow strike.
And this isn't even the whole exchange. In the closest thing to true Muay Thai clinching you'll see in MMA, Brown completely works his opponent over, dragging him off balance and into strikes again and again, changing position and adapting to his opponent's reactions. Most importantly, Brown does not feel that he has to maintain a double collar tie at all times. Despite the fact that Kenny Florian, during the Brown-Ramos fight, shouted out "Thai clinch!" the moment he saw both of Brown's hands around the back of Ramos' head, Matt Brown knew that he was utilizing a Thai style of clinch well before that point. He moves fluidly from biceps control, to underhooks and overhooks, fighting his opponent's attempts to advance their own hand positions by disrupting their balance and striking them when they release the clinch to move their hands.
Matt Brown's striking is far from exceptional. He has a disconcerting habit of taking his eyes off of his opponent when he moves his head, and he often leaps into combinations face first. But he does excel in the Muay Thai clinch, which he uses to exhaust opponents, smother their own offense, and crush them with a wide variety of wisely employed attacks. Matt Brown may have occupied the middle of the welterweight division for years, but with his newly found preference for tying up his opponents and schooling them in true Thai methods, he could very well find himself in the Top Ten after his next fight.