What is championship-level striking? Is there such a thing in a sport as grand and diverse as MMA? I believe that there is, and in this three part series, I examine what it is and discuss how it will evolve in the future in the future of MMA.
- The first article discusses the X-Factor seen in highly effective and technical strikers. The fighters that possess them are either champions or possess championship potential.
- In the second article, I will take on the ambitious goal of thoroughly challenging a dominant ideology in striking.
- The third article examines the overarching trend of champions in several divisions. This article will feature and discuss styles in all divisions.
With Condit vs. Kampmann coming up, I have chosen to focus on Condit’s striking to illustrate what is not championship caliber striking *(meaning lower percentage). This is because he is lacking in one of the most important variables in MMA striking.
Let me first say that I am a fan of Carlos Condit. He has a deep bag of tricks in his striking arsenal, and I really enjoy watching his fights. He is an elite fighter who puts on a high pace and displays extraordinary heart— a fan of the sport cannot ask for too much more.
With that said, I will point out and describe some of the holes in Carlo's striking, style, and skillset as a lens to illustrate the most important factors and arguably the most effective styles in MMA striking.
- a noteworthy special talent or quality
- a variable in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome
- a special quality, especially one that is essential for success and is difficult to describe
Groundedness (GN): is an overarching variable that is always at play. It revolves around the manipulation of the center of gravity (COG). It is made up of base, balance, proper posture, stance, positioning, and footwork for the purpose of general defence, power striking, and explosiveness. This concept also consists of stabilization of movement, pivots, and transferring of power through (and returning / pulling back) mainly with your hip, core, and feet.
In short, it is the combination of graceful movement with a powerful base; it is minimal wasted movement as well as quick feet when necessary. It is the foundation which sets elite strikers apart from lesser strikers.
The fighter with better and stronger manipulation of the COG is one that can push (e.g. GSP, Weidman, Cain, or pull (e.g. Machida, Silva, and GSP*) the other person around and better dictate where the fight goes. With superior fashion, a championship caliber striker manipulates the COG constantly as he maneuvers around the octagon. It is more than good base and balance while standing still; it is about being able to maintain good base and balance while going where you want to go.
Mastery in a strike of any sort fully utilizes transferring of energy through the whole body in the right proportion. It involves minimal over-extension and maximal in-position (to defend or strike). It involves absolute awareness of your opponent's COG and your own COG.
Having GN gives you a diverse set of options. It gives you a profound ability have control over your arts, a foundation to better manipulate them into what you choose: cleaner offensive combinations, counter striking, defence, and alike.
GN is the X-Factor:
It is the overarching variable that makes elite strikers who they are. Despite their excellent understanding in technique and strategical application, they would not be elite without their spectacular GN. It is the string that ties everything together, the variable that allows them to be more complete in MMA.
This is the variable that allows them to better dictate where the fight is and where the fight goes. This variable makes them extremely fast learners, and with deliberate practice they can gain mastery of a technique faster than most. Those who have either have the potential to be the whole package, or they are already the whole package.
Does it really matter that much??
"A punch starts in the feet"
Such a saying is a cardinal fact for boxing, and I will extend it to this for MMA,
"In the art of standup, nearly all powerful and effective strikes come from both the feet and legs".
GSP on Striking:
Though I prefer not to use block quotations, sometimes it’s necessary and I must give credit to excellence when it is due. Certainly, I could not introduce this concept with better words than George St. Pierre in The Way of the Fight [Standup Section]. The following is the beginning of his chapter and a part of GSP’s valuable wisdom:
"My feet are the most powerful important parts of my body, but for most of my life I ignored them... My feet keeps me balanced, centered, and they represent everything I stand for- literally and figuratively. My feet are the genesis of all my power. They are the beginning. Yet for most of my existence, for a lot of my training, for years and years of repetition and exercises, they have been almost useless to me.
... I was losing explosiveness and balance. Essentially, I’ve let my feet down. We all do, but for me it was quite important that I change that… This truth about feet and their power is so old that most human beings have forgotten it ever existed… But the truth is, without proper feet, there is no proper punching, or lunging, or dodging, or basic movement…
… (Mastery of feet and ambidexterity) is the result of years of practice and perfection, combined with the relentless development of skill. So why not practice more with our feet?
…Did you know that our toes and feet can keep our balance better than anything else? They keep us centered. Every single movement we make starts with our feet. Feet are the genesis of all movements, especially in mixed martial arts. It’s where most of our power comes from.
… If you feet are not well positioned on the ground, how can you effectively change direction? If your base is not well positioned, you have to (re-position, move, and walk to generate power). Walking isn’t the solution, it takes time and it wastes energy. By being in the right position to begin with, you save time and energy, and you maximize power.
In most situations, I can’t afford to lose even a fraction of a second. That’s what happens when you become better at something- your margin of error is reduced. The better you get, the less room for error there is. In my sport, a fraction of a second is the difference between someone who is considered fast and someone who is considered slow. Winning and losing. Champion and has been.
