I wanted to start a post talking about one of the most common problems I see in MMA. Control of distance is, as we all know, one of the most important aspects of fighting. A big problem people have in MMA is lack of confidence in their defense. It's very rare to have a fighter comfortable defending punches, kicks and take downs. In boxing, if my opponent just throws a power punch (no set up, just stands there and throws it) and I can't defend it, I suck at boxing. In wrestling, if my opponent just shoots (no hand fighting, no set ups) and I don't stuff the shit out of him, I suck at wrestling. Most MMA fighters aren't comfortable recognizing every possible threat and responding appropriately, especially because all top fighters are looking to exploit that general gap in defensive awareness. What you get as a result is people who control range by running. Instead of looking to hold their ground and counter, they hop out of range at the first sign of trouble. I noticed this when I saw Michael McDonald vs Miguel Torres on tv a day or two ago.
Watch how many times Torres is forced to give ground in the first 30 seconds of the damn fight. Every time McDonald feints/changes levels, Torres backs up--sometimes a couple steps out of kicking range. This can be extremely frustrating to deal with. If you just swing, you'll miss. If you try to follow them too hard, they'll run you into punches or a double leg. If you do let them go, you have to wait on them to get anything done. This is a huge problem for people who like to strike in MMA. There are three basic solutions: chase them, learn how to counter or learn to cut off the cage. This article will focus primarily on the latter.
Against an opponent who retreats every time you do anything, it's extremely dangerous to get in the habit of chasing them--often done by taking large steps with each punch. Chasing can be done very effectively, but it requires an understanding of how to get the opponent out of position and off balance so that they physically can't counter you despite your commitment. Against lower level guys, just the threat of you attacking CAN be enough to get them out of position. This won't be enough at the top of the sport, as even the guys who can be forced back that easily will either maintain their position and still be able to fight back, or will circle out and make it difficult to catch them until you have gotten them off balance and purely on the defensive. Chasing is the method that is probably the most widely adopted because it's the easiest to pull off. It won't get you in trouble until you're against a composed and skilled striker. At the right times, it can be very effective and allow one to set up kicks or clinch entries without getting off balance. However, it leaves the biggest openings and won't take you to the top. If you want to get there, you need to develop more advanced skills.
Cutting off the Cage
A lot of people say that cutting of a cage is much harder than cutting off a ring. Those people are right; corners are more open and there is much more overall space in a cage, or at least in the octagon. However, you do have more tools to achieve the goal than you would in boxing and more incentive than in kickboxing. The list of great fighters (not just strikers) who excel at cutting off the cage, despite the difficulty, includes Anthony Pettis, Cain Velasquez, Jon Jones, Johnny Hendricks, Matt Brown, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Robbie Lawler, Daniel Cormier, etc. Even someone like Roy Nelson, who's best punch everyone knows to watch for, is consistently able to pressure all but the elite of the division against the cage and trick them into walking into or standing still for his overhand.
There are some very important skills that go into being able to cut off the cage. First and most importantly, you can't be one of the fighters who are forced to hop back every time your opponent flinches. You need to be comfortable with defense moving forward. This involves taking your head offline and moving it well, being able to parry jabs and counter kicks. A huge part of this, and the second most important thing overall, is the footwork. Cutting off the cage must be done with small steps. Large, over-committed steps will either give your opponent the opportunity to counter you or trick you into stepping the wrong way so they have space to escape. Steps must be kept small but purposeful. The gut reaction most people feel to this is that it won't be fast enough. Luckily, it doesn't have to be. Instead of speed, it is important to know where to move your feet. You can't move in straight lines (assuming your opponent is smart enough not to, otherwise he'll do your work for you). If you step straight forward, they can pivot around you. If you step only sideways, they can circle forever and eventually change directions to escape. Thus you must step diagonally forward.
The above diagram demonstrates the need for diagonal movement. In the first two scenarios, fighter A steps linearly and is outmaneuvered by fighter B. First, fighter A steps straight forward. As he does so, fighter B is able to pivot to his left. This gets him out from in front of fighter A, giving him room to either escape or a clean angle to attack from. If fighter A takes a large step in this example, his center will be very exposed and fighter B can attack freely.
In the second scenario, fighter A follows as fighter B sidesteps. This allows fighter A to keep the opponent in front of him, but no progress is made. Fighter B has not been forced to move backwards, and can continue circling forever. Plus, fighter B is then shown changing directions and circling towards his right, causing fighter A to lose track of him and give him space to get out.
