Who doesn't love Cub Swanson? After a very rough start in the UFC, the Jackson's MMA product has more than proven himself to be a top featherweight with a tremendous five-fight win streak, four of those wins coming by knockout. This only becomes more impressive when you consider the fact that of Cub's 20 career wins, spanning a nine year career, only eight have come by way of knockout or TKO. For those who struggle with math, this means that half of Cub's striking finishes have occurred in just his last five fights. Somehow, Swanson has made a late-career transformation into a spectacular knockout artist, and has done so while facing some of the toughest competition of his career.
Cub's style tends to be wild, unpredictable, and very explosive. The UFC's commentary teams like to attribute his every win to these athletic traits alone, but in reality there is a lot more to Cub's style than just his power, impressive as it is. Power must be augmented by technique to be effective, even if that technique is unorthodox. If power were all it took, we all know that Leonard Garcia would currently rule the featherweight division with a pair of flailing iron fists.
So what makes Cub so good?
POSTURE & LEVEL CHANGES
Want to know one of the biggest reasons I like Cub Swanson? He is further proof that fighters can be defensively viable without feeling the need to glue their gloves to their temples. Fraser Coffeen and I touched on the differences between a simple high guard and real striking defense in our breakdown of Chris Weidman's knockout of Anderson Silva, but I sure don't mind reiterating: defense is complicated. True, some fighters make excellent use of the hands and forearms to defend against strikes, but there is so much more to defense than simply putting the hands up and hoping that the opponent can't figure out how to get past them. One very important facet of defense is posture, and Cub Swanson's posture is key to the success of his aggressive striking style.
Take a look at Cub's stance in his latest bout.
Cub's chin is well protected by his lead shoulder. His back is straight, bracing his neck and head against strikes. Trainer Luis Monda calls this type of posture "chest up, chin down," and Cub is one of the better examples of that maxim in MMA. Now compare Cub's posture to Siver's. Siver also has his chin hidden behind his lead shoulder, but he accomplishes this by curling his back and hunching his shoulders up, while Swanson's shoulders are pulled back. Siver's neck is not braced to absorb shots, and he opens himself up for uppercuts by hunching forward.
Cub's posture helps protect his chin from direct strikes, and causes any strikes that penetrate his defense to simply glance off his head and shoulders. This is most evident when he attacks the body. Far too many strikers throw punches downward when they choose to strike the body. This is common in Muay Thai and Kyokushin, where punches to the face are less common or illegal, but it is ill-advised in sports like boxing and MMA. Without a completely safe angle on the opponent, body shots tend to leave the aggressor wide open for counters. The solution is to change elevations while attacking. Check out these stills of Cub throwing one of his favorite shots, the right hand to the body, and take special note of his elevation relative to Siver's.
1. Cub lands a straight right to Siver's gut.
2. A right hook to the body this time, and Siver attempts to counter. His winging left hook glances off the top of Cub's head.
3. Another right hook, and Siver's counter goes sailing over Cub's head.
4. Cub misses a right straight to the body, but avoids Siver's counter.
Cub's posture is far from perfect in all of these, but the core elements are there. As he punches, Cub sinks his weight into his left hip and bends his knees, not his back, to bring his body down to the level of his target. His head is safe because it moves downward and off-line with the rest of his body. The only counters that Siver was able to land when Cub struck his body were glancing blows, even when, as in frame four, Cub missed his mark.
BODY WORK (and a further lesson in hand placement)
On a similar note, we should absolutely laud Cub Swanson for his commitment to body work. There are very few fighters in the UFC who throw as many effective body strikes as Cub--in fact there are far too many who never throw them at all, despite their effectiveness. Just watch the man work (GIF1 and GIF2):
1. Halfway through the first round, Cub lands a hard right hand to the body of Oliveira.
2. And follows up seconds later with a vicious left hook to the liver that visibly troubles his opponent.
3. Backing Oliveira up into the fence, Cub quickly changes levels, giving Oliveira the impression that he intends to follow up with another body shot
4. Oliveira bites on the feint, and is caught completely off guard by a massive stepping overhand right that ends the fight.
It's obvious that a few body shots can set up a knockout like this, but I'd like to specifically point out how the flaws in Oliveira's defense made this a viable strategy. In the first two frames, Oliveira covers up the moment he sees Cub leaping in to attack. His preferred method of defense is exactly the one taught to most MMA fighters: a tight, high guard. Not only does this defense leave Oliveira mostly blind to his opponent's attack, but it leaves a lot of obvious openings. Cub has no difficulty busting up Oliveira's ribs because they are left completely exposed.
In the final two frames, however, Oliveira has his arms low, to protect his body. In each of these frames, the Brazilian's feet are frozen in place. His primary method of defense is to put his hands up, and so when Cub lunges forward and drops down he is forced to choose: defend the head, or defend the body. Fortunately for Cub, Oliveira chose wrong, and paid for it.
This is where Cub can get a little risky. His footwork can be quite shoddy, or it can be quite brilliant. His fight with Ross Pearson, one of his toughest opponents striking-wise, had examples of both. First, the bad.
1. Cub switches momentarily to southpaw, something he likes to do to throw kicks and pot-shot his opponents.
2. He throws a very quick straight left that catches Pearson on the chin.
3. But he throws his entire bodyweight forward into the strike, causing his rear foot to slide forward until it is momentarily parallel with his right foot. He's also bent forward a little too much as a result of his own punch.
4. Pearson throws a very nice right uppercut which staggers Cub.
This is an unfortunate tendency of Cub's style. He throws a lot of weight into every shot. That momentum can end up putting him in bad positions. Usually Cub is fast enough to avoid being punished, but a striker of Ross Pearson's caliber can make him pay. Cub was lucky that Pearson didn't think to throw one of his nuclear left hooks behind that uppercut: Chris Weidman recently showed us what torqueing punches can do to a fighter with his feet out of position.
In the same fight, however, Swanson used some beautiful footwork to capitalize on Pearson's own forward momentum and countered him to get the stoppage win (GIF).
1. Cub throws a front kick that misses and winds up caught on Pearson's shoulder.
2. He uses a Muay Thai trick, punching Pearson in the mug with his right hand while hopping backward to get his foot free.
3. Pearson charges forward and Cub switches back to orthodox where he's more comfortable. Pearson's body language says "flying knee."
4. Cub counters the attack with a beautiful left hand while stepping off line.
This is some impressive footwork, and it really smacks of Cub's on-the-fly brilliance. Kenny Florian called it a "check hook," like the one Floyd Mayweather used to knock out Ricky Hatton (GIF), but the footwork is different. Instead of pivoting on his lead foot, Cub actually steps back, making his left foot his rear foot as he throws the punch. I'm not sure if Cub's ever done any Karate, but his movements look somewhat like the ones in this Enshin video:
Or maybe Cub's footwork is a combination of the two ideas, perhaps a little Tyson-esque in his tactical stance-switching (GIF).
Cub Swanson is an incredible fighter with a very diverse skillset. Once touted as a dangerous BJJ blackbelt, he's now known as one of the most dangerous strikers in the featherweight division. Training with boxers and actual boxing coaches has clearly paid off for Cub, and I can only hope that more and more MMA fighters follow his example and begin studying the sweet science. I'll leave you with this video of Cub sparring with boxer Julio Diaz.
You will soon be able to hear more of Connor's analysis on his podcast Heavy Hands, debuting soon. Check out heavyhandspodcast.com.