Defence, as grand as it is, certainly deserves an in-depth elaboration and analysis. And yet for some reason there is an overwhelming tendency to really simplify it. In this series about defence, I'm going to give it some of the detail it deserves.
For this piece, I'll start off with some of my favorite lines from Connor Ruebusch:
Step into any fighting academy in the country and you'll most likely hear some version of the following: there are four, maybe five martial arts that will bring one success in the cage. From within those arts, only about fifty percent of the techniques are applicable. Fighters who break the mold are to be classified as freakishly talented athletes, exempt from the rules of fighting. You are not one of those athletes; you are not exempt from the rules. Tuck your chin. Stick and move. Keep your hands up.
Conor McGregor represents a new wave of fighters that, hopefully, will turn this way of thinking on its head. Sometimes there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things, but to find the most effective techniques you must experiment, study, and learn. Conor McGregor is a student of the game in the truest sense.
"Put Your Hands Up":
Keeping your hands up is now conventional wisdom. It is a famous adage in Boxing, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, and MMA— one that is especially popular with commentators. And in these combat worlds, such "wisdom" has become a cardinal rule— not following it has become a cardinal sin.
In this piece, I will examine the instances where it is not a cardinal sin, and why the correlation between "hands up" and "good defence" is unnecessarily high because the combat worlds make it so. Throughout this article, I thoroughly challenge this dominant and dogmatic ideology and give an explanation of why it exists. In doing so, I hope to dispel the stigma that is often attached to a competent fighter's hand position.
Why am I doing this? Because I believe that to truly discuss the art of defence, one must first discern what it is not. So before getting to a macro-perspective about defence, I'm going to first examine and dispel some of the most common "Hands Up" arguments.
Ubiquitous "Put your Hands up" Arguments:
These arguments are seen practically everywhere; they are heard at gyms around the world and discussed on all sorts of internet forums / platforms.
- "Technique" Argument:
"Hands-down is not a 'style' it is a technical flaw."
Fallacious conclusion: it is a style that has been employed by some of the greatest champions in many combat arts— Samart Payakaroon, Roy Jones Jr., Prince Naseem, Muhammad Ali, Anderson Silva, and Sugar Ray Robinson just to name a few.
How is it assumed that there is no technical utility? If there is absolutely no technical utility, it would likely have no place in the combat world because it would've been found ineffective. And if so, it probably wouldn't be utilized by legends.
- "Talent" Argument:
"People who justify it on the basis of Muhammad Ali or Roy Jones don't mention how much talent they have and how few people there are in the world who have that much talent."
So somehow these guys found a way to distinguish nature and nurture with people. They have just singlehandedly given nature the win in an academic debate that has been highly criticized for it's binary simplification and false dichotomy.
Please, just because you "can't" or don't do it doesn't make the style only employable by those who are superbly talented. Talented as they may be, they are not the only ones who are talented, and there is no real way to distinguish such variables.
These athletes had put countless hours into training, understanding, and visualizing this style. It is most likely time that other fighter's did not spend. It should be acknowledged that the development of their skills is a very rigorous process and for some reason often ignored.
Anderson Silva: "Everything that I do in a fight are things that I have trained"
- "Reflex" Argument:
"It is a style which requires superhuman/superior reflexes, if you don't have it, you can't use it."
Same as above.
- "They are the pros / My coach said" Argument:
"You are not as good as the pros and coach says don't do it, so don't do it. Just do what you're told, and do what everyone else does. "
This is an argument from authority and appeal to popular opinion, both of which are common logical fallacies.
Appeal to Popular Opinion (Argumentum ad Populum)
A parent's favorite fallacy: "If everyone else jumped off a cliff," you may have heard your parents say, "would you join them?" It is also an advertiser's favorite fallacy—"A million users can't be wrong." This fallacy says that because everyone else is doing it, it must be the best, right, or moral way. Like the appeal to tradition, this doesn't really argue the benefits or risks of a point. "Don't be left out! Buy your Chevette today!"
via University of Washington
Appeal to Authority
Where an assertion is deemed true because of the position or authority of the person asserting it.
