Yesterday, we examined some of the mechanics of fighting long, which is actually the usual meaning when people bandy about the phrase "fighting tall." There is, however, such a thing as "fighting tall," and it's something that Alexander Gustafsson just might need this Saturday, when he faces power-punching pressure fighter Anthony "Rumble" Johnson.
To begin with, let's pose a question that, at first, might sound ridiculous: why does it suit a tall fighter to fight long? The obvious answer is that it allows him to fight at a range at which his limbs are immediately effective, while those of his opponent are not. More often than not a taller fighter also has greater reach, and that means he is safest at long range. Simple enough. We must also consider the inverse of that problem, however, which is that a shorter opponent can be an absolute nightmare for a tall fighter on the inside.
It is partially true that, by closing the distance, the shorter fighter can get inside the length of his opponent's arms, but even the lankiest of fighters can negate that advantage to some degree with short strikes (more on that later). In fact, the most overlooked disadvantage the tall fighter has at range isn't his reach, but his line of sight.
Take a look at the diagram below.
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See, the tall fighter has no problems seeing his opponent at this range. At a distance he can easily view every inch of the opponent's body, which allows him to read and even predict attacks and defensive movements before they happen. His opponent has the same freedom, but his vision is considerably less useful, since he finds himself too far away to capitalize on any openings he might perceive.
As soon as the short fighter gets close, however, the tall man starts to have problems.
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Suddenly the same field of vision becomes much shorter, and the tall fighter finds his line of sight obstructed. The closer the short man comes, the less of his lower body the tall man can see. Meanwhile, the short fighter sees the same targets and weapons as before, only now with the added advantage of being able to hide his intentions from his adversary. While the tall fighter is stuck staring at the top of his head, the short man can go to work with strikes to whatever target he chooses. This exact scenario is exactly why so many tall fighters fall victim to the seemingly obvious overhands of smaller men.
Here, Steve Cunningham drops the towering Tyson Fury with a looping overhand right. Early on in the bout, Cunningham discovered that when he got close enough to Fury, the big man would start punching down at him, lowering his eyes in an attempt to keep sight of his target. Running with this observation, Cunningham came in low and took a deep step to his left. As Fury's eyes followed his head, Cunningham swept his right around, culminating in the knockdown you see here. Though the strike may seem telegraphed from the camera's perspective, Fury himself is completely blind to it, all because he feels forced to look down at the smaller man.
In a word, Cunningham uses his height against him.
Gustafsson, being so much taller than many of his opponents, has dealt with this in the past. Shogun Rua, outgunned for the entire first round of their bout, came back to deliver serious damage in the second round, playing the part of the small man very well.
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1. Shogun approaches Gustafsson in his normal stance.
2. Lowering his head and bending his knees, the Brazilian steps forward under Gustafsson's jab . . .
3. . . . and delivers a stunning left hook to the jaw.
4. Followed by a long overhand--Rua's best punch of the entire fight.
Shogun not only lowered his own body, but used forward pressure to force Gustafsson to stand completely upright. This made the Mauler more vulnerable to punches that landed, and less able to see them coming. While the right hand above doesn't loop around outside of Gustafsson's field of vision, the closeness of the two fighters still makes it very difficult for the Swede to read Rua's body language. He is left guessing what strike might come next, rather than being able to read his opponent's movements and react accordingly.
It doesn't take a great striker to manipulate the distance this way, either. For years wrestlers have been ducking their heads and bombing taller, better strikers with knockout punches. Even Matt Hammil, no great striker, was able to lay his hands on the Swede's chin by playing with level changes and drawing the Mauler's eye away from the threat (GIF).
For the tall fighter like Gustafsson, the solution is to match the opponent's level. If the taller man bends his knees and sits on eye level with his opponent, there is no longer an innate disadvantage--both men are back to seeing the entirety of one another's bodies. When done at range, this also helps the tall man to fight long, as a lower starting position allows him to fire his straight punches UP at the opponent, keeping him upright as well as freezing him at long range.
The one flaw in this tactic is that, no matter how low the taller fighter gets, the shorter fighter can always get even lower. Two clever, observant fighters of disparate heights can easily end up in a battle of "who can squat the deepest and still be able to punch," and this is a battle the tall man is destined to lose. THIS is when it becomes important for him to understand the concepts of fighting tall.
Getting low is great, but there are ways to counteract it. While a well executed dip, bob, or roll shouldn't put a fighter at undue risk, there is no way to completely negate the threat of UPWARD attacks from such a position. Depending on the range, a tall fighter has an entire arsenal of attacks perfectly suited to his statuesque frame. Up-jabs, uppercuts, knees, and front kicks allow him to either deter a short opponent's level changes, or hurt him in the midst of one. In yesterday's part one, we saw Gustafsson using the in this way to drop Thiago Silva. He also used his height to punish Shogun Rua--though, as we saw above, he also fell victim to the Brazilian's overhands.
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1. His back to the cage, Gustafsson steps his right foot forward . . .
2. . . . and then places his left behind Shogun's right leg as the Brazilian attempts to step back, twisting him off balance.
3. Shogun attempts to regain his balance, his posture broken. Gus loads up on a right uppercut . . .
4. . . . and sends it home.
5. His opponent's head still ducked, Gustafsson reaches out with both hands . . .
6. . . . and pulls him into a powerful straight knee.
When a short fighter changes levels poorly--by bending his back and looking down at the floor instead of using his hips and legs to get low--he is completely at the mercy of a taller opponent. This is when Gustafsson can afford to simply stay tall, maintain his posture, and fire uppercuts and knees into his opponent's face. With a great height disparity, there is almost no adjustment required in the throwing of these strikes. The knee is able to land well within its power arc, and the hands are naturally placed to throw uppercuts with great speed and accuracy.
Now yesterday I mentioned that Gustafsson actually does his best work against opponents near his own height. Though he is very fond of the right uppercut, Gustafsson doesn't actually throw it particularly well, and he has found himself in trouble with adversaries who can move their heads, throw hooks over the top, or simply walk through the punch to land one of their own. Against tall men, however, Gustafsson is actually able to play the part of the short man himself, using his hips to come in under their long, straight punches. This is how he found much of his success against Jones, who stands at almost exactly the same height with nearly identical reach.
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1.At range, Gus plays with the level change, with no reaction from Jones.
2. Stepping in low, he feints his jab to the body.
3. And follows up with an overhand right that Jones is forced to turn tail to avoid.
4. The fighters reset . . .
5. . . . and once again Gustafsson changes levels and feints to the body with his jab.
6. This time Jones tries to block the right hand upstairs and counter with the knee, but he has a hard time finding Gustafsson's head, and the Swede throws his right to the body instead.
7. Hop-stepping forward, Gustafsson finishes off by sneaking a left hook just around Jones' guard.
Gustafsson makes the most of his length against fighters his own height. He is neither forced to work hard to win the battle of levels, nor compelled to leave himself open with an endless stream of uppercuts. Against tall men, Gustafsson's height is no longer a liability, and his reach is still a great asset.
Anthony Johnson stands 6'3". He is not quite as tall as Gustafsson, but he's close. He is, however, fond of level changes, and will come in low to throw punches over the top and around the sides. Gustafsson is the deserved favorite, but this weekend's main event will be a very interesting test of his ability to adjust and adapt on the fly against a dangerous opponent who knows how to find the chinks in any armor.
For more fight analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. On this week's episode, Connor and Sherdog's Patrick Wyman break down Gustafsson-Johnson in-depth, and look back at Conor McGregor's victory over Dennis Siver, and his upcoming bout with featherweight champion Jose Aldo.