UFC 171 Technique Recap: How to Take a Punch

Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler set an all-time record for most strikes landed in a title fight, which begs the question: how on earth did they stay standing? BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch examines the fights of UFC 171 and the science that goes into eating a punch.

I'm not always a big fan of fight statistics, but sometimes they really help to convey the story of a fight, and one statistic from the main event of last weekend's UFC event stands out in particular: 348. That's the number of strikes landed in the five round war between Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler--more than in any other title fight in UFC history.

To some people this is indicative of astounding offensive activity. To others it only proves that striking defense has a long way to go in MMA yet. But what stands out most to me, however, is not the number of punches landed, but the number of punches taken. How did Johny Hendricks eat 162 shots from Robbie Lawler (as FightMetric has it) and survive to the final bell? How on earth did Robbie Lawler take 186 from Hendricks?

It might surprise you to know that there is a method to eating a punch. And by eating I don't mean getting blasted and having to recover. I mean eating the punch like a snack and, like Robbie Lawler, smiling and asking for more. There is a scientific approach to absorbing the blows of the opponent, and there were plenty of examples of this science in action at UFC 171, both in the main event and on the undercard. Some fighters did it well, and some... not so much.

Let's break it down.

FOOT POSITION

If you've ever built a campfire or set up any kind of tripod, then you know the importance of balance and base. If the three feet of your tripod are all equidistant from one another, you have a strong base that will be difficult to knock over. If two of the feet are much farther apart from one another than they are from the third leg, you know have a weak plane. Push the tripod in the direction of that long, unsupported space, and the whole structure collapses.

Now imagine trying to get a bipod to stand up on its own. Without some kind of counterbalance, it's nearly impossible, and yet that's exactly what our bodies do on our two, physics-defying legs. With only two feet on the ground, the number of weak planes is doubled, and the precision and strength of force required to upset the biped's balance by pushing against those weak planes is much less than with the tripod. Rude jokes aside, we have no third leg to stop ourselves from toppling over, and so the only way to resist force and stay standing is to constantly adjust the foot opposite the force.

This is why foot position is so crucially important, and why every stance must have a lead foot and a rear foot for stability. A fighter's feet are always parallel to one another in one way or another. The opponent's footwork is designed to get around the front foot so that this parallel line may be attacked. The next time you watch a very high level combat sports match, be it judo, boxing, kickboxing, or MMA, pay attention to the small adjustments each fighter makes with his feet, and know that they are each striving at the same time to forcefully intersect the opponent's weak plane while preventing the opponent from attacking their own in the same way.

Sound complicated? It is. Thus we have lots of knockouts, knockdowns, and knocked-sillies. Like this one!

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1. Alex Garcia and Sean Spencer duke it out at close range. Spencer moves to Garcia's left, to the outside of his left foot.

2. As Spencer plants his feet and prepares to throw, Garcia's feet are actually crossed. Bad news for the Tristar product: a hard cross will be thrown directly across his weak plane.

3. Garcia is not ignorant of position. As Spencer throws a huge right hand, his right foot (circled) has moved toward its proper place, but he hasn't quite made it. The punch connects as his foot is still in mid-air.

4. Lucky for Garcia, his foot was just close enough to the right position that he finds his stance by accident as he is knocked for a loop.

Look at the angle of Garcia's body in that last frame. Watch the GIF. Had his right foot not been just above its correct position at the time of Spencer's punch, he would have continued moving in the same direction, to his right and downward, until he hit the ground. As it was, the lack of support at the moment of impact sent him reeling, and he was forced to clinch with his opponent to recover. Spencer's dexterity in finding a position in which Garcia's feet were totally crossed and out of position is the very definition of "using angles."

Kelvin Gastelum had a few hiccups of his own on the way to his controversial split decision win over Rick Story. After being dazed and backed into the fence, the young fighter showed his inexperience by opting to swing for the fences rather than moving his feet or holding his opponent until the bell.

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1. Gastelum swings with a right hook that comes up short.

2. As Gastelum winds up for a left hand, Story measures him with the jab and ends up posting against his face.

3. Now Story drops his weight onto the heel of his right foot, sitting down hard on a straight left hand. It connects as Gastelum has, less technically, flung his own weight into a left hand. As a result his left foot (circled) has left the ground.

4. Gastelum's foot keeps moving forward, and Story's punch sends his upper body in the other direction. Naturally, the Ultimate Fighter winds up on his back with stars in his eyes.

A baseball player or a shotputter can throw himself completely off-balance so long as his aim is true and his throw is hard. Fighters do not have this luxury, and while the mechanics of throwing a punch are very similar to those of throwing a ball, defense must be taken into consideration. It is for this reason that we are taught to punch with our feet planted, or taking only small steps. Dragging the feet, marching forward with punches, and ending up square all result in undue risk.

And hey, I did say it was complicated. There are more things than foot position to take into account. Gastelum committed another critical mistake on his way to this knockdown.

SHOCK ABSORPTION

Cars have shocks, springs between the wheels and frame, to absorb the impact from any obstacles on the road surface. Without the shocks, the passengers would not only experience a very uncomfortable ride, but a great deal of the force of those impacts would go right into the frame of the car itself, causing great wear and tear. Humans are conspicuously lacking in springs, but we have shocks all the same, in the forms of knees. Bent knees are much better at absorbing force than straight ones, and therefore a fighter in a low stance stands a better chance of successfully absorbing a punch than one in a tall stance.

