Gegard Mousasi is a mystery. Despite possessing an incredible track record of 34-3, with 18 knockouts and 11 submissions to his credit, it remains very difficult to predict how well Mousasi can perform at the upper tier of the sport. The impressiveness of his knockout win over Jacare Souza was more or less balanced out by his decision loss to Mo Lawal, and a great number of his other most impressive wins are over questionable competition. But Mousasi has been unquestionably and consistently good at drubbing them.
With so many remaining questions about his ability to perform at the UFC level, Lyoto Machida seems like the perfect opponent to test Mousasi’s skills once and for all. Because let’s be honest: no disrespect to the courageous Ilir Latifi, but Mousasi’s first UFC bout felt an awful lot like another overmatched, hand-picked contender from Gegard’s DREAM days; this fight with Machida definitely feels like Mousasi’s real UFC debut.
So how good are his chances? Well, level of competition aside, Mousasi has shown a good number of the striking skills needed to beat a fighter of Machida’s caliber. More important is his application of said skills. You see, Mousasi is a pressure fighter at heart. He is capable of countering when he feels like it, but he thrives when he can put his opponent’s back to the fence and pin them down with hard punches and kicks.
That means that this fight is an incredibly interesting style clash. Counter fighters and pressure fighters are, in some ways, designed specifically to beat one another. The counter fighter loves an opponent who will walk into his range and throw punches. The pressure fighter loves an opponent who will wait on him to act. The outcome of this fight is up in the air, so I’ll let you decide who takes it.
But to help you out, let’s take a look at the skills Mousasi will bring to bear.
Of course the jab must be discussed. Mousasi's three round beating of Latifi was nothing so much as a casual, expertly staged clinic on the jab. In particular, Mousasi throws what old American boxing parlance terms a "trip-hammer jab." This is a punch which shoots out straight from the chin, with very little weight transfer or hip put into it. The idea is to give as little telegraph as possible, while still maintaining enough snap to make the opponent wary. In essence, the trip-hammer is a very fast arm punch, and it succeeds not because of it's immense power but because of the excellent timing with which fighters such as Mousasi employ it.
Here, against Kyotaro, you can see the trip-hammer at work. Gegard throws it first to the chest as he re-sets his feet after a kick. The second one is the best one, and gives you a very good idea of how little body weight is put into this punch, which is nonetheless very effective. Mousasi perfectly times Kyotaro's inside low kick, jabbing him off balance the moment he lifts his foot. Then, there is so little forward body momentum in the punch, that he is still easily able to pull his lead leg back to defend it should the kick follow through. Finally, Mousasi uses the trip hammer as part of a combination, once again tagging Kyotaro and knocking him back, but eating an inside leg kick in the process.
Mousasi will use this punch to put his opponents into a state of endless flinches and jumps. The punch is so difficult to see coming, that opponents will often cease putting together any meaningful offense of their own, for fear of losing focus on Mousasi's left hand and catching a jab to the nose. This is when Mousasi begins to push forward.
At first, Hiroshi Izumi is very much fixated on his own offense. Having landed a few overhand rights and shot for one unsuccessful takedown without being hurt, you can understand why. He tests the waters with a feint, and Mousasi backs away. And then, just as Izumi's confidence is building for another takedown attempt--CRACK--Mousasi lands a sharp, perfectly timed jab to his chin. The fact that Izumi didn't predict the punch at all is underlined by his body's reaction to it: he stumbles back like a pro wrestler hit by a chair, blinking as if hit by a huge power punch. At this moment, Izumi's spark was gone. Mousasi stole it from him, and spent the rest of the fight working behind his jab, inching closer and closer to his opponent by the minute.
Ultimately, this happened to poor Izumi:
You can see that by the end of the fight, Mousasi is standing much closer to Izumi than at the beginning. He throws the jab and misses, but Izumi, so occupied with escaping Mousasi's quick left hand, ends up losing focus on the big picture and circles right into a straight right. The most important thing here is the fact that Mousasi continues to press even after missing his jab. Many fighters go into defensive mode the moment they whiff on a punch, but Mousasi's balance, enhanced by how little he needs to commit to make his jab effective, gives him the ability to move forward safely, throwing absolute heaters.
While comparisons of Machida to heavyweight kickboxer Kyotaro are rife, they're not entirely valid. We may as well compare Juan Manuel Marquez to Floyd Mayweather simply because both men prefer to fight off the back foot. Still, Mousasi's win over Kyotaro does answer some questions about how he chooses to pressure an opponent who all but refuses to engage, and the answer seems to be footwork.
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Footwork is usually celebrated in counter fighters more than anyone else, and why not? Few things are more impressive than the tight pivots and effortless side steps of the confident matador, making his foolhardy foe miss again and again with small, subtle movements. But imagine how different the fight would look if the bull knew how to anticipate these movements and use them against the matador? Good footwork is just as crucial to pressure fighters as it is to counter fighters--in fact, a battle between these two types is almost always one of footwork. Can the pressure fighter cut off the angles of the counter fighter?
Against the lateral movement of a fighter like Kyotaro, Mousasi's answer was the rear foot pivot. Most mixed martial artists, when they do pivot, only do so on the front foot. This is still a useful technique, but it lessens your ability to control the cage or ring. Mousasi's goal is to always control center ring. This poorly drawn diagram explains the idea.
In the first row of images, you can see an example of the opponent (blue) moving laterally, and the pressure fighter (red) using a front foot pivot to follow him. A small step and a pivot on the front foot does an excellent job of keeping one's lead hand trained on the center line of the opponent, but as you can see, the pressure fighter's movement has taken his back away from center ring. This is because his lead foot has maintained its position during the pivot, while the back foot had to step around. Now he will have a harder time accomplishing his goal of putting the opponent against the ropes or fence.
The second row shows the same scenario, but with the pressure fighter executing a back foot pivot instead. With this movement, his back foot has served as the fulcrum, staying in place while his lead foot steps around. This means that he can keep his weapons trained on his foe while keeping his back to the center of the ring.
With a combination of side steps and small back foot pivots, Mousasi is able to stalk his opponents relentlessly, never giving them the opening they crave to get their own backs off of the ropes.
Here, you can see Mousasi using the strategy to shut down the lateral movement of Kyotaro. As Kyotaro moves to his right along the ropes, all Gegard must do is take small steps with his lead foot to keep the pressure on his opponent. When Kyotaro ends up in front of the corner, Mousasi cuts him off with a larger step to the side, and teeps him back into the turnbuckle, forcing Kyotaro to move quickly out of the corner as Mousasi casually retakes the center and moves toward him again.
Two aspects of this approach to fighting should be clear. 1) Mousasi's relentless stalking, combined with his couldn't-care-less demeanor, allow him to put extreme mental pressure on his opponents. We can talk about the right way to respond to this pressure all day long, but the reality of the situation is that Mousasi completely dominates the initiative, and has a huge mental advantage as a result. 2) Mousasi's opponents almost always expend far more energy than Mousasi himself. It takes very little effort to pivot on the back foot and pop jabs and straight kicks at your opponent, while quickly hopping around the perimeter of the fighting surface, constantly looking for angles to counter or escape, is far more taxing. As a result Mousasi, who has been slighted in the past for his inconsistent training methods, almost never tires before his opponent does, simply because he fights at a measured, almost leisurely pace.
So can the Armenian Assassin exert enough pressure to stifle one of the best counter fighters in the sport? Will he be capable of cutting off the notoriously wide open space of the Octagon, when Lyoto Machida has spent far more time navigating its perimeters? The difficulty I have answering that question is precisely why I'm so excited for this fight.
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