When I first started writing about mixed martial arts, I compared Ronda Rousey to Royce Gracie. Here, I thought, we have a woman with great talent and technique in one skill set, who can beat many of her more well-rounded opponents with ease because of the strength of that specialization. Like Royce, Ronda had-and there's no point being nice about it-substandard striking skills, and was clearly uncomfortable at range with her opponent. Even so, she was capable of dominating every adversary she faced because they weren't able to stop her from closing the distance.
Now that the women's bantamweight division is established in the UFC, it's not unreasonable to assume that Ronda's level of competition will improve. As more talented female fighters come to mixed martial arts, the sport will start to leave a single-skill set champion behind, just as it did to Royce back in the day. But Ronda's not about to let it, and she's been improving the areas of her game that would have kept her a mere pioneer, rather than a dominant, resilient champion. Her recent strides to increase the breadth of her abilities are very promising. Let's take a look.
STRIKING WITH PURPOSE
The talented submission grappler or wrestler has success at the lower levels of the sport, realizes that he needs to advance his striking, and suddenly abandons his grappling altogether, becoming nothing more than a sloppy kickboxer. How many times have we seen this exact scenario play out in the sport of MMA? Often we deride these fighters for "falling in love with their striking," but the reality is that many fighters are never taught to strike in a way that facilitates their strength. One of the worst things that can happen to a dangerous grappler is to be taught how to strike, but never how to transition from one to the other.
This is why Ronda's development is so encouraging. Her stand-up game is being built around the goal of closing distance, or letting her opponent do that for her.
1. Miesha Tate comes forward behind a jab feint.
2. Ronda steps forward to meet her.
3. Keeping her back straight Ronda changes levels and jabs. Her punch misses and Miesha's partially connects, but...
4. ...now Ronda has head control.
This technique, which Ronda's cornerman Edmond Taverdyan calls a "hanger," is similar to Jack Dempsey's "glance-off," which I wrote about in my breakdown of Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez; the jab is thrown inside the arc of a looping right hand, and used defensively to deflect the main force of the blow. Ronda's level change is the key to the effectiveness of this technique. The bend in the hips and knees is the difference between what you see above, and Michael Bisping's perpetual susceptibility to right hands.
Here's another way that Ronda uses her dipping jab to set up her takedowns.
1. Ronda inches forward into boxing range.
2. Again, notice her bend at the knees and hips as she initiates her jab.
3. This time, Rousey is the one leading and Tate tries to counter her, making the mistake of standing up tall in the process.
4. Rousey consequently has an easy time picking up Tate's leg for a knee pick.
5. Keeping her jabbing arm as a frame on Miesha's neck, Ronda executes a "steering wheel motion" with her arms, twisting Tate to the side...
6. ...and off her feet.
Ronda's technical proficiency on the feet is nothing to marvel at, and indeed she still eats a glancing right hand from Miesha in the image above, failing to completely deflect the punch. The most promising thing about this exchange is that she proved herself willing to eat a punch to get to the clinch. Rather than backing up at the first sign of offense from her opponent, she got low, defended, and initiated her own offense. The point of defense it to set up offense, and Ronda has learned that in an admirably short amount of time.
FIGHTING IN TRANSITIONS
Once Ronda secures the clinch, and she always does, she is immediately working for a throw. However, as her opponents gain the advantage of an ever-increasing amount of footage to study and a growing line of failed predecessors from which to learn, Ronda will have to mix things up to keep them guessing. Once again, she's shown her determination to stay ahead of the curve by adapting and applying these skills now.
1. Ronda loses position after hitting a sacrifice throw and both fighters start to scramble to their feet.
2. Tate has a tight overhook on Rousey's right arm, but Ronda gets up first and uses her leverage, pushing down on Miesha's scapula and torquing her shoulder. She also cracks Miesha in the face with a short left hook.
3. As Tate struggles to her feet, Rousey lands another short shot and then places her left hand on the back of Miesha's neck, doubling down on her leverage advantage and preventing her from standing straight up.
4. Rousey launches a knee to capitalize on her opponent's broken posture, but it fails to connect.
5. Now, as Miesha finally regains her posture, Ronda switches the direction of her pressure and frames against her face, using her forearm to force Tate back into the fence.
6. Tate is too focused on blocking Ronda's hips to prevent the throw, and eats a push-off elbow from the framing arm.
UFC 170: BJJ Scout Breakdown of Rousey vs. McMann
A detailed look at how the ground grappling tendencies of UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey and challenger Sara McMann match up.
At first glance, this appears to be a very Thai approach to the clinch, and in some ways it is. Rousey uses leverage and body position to off-balance her opponent, break down her posture, and set her up for strikes. Really, though, this is all classic judo--with punches added.
I'm often tempted to compare grappling scenarios, particularly in the clinch where balance is so crucial, to a game of tug-of-war. It might seem like a silly comparison, but the best clinch fighters all utilize the same approach that your punk friends used back when you were a kid. Remember when they would pull really hard on one end of the rope, and your feet would start to slip, and then just as you redoubled your efforts, they would let go of their end and let your own exertion put you on your butt in the mud? That right there... is high level judo.
Above, when Ronda has a strong position over Miesha, she can use her strength and leverage to force her down and take advantage of the opportunity to land some strikes. But once Tate starts fighting desperately to stand up and escape the punches and knees, Rousey not only lets her--she helps her along, sticking a forearm under her jaw and easily forcing Tate to stand up too far, so that she is now bolt upright with her back to the fence. This is the position that Ronda prefers when it comes to cage fighting, so that she can get her hips close to her opponents and get right back into her masterful judo game. And with her newfound love for striking in transitions, her opponents will have a harder and harder time seeing her takedowns coming.
Once the most dominant judoka in women's MMA, Ronda is quickly becoming the most dominant mixed martial artist in women's MMA. The fact that she is making these changes now is excellent--so many fighters stop developing until they absolutely have to change to keep up. Ronda Rousey is forcing the rest of the division to keep up with her.
Come back to BE tomorrow for my breakdown of Sara McMann, wherein I will suggest the strategy she will need to take the coveted crown of the bantamweight queen.
For more fight analysis and fighter/trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast that focuses exclusively on the finer points of face-punching. Coming this afternoon: technique talk with UFC flyweight and former Bellator bantamweight champion Zach Makovsky. Please rate and review the show on both iTunes and Stitcher.