Mocking Bellator is in vogue these days, and it's not altogether surprising: Bellator got the MMA world to fall in love with Eddie Alvarez, only to keep him from going to the UFC when his contract was up. Of course, holding Alvarez to the small print of his contract isn't illegal, and one doesn't doubt that the UFC would have done much the same if a big star of theirs was trying to jump ship, but Bellator's big wigs made the mistake of allowing the soured negotiations to stretch out in plain view of the public, and much of the community has turned on them since.
That's a shame, since Bellator consistently puts on shows that easily equal those of the Strikeforce era that so many fight fans yearn for in this new age of UFC market saturation. Last Saturday, Bellator made the risky choice to host a pay-per-view event, and though I haven't seen the numbers, I think any MMA fan would be remiss not to call it a success. Weird upsets, thrilling action, terrible pacing--Bellator 120 had everything we've come to expect from MMA pay-per-views, and it was just different enough from the same-old UFC show to stand out. Most importantly, the show was positively resplendent with exciting and teachable striking sequences.
Second-tier promotions have always given us the feeling that MMA is a wilderness, where promising new fighters can reveal themselves anywhere and at any time. As a fan from the Strikeforce era, I remember fondly sitting in my college apartment with a friend, watching Nick Diaz's rematch with KJ Noons, and knowing that, while this wasn't a UFC-caliber main event, it was something exciting and different.
Given the unique nature of this event, I can't resist breaking down some of the best moments. So, without further preamble, I bring you the first non-UFC Technique Recap I've ever done. May it not be the last.
MORE THAN A RIGHT HAND
Featuring: Goiti Yamauchi
I've long said that every southpaw's greatest advantage is the "southpaw myth," that only lead right hands and other right-handed strikes work against southpaws. This oversimplification of strategy is absurd, but coaches and commentators alike repeat it ad nauseam, and so orthodox fighters are consistently flummoxed by southpaw opponents.
Just as with the phrase "hands up," the idea of fighting a southpaw predominately with one's rear hand isn't wrong, it just lacks the necessary context. For one, the rear hand actually is very effective against an opponent in open stance: a small step lines up the power hand on a southpaw the same way it would line up the jab on an orthodox opponent, allowing the fighter's power hand to split his opponent's guard with ease.
The problem is that southpaws spend their entire careers fighting lots and lots of orthodox fighters. Lead left hands are, for them, a matter of instinct. For orthodox fighters, on the other hand, the lead right is an extremely risky move against any opponent but a southpaw. Consequently, they're just not as good as their southpaw opponents at attempting that strategy. In short, by following this oft-repeated advice, orthodox fighters end up fighting the southpaw's fight, rather than doing what they themselves do well, which tends to be leading with the jab and finishing up with the left hand.
Enter Bellator contender Goichi Yamauchi, who reminded us just how effective the left hand can be against a southpaw.
Here, Mike Richman attempts a lead left hand that glances off of Yamauchi's chin. In response, the Brazilian counters with a combination. The right uppercuts that he throws are a good choice for the distance, but the most effective punches of the sequence are two left hooks. Richman insinctively circles to his right to escape Yamauchi's right hand, and ends up walking face-first into the left hand. Like many southpaws, Richman struggles to avoid the left hook on a fundamental level. Whereas Richman is used to fighting at a very long range (the distance between a southpaw's left and an orthodox fighter's right is pretty immense), the left hook initiates very close to its target. Worse, Richman's own right arm, which he uses to feel the range and cover the jab of his opponents, obstructs his view, so he simply can't see the left hook coming.
Featuring: Will Brooks
On a night of upsets, this one easily had the biggest impact. Tito Ortiz got an unexpected win, but Bellator's middleweight champion has some excuse for losing to a giant light heavyweight. Rampage Jackson, too, beat a younger, fresher opponent (more on that later), but Mo Lawal hasn't looked outstanding lately, so it was no great surprise to see him lose.
Michael Chandler, however, is legitimately one of the best lightweights in the world. Even his last fight, a loss to Eddie Alvarez, could have easily been a win for the Alliance fighter. Against late replacement Will Brooks, Chandler was a massive favorite, and it was a huge wrench in the plans of both Chandler and Bellator as a whole when Brooks overcame the odds (7-to-1 odds, in fact) and beat Chandler. Perhaps most surprising of all was the fact that he outstruck the powerful former-champion for significant portions of the fight.
The most interesting aspect of Brooks' game is his ability to adapt his combinations on the fly. MMA is filled with "creative" strikers, but Brooks' creativity is a different sort. Rather than relying on flying knees and spinning kicks, Brooks throws simple, fundamentally sound techniques, and simply adapts them to his opponent's tendencies.
This, right here, is what makes Brooks special as a striker. First, he allows Chandler to back himself into the fence. This is immediately after a hellacious beating on the ground, so Chandler's strikes are wild and predictable. The way that Brooks leans back away from Chandler's right hand isnt particularly promising (flashbacks of Andy Ristie's recent loss to the outmatched Davit Kiria), but once he gets his offense going, it's really something to behold.
Brooks counters Chandler's punch with a right hand of his own, which falls short of the mark. Knowing, however, that Chandler cannot back up any farther, and that he tends to circle out to his right, Brooks simply shuffles his right foot forward and launches a kick. Chandler, always game, tries to follow his own missed right hand with a left hook, expecting Brooks to come falling into the pocket, but Brooks' kick allows him to manipulate the range beautifully. Much like a technically sound left hook, Brooks' kick takes his head out of danger. As his hip is thrust forward into the strike, his head pulls back, taking him well out of the range of Chandler's left. Meanwhile, Brooks' foot catches Chandler just as he is moving his own head with his punch, magnifying the force of the impact.
