Last week, Patrick Wyman and I were discussing UFC lightweight contender Michael Johnson on my podcast Heavy Hands. In addition to Johnson's footwork and rhythm, both instrumental aspects of his game, we got to talking about the man behind the fighter, Dutch trainer Henri Hooft.
Like fighters, trainers have styles--unique ways of approaching their craft. As with fighters, each style has its strengths and weaknesses. Hooft is one of the best trainers in the game--look at the careers of men like Matt Mitrione, Michael Johnson, and Anthony Johnson prior to 2012, when Hooft joined the Blackzilians--but he is not without his limitations as a coach.
In fact, Hooft's greatest strength may also be his greatest weakness.
There are two ways of viewing a fight; there is strategy, and then there is tactic. With very few exceptions fighters, trainers, and even analysts like me tend toward one or the other when they look at combat. Strategists--like Greg Jackson and Firas Zahabi--think of fighting in terms of why: why throw this punch? why move this way? Tacticians, on the other hand--like Duane Ludwig and Henri Hooft--fixate on the how: how to counter this attack? how to stuff that takedown? The strategist sees the fight in wide angles, while the tactician sees only tight closeups.
Thus the two mentalities both complement and counteract one another. The strategist's greatest weakness is a tactician who, through his understanding of specific openings and attacks, wins enough exchanges to keep himself ahead on the cards--winning the war through a series of skirmishes, as it were--or stops the strategist cold. The tactician, on the other hand, is outdone by a strategist who uses his intense focus on the infinitesimal against him, goading him into exchanges that don't suit his strengths and attacking him where he is weakest.
THE ART OF FIGHTING UGLY
Michael Johnson has stalked opponents before, but he's rarely approached them with the kind of ruthless aggression that characterized his performance against Edson Barboza Sunday night. Constant activity, sometimes bordering on the reckless, found Johnson getting hit but wearing on his opponent nonetheless. From the very first seconds of the very first round, Johnson employed a tremendous pace, and rarely took a single step back. Pressure was the name of the game, and it did the trick.
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1. Johnson walks Barboza down.
2. And shoots a short right hook across his jaw.
3. The fighters' bodies collide, and Barboza is forced to jump back out of range.
4. He resets himself, and awaits another Johnson attack. Johnson obliges, throwing yet another right hook behind a series of quick feints.
5. Barboza ducks this one, and once again the fighters collide.
6. This time Barboza doesn't get to reset: Johnson shoves him back with his left hand . . .
7. . . . and throws another hook with his right, this one clipping Barboza on the jaw.
Aggression is the fatal flaw in the age-old analogy between boxing--and by extension other combat sports--and the game of chess. MMA, like boxing, is every bit as complicated as chess, but both carry the added element of aggression, and all the threats contained therein--the threat of pain, unconsciousness, and serious bodily harm. Aggression is the forced suggestion of consequences, and that turns a calculated, patient game of chess into one in which you will, without exception, make mistakes. Aggression turns chess into speed chess--with the addition of liberal amounts of face-punching, of course.
It's safe to assume that Henri Hooft knows all of that.
BE FIRST, BE LAST
Hooft is a superb tactician, but he has been bitten by strategists before. When Eddie Alvarez fought Donald Cerrone, Hooft was there in his corner, urging him to outstrike his longer, taller, and fresher foe. It wasn't as crazy as it sounds: Hooft knew how Alvarez could outstrike his opponent--he had the right tools for it--and given limitless time the kickboxing savant would have solved the puzzle. But Eddie Alvarez didn't have limitless time, and with every crushing leg kick Cerrone landed he found himself less and less capable of carrying out Hooft's instructions. It wasn't until the end of the second round that Hooft hit on a tactic that might have saved Alvarez had he gone to it sooner.
"You need to make it a fight," Hooft told him. "You hit him with one, two punches, and then you step away." That was the crux of Hooft's advice. Make it a fight. Make it ugly. A bit vague, perhaps, but wise given the circumstances. Unfortunately, for Alvarez, it was too late to make the change, and Cerrone carried his momentum through to the final bell, winning the bout.
It was a hard moment for Alvarez, who just one fight prior had successfully reclaimed his Bellator lightweight title, but it was no doubt difficult for his trainer as well. It's a poor trainer who doesn't learn from his mistakes, however, and Alvarez's loss seems to have been something of a transformative experience for the Blackzilians coach. Since then, aggression has been his watchword and his marquee fighters--Johnson, Rumble, and Mitrione--have all secured marquee wins as a result.
Let's not confuse things: Edson Barboza is a very skilled and dangerous striker. He is also a capable, if somewhat fragile, counter puncher, and it is no mean feat to walk him down and beat him up. He is most dangerous, however, with his kicks, which could very well be the hardest of their kind in the lightweight division. Strategically speaking, it behooves an opponent to take away Barboza's kicks, and that means pushing him backward and denying him the chance to move freely. It also means punishing him when he does throw kicks to deter further such attacks.
