Mike Pyle is a fighter you can't help but love. His hardworking blue collar persona, enhanced by his infamous mullethawk, is merely the icing on top of a delicious layer cake of well-rounded violence. And, higher still, atop that mountain of cake and icing, sits a perfect blood-red cherry of calculated aggression. In the world of MMA fandom, that cherry is affectionately referred to as "Spinning Shit."
Seriously, who knew that Mike Pyle had a spinning elbow in his arsenal? I certainly didn't. Unexpected as it was, the technique fits, in a way, with his overall striking style. Spinning techniques tend to come across as more "graceful" than their more straight-forward counterparts, but this was no delicate spinning hook kick, lovingly placed on the unsuspecting jaw of an opponent. This was a spinning elbow--Pyle took the most vicously pointed piece of bone in his body, whirled it like a rock in a sock with 170+ pounds of weight behind it, and slung it into TJ Waldburger's temple, knocking his foe to the earth. As for what grace remains in this image, has there not always been a graceful directness to Pyle's style? Wasn't the right hook that floored Josh Neer graceful in its way (GIF)? The knees that dropped James Head (GIF)?
Okay, maybe graceful isn't the right word. Maybe I'm getting a little too poetic in describing what was ultimately a small moment amidst a night of far more relevant fights. I don't know. The fact remains that Mike Pyle is a fight fan's fighter--he comes to fight, and he does so with a marvelous blend of raw aggression and skill. The spinning elbow was just the perfect move to encapsulate that.
I sometimes get so caught up in the overall strategy of the fight that things like this get overlooked. Sometimes, it's okay to just break down a cool move, enjoy the real-life Streetfighter game that is MMA, and leave it at that. So without further epic rambling or other ado, let's talk about spinning elbows.
Pyle's spinning elbow stood out chiefly because of how little it stood out. So many fighters get caught up in the idea of throwing "flashy" moves and never figure out how to incorporate them into their game. Pyle, on the other hand, is a gritty fighter with a straightforward approach, and this strike did not seem out of place whatsoever. In other words, it was well set up, and well executed.
(Click to enlarge)
1. Pyle stalks forward, backing Waldburger up toward the fence.
2. Feeling the pressure, Waldburger throws a right front kick from a southpaw stance to keep the space, but fails to connect.
3. Pyle catches his leg and finds himself at an advantageous, but awkward angle. Because he holds Waldburger's leg, he is basically at an outside angle to his opponent, but with his hands occupied, he cannot land the obvious straight right or left hook without giving Waldburger a large window of escape.
4. So he elects to spin. Pyle pivots, pointing the heel of his left foot at his target. As Waldburger feels the grip on his foot slacken, he pulls his leg free, causing his upper body to lurch forward...
5. ...right into the arc of Pyle's elbow.
This is crafty stuff from Pyle. A spin attacks in the same way as a hook, but is entirely unexpected when set up well. Waldburger probably expected a left hook, or at least thought it a likely attack from Pyle. So when Pyle's left shoulder turned (frame 4) and no hook came with it, he spied an opportunity to snatch his leg back and create some space. Unfortunately for him, the attack came from Pyle's right arm, and Waldburger's position was compromised such that he never saw the strike coming.
Therein lies the reason the spinning elbow is such a deceptive and dangerous strike, even if it is singularly difficult to throw well. It has to do with range, and the resultant perception of threat.
A spinning kick can be detected with relative ease because of the range at which it is thrown--no closer than the very edge of punching range. From such a long distance the spin can be seen for what it is. After Rustam Khabilov knocked down Jorge Masvidal with a spinning hook kick, I wrote about his left hook feint set-up, which was very effective, and yet still Masvidal had time to recognize that he had made a mistake in biting on the feint. With better defensive awareness, Masvidal could have reacted correctly and avoided the kick, simply because things happen more slowly at kicking range. But at spinning elbow range, an opponent who bites hard on the set-up is almost invariably on the hook for good.
Below you will find a poorly drawn diagram that attempts to illustrate the concept.
This diagram puts you in the shoes of TJ Waldburger. Pyle's upper body position implies a threat from one or both of his arms. As his body turns, one side is loaded to strike and the other loses its potential for power, becoming less of a threat. As your kick is caught (remember, you're Waldburger for the moment), you are presented with the center image. You expect Pyle to throw his right hand.
Instead, his body begins to turn the other way, even farther to the right. You now realize that Pyle is not throwing the right, and brace for an attack from the other side. Your focus snaps to his left shoulder, which is the next most likely threat--probably a close-range jab or left hook. But that, too, is quickly checked off the list as his torso continues to rotate, bringing both his left and right arms out of play. Pyle is now no longer facing you, and you are left wondering what he intends as his elbow collides with your brain.
If you rewatch the GIF above, you can all but see Waldburger's thoughts struggling to keep up with his changing reality. As Pyle's body rotated to its full extent, Waldburger's eyes were trained on him all the way.
Below, I've GIF'd a singularly vicious example of the spinning elbow in Muay Thai that clearly demonstrates the distance game that a close-range spinning attack plays with a fighter's defensive reactions.
The thing to focus on here is the defender's (or should that be "victim's"?) line of sight. Though he appears to be looking straight forward, he does not see the elbow coming. This is because, as his opponent changes levels and steps into range, his eyes are trained on his left shoulder. From this range, that is the threatening hand. As the attacker turns his body and his left shoulder passes by, the defender's eyes follow him, expecting him to turn back to his left again, uncoiling into a strike from his right side.
Instead, the strike comes unexpected from behind the attacker's back, connecting on the defender's blind right side.
The problem with spinning elbows is that they are incredibly hard to judge and time, and as a result not many fighters can throw them well. As a strike, however, they offer a very real advantage in that they are almost never anticipated well. The close range means that one has very little time to recognize the rotation of the opponent's body as a full-fledged spin, and is left expecting a strike that never comes, too slow to react to the one that does.
Whew! That was a bit rough. I'm not sure I realized how hard the moment-to-moment changes of in-the-pocket boxing were to explain until just now, but that's the confusing reality of fighting. Join me again tomorrow for Part One of my Technique Recap for this event, in which I'll break down some of the key moments from the fight, in a much less obsessively specific way. I swear.
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