After struggling through Rory Macdonald's "win" over Jake Ellenberger, my fury has inspired me to write a post that takes a look at the true meaning of the concept of distance control. You hear that get thrown around a lot by commentators and fans but unfortunately, like "good footwork", it's one of those phrases that people often say just because it sounds like something that people who know what they're talking about say. I've used this analogy before, but this would be the same thing as me watching a football game and talking about the players' ability to read plays or watching a basketball game and talking about their court vision or ball handling skills. I'm probably right; those guys probably do have those skills, but I'm still just talking out my ass and parroting ideas that I don't understand.
So when talking about distance control, it's important to know that there are various interpretations of the concept. It does not mean staying out of range the entire fight and never committing to power shots. The actual meaning of controlling the distance is controlling the distance that every exchange occurs at (whether that be short, medium or long range depending on the situation). The first step to controlling range is to keep the fight where you're most likely to do damage and your opponent is most likely to be ineffective. The second step is to do damage when you're in that range. This is what was missing from Rory's performance. In this fanpost, I'm going to examine a few fighters who actually control range to win fights in a way similar to what Macdonald was attempting.
If, when controlling range, your goal is to keep outside of the opponent's punching range to land your shots, there are two basic ways to do it. You either establish a deterrent or you use footwork. How much you use each one depends largely on WHY you want to be in that range in the first place. When fighting at the long range, you should only be there for two reasons: either to keep your opponent away and pick them apart with your longest weapons or to force them to rush in recklessly so you can counter with devastating effect. There is a third option, where you force the opponent to cover distance so you can suddenly move forward quickly and cover distance twice as fast, allowing you to get to punching or grappling range with greater speed and less difficulty. However, that fits better into the short range oriented category of controlling distance. Anyway, let's talk about those two methods of ensuring that you stay at the long range.
1. Establishing a deterrent. All this means is threatening your opponent with something so that they have to think more carefully about advancing. There are a lot of techniques you can use to establish this deterrent, but the two most common (because they're extremely effective) ones are a nice, stiff jab and a nice, stiff teep (check out this great article for more on that teep). There are many reasons that these are the favored techniques: They are linear, take full advantage of reach, are executed with the lead side, provide minimal openings for the opponent, are extremely quick and thrown straight from the stance and most importantly they threaten the center. Attacking the center of an opponent (the vertical line that splits his body evenly into the left and right sides, passing through the head and ending between the feet) is a massively important concept in a variety of martial arts. It is a fundamental truth of fighting. When your center is being threatened properly, your ability to defend attacks is greatly diminished because your hands and shoulders are being taken out of the equation and the attacks are passing directly between them. If you feel like your center is being threatened, you are going to have a lot of difficulty advancing because of how easily your opponent will be able to land shots. This is what Rory did extremely well with his jab. Even when he wasn't throwing it, he kept it pointed at Ellenberger ready to be fired off at any time. That forced Ellenberger to be more cautions and try to find ways to get past the threat, and he spent 15 minutes failing to come up with an answer.This method is all about punishing the opponent for coming into your space and making them fear the tools you're using to punish them. Beyond the jab and teep, one of the simplest and most effective ways is using linear kicks to the legs to disrupt the movement of the opponent.
2. Footwork. This is simply moving away from the opponent so that he can't get close enough to hit you. However, it is more complicated than it sounds. Please note that footwork is important in establishing a deterrent as well, but in this case I'm talking specifically about using footwork alone to maintain the space you want. The difference with this is that it encourages the opponent to come forward. When done properly, they don't feel threatened and they feel like they can just keep coming at you with no fear. This causes them to eventually start leaving openings as they try to catch up with you, allowing you to counter. A classic tactic of someone using this method to control range is to throw uncommitted shots from far away that do little but annoy the opponent and further motivate them to come forward. They will often use feints and try to show false openings in order to draw the attacks that they want to counter. But the main aspect of this method of maintaining range is simply moving (preferably not straight back) and not letting the opponent get too close.
*please note that neither of those methods is ever used exclusively. Fighters who control the long range almost always use both, though they are usually only in that range for one reason (to either pick the opponent apart or counter them, rarely both) and thus they usually tend to favor one over the other, and tend not to capitalize on the true advantages of the one they don't favor.