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1. Gastelum moves toward Story with what appears to be an attempted and then quickly abandoned superman punch.

2. Gastelum ends up in no-man's land, and Story winds up a punch. Gastelum tries, Bisping-like, to push Story back and lean away from the blow.

3. Bisping-like, it doesn't work. Story's punch, not a particularly hard one, crashes into Gastelum's chin as he stands stock straight, knees all but locked.

4. Gastelum performs an impromptu interpretive dance.

Taking a punch is all about shock absorption. Dissipation is the name of the game. Standing up tall with the knees straight, the body is not inclined to accept the force of a punch and allow it to travel down the legs and into the ground. Rather, the force is mostly absorbed by the neck and head itself, as evidenced by the violent whiplash motion of Gastelum's noggin in the above GIF. Better to be hit with a jackhammer blow to the head with both feet planted and both knees bent than to be clipped on the end of the chin in a wholly unstable position.

Want proof? Let's turn to our record-breaking main event.

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1. Lawler and Hendricks engage in a battle of hand-fighting.

2. As Hendricks extends a jab, Lawler slips to the inside of the punch and connects with a slow but heavy cross counter.

3. Hendricks does not concede range, and attempts another jab to back Lawler off. Lawler slips this one to the outside, casually places his lead foot in position and...

4. ...lands a positively tremendous uppercut clean on Johny Hendricks chin.

5. The most impressive part of this exchange? Hendricks keeps his feet, takes a step forward, and unleashes a six punch salvo, forcing Lawler out of the pocket.

Without a technically sound stance, Hendricks would have never survived that uppercut, which was in all likelihood the cleanest and most powerful punch of the entire fight. Both of Lawler's punches in that sequence connected with Hendricks' head, but you can actually see the force traveling from Lawler's fist through Hendricks' head (not entirely into it) and down his legs into the ground. His knees were slightly bent. His back foot was under and just behind his rear hip. Lawler landed, but Hendricks took it, and took it well enough to immediately return with some meaningful punches of his own.

TURNING THE HEAD

Finally, we come to the part of the body that actually meets the blow. Absorbing a shot has everything to do with the legs, but preventing the shot from landing cleanly is very much up to the head. Any strike wants a perpendicular surface to land on. Think of swinging an axe at a tree: driving the axe straight against the tree's trunk results in a deep cleft and a satisfying thud; a variation in angle, however, is liable to send the axe skidding wildly off the surface of the wood. The wood is not superior to the blade of the axe--the axe is perfectly capable of turning the entire tree into splinters given enough time--but the right position allows the wood to nullify the sharp blade of the axe.

So it is with head position. The very natural reaction of turning one's head away from punches is actually one of the worst things one could possibly do. Presenting the cheek, temple, or side of the jaw to the opponent gives his fist a clean, relatively flat surface on which to land. When fatigue set in for Robbie Lawler in the fifth round, that troublesome instinct came back to haunt him.

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1. Lawler tries to push Hendricks back with a jab, but Bigg Rigg ain't having it.

2. As Hendricks throws a counter cross, Lawler makes the mistake of turning his face, presenting his right cheek to Hendricks' fist.

3. Much has been said about Lawler's ability to roll with Hendricks' punches, but this is not a rolled punch. This is a cleanly landed punch.

4. Lawler's expression says as much. His eyes unfocus for a moment as his planned counter goes sailing past Hendricks' head.

Lawler successfully defended punches, or put himself in the right positions to absorb them, all night long but finally, in the fifth round, he succumbed to fatigue and Hendricks' indomitable will. At this point, it only took a few punches to put Lawler completely on the defensive, and his slowed reactions and dulled wits caused his impressive defense to falter. The impact of Hendricks left hand is evident in the GIF above, as it sends Lawler wheeling back off balance.

I'll leave you with an example of head position done right. Juan Manuel Marquez is one of the best counter punchers on the planet both because he has excellent defense, and the grit to stand in front of a punch to land his own when necessary. When Marquez knocked out Manny Pacquiao in their fourth fight, he did so with a perfectly timed punch, and a very hard forehead.

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Marquez's thunderous left catches Pacquiao dead in the center of his face as he drives forward, knocking him out cold. Pacquiao's forward momentum, however, carried with it a punch, a powerful right jab that could have easily interrupted Marquez's counter and prevented him from landing. Marquez's perfect posture and solid head position allowed him to turn out Pacquiao's lights with minimal damage to himself. You can see that Pac's right hand actually does land on the side of Marquez's face, but because he is facing the punch square-on, it slides harmlessly off his cheek, leaving Marquez standing and Pacquiao face-down on the canvas.

That's it for this edition of the Technique Recap. If you're interested in understanding the techniques and training that led to Hendricks' stellar performance at UFC 171 check back this afternoon for my very special interview with Steven Wright, Johny Hendricks' striking coach and all-around trainer extraordinaire.

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. Please take a minute to rate and review the show on both iTunes and Stitcher.

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