This Saturday, Daniel Cormier and Anthony "Rumble" Johnson will clash in the main event of UFC 187 for a shot at Jon Jones' light heavyweight title--if and whenever Jones comes back to reclaim it. For Johnson, this is suddenly a very different fight from the one he had planned against Jones. Unlike the two-meter tall and two mile long champion, Cormier is just about the shortest fighter in the division. Where Jones relies heavily on a rangy kicking game, Cormier is much more of a classical boxer-puncher.
There is one distinct similarity between Jones and Cormier, however, that any fan who watched their January tussle should already know: DC, like Jones, is a fearsome in-fighter, dangerous in the clinch with both his wrestling and his boxing. Standing toe-to-toe with his opponent, Cormier's tenacity is enhanced by his compact frame rather than encumbered by it, and he becomes a true destructive force.
Of course, Anthony Johnson is no slouch in the pocket himself, and wherever else the fight takes place, there's no doubt that the winner of the battle at close-quarters will win the fight as a whole. And if you know me, you know I love in-fighting, so let's cut to the chase and look at some of DC and Rumble's favorite phonebooth tactics.
CORMIER'S CRITICAL DISTANCE
Fighting is a game of distance, and the closer the two fighters get, the more crucial each inch becomes. In fact, a single inch can be the difference between a glancing blow and a knockout punch. Thus, fighters who specialize in in-fighting are accustomed to constantly battling for their preferred distance. And unconstrained by the same rules that shape boxing, Daniel Cormier has the advantage of grips to better manipulate the gap between himself and his foe.
1. Cormier moves toward Patrick Cummins, watching him closely.
2. As Cormier comes near, Cummins throws an inside low kick, but DC slides his leg out of the way.
3. Cummins tries to follow up with a lead uppercut, which Cormier avoids while moving his left foot back into range.
4. Cummins tries for the overhand right next. Cormier changes levels and steps right into Cummins' stance, moving inside the arc of the right in the process..
5. As Cummins' overhand misses the mark, Cormier takes advantage of the newly close range, throwing his weight to his right and using a deep left underhook to fling Cummins off balance . . .
6. . . . and directly into the path of a short right hook that hurts Cummins and sends him reeling into the fence.
Cormier's movements are almost dance-like in the way that he closes off and creates distance as needed. After marching aggressively toward Cummins, he is forced to create distance, first with his feet and then with his upper body, to avoid being struck. Then, he immediately follows those strikes back in, slipping into the clinch to avoid yet another strike. And then, in what must have been a truly confounding move for Cummins, Cormier follows all of that hard work he had to do to get inside by throwing Cummins right back out of the clinch in order to find the right range for a punch.
It's easiest to view fighting in terms of "phases"--long range, mid-range, the clinch, etcetera--but in reality the best fighters operate in a free-flowing continuum of distance and direction. Cormier is an excellent clinch fighter (and we'll look more closely at that in a minute) but more importantly he is an excellent transition fighter, and that can be ten times as dangerous.
Even when it comes to prolonged clinch fighting, there are still transitions and subtle changes of position and range.
1. Cormier leans against Roy Nelson in an over-under clinch at the fence.
2. To create a little distance, Cormier turns his forehead into Nelson's ear and drives into him. At the same time, he releases his right underhook and grabs Nelson's wrist (not visible here).
3. Pushing on Nelson with head and wrist control, Cormier gets a tight grip on Nelson's triceps with his left hand, and pinches down on Nelson's underhook with his elbow, trapping him.
4. Cormier suddenly releases the pressure from his head and wrist control and yanks Nelson toward him with the left elbow grip.
5. Nelson ends up hunched over a crushing knee to the midsection.
6. After which Cormier immediately regains head position, breaks Nelson's posture with a collar grip, and hunts for wrist control once again.
The ability to grip and hold the opponent makes MMA in-fighting a very different game from the kind usually seen in modern boxing. It introduces a certain element of control that does not exist when neither opponent can easily tie up an arm, or pull on the opponent to break hist posture and balance.
In fact, Cormier's in-fighting bears a keen resemblance to the kind of clinch fighting that prevailed in the early days of gloved boxing, when the gloves still allowed boxers full use of their opposable thumbs. Like "Gentleman" Jim Corbett above, Cormier's movements on the inside are methodical and unhurried. He creates space and pressure as needed to establish certain grips, and then takes that pressure away to force a collision between his strike and the opponent, like a particularly cruel game of tug-of-war.
For Anthony Johnson, in-fighting is all about angles. Johnson is less concerned with grips and pressure than Cormier, perhaps because he is usually the party attempting to stop the tie-ups rather than working to create them. Nonetheless, his game is also built on the central tenet of distance, though Rumble prefers to create his space a little differently.
1. Johnson feints with his left hand, trying to measure the space between himself and his opponent, Phil Davis, and setting up his next strike.
2. As expected, Davis changes levels to shoot, dropping right into an uppercut from Johnson.
3. Davis drives forward to get the takedown anyway, and Rumble posts his left hand on his forehead.
4. Johnson pivots to the right, releasing his pressure on Davis' head and clubbing him behind the head with a right hand.
5. Davis' energy is redirected, and he ends up throwing himself half way across the Octagon.
Where Cormier often creates space through changing pressure, Johnson chooses to use his opponent's pressure against him, only applying enough resistance to secure a new position before letting his adversary drive through empty space.
Johnson has earned a reputation as a crude striker because of his immense power and sometimes leaky defense, but the skillful footwork with which he kills opponents' takedown attempts isn't dumb luck. Frame four of our example above provides a hint at the direction in which Johnson's development may be headed. Not content to simply stop his opponents' takedowns--and it is a rare fighter who doesn't want to take Rumble down--he has shown a growing tendency to punish them for the attempt.
This makes Anthony Johnson a particularly dangerous breed of pressure fighter, one who seems to be always right in front of you--until suddenly he isn't. In Cormier, Johnson will be faced with the greatest wrestler he has ever faced, and he will no doubt need his skillful takedown defense. But even if Cormier can't put Rumble on his back, he will almost certainly be able to close the distance and enter the clinch. And it's there that we can expect to see some of the most fascinating combat of the year.
For more analysis like this, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. On this week's episode, Connor and Pat break down pressure fighting as a style, using Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, Chris Weidman, Gennady Golovkin, and Roman Gonzalez as case-studies.