In the final scenario, fighter A steps in diagonally to cut off fighter B. By doing this, he is able to both close distance and account for lateral movement of the opponent. Fighter B stays in front of him, and must step backwards if he wishes to maintain distance. The key is to step where the opponent is going (cutting him off) vs stepping where he is (following him).
This footwork will not be worth much if the opponent doesn't feel the need to step back. We established earlier that many will, but there still needs to be a threat to encourage them. No tool is better suited for this than a good jab. Look no further than Cain Velasquez, who with little more than a dipping jab is able to back his opponents up to the cage where he can then punch his way into the clinch or shoot. His fights with JDS demonstrate this extremely well, and the threat of his wrestling adds to his ability to take the initiative.
Notice that his jab keeps JDS backing up and out of position, allowing Cain to simply walk him down, trap him and go to work on the inside. Similarly, Roy Nelson is able to throw and feint his jab as he walks his opponents down until he can finally trap them and land his overhand. Also see Mousasi, who's pressuring jab is the best in the sport.
In addition to the correct footwork and establishing the proper threats, you will need to be able to physically stop their movement. Once the opponent is backed against the cage especially, you will need to block their movement as well as cut them off with footwork. This can either be done by positioning your body or using strikes, with both tying together very effectively. Positioning your body simple means stepping very slightly to one side of them. You put your body in the path of their movement, discouraging them from moving that way. Of course, this creates space on the other side of your body. The angle you take to their side must be minimal for this reason: too much space and they will escape, but just enough and they will circle into your attacks. Using strikes is a little more obvious. Circular strikes tend to either halt movement and hold the opponent in place, or encourage them to circle the other way. Typically, an orthodox fighter will throw a left hook to line up their straight right. We saw this happen last weekend:
Philippou uses his left hook to square Larkin's shoulders as his footwork and body position force Larkin to keep circling into his right hand. When he gets Larkin making a footwork mistake (squaring his feet trying to move left) the right hand lands clean and puts him down. Some fighters aren't looking to make their opponents circle into strikes. Some are just looking to ensure that they can use more close ranged techniques without the opponent being able to pull out of range. Matt Brown is the perfect example of this. He walks people down, then once they are backed against the cage he attacks with knees and elbows that the opponent can only deal with if they're better in the clinch than him (they usually aren't).
Cutting off the cage doesn't have to be this aggressive though. It's critical to understand the mentality of a fighter trapped against the cage. When they realize they have no room to back up, they know they need to get off the cage. They will either do this by circling out (which you will be looking to prevent) or very commonly by trying to blitz their way out. An excellent strategy, most often used by kickers, is to get the opponent cornered then wait. The opponent almost always feels that the pressure is on them to change the situation. They will thus move laterally or attack. In any case, you will have the opportunity to run them into a strike. In the majority of cases, the opponent will be a little bit desperate and end up leaving larger openings than normal, especially if they are used to backing up to defend. This is my favorite example:
Stephens backs Jason against the cage, and is already aware of his tendency to duck down and throw the big right hand. Knowing that Jason will try to get some space so he can escape the cage, Stephens patiently waits a step out of punching range. As soon as Jason takes a step forward and offline, Stephens blasts him with a head kick. It's a beautiful finish, all able to happen because he was able to cut off the cage. It's very difficult to see at full speed, but look closely for Jason's step that triggers the head kick. It looks like Stephens is countering the punch before he even throws it, because he is. But make no mistake, that was a planned counter and not a lucky coincidence.
This brings us full circle. If you can't get your opponent, you can make them come to you. As McDonald's fight with Torres progressed, he looked more and more to counter Torres' in and out movement instead of trying to hunt him down. He is able to stun Torres with a fantastic outside slip, uppercut counter to Torres' jab before putting him on his ass.
Distance control is the fundamental principle of good defense. Thus, it is also essential for good offense. In modern MMA, many fighters opt to use the most primitive from of distance control--essentially running away to defend, then running back in to attack. Giving ground too easily is not a viable option against a skilled pressure fighter who knows how to cut off the cage, and coming straight in is not a viable option against a skilled counter striker. In the future, it is my hope that athletes will become more comfortable with their defense which will allow them to control distance via establishing the proper threats and creating openings. Fights like Lawler vs Hendricks, where both men were able to stay in range to actually fight for the entire fight. Until then, fighters must be prepared to cut off the cage or counter their opponents.