In other words, Edson Barboza was an opportunity for Hooft to retake the Cerrone test, and this time he passed.
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1. Johnson stalks forward.
2. He feints with a quick level change, with no response.
3. Now he feints again, moving into close range . . .
4. . . . and Barboza bites, winging a counter left hook that Johnson, having anticipated it, bobs under.
5. Barboza's miss has him off balance, with his back turned to Johnson, who stays close to him.
6. Johnson misses with a wide left . . .
7. . . . but his follow-up right hook finds the mark.
Hooft regularly gives his fighters excellent tactical suggestions, but they are sometimes ill-suited to the task at hand. He is rarely wrong, of course--it made sense for Alvarez to move laterally as a means of escaping the stalking Cerrone--but his tactical focus can be misguided. Alvarez would've been better served to take the calculated risk of pushing Cerrone back, driving him into the cage where he has historically been weakest.
So nowadays, Hooft uses a dedication to aggression to account for the flaws of his coaching mindset. For Hooft and Johnson, aggression was a quick and dirty gameplan; a strategy for the un-strategic. Hooft might still get caught up in the minutiae and specific exchanges, but if he and his fighter can stay consistently aggressive, the chances of the opponent adapting are lessened, as is the need for Hooft to step back and analyze the whys of the fight as a whole. Hooft, still a tactician, has adopted the concept of aggression as a simple, one-size-fits-all strategy, imperfect but effective.
The way he articulated this philosophy to Johnson was almost poetic. "Be first," he told his attentive fighter in the corner. "And be last." Take a look at the aftermath of the sequence above.
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1. Johnson's pressure forces Barboza all the way back to the fence, where Johnson once again initiates with a jab.
2. This is followed by a straight left that misses the mark. Barboza loads up on a counter.
3. But Johnson pulls his head back over his feet and avoids it, leaving himself in position . . .
4. . . . to throw another jab . . .
5. . . . and a hard cross to the jaw.
Johnson attacks first, and counters last, the product of an ingrained focus on constant aggression. By leading, he immediately forces Barboza onto the reactive. Make no mistake: Barboza is a competent counter fighter, a fact of which Johnson was reminded throughout the fight. But he rarely sets up his counters, relying instead on tremendous speed and reflexes. So Johnson was free to lead the dance himself, either with feints, as in the last sequence, or with punches, as in this one. When Barboza fought back, as he always does, Johnson fought back too, and made sure to always be the last one punching.
This sort of fighting sends a very clear message. With every exchange Johnson told Barboza: "If you attack me, I will hit you back. If you don't attack me, I will hit you anyway." Even when Johnson succeeded with his counters, he found himself stuck in front of a man determined to take his head off. And all the time, he was being drawn into the tactician's battle, always following Johnson's lead, and trading leather on his terms.
Johnson wasn't just fighting wild, even if he did sometimes get a little reckless in his attacks. He was following the gameplan. The ins and outs of a strategy can, for the tactician's mind, prove almost impossibly elusive. But the mantra "be aggressive" is so simple that even the most tightly-focused tactician can keep it in mind. And as un-nuanced as this "strategy" might seem, it was undeniably effective.
By the end of the fight, the contrast between the two corners was striking. "Relax," Hooft told his charge. "What I want from you is discipline, for five minutes. ("Yes sir," replied Johnson.) "Everything he [Barboza] does is desperation."
Hooft was so right you might've thought he had the Barboza corner mic'd. "You've got to go with everything you've got." Ricardo Almeida shouted at the Brazilian on the other side of the Octagon. "Your mom's here. Everyone's here! You'll beat this guy. Take everything you've got!" Desperation indeed. Needless to say, Hooft's call for discipline was more effective than Almeida's attempts to rile his fighter up. Almeida was asking for something more, while Hooft was merely reminding Johnson to do what he had planned to do from the start.
Because so few manage to focus on both, strategy and tactics may seem like opposites, when in reality they are only the two sides of a coin, inextricably fused to one another. A strategist needs the right tactics for his gameplan to work, and a tactician needs the framework of a strategy to bind his disparate tactics into a cohesive whole. Hooft's workaround isn't necessarily subtle, but it gives his fighters the opportunity to force their tactical advantage on the opponent. At the end of the day, Johnson's aggression allowed him to fight to his strengths, while nullifying those of Barboza--and if that isn't strategy then I don't know what is.
For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to analyzing the finer points of face-punching. Tomorrow's new episode explores the new age of clinch fighting in MMA, exemplified by Ronda Rousey and Cat Zingano, who meet this Saturday in the main event of UFC 184.