I get that they are elite pros and I get that your coach, for whatever reason, said don't do it. I also get that when the situation calls for it, blocking should be learned, mastered, and utilized. But if being defensively competent with your hands-down or lowered is a skill, then it ought to be practiced and developed.
How can someone possibly develop something that isn't being actively developed? Again, this person attributes "magic" as the fundamental building blocks to skill.
- "Look when they got old / Look when they got knocked out" Argument:
They got old: "Those who did well with their hands-down lose badly when they get old. See? It is a dangerous style."
They got knocked out: "Just look when they got knocked out! It doesn't work! Ha, that's what you get for being arrogant and cocky. That's what you get for not going by the book."
Yeah... do fighters with a high guard not get knocked out when as their career progresses and when they get older? Do fighters not make mistakes? Why pinpoint the knockout on the low guard? These people tend to appear everywhere as soon as a hands-down fighter gets KOed.
E.g. Silva vs Weidman: "Put your hands up Anderson Silva!" —My very first piece =]
- "Better time window" Argument:
"Well, even if you don't block with your hands, having them in position is better for blocking and deflection. This is because you have a better window to react."
It's true that you have a better time window with your hands. But in this instance, this person expects their understanding of positioning, footwork, and angle of strikes to fail them. Moreover, they assume that the best deflection options available are done with the hands high and in position. But in reality, blocking and deflection in such manner are not the only defensive options, nor do they have to be the best go-to ones.
- "What if they're better than you" Argument:
"You can only use that style against people you're better than. If they're better than you, you're screwed."
Really? If they're better than you, they're better than you. Putting your hands up might mitigate some of the punishment you'll get, but your odds of winning the fight are already low since they're better than you. Putting your hands up won't magically make you better than them, unless that's what you've trained extensively of course.
- "You think you're special" Argument:
"You think you're special and that the rules don't apply to you. You think that you can do what legends do. You think you're better / above than everyone else. Look at this guy, this is what he thinks, why should we listen to what he says about (insert combat art)."
Ad Hominem: via University of Washington
Killing the Messenger (Argumentum ad Hominem)
This fallacy disagrees with an argument by attacking the person who makes the argument. When political discussions become vehicles for attacking "feminists" or "conservatives," they are usually guilty of killing the messenger. These discussions single out people who belong to a certain group or adhere to a certain ideology without ever examining the validity of the thought itself. This kind of fallacy can be done both by insulting someone or by misrepresenting their associations. An abusive example would be "Don't believe anything John says; he's a nerd."
No, that's not what I think. This person just turned a discourse into a personal attack, one that they resorted to in order to "win" an argument. There's little to no need in debating with these people.
Now, all of this can be effectively rebutted by one person's outline on general defence. I present to you the great....
- Jack Dempsey:
"Punches can be prevented from landing on their targets by three methods: (1) COMPLETE EVASION of the blow by slipping, bobbing, pulling away or side-stepping; (2) DEFLECTION of the blow by parrying (brushing away) with the hand, or by knifing with the forearm, or by shrugging off with the shoulder; (3) BLOCKING the blow solidly with the hand, forearm, elbow or shoulder.
Evasion is the preferred method. When you force an opponent to miss completely with a blow, he usually lurches off balance and leaves an opening for your counterpunch. Moreover, since the blow has not touched you, it has not off-balanced you for counterpunching.
Deflection is next best; for the parry, glance or shrug usually off-balances your opponent without interfering with your own equilibrium.
Blocking is the least desired; for a solid block not only affects your balance but it also may bruise the spot that makes blocking contact with your opponent's fist. Repeated bruisings of one spot-for example, the left shoulder muscles-can handicap your fighting."
Common Confusion in the "Hands Up" Debate:
Advocates of hands-up or hands-down tend to make it a binary argument- an "either or" case. I'll be very clear right now, blocking should never be shrugged off as useless. There are specific place, time, style, and fighters for it. In fact, if not obvious enough, all fighters with a hands-down style employ blocking at one point or another.
