Artem Levin made a strong case for the sweet science in his seemingly effortless run through Glory World Series' Last Man Standing tournament last Saturday. Levin utilized a boxing-centric attack, replete with head movement, body punching, and lots of strategic holding.
And you know what? It's about time. I usually try to be objective with my analysis, but today I'm pushing an agenda. You see, basic boxing fundamentals have for too long been practically outlawed by students of kickboxing and MMA on the grounds that they "only work in boxing."How many times have you heard this: "You can't slip/roll/dip in kickboxing/MMA unless you want to get kicked/kneed in the face." Statements like this are all too common. While tactical application does change somewhat from boxing to kickboxing, the suggestion that simple, valid techniques should be avoided entirely is nothing short of absurd.
Need proof? Then let's examine some of the techniques and tactics used by Levin in his one-night run through the ranks of the best middleweights in the world.
In his first bout of the night, Levin faced Brazilian Alex Pereira, a very good representative of the stereotypical Brazilian style of kickboxing, with strong single punches, knees, and a wide variety of powerful kicks. Levin picked him apart. Utilizing head movement, the Russian countered Pereira for three straight rounds. Check out the GIF below.
Levin's two favorite evasive movements were the left slip and this, the left roll. Levin's rolling is very well done. He stalks forward and waits, confidently and patiently, right in Pereira's range. Pereira leads with a tight, fast cross, but Levin rolls under it. Note that, in order to pull off this technique, Levin must pull his weight to his right side before bending his knees and moving to his left. It happens in a split-second, but it's there, a slight slip to the right followed by a dipping roll to the left. Levin's head describes a U-shape in the air.
Then, Levin reveals precisely why the left slip and roll were his go-to moves. Both maneuvers place the weight on the left foot, loading the body for a left hook, clearly Levin's favorite punch. In this instance, Levin stays in tight, waiting for Pereira to pivot out. That pivot to Pereira's left exposes the pit of his stomach, and Levin hammers home two vicious left hooks.
Instead of throwing back, Pereira shells up and tries to backpedal out of Levin's range. This is where Levin's creativity comes into play. Traditionally, a boxer would follow his opponent by keeping him on the end of his jab. Levin, however, doesn't even let Pereira get to jab range. Instead, he steps forward with his right foot, abandoning his orthodox stance in favor of keeping Pereira in reach. As he moves forward, his hands, already extended from punching, wrap Pereira up in a quick n' dirty clinch. With that right foot forward, Levin has enough space between his hips and Pereira's gut to drive home another powerful body blow, this one a left knee to the liver.
Pretty stuff from the Russian. Pereira's utterly basic defense, which consisted almost entirely of backing up or tightly covering his head with both hands, was easily picked apart by Levin's more nuanced boxing game. And as for the suggestion that rolls and slips are too risky to be worthwhile in the kickboxing ring? Well...
Credit is due to Pereira, because he did his best to capitalize on Levin's evasive tendencies. By the second round, Levin had become so confident in his ability to roll under Pereira's punches that the Brazilian began trying to set him up, feinting and then countering with knees in the hopes that Levin would duck chin-first into one and then lie down for a while. Attacks like this are the most oft-cited reason kickboxers and mixed martial artists give for not incorporating head movement into kicking sports, and any fighter who rolls or ducks his head certainly is at risk of being countered with a knee.
The critics overlook the fact, however, that the same risk exists in boxing, where fighters use a technique--one you might have heard of--called the uppercut. Uppercuts are not only excellent counters for downward head movement, but they are generally faster and require less energy to throw than knees. And yet, despite this risk, boxers have been ducking and rolling under punches for centuries. If risk alone were enough to discredit a given technique, then fighters wouldn't even be able to jab for fear of a counter. The fact of the matter is that every single movement, or lack thereof, puts a fighter at risk. Fighting requires constant adjustment and unceasing awareness, but given these things there are very few techniques a martial artist can't use to his advantage.
Let's go back to the last GIF. As Levin comes forward, Pereira launches a knee, and Levin almost ducks into it. Freed from a high guard and well-practiced in his movements, however, Levin spots the counter in time, and pulls back to avoid it. Then, in the interest of irony, he launches a knee of his own, which lands far more cleanly than Pereira's previous attempt. In fact, Pereira's shell defense, a "safe" technique by most standards, puts him at far greater risk than Levin's head movement. Since Pereira relies on his hands for defense, Levin can confidently step into the clinch and throw a telegraphed knee with no fear of being countered. In short, Pereira handcuffs himself every time he goes on the defensive, while Levin's own defensive maneuvers are purpose-built for setting up quick and damaging counters.
Another example to drive that point home:
Pereira relied on his high guard throughout the fight. This is where the paradox of the "you can't do that in kickboxing" argument is really laid bare. An active, reactive defense--blending slips, rolls, parries, and footwork--makes it very difficult for the opponent to predict your next move. The much-feared counter knee is, therefore, difficult to time and therefore unlikely to land.
A defense like Pereira's static high guard, on the other hand, is relatively easy to get around. Levin knows that every time Pereira feels pressured, he will cover up and wait for the attack to end before taking his own turn to attack. By eschewing many of the defensive options available in favor of the simple, "safe" approach, Pereira ironically makes himself predictable. His defense ultimately relied on the opponent not being good enough to exploit it, which Artem Levin definitely was.
In addition to his technical boxing, Levin threw a number of spinning backfists in his three tournament bouts. These days it seems like spinning strikes are more of an obligation than a tactic--it's a rare kickboxer or MMA fighter who won't throw at least one spinning strike in a bout--just for the hell of it--even if he or she has little notion of how to land it. Levin, however, used his spinning backfists very smartly as a means of recovering his position. Here's a fine example, below.
Levin backs Pereira up with his jab, and follows with a short flying knee. As he regains his footing, he finds that he is in a very risky position, with his right foot forward and his back half-turned to Pereira.
If you've read my article on taking a punch, you'll recall that poor foot positioning can make a fighter very susceptible to being knocked down or hurt. In this case, Levin would be at great risk were he to simply step his feet and switch back into orthodox; were Pereira to hit him mid-switch, he would be in a bad position to absorb the blows, and potentially too off-balance to evade and counter. The spinning backfist here acts to cover Levin's retreat--what fellow BE writer Dallas Winston might call a "get off me" strike. Instead of simply resetting his feet, Levin keeps Pereira on the defensive with a strike. The spinning strike is perfect for this use, as it automatically repositions Levin's feet to his original orthodox stance, from which he can step back out of range without exposing himself, and retake center ring, safe and sound.
Levin's spinning backfist didn't land cleanly in his first two bouts, but it made for an excellent escape route when he found himself facing away from the opponent. Offensively, however, there are few punches capable of generating the same kind of force as a spinning backfist, as Joe Schilling found out in the tournament final.
Schilling digs a right straight into Levin's body, catching the Russian off-guard. Levin tries to make space by stepping his lead foot back, moving into southpaw. Again, a stance-switch right in front of an opponent is very risky, so this wasn't Levin's most technical moment, but his recovery is sublime. Schilling follows his body shot by lunging after Levin with a left hook, and Levin pulls his head away and counters immediately from his southpaw stance. His right hook over the top misses the mark, but Levin is already setting up his killing blow.
During his hook, Levin steps to his left, beginning his spin. Because his first punch fell short, Levin makes sure to step not only across but forward as well, closing the gap between Schilling and himself and putting Schilling's head right in the power-arc of his spinning backfist. He connects with the base of his palm and wrist, his arm smashing into Schilling's jaw and neck in the manner of a head kick, and dropping the American to the canvas.
The most promising thing about Artem Levin's boxing game is the recency with which he's developed it. Just two years ago Levin was a much more traditional Muay Thai stylist. This head movement and tactical intelligence is new for him, and that means he will likely continue to improve and refine his game. At Glory 12 we witnessed the fall of Giorgio Petrosyan, who was at that time unquestionably the best kickboxer in the world. Now, with the conclusion of Glory's first pay-per-view tournament, it seems that Artem Levin may be the man to claim that title.
For more analysis and fighter/trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.