The UFC put together a great card for the first Fox Sports 1 event, and the fighters did not disappoint. Amidst a whole array of spectacular fights, fans witnessed three big upsets on the main card. Uriah Hall vs. John Howard was a bit of a stinker, though Hall can certainly throw a hell of a high five, but the other two made for thrilling fights. Michael Johnson roughed up Joe Lauzon for fifteen solid minutes, and Travis Browne came back from the dead to behead Alistair Overeem.
Today we'll be analyzing those upsets on a conceptual level. In each bout, the betting favorites fell prey to their own flawed technique, and their opponents had just the right weapons to capitalize. First we'll examine the concept of threatening/controlling the opponent's center line, and then the importance of good posture.
Johnson vs. Lauzon - Attacking the Center
This was a real surprise to many, and probably the one upset on the card that didn't fill fans with sadistic glee. Michael Johnson, a blandly-named man known mostly for his lackluster ground game and failure to match his performances with his hype, soundly outboxed Joe Lauzon over the course of three rounds. In most southpaw vs. orthodox fights, you'll hear a lot about the rear hands of both fighters. Conventional wisdom has it that, in an open stance scenario, the cross is the most effective punch. Thus, fighters must fight to step their lead foot to the outside of their opponent's lead foot, theoretically creating an angle for the cross to land.
As with most conventional wisdom, this little tip misses a lot of the details. Throughout the fight, Johnson showed the efficacy of a southpaw jab, using his longest punch the way it's meant to be used, measuring, pressuring, and keeping Lauzon guessing. He also landed a number of excellent left hands-here's the kicker-with his lead foot to the inside of Lauzon's. Here are some of the strikes Johnson landed from an inside angle in just the first round (for some reason the UFC doesn't like to show the fighters' feet, so the foot positions in some of these are inferred from the movement of the fighters and the positioning of their legs).
1-3. Three straight lefts to the body.
4. A partially blocked straight left that nonetheless shoves Lauzon backward.
5-6. A jab-cross that catches Lauzon coming in.
7. A sweeping left hand.
8. A hard right uppercut.
9. The first of a series of straight lefts that sent Lauzon to the canvas for the second time in the round.
The reason these shots landed so consistently is that Johnson understood the concept of attacking his opponent's center line. Lead foot inside or outside, what really matters is putting yourself in a position so that your intended weapon is facing the center of the opponent's body. The center line is illustrated below, modeled by a young Cassius Clay.
Controlling this line is the key to every style of fighting, be you a pressure or counter fighter. Of course, Clay's head is not over the center line, protecting him from attacks, a luxury which Joe Lauzon's stance did not afford him.
Circling constantly to Lauzon's right, Johnson caused his opponent to leave his center open. As a result, he was often able to catch the creepy one in the process of turning (GIF). As Lauzon attempted to catch up with Johnson's lateral movement, Johnson would jump in with a strike and catch him square. The above bears some striking resemblance to the footwork behind this Vitor Belfort knockout (GIF), albeit with punches instead of a kick. Anthony Pettis is another fighter who excels at using the inside angle, to land both punches and kicks (GIF).
Once Lauzon became susceptible to these inside-angled shots, he started to overcompensate, fighting to prevent Johnson from stepping inside. When Johnson moved in, he tried desperately to turn in order to defend his center line. This is the point at which Johnson was safely able to step off-line, in "typical" southpaw fashion, and land his left with impunity (GIF).
Lauzon's corner gives us further insight into the reason for Johnson's effectiveness. After making the ridiculous assertion that Johnson was "point fighting" (in the wake of a round that saw Lauzon hitting the canvas twice) J-Lau's coach urged his fighter to "get aggressive this round . . . You have to get your right hand off before he gets his left hand off."
Lauzon's coaches saw that Johnson's left was landing, but it's clear that they didn't understand why it was landing. Thus the rest of the fight saw Lauzon, following his coaches' advice, continually stepping off-line in an attempt to land his right hand (probably the only way he knows how), practically handing Johnson his center and setting up monster combinations like this one: GIF.
Everyone knows that any decent southpaw will be a tough out for an orthodox fighter. But sometimes it seems like doing exactly what your opponent expects might not be the best idea. Coaching should consist of more than oft-repeated sayings, because conventional wisdom is only wise if you understand the reasoning behind it.