Hand positioning is one that requires a great amount of skill and one that deserves respect. However, it's the lack of acknowledgement in "hands-down" style that sparks this heated debate. The amount of fallacious arguments / conclusions (the above is a relatively short list) only serves to fuel the fire between this debate.
A fighter that can effectively employ both hands-down and hands-up styles tend to drop their hands deliberately and for good reasons (e.g. to draw an attack, to frustrate, confuse, and "embarrass" the opponent : "Put your hands up Anderson Silva!" ). However, the fighter that can only fight effectively with a high guard, drop their hands because they get lazy or lack conditioning.
In this case, they are not fully aware of the angles of attacks and therefore commit a "technical flaw" and a "cardinal sin" because they are not in position to defend.
But how does one pull off a hands-down style? If not superhuman reflex or supernatural athleticism and talent?
Stance and Positioning:
Credits to Connor Ruebusch, excerpts from his piece on Lyoto Machida and Connor McGregor
In a stunning fit of analysis during Machida's 2009 title fight with Rashad Evans, Mike Goldberg was heard to say, "[Machida] gets his legs set but then he leans back and makes himself even a tougher target, just the way that head is further back than the rest of the body."
And that's the key. Machida's stance, like the stance of George Dixon, is all about distance control. It's simple math, really. As a result of his rear-weighted stance, with the head over his back foot, Lyoto's opponents must cover more distance with their attacks to strike his head. More distance traveled means more time for Machida to see the strike and react accordingly. As a counter striker, that little bit of extra time and distance can be critical, and the results look something like this: GIF
In addition, Machida can initiate offense more safely by maintaining his stance as he enters range. The first thing to enter range is his lead foot, followed by his hips, followed by his head. By testing the water with his lower body first, Lyoto is able to maintain the critical distance between his opponent's hands and his face even while entering range.
McGregor's stance is quite similar to Lyoto Machida's, which I discussed in a recent breakdown. The strongest aspect of McGregor's stance is his posture. His back is always nice and straight, his shoulders relaxed, and his neck braced by his body. Despite the fact that, like Machida, he tends to carry his chin high, he has an excellent ability to withstand punches due to his posture
Blackburn crouch: employed by Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, and Jersey Walcott- all of whom had direct influence under Jack Blackburn.
Notice also that Louis' rear hand is not positioned up by his chin or tucked to punch, it is loose and free, ready to parry or check the opponent's lead hand. This is not laziness in the photos - Louis' rear hand was genuinely that relaxed, but it rarely stayed still for long.
The truth of the Blackburn crouch is that offense from it is performed mainly with a stiff jab - but this is led by an active, adaptive right hand. Louis would parry his opponents jabs, looking for openings, or cover their lead hand and step in behind a combination - or be ready to block inside a lead hook and tie his opponent up.
"But these..... are all MMA fighters or older boxers! They don't represent technical boxing today! "
Well, here's Mayweather— a defensive master in the modern era where hands up is more seen than ever before. Yet watch the versatility of his hand positioning and defensive options. As you look at this video, pay close attention to where his hands are. As you will see, he can and does put his hands up as well as hands-down. Also watch him punch through the high guard of some of his opponents like target practice.
Skip to :30 to avoid his weirdness.
Excerpt from Jack Slack's article on Joe Louis
Louis' style is often attributed to natural skill, but in fact he was a clumsy gentleman with a big punch who was turned into one of the finest boxers in history. The Blackburn crouch, whose defense requires none of the split second timing necessary to identify a punch and slip to the appropriate side, is absolutely a viable option for almost anyone. Side on stances are not the fashion at the moment in boxing, which very much moves in trends, but it is very interesting that men such as Floyd Mayweather and Bernard Hopkins can have such great affect by using so called "old timer" techniques in a sport which pretends it has evolved past greats like Joe Louis and Ray Robinson.
- Muay Thai
"But it doesn't work in a setting where there's high level kickers, like Muay Thai in Thailand!"