With that understanding of how you can keep the fight at long range, now we need to understand what to do with it. This is the part Rory completely failed at. So let's talk about the two ways to actually hurt the opponent from long range:
1. Picking him apart with long weapons. The most effective way to use this style is to establish a deterrent then use that to take the initiative. What that means can be as simple as jabbing a guy every time he tries to come forward, then feinting the jab and throwing a cross or a left hook depending on how he likes to defend. Rory did try to use his jab to set up kicks and he did try to use his right front kick (the second deterrent he used a few times) to set up his right roundhouse but his execution left a lot to be desired. But when a guy is struggling to come forward against you and doesn't have the long range tools, you have all the freedom to attack with yours as long as you keep reminding him about your deterrent. It's as simple as taking the initiative with whatever combinations and techniques you like, normally straight punches and kicks of all kinds. Jon Jones is the master of this in MMA. Once he's used his kicks to the legs to paralyze opponents, he starts attacking with all sorts of long ranged weapons such as side kicks, front kicks, straight punches, longer combinations of both punches and kicks, and lots of head kicks, including jumping ones. This is what Rory should have been doing. He doesn't have the same reach or the same kicking skill as Jones, but he had the jab that he really could have worked off of.
2. Countering him when he rushes, overextends or attacks with predictable strikes. When a guy can't get close to you, some will just try harder and harder to do it. Usually, fighters who primarily like to counter in this manner don't establish very strong deterrents because they want the opponent to keep coming forward carelessly and most thinking fighters won't try to blitz when they know they'll get tagged. The two men who embody this strategy in MMA are Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida. They both have outstanding and elusive footwork and both use a lot of feints and movement to frustrate opponents and convince them to engage. When they engage carelessly, bad things happen and we're treated to some of the best knockouts in combat sports.
Now the problem with the Macdonald/Ellenberger fight is that Macdonald didn't do either of those things. He both established the deterrent and used footwork to stay far away, but never punished Ellenberger properly for coming forward with counters and never took advantage of his initiative. When it comes down to it, I would have been less frustrated if he fought like this, because there was SO much wasted potential in that fight. He had Ellenberger completely fixated on his jab, but couldn't take that established threat and turn it into offensive initiative. People call that a smart fight, but I strongly disagree. That was an extremely unintelligent fight by Macdonald where he overwhelmingly failed to take advantage of an amazing opportunity he had to open up his offense. He could have been jabbing and using body or leg kicks to Ellenberger's lead side as he exposed it trying to throw his trademark counter left hook. He could have been following his jab with a straight right when it landed clean and Ellenberger pulled back. He could have been feinting the jab to land lead hooks and leg kicks (something his teammate GSP did to Koscheck) or doubling it up to really light Ellenberger up with it and to set up his straight right even better (like Jones in a gif posted above). The frustrating thing is that he did nothing to capitalize on the effect his jab was having and didn't win the fight so much as he avoided it. And this isn't one of those fights like Machida vs Henderson where people claim he ran and wouldn't fight, but he was actually landing good shots (another nice body kick and a front kick to the face, in case you don't believe me) or Condit vs Diaz where people said the same thing. This fight was objectively terrible.
EDIT: I've seen a lot of people claiming that jabbing was the safest and surest way to victory for Macdonald, meaning he fought smart instead of risky. I disagree with that notion. I think he could have been equally if not more safe while also much more threatening if he implemented a more diverse arsenal. Here is my argument (originally commented on another fanpost) for simple, basic things that could have completely changed the fight:
Against someone as predictable as Ellenberger, it’s hard to believe that Macdonald and his coaches couldn’t refine some of the techniques he already throws to capitalize on the openings or that they couldn’t develop new techniques and combinations. The easiest example is the front kick. He’s been throwing some variation of that as early as the Condit fight and Ellenberger clearly had no answer for it. However, Macdonald barely threw it and did little to set it up when he did. He could have easily devoted some effort to working that kick to both the body and the head, then using that to set up his right high kick, especially since the way he throws the high kick becomes most effective when a front kick is feinted during the motion and has already been established as a threat. Against someone who constantly feints the level change, is always ducking, leans forward and is shorter, the front kick is probably the most effective attack possible. It actually would have been safer than the jab because of how much longer it is, the fact that it threatens the level change, the greatly increased potential to cause damage and the fact that it’s extremely difficult to counter with punches.
There are other techniques he could have worked on as well. He’s been using the jab to back opponents up and set up his rear leg kick in a couple fights. Plus in the Penn fight, he used a nice left hook-right body kick (at different times, both round and front kicks) combination. By the second round when Ellenberger was more consistently pulling back from strikes, Macdonald could have been attacking with right low kicks while moving to his own left and threatening with his left hand. Ellenberger isn’t good at countering kicks when the kicker moves offline before the strike, and Rory has shown the ability to do this before. He could have really taken advantage of Ellenberger’s retreating with those simple, basic combinations. Even if Ellenberger tried to come forward, Macdonald’s movement and reach should be enough to protect him, especially if he had drilled these things beforehand. The low kicks would further increase the effectiveness of his high kicks and further inhibit Ellenberger’s movement. Also, Ellenberger's counter left hook leaves his lead leg more exposed for right kicks to land towards the back of the leg, which generally results in more painful kicks with almost no possibility of being checked.
Another combination that could have worked wonders is a simple jab, switch left high kick. Ellenberger’s most common responses to be attacked are either a level change (where his head moves towards his right, sometimes he jabs with this), or pulling back (sometimes with a left hook) to put his head back and to his right. Both of those put his head closer to the left high kick, and Rory has thrown that combination before in the Penn fight and possibly others. Watch in this gif how Rory sticks his lead hand right into Penn's face as he switches and throws the kick. The lead hand causes Penn to raise his guard and creates space for the body kick to smash into his side. Note how after that, Macdonald uses the left switch kick to the head as Penn bends down towards it, then throws another to the head as he anticipates Penn will duck again. There's no reason he couldn't have done the same against Ellenberger, who was trying to parry jabs and constantly moving his head in the path of that kick.
So that's three basic attacks and combinations tailor made to exploit Ellenberger's predictable tendencies that do nothing more than build off things Rory has shown before. The tools were already there, even if some of them needed sharpening. Rory failed to use them and left a lot of questions about how he's going to deal with other dangerous fighters (Johnny Hendricks, anyone?) and strong wrestlers.
Now before the Macdonald fans come in here and rip me apart for not criticizing Ellenberger, he didn't do anything either. The reason I'm criticizing Rory is that he had everything going right for him but refused to turn up the pressure and capitalize. Ellenberger also completely failed to control distance (him and Rory had opposite problems. Rory kept it at the right range but didn't make enough of an effort to cause damage while Ellenberger couldn't get it at the right distance and tried to do damage anyway). The most baffling thing is that Ellenberger had no answer for the jab. He couldn't parry it, slip it, time it or avoid it in any advantageous way. If he wants to land that counter left hook of his, he should see Hunt vs Struve for how to parry or slip a jab and land the left hook (couldn't find a gif, only this picture that shows him about to hook) even with a huge reach disadvantage. Or watch Chad Mendes in either of his last two fights showing how to destroy someone by timing their jab with a cross counter. He even could have had success kicking the leg out, as Rory primarily circled towards Ellenberger's rear leg as he jabbed in a good range to be hit by that kick. Unfortunately, Ellenberger just doesn't have the kicking skill for that or the footwork to close the range against the jab, and he was mostly unwilling to run forward recklessly. The most disappointing parts of the fight were the few times Ellenberger got Rory backed up to the cage.When it happened, Ellenberer rushed in and tried to flurry, but each time he moved off to the left too far and gave Rory room to circle out to his right and escape. I'll update with a gif of this happening if I can find one. It was very frustrating to watch those opportunities go by because Ellenberger had a really great chance to herd Macdonald into his hooks or pursue the takedown. However, Ellenberger is already 36 fights into his career and is set in his ways. Macdonald is supposed to be the well-rounded, adaptable and always-improving young fighter of the new generation, but he showed little more than admittedly strong discipline in that fight.
So remember, controlling the distance isn't about staying safe. It's about staying safe AND hurting the other guy as badly as possible. It isn't about avoiding the fight and the risks, it's about controlling them and capitalizing on them. I hope this look into controlling the long range was interesting. If you want to see another fighter who really knows how to both pick opponents apart at range and counter them as they come in, watch Alexander Gustafsson fight. If you want to see examples of guys who control range in the sense of pressuring them and getting into punching or clinching range, watch Matt Brown destroy people in the clinch with beautiful entries (and read this article about how he does it), watch Roy Nelson back people against the fence to land his overhand right and watch Overeem close the distance with footwork and hand fighting to land his infamous knees.
Anyway, there are a lot of ways to control the distance and a lot of different reasons certain fighters prefer different ranges. It's a very complex topic and is arguably the most important aspect of a fight. I could write and talk about it forever. But make no mistake, no matter what range the exchanges occur at or how they're forced to be there, controlling the distance is purely about hurting people. If you're not at least trying to do that, you're not doing it right.