Browne vs. Overeem - Posture
Contrary to the Lauzon loss, the outcome of this fight was met with much smug satisfaction. The reasons for that are explored in David Castillo's piece on Schadenfreude in the UFC, but suffice it to say, people don't have a hard time hating on a guy whose face just naturally looks like this:
Unfortunately, Overeem's history of arrogant behavior (and undeniably arrogant face) led a lot of people to misrepresent his most recent loss. Cockiness was not a huge factor in this fight. Posture was. The Reem has always had a habit of bending forward at the waist and covering up in defense. Even in larger kickboxing gloves, this is not a wise method of defense. In MMA gloves, it can be suicidal. In the first minute of the fight Overeem ducked into a flying knee from Travis Browne (GIF).
In this freeze frame you can see Overeem adopt a sort of "universal defense" when he senses the knee coming.
The Dutchman tenses his lead leg, in case the attack is a low kick. His hands cover his entire face, in case the attack is a straight punch. And he hunches his shoulders and curls his back in an attempt to cover his temples and jawline. The idea of a universal block is appealing, and it's not at all uncommon in Muay Thai and kickboxing. But there are a multitude of flaws with this approach.
First, Alistair's lead leg would be better defended by a check, or by moving out of range. Planting his feet and bracing his leg, he effectively immobilizes himself. Second, the high and tight guard is an imperfect form of defense-a smart fighter can figure out tons of ways around those forearms, such as the obvious body shot and hooks to the less-protected sides of the head. Worse, Alistair renders himself blind by covering his eyes with his hands. Finally, and worst of all, is the curled back and hunched shoulders.
Leaning forward, chin unprotected, shoulders lifted out of socket, back bent. If you're an uppercut, front kick, or high knee, this posture is the reason you were created. You live for this. You see a man standing this way, you know you can die happy, because you're about to fulfill your true purpose. This is an uppercut's dream.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this bout is the fact that, after enduring a savage beating reminiscent of Overeem's destruction (or should that be DESTURCTION?) of Brock Lesnar, Browne was still clear-headed enough to spot this hole in Overeem's defense. From the moment he had recovered, he began hunting for upward strikes to the body and head, and Overeem just kept hunching forward, leaning right into them.
1. Overeem bends over as a front kick hits him in the gut.
2. And reacts the exact same way to a second front kick that catches him on the chin.
3. Browne counters a leaning left hand with a knee to the ribs.
4. Another front kick to the body, and Reem is still relying on his curling and covering for defense, despite the fact that it's not working.
Ultimately, Overeem used his universal defense one too many times, and ducked right into a front kick that, by virtue of his compromised posture, his head was not braced to receive (GIF).
The Reem's K-1 losses, not so coincidentally, were also influenced by his poor defensive habits. Both Remy Bonjasky and Badr Hari were able to starch Alistair when his posture was poor and his eyes diverted (GIF1, GIF2).
As a final note, folks have been talking about Overeem's reliance on big gloves for defense. The question was recently posed by another BE writer: how do you prepare for a fight with small gloves while still training in safer big gloves?
To me, the answer is simple. Regardless of glove size, blocking strikes, especially by covering up, is far from optimal. Defense is far more complicated than merely holding one's hands up, and the fact that Overeem's hands were held plenty high when Browne's final kick landed clearly did nothing to save him. So the answer is to train in big gloves, but learn to defend yourself without using them to block. Just because you strap some 16 oz pillows onto your fists does not mean you are obligated to rely on them. Posture, stance, positioning, footwork, and head movement are all superior methods of defense. Hopefully the combination of Overeem's loss and Johnson's win will open a few coaches' eyes in the MMA world.
Also, Matt Brown.
If you like this style of broad post-event analysis/recap, let me know in the comments or on Twitter @ConnorRuebusch, and I'll make it a regular feature. There are lots of strong UFC cards coming up in the near future, so I'm sure there will be at least two or three technically interesting fights to break down after each event.
Check out my podcast Heavy Hands at heavyhandspodcast.com. Our first episode should be debuting in a week or so. Thanks!