I used to lift all kinds of weight with and for my legs, but my feet weren’t even an afterthought. My feet were essentially dead. I had no real sensation there. Those days are over. Ever since I started my recovery from knee surgery, I’ve been working on my feet. Why? Well, as the ancient Greeks believed, my soul is in my feet."
2:30 ; 7:30 +
The main observation here is Carlo's positioning of his feet. Even when the camera does not show his feet, you can intuitively sense the lack of GN in his strikes. And even after strikes, he loses footing as he attempts to side step or circle out, showcasing unnecessary movement.
Throughout the video, and in particular when he hits the mitts, it’s rather conclusive that he loses footing both as he strikes and after he strikes, and this is particularly true when he throws the cross (sometimes almost switching into a lateral stance there after).
He was not competently following the footwork of the mitt-holder; his foot positioning is awkward at times; his lack of superb balance is shown when he was stretching and goes on the side of his foot to balance; he cannot consistently throw combinations technically and powerfully without losing footing. Even in the end, as he shadowboxes, he loses his balance as he incorporated way too much unnecessary movement into his punches.
In other words, he does not have the X-Factor— consistent striking (*in particular punching)— with GN. I would go as far as hypothesizing that his excessive amount of switch-hitting and unorthodox strikes is as a result of the lack of GN in several of his strikes. I’m going to take a probable guess that he uses them to compensate for his lack of GN as he loses footing or gets caught in awkward (and feeling awkward) positions.
GSP would say that a great many "fractions of a second" is lost here, and that the "margin of error" is significantly increased. You could also comically insert his most popular phrase here. If you still don't believe that Carlos has a weaker GN or COG, look further to how he admits to his incompetence in wrestling and the precise way in how he gets taken down. * Take note on how he gets backed up against the fence often as well taken down when punching.
I want to point out here that Condit's most effective strikes are either when he is kicking or when he is throwing jumping knees. That is, I believe Condit's best trait is that he can create and capitalize on chaos. But most importantly, I want to emphasize that when he is punching it isn't particularly effective.
Even in his highlight, Condit's punches are not very accurate but they do set up other attacks. The most effective punch that he had was against Dan Hardy, but it had less to do with his GN than Dan Hardy punching out-of-position (lacking proper grounding) and throwing a left hook. The result was Dan colliding into Condit's left hook and amplifying the force.
I'm not saying that Condit's punches don't hurt or they aren't effective. Rather, I am saying that with better base, balance, and proper positioning he would become a significantly more effective striker. I am saying that he lacks the X-Factor for consistent and championship level striking.
This is where punching power comes from, and even with a super athletic body, one cannot constantly create it when lacking GN (e.g. Uriah Hall).
Often, boxing commentators will ask "where does that fighter's punching power come from?". Such was said for Prince Naseem and his deceptive appearance. If you want to be entertained by an Anderson Silva, Roy Jones, and Muhammad Ali like figure, just look at one of his badass highlights ; another here.
(You might be thinking "but he is flying around" and not grounded! The difference between Naseem and Carlos is that when his foot leaves the ground it is usually deliberate and done to create openings and attacks. Although very unorthodox, it both confuses and annoys his opponent, but most importantly, it serves as a power shot setup.
If you didn't read the piece by expert boxing earlier, here is their "Break the rules" section:
Believe it or not, rules are meant to be broken – BUT, you may only do so after you learn the basics and master them. Once you learn everything there is to staying balanced, you can go crazy and hop around all over the place like Naseem Hamed and get away with it. However, this most likely won’t be for another five years at least. In the meanwhile, stay grounded and try your best to box within the guidelines set above)
But lets stay away from the boxing world for now, because due to the rich history of boxing, so many of them had the X-Factor when it came to punching.
So who are some elite MMA strikers?
There are a few that have very solid GN for striking (punch, kicks, knees, and elbows), with an intuitive 8 being the cut off for consistent championship level striking (constant prospect). From a scale of 1-10, Carlos is is probably a 6-7 at best.
The list below are a short list of those that I think have solid GN, just remember that they are intuitive ratings and not objective. Also keep in mind that a higher rating does not mean a fighter is necessarily better.
A fighter needs solid game plan and execution of specific techniques to counter one another. But what it means is that a fighter does have a very solid foundation to better execute techniques and strategies of his choice.
In the following videos, take note of the stability involved despite there being plenty of movement. *I don't really don't expect you guys to watch all of it, but I can promise you that they are pretty spectacular to watch.
Junior Dos Santos: 8.5
(Start at about 4:40) and see smoothness and balance through movements and combinations.
Lyoto Machida: 8.5
Observe how feet-centric his training is.
Did you know that Machida started training sumo wrestling at the age of 12 and was a runner-up in the Brazilian Sumo Wrestling Championships? This is again "Groundedness"— a mixture of quick feet and tremendous base and balance.
Jose Aldo: 9+
Observe the fluidity and power between his combinations. Though they are not advanced moves in itself, Aldo's grounded foundation is what absolutely sets him apart from most.