Going from short, to mid, to long range is something not many fighters can do well, and Brooks proved that he is truly a special fighter with sequences like the one above.
OLD SCHOOL vs NEW SCHOOL
Featuring: Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Muhammad Lawal
It's been a very long time since I've been able to honestly say "I'm impressed with Rampage," but those very words escaped my lips as I watched the UFC and Pride veteran battle it out with the star-crossed also-ran Muhammad "King Mo" Lawal. No, Jackson hasn't recaptured the "youthfulness" that granted him knockout wins over the likes of Chuck Liddell and Kevin Randleman in his Pride heyday, but he did unveil an approach to fighting that immediately stood out. What was so unique about this brand new style? Well, it was mostly the fact that it wasn't new at all.
One look at Jackson's stance in this fight conjured up images of boxers from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, the golden age of prizefighting when men like Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano ruled the world. For comparison, here's Quinton beside the Brown Bomber himself.
There are many benefits to a stance like this. Jackson's knees are nicely bent, putting his hips lower than Lawal's. Not only does that make it easier for him to sprawl on any takedown attempts, but it gives him enough leverage to effortlessly land shots with the weight of his entire body behind them. His left foot is closer to Mo than his head, meaning that he can test the distance without putting himself at much risk, and his head is situated over his right leg, away from his center-line and thus harder for Mo to find with his punches.
Half a century ago, boxers regularly trained with wrestlers to improve their balance, strength, and in-fighting skills. Though boxing and wrestling were obviously distinct skillsets, prizefighters didn't balk at the idea of learning from wrestling and incorporating wrestling techniques and drills into their training regimens. Since then, however, boxing has grown distant from wrestling, the grappling aspect of the craft all but removed from professional prizefighting.
Case in point: King Mo. When I first began writing for Bloody Elbow, I wrote a lengthy article ponderously entitled "Fixing What isn't Broken: The Curious Case of King Mo," which explored Lawal's changing boxing style. In short, Lawal is a case of stagnation via exploration. Despite finding a fundamentally sound wrestling style back in his Strikeforce days (one that allowed him to box out of something very like a wrestling stance), Mo continued to change his style, resulting in the current iteration: a fighter who can neither box nor wrestle at his full potential.
Let's look at Mo's current stance, and compare it to the one he used to employ.
On the left, you can see how Mo stood against Roger Gracie. Like the Rampage/Louis comparison above, his left leg is farther forward than his head, with his weight balanced between his feet. His head is off-center, automatically making it a harder target, and his right leg is directly under his right hip, meaning that he can cover a lot of distance with a lot of power, very quickly.
On the right, you can see how Mo stood in last weekend's fight. Right foot stuck out behind him, head directly over his left foot (and consequently very close to his power-punching adversary)--all of the factors that made Mo such a surprisingly good boxer are gone. Ironically, for all of the derisive comments regarding his "hands down" approach, Mo was an infinitely better boxer when he carried a low lead and relied on positioning and subtle head movement for defense. Now he is left constantly in range of his opponent's strikes, without any of the grace that once marked his style.
One major drawback of a front foot-heavy stance is that it makes range-finding more difficult. With his front foot already heavily weighted, Mo found it difficult to inch forward behind his jab, and felt the pressure of Rampage's jab constantly.
Throughout the fight, Mo struggled to find the range for his power strikes. Above, you can see how his stance limits him tactically. Rampage consistetly comes forward behind a probing jab, feinting and feeling his way into range. Most importantly, his head enters range behind his lead foot and hand, and in a strong defensive position. Mo, on the other hand, feels pressured to throw power much sooner than Rampage, because his head is so close to the other man's fists. Without the initiative granted by a steady jab and fundamental footwork, Mo can only guess at the range, resulting in the spectacular whiffs above, while Jackson, because of his more balanced stance, easily avoids the attacks, and only throws power of his own when Mo has taken himself out of position.
See, Lawal's boxing was once simple and sound. His new style, which seems predicated on flashy power strikes and counters, loos impressive against those not good enough to figure it out, but against a veteran of the sport Mo was made to look decidedly unimpressive on the feet. The reason: there is no longer anything systematic about his striking. Watch:
Once again, as Jackson moves forward, Lawal feels the pressure almost immediately. His head is too close to his opponent, giving him little time and space to see strikes coming and react accordingly. In a system of striking, Mo would have a set answer to each strike. Instead, he is forced to desperately improvise, which more often than not means taking his eyes off of his opponent and eating a punch, as above. Again, Mo's been criticized for fighting with his hands low, but his first defensive reaction in the GIF above is to raise his guard, and it does nothing to help him. Without strong positioning, he all but panics when he senses an attack coming--even ducking his head and covering up in response to a mere jab from Jackson, which puts his head in the perfect spot for the uppercut that comes next.
The ability to improvise is very helpful, but a style predicated on improvisation simply will not work at the upper levels of combat sports. When the opponent shows an attack, there must be a system in place to answer it. Split-second guesswork will only get one so far, and with his post-knee surgery decline in athleticism, Lawal would be well served to get away from a style that demands freakish reflexes or 10 oz gloves to work.