Here's one of my favorite Nak Muays, Samart Payakaroom- WBC junior featherweight champion and 4 time Lumpinee Champion. He is considered to be the greatest Nak Muay ever, if not arguably top 3.
A truly badass highlight:
Samart is a great example of how to effectively utilize hands and long range weapons in Muay Thai, where the sporting aspect strongly emphasizes, values, and rewards kicks, knees, and elbows.
Here is what Connor Ruebusch had to say about Muay Thai in his awesome article on stances:
As I said, opinions vary on the best striking stance. Muay Thai often teaches to pull the body and hips back and place the head forward, but I assure you, this has more to do with the rarity of head punches in Muay Thai rules than it does with the utility of this stance for general fighting. It also explains the relatively poor showing most pure Muay Thai fighters make under international kickboxing rules.
Here's Saenchai, one of the greatest active Nak Muays. I call him the man who can do everything.
Here is Saiyok, a current Lumpinee champion training at Sinbi. Just wait until he starts using his hands, you'll see what I mean. He employs that style often and you will see it in his fights, though not as apparent as Saenchai and Samart.
- Utility of a Lowered Guard
There are many benefits from a lowered guard. Some of them apply particularly to MMA due to the glove size and grappling.
1. Visibility: This is rather simple. Having your hands down lower means there are no blind spots or barriers to your vision. Some fighters dislike head gear precisely because of the limited vision. By the same token, certain fighters prefer vision over "protection".
2. The never-safe mentality: For several reasons, putting the hands up in a earmuff / high guard position can give fighters a false sense of security. The result can be quite bad, refer to Alistair vs. Browne or Tito vs. Liddell. Putting the hands down makes you emphasize on movement, footwork, positioning, and reading to protect you.
Now before you go on mentioning about Bigfoot vs. Overeem, I'll first establish that Overeem has never been a good hands-down fighter. He has always relied on high guard. In K-1, this is much safer due to bigger gloves— the main reason why putting the hands up can instill a false sense of security— this applies in particular to MMA fighters.
Many people spar with much bigger gloves during training, and MMA fighters tend to use them in sparring as well. Not blocking as frequently simulates a fight environment much better as the option to block becomes much more limited in effectiveness.
3. You get into their head: Normally, people aren't used to this style and they become very frustrated. This can make them want to hit you at all costs. This means that you really don't have to create openings anymore— they create it for you.
When someone is frustrated and coming at you without thinking properly, they are due to make mistake and collide into a strike (e.g. Anderson Silva). If you are a counter-striker at heart, competent execution of this style becomes a great addition to your arsenal of attacks and strategies. In the future, an entire piece will be devoted into drawing an attack.
4. You maintain balanced: choosing not to block and emphasizing evasion means that if you can pull it off competently, you are always in balance and in position to counter. This allows you to better dictate exchanges and choose where to fight.
5. Makes you try to understand all the angles of each strike: You better have a deep understanding of each strike if you are looking to evade it. There is absolutely no way around this but to study, visualize, and practice. Dropping the barrier (a high guard) makes you emphasize on this aspect.
If you don't understand it deeply, and choose to continue down that path, you're actually better off just putting your hands up. You have to actually build up a lot of comfort before doing this (probably one of the reasons why Jack Dempsey also said blocking ought to be learned first). If you are nervous, or better yet, hesitate even for a split-second, misjudge distance, position your foot wrongly, or did not maintain proper stance, you're due for a bad night.
6. A better Center of Gravity (COG): Most likely, if you have a hands-down style, you are a striker at heart. This is because you need to understand each strikes very deeply in order to pull it off at a high level. Better yet, this also comes with anti-wrestling benefits— better COG means you can prevent take downs better.
Your Center of Gravity (COG) is lower. You hands are in a better position to wrestle (e.g. establish underhooks; your hands have a better window to control opponent's head as they shoot in). Heck, since your hands are closer to their legs, you can even shoot for a takedown more effectively.
Just for fun: check out Jordan Burroughs ; another here
7. Angles and Unpredictability: It's much more difficult to read hand strikes that come from a lower angle, this make it much more unpredictable. It also allows you to feint to the body / head easier.
8. Relaxed and Comfortable: I personally see this as a big one. Shrugging your shoulders and tensing the neck is an automatic effect by keeping a tight guard. Being relaxed is a golden principle to striking effectively. Have you noticed just how relaxed certain hands-down fighters look?
Other than being entertained by beautiful and diverse strikes, the one aspect I love most about MMA is its representation of open-mindedness. MMA has eliminated so much dogma in so many arts, and as a consequence, it continues to evolve. What MMA wholly represents is the idea of incorporating anything effective and eliminating anything that is not effective. In this sense, it's the greatest combat sport there is.
But nonetheless, there is plenty room for improvement and many things to be dissatisfied about. Walk into any gym and look at any forum and it will likely be plagued with logical fallacies. Dogma still exists even in MMA, and it will continue to exist despite the effort of many. Although this article discusses only one dominant and dogmatic ideology, in doing so I hope to make a little difference by challenging it.
I'll make it clear one final time— I am not pushing for people to exclusively use a hands down style or to eliminate high-guard and blocking. Rather, I'm pushing for an acceptance of both styles and the ability to use both styles.
Look into the life of hands-down style fighters and you will find that they had an excellent environment to learn their "unorthodox styles". Prince Naseem had a coach that trained hands-down styles, emphasizing footwork and head movement: look at how he has trained since a young age.
They emphasized stance switches (each fighter being able to employ several) and offensive leverage from keeping the hands lower. The result? They produced great defensive masters and switch-hitters.
Look to Ali and you will find a coach that believed just how special he was, letting him do what he wanted because he believed that he was "different". The result? Arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time.
Look to Anderson Silva and you will find that he blossomed after he left the dogmatic Chute-Boxe. Who did he become? Arguably the greatest MMA champion ever.
Look to Sugar Ray and Joe Louis and you'll find Blackburn. Look to Saenchai and Samart and you'll find competitive boxing in their resume. Look to their training and you'll find that their environment allows them to train as they choose. Look into JDS and Cub Swanson and you'll find that they train with high-level boxers in great gyms. The list goes on, and list will continue to go on irrespective of dogmatic ideologies. This is a good representation of what I think is an optimal environment.
Show me a great hands-down fighter and I'll show you someone who has devoted his life into perfecting that style.
Show me effective unorthodoxy and I'll show you a great environment to learn it.
I absolutely believe in talent, but I will always put more faith in dedication. On this note, I'll end this piece with John Danaher, Weidman and GSP's BJJ coach. *Side note, he is a Ph.d in philosophy from Columbia.
Excerpt from GSP: The Way of the Fight
When most people are asked to explain what makes Georges different, most talk about his athletic ability. They say he's a freak of nature, built out of muscle, and it's his athleticism that makes him the best. I'll tell you straight: Georges is above average in athleticism, but he's nothing special. If Georges went to an NFL combine, he'd just be another guy. In fact, he'd be below the average at that level. Good jumping ability and explosiveness, but nothing crazy. I've seen many people with a better vertical jump than him. He has average endurance. Decent but not great flexibility. Average balance. He's overall a good- but not great- athlete. No, it's not his athleticism...
(It's his work ethic, but...) It's not just his work ethic that makes him great; it's his depth of insight that gives direction to his work that makes him great (meaning intelligent hard work)...
I have a belief that all human greatness is founded upon routine, that truly great human behavior is impossible without this central part of your life being set up and governed by routine. All greatness comes out of an investment in time and the perfection of skills that render you great. And so, show me almost any truly great person in the world who exhibits some kind of extraordinary skills, and I'll show you a person whose life is governed largely by routine.
As always, thank you for reading and for your support!
This piece was inspired by GSP, John Danaher, Cub Swanson, Samart Payakaroon, Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, JDS, Prince Naseem, Roy Jones Jr., Muhammad Ali, Jack Slack, and Connor Ruebusch.