Put other UFC fighters in a video and have them demonstrate these techniques, and it'll display just how sublime Aldo's technique and GN is.
Anderson Silva: 8-8.5
Anderson's main manipulation of GN is actually backwards. He could push around many fighters if he chose to, but at heart he is a counter fighter that excels at drawing collisions. There is also utility in not striking offensively and aggressively as doing so makes it easier to sprawl. Notice how he lets* Freddie push him back to the ropes and the corners. Also notice how his power hand (or power shots) usually follows when Freddie attacks.
These are all tendencies of Anderson in a fight. Another final interesting thing I noticed was that Freddie was mainly working on his defence in dealing with the left hand, particularly the left hook* (check out 0:55). Does a particular fighter's name ring a bell??
Anthony Pettis: 8.5
Start 1:30 +; his precise footing throughout, and his punching base at 2:00
Wicked base and balance throughout for MMA striking; a mixture of solid foundation and quick footing when necessary. And I'll also point out that this is freestyle pad-work, something few people can do beautifully.
If I had to compare, Carlos is a somewhat watered-down version of Pettis.
Conor Mcgregor: 8.5-9
Though it's light sparring, look at the amount of control displayed. This is a beauty to watch. Obviously McGregor still needs to be tested, but just judging from his GN alone, he looks quite promising. Few people display such base, balance, footwork, with diverse strikes.
Cub Swanson: 9+ *in the last two years
Cub Swanson doing some beautiful combinations via GoPro Camera.
His training is an absolutely beauty to watch.
And you want to be seriously impressed by his continually developing GN, check out what he is able to do with the bosu ball.
And guess what? Most of this list includes some of the best anti-wrestlers in MMA. Is it just a coincidence? If you think it is, I urge you to think otherwise. And if you still don't believe that a solid GN and powerful base is the X-factor, I present to you...
The Wrestler's Dynasty:
Demetrious Johnson: Runner up in high school State Championships
Dominick Cruz: Wrestled from 7th grade to high school, suffered injury and kept him away from wrestling in college. Coached wrestling in high school for a while.
Benson Henderson: Two-time NAIA All-American
George St. Pierre: Arguable the best MMA wrestler
Chris Weidman: Two-time NCAA D-1 All-American, placed 3rd senior year.
Jon Jones: NJCAA national champion
Cain Velasquez: NJCAA national champion, top 5 in NCAA D-1
All of them possess the ability to strike in a superior manner.
Jon Jones: 9+
Check out the incredible overhand and its recovery starting at 40 seconds. Equally impressive is his uppercut after and his jumping front kick recovery. He can even switch-hit and maintain impressive balance (the main reason he was able to KO Lyoto Machida with superman left hook.
Chris Weidman: 8
Watch from 1:00- 1:36 ; 2:45+, check his kicking base at 3:00.
George St. Pierre: 9+
This video is GSP training with the awesome Tiger Muay Thai crew (some of the best pad holding I've seen).
Trust me on this, GSP can create much more knock outs if he chose to employ other stances and (practice and use) other weapons. In this video, his incredible base and balance is displayed. Notice how he stands squared— a stance much more ready for a diverse amount of strikes. Notice how solid each of his attacks are. His choice of jab is one of risk management, and I will go more in-depth about it in the final piece.
There you have it folks, some fellows with the X-Factor:
It seems that there is a general trend of the top 2-3 of the division having some of the best GN. Keep in mind that this is a generalization, and they are never fully true, as there may always be exceptions. For example, the Welterweight division is actually an interesting one because I think GSP may have the most solid GN, and somehow the strikers in the division are either not very diverse in strikes or they are not very grounded.
Lastly, once again, remember that superb GN must exist with an intelligent game plan and intelligent practice that is tailored to fighters specifically. For example, Overeem's grounded foundation is significantly better than Travis Browne's... but yet Overeem lacked the fight IQ to adjust his posture and distance (also a result of over-punching the guarded head of Travis... and with knees like his it's hard to understand why).
One of the best examples of a brilliant game plan is how GSP uses his GN and wrestling to eliminate kicks by pushing opponents back and consistently threaten a takedown. This minimizes his opponent's striking game to be more hands-centric.
In addition, the utility of a great jab includes making the opponent pull forward and forcing them out-of-position for a takedown— a maneuver considered as a draw. But guess what may be the most important? A mastery of the jab negates just about every punch in the book. This is a very deliberate weapon by GSP that maximizes his chances in a championship bout, one that makes him considered "the most complete fighter of them all".
I hope you guys enjoyed this piece! Part Two of this series will challenge a dominant and dogmatic ideology across many gyms around the world.
The third instalment will detail the choice of style and weapons of champions and some contenders. It will also examine the overarching variables that also relate to the concepts in this piece.
Spoiler hint: The Sweet Science ;).
Until next time, thanks for reading and for your support!
This piece was inspired by GSP and Firas Zahabi.