If you can't figure it out by my title, I think Anthony Pettis is a genius. I think he's one of the best strikers in MMA. I know for a fact he's the best kicker in the UFC. And I know his explosive grappling is a serious threat to anyone who thinks he's one dimensional. In this fanpost, I'm going to analyze and admire the amazing MMA game of the UFC's newest champion as I explain how he was able to win the title.
Kicking from the Inside Angle:
Conventional striking wisdom says that when fighting someone in the opposite stance, you want to get your lead foot outside the opponent's to strike. Also, it says that when throwing a kick, you want to step in the same direction as the kick you're going to throw will travel. Pettis contradicts both those maxims and knocks people out in the process. The truth is, simple statements like that are tools for teaching beginners, not guides to high level strategy. Following those little rules will keep you safe at first and give you goals to work towards but become dangerously limiting when preached dogmatically or as the only proper strategy. That's why it's often said that the best strikers break the "rules". However, this is only the perception because people are taught these as "rules" instead of as "helpful guidelines". So when someone like Pettis comes along and starts kicking heads in, people assume it is DESPITE breaking those "rules" rather than BECAUSE of it. So how does he pull this off? By first using feints. The best example is his very short fight with Joe Lauzon. In that fight, he would constantly step to his left as a southpaw then throw straight punches. After doing this a couple times, he realized Lauzon was trying really hard to parry so he takes the same step, feints his rear hand and lands the brutal left high kick. If you pay very close attention in that gif, you'll first see that Pettis' lead foot is well inside Lauzon's as he initiates the kick. He steps there on purpose, already knowing how Lauzon will react; if you look at this gif, you can see him use a feint to watch the parry right before he feints again and throws the knockout kick:
So why does Pettis like to step inside, when so many coaches will tell you that's putting him in the path of the right hand? It actually gives him a lot of subtle advantages with the kick.
For one, it allows the kick to come around farther from the side. In a lot of arts that heavily emphasize kicking such as karate and Taekwondo, students are taught to be able to fight from both stances. One of the main reasons for that is so that they will have the ability to fight from what is sometimes known as "open guard" or "opposite stances", basically meaning one fighter is orthodox and the other is southpaw. In this configuration, kicks from the rear leg are much easier to land because they tend to bypass the lead side of the opponent, which is most often used for defense. No one takes advantage of that concept like Pettis does in MMA. His step to the inside angle augment the benefits of his rear leg kicks from open guard. By stepping inside, he directions threatens the opponent's center with his punches. In my angry rant about Rory MacDonald vs Jake Ellenberger cleverly disguised as an article about distance control, I talked about how important threatening the center is to prevent opponents from advancing. However, I neglected to explain in depth that it also forces them to readjust or to likely get knocked out attempting to strike from a compromised position, depending on they're awareness. The important part is that by stepping inside, Pettis is giving himself a straight path to his opponent's unguarded center which means he will be able to attack very effectively while the opponent will not. This gives him the initiative; putting the opponent on the defensive. Since Pettis already knows what defense his opponent will use and the openings it leaves, all he has to do is draw that defense and land the kick. By stepping inside, he makes it easier for that kick to come around the side and over the parry. Even if Lauzon had kept his hand in guard, the kick still would have been able to come behind the guard because of the position of the feet. Also, the step actually gives Pettis' hips more room to swing through. For someone with poor flexibility, that would be a problem because they would lose power at the end of the arc. However, for someone with the nearly superhuman hip mobility of Pettis, that extra space is just more time to build speed and power on the way to cracking skulls.
To see that concept in action again, observe an earlier knockout: Notice that once again, he steps to that same inside position, though he's standing orthodox at this point. He comes in with his right hand and he steps his right foot forward and to his left in preparation for the kick. The right hand isn't supposed to land, just to cover his footwork and draw the left hook counter from his opponent by leaving a false opening while simultaneously loading the kick. As the right foot comes down, Pettis pulls his weight back onto it and launches a powerful kick from what is essentially the inside angle from almost in southpaw. The really beautiful thing here is the range he maintains with the footwork. He steps in JUST close enough with the right hand to make the opponent commit to that left hook, but just far enough that he is able to pull his head back out of the way and still have plenty of room to land the kick. As a result of the step, look at the placement of his shin on the opponent's head. It connects flush along the side of the head, the same as in the knockout of Lauzon.
Pettis steps inside with his kicks so that he can threaten the center with his punches, connect more cleanly, build more power and make the kick more difficult to both see and block. The step inside also makes opponents much more likely to walk into the kick, as Vitor Belfort was kind enough to demonstrate.
Using Feints to Land Kicks:
Now you may have noticed me talking a lot about feinting and drawing in the last section because those are HUGE part of Pettis' success. On offense, Pettis very rarely tries to actually land his punches. More often he tries to distract with them and make his opponents leave openings as they attempt to defend. You can see it in the knockout of Lauzon and of Castillo, as well as the body kicks he landed against Ben Henderson in the second fight. This is really a very simple concept but it's incredibly hard to defend. The fact is, most defenses for the rear straight leave an opening for the rear kick. This is universally true, no matter what stances the fighters are in. I mentioned this and alluded to Pettis in my striking analysis of Conor McGregor. If you try to slip the punch, you duck into the kick. If you try to parry the punch, the kicker goes over and around your parry. If you try to circle outside the punch, you're circling into the power of the kick. It would be a crime for me to write this article and not pay tribute to the embodiment of this double threat; the legendary Mirko Cro Cop. As the most famous kicker in MMA, he used the same left straight/left high kick threat to strike fear into the hearts of heavyweight fighters around the world. Check out this highlight and pay very special attention to just how often he lands both his left hand and left kick:
Mirko Cro Cop Filipovic 6 Kick Of Death Highlights Video - (via challote975)
In that video, you'll see fighters get dropped trying to block, parry and slip the straight that was never coming, or get nailed by straights when they were watching for kicks. In this strategy, Pettis might as well be Cro Cop reborn. While he doesn't necessarily have the same willingness to swarm with punches when he hurts an opponent, he sets his kicks up in the exact same way, especially when you consider that Pettis often moves to southpaw to kick. It isn't a coincidence that the current best kicker in MMA and the former best kicker have this train in common. In MMA, most fighters don't set kicks up or don't do it very well. It's one of those skills that would really make a drastic difference in the quality of striking in the sport as well as the viability of kicking against wrestlers if more fighters would pay attention to it. Anthony Pettis is one of the few who does and it really shows in his fights as his opponents are hurt badly by almost every kick he throws due to their defense being compromised in response to his feints. Essentially, standing in front of Pettis means death. His kicks are too fast and powerful, his ability to read, time, draw and predict your defense too advanced, his footwork and stance too mobile and adapted for what he wants to do.
So, knowing how inevitable your destruction is if you stand in front of him, you have to find a way to make sure he is never set to kick you. How do you do that? By pressuring him, right? If only it were that simple...It's true that the simplest way to stop someone from kicking is to force them backwards. If you're committed to moving your bodyweight in the wrong direction, it's very hard to step, get your balance and fire off a good kick before your opponent gets on top of you. Even if the kick lands, it's likely to be smothered and you can be caught badly off balance. So driving a strong kicker backwards and keeping them on their heels is the perfect method to defeat them. With wrestling, that principle only becomes more true. However, don't for a second think that Anthony Pettis doesn't know this. He does. As a result, he's developed several methods to beat up opponents who try to bully him.
Counter punches: This is his most common choice. Pettis is much more likely to commit to punches when his opponents are coming forward or attacking. This is to punish them for trying to push him backwards and convince them to stand in range of his kicks. He has some nice straight punches and often does a good job leaping to an outside angle as he comes in to attack. You can see him do it to Lauzon in this gif. One thing that's important to notice is that Lauzon has backed Pettis against the cage here. Pettis likes to be the one cornering his opponents, so he follows a probing jab of Lauzons back with a counter combination. Note how he moves slightly to his right, creating an angle to land a tight right hook around Lauzon's guard before Joe moves away. You can see another example in his first fight against Henderson, as he slips outside a jab to land a nice straight right. Pettis isn't Anderson Silva, but he is very capable of landing hard straight punches against opponents who commit to coming forward against him.
Counter kicks: He throws these less commonly, although to great effect. One example was in the Lauzon fight where he threw several side kicks. Side kicks are great for pushing opponents back and halting their forward momentum, especially when thrown to the legs. That exact same kick is also used by only two of the greatest fighters alive; Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. Even in that short fight against Lauzon, Pettis started using them as well as his counter punches to alleviate the pressure so he could make room to kick. Even better was the counter body kick he landed against Cerrone which actually lead to the end of the fight. Most people remember the showtime knee and body kick that ended the fight, but few remember the counter kick that started it all. As Cerrone tries to walk forward and attack, Pettis blasts his stomach with a powerful kick. That halted him in his tracks and Cerrone barely took another step forward for the rest of the fight. He spent the remaining time backing up into the cage then into the knockout kick. Pettis' counter kicks are clearly extremely dangerous. Anyone who plans to walk him down best be wary of them, as well as his counter punches.
Unfortunately, this article was about twice as long before half got deleted. Apparently the auto-save wasn't working and I accidentally closed the page, so when I opened it back up the rest was gone. I won't have time to retype the rest for probably another week so I'm just gonna unhappily post it as is.
Anyway, Pettis is absolutely amazing. Something to keep in mind is that he's been ending his fights so quickly recently (the past three in just a few minutes each) that we haven't had a chance to see all his skills. The few core techniques of his game are so devastating and effective that he hasn't needed the rest of it in a while. In other words, as scary as this sounds, Pettis' striking in the UFC may only be the tip of the iceberg. I think he has a lot more to show us than has been on display so far. He's definitely the most dangerous champion the division has seen since Penn and I believe he'll be the most dominant. Anthony Pettis is young, talented, smart and backed by some of the best coaches in the sport. He's versatile and has the potential to finish fights in a variety of ways. His boxing is getting better, his kicks are already too good and his grappling is getting stronger. The man who looks to dethrone Pettis is ambitious indeed.
If you have any thoughts, questions, comments or criticisms, please let me know in the comments. There's a whole hell of a lot more I wanted to say and I'm pretty depressed that I lost it all, so if anything sticks out that you'd like to know more about please feel free to ask and I'll answer as soon as possible.