Vitor Belfort has a tough task ahead of him in the main event of UFC 187. With every fight, Chris Weidman's middleweight belt seems more and more at home around his waist. Whatever questions may have surrounded Weidman after his shocking title win over Anderson Silva have more or less evaporated since his second victory over the middleweight legend, and a successful title defense after that over the surging Lyoto Machida.
Now Weidman is set to defend his belt against yet another former UFC champion, and it's getting harder than ever to picture him losing the title. Still, every man has his weaknesses, and Vitor Belfort is not without hope. Provided he approaches the champion in the right way, he could become a UFC champion for the third time, becoming the first man to win UFC gold in three different weight divisions.
As usual, I've condensed Belfort's ideal strategy into three main points. In order of increasing importance, they are:
3. Counter kicks
2. Attack, angle, attack
1. Pursue when possible
Seems simple enough, right? Well, no. It doesn't. But where there's a will there's a way. Let's get into the nitty gritty, shall we?
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3. COUNTER KICKS
Increasingly, Weidman's wrestle-boxing style is transforming into a wrestle-kickboxing one, the use of his lower limbs becoming more prevalent and more polished with every fight. Not only are Weidman's kicks powerful and effective in their own right, they are an essential piece of his pressure fighting toolkit. Taking them away would grant Belfort much more freedom of movement and action than the suffocating champion would ever allow him otherwise.
In this example from Weidman's last title defense, take note of the position of he and Lyoto Machida's feet in relation to the Octagon.
1. Weidman holds the center of the Octagon, but Lyoto Machida has plenty of room to move.
2. Weidman feints a shot.
3. And Machida jumps back as a result, circling to his left. Weidman must move quickly to catch up.
4. Machida uses his circular movement to regain some of his lost space--note where he stands in relation to the double black line on the canvas.
5. Weidman unleashes a right body kick. Machida manages to block it, but he can't move through the kick itself, and is forced to back straight up.
6. Machida begins circling again, but this time his back is much closer to the fence.
7. And Weidman has a much easier job of staying in front of his quarry as he moves.
Circular strikes, especially to the body, have long been a staple of the pressure fighter's game. By attacking not only the target but the entire area to the side and front of his own body, Weidman limits the opponent's range of movement, ultimately driving him straight back into the fence where his powerful combination punching, clinch work, and takedowns give him every advantage.
And while it is not impossible to avoid the kicks--as Machida does in the sequence above--it is virtually impossible to do so easily. The more Weidman can force his opponent to move, the easier his job becomes, as his close proximity to the center of the cage allows him to take one small step to match every leap and dash of the opponent. The closer his adversary gets to the fence, the longer and more arduous their journey around the cage becomes.
So, how does one take these kicks away, and relieve the pressure of the middleweight champ?
2. ATTACK, ANGLE, ATTACK
Countering Weidman is no easy task. He is not a particularly fast fighter, but he is durable, powerful, and well-schooled by twin trainers Ray Longo and Matt Serra. Though certainly not impossible to hit, Weidman makes the prospect of standing in front of him a dangerous one.
1. Weidman backs Machida toward the fence, while the Brazilian waits for an opportunity to counter.
2. Suddenly Weidman advances with a lead right . . .
3. . . . that catches Machida clean on the jaw.
4. A thudding left hook follows, simultaneously stunning Machida and hampering his movement to that side.
5. Weidman follows with two more punches, neither landing, but both eliciting frantic responses from Machida.
6. Lyoto does manage to land a left hook on the retreat . . .
7. . . . but Weidman remains unfazed, and Machida finds himself circling desperately away . . .
8. . . . only to stop directly in front of Weidman again to wait for another opening.
9. He finds it in the form of a right elbow strike . . .
10. . . . but eats an even harder right hand from Weidman in the process.
Such a shoot-out with Weidman might seem equal, but in fact the champion has every advantage in such an exchange, especially when his opponent's back is to the fence. Not only does he absorb clean punches with ease, the unheralded power in his fists almost always comes in twos and threes, with awkward feints and short steps thrown in to ensure that the opponent is always reacting to him, and not the other way around.
The key to countering Weidman, and indeed attacking him in general, is to follow every successful attack with angular movement. A single shot might not hurt him, but it will at least get him to blink, buying Belfort a precious split-second of time. And when that angle has been taken, it couldn't hurt to press the advantage and attack once again.
1. Machida feints.
2. Weidman responds with a feint of his own, attempting to hide the step that brings him into position for a straight right.
3. Machida slips the punch, however . . .
4. . . . and pivots to his left.
5. As Weidman turns to keep up, Machida slashes a hard kick across his belly.
The beauty of Weidman's approach to MMA is that it works to disguise his weaknesses. As middleweights go, he is relatively slow, his footwork deliberate and plodding. By dictating the range and position of the fight, he can make up for this disadvantage--but he can never completely negate it. Angles on Weidman may be hard won, but Belfort will have every opportunity to capitalize when he finds them. As in the sequence above, Weidman will have no choice but to turn and face his challenger, and it is then that he is vulnerable. He cannot attack while turning about, and his footspeed leaves him even more susceptible than most in these moments.
Given such an opening, Vitor would be a fool not to press his advantage. Speaking of which . . .
1. PURSUE WHEN POSSIBLE
It's been a prevalent myth in the later career of Vitor Belfort that the Brazilian still relies on the furious forward blitzes for which he was once known (GIF). In fact, Belfort's style has developed in the complete opposite direction. He is now more likely to counter his opponent off the back foot than he is to run after him mindlessly alternating punches.
The thing is, that might actually work for him against Weidman.
1. Machida plays Weidman's own game against him, pulling down his right hand . . .
2. . . . and lunging in with a lead right that catches the champ clean on the jaw.
3. Weidman's only response is a rote counter hook, which misses wildly.
4. Nearly turning his back in a reckless retreat, Weidman seems almost shocked to find Lyoto Machida still in close pursuit.
5. Again Machida sends a right hand thudding across Weidman's jaw.
6. The champion has no recourse other than to keep retreating until his back hits the fence.
7. And then his only response is to cover up while Machida turns the tables, clinching with him . . .
8. . . . and going to town with knees, elbows, and short punches for the remainder of the round.
For a man who needs his opponent to back up, Weidman can lean far too heavily on the expectation that he won't have to do much backing up himself. His defense typically consists of pulling his head straight back and taking a backward step. If the opponent keeps coming, he . . . takes another backward step. And so on and so forth. There is no complexity or nuance to Weidman's retreats, nor does he counter well (or at all, hardly) off the back foot.
And for all the talk of Lyoto Machida's new affinity for aggression, Vitor Belfort is still the far better forward-moving fighter. If Belfort can parlay his singular successes--and he will find a few--into bursts of violent aggression, he stands a very real chance of knocking the iron-chinned Weidman out. For Belfort, this response will have to be on a hair trigger: look for counters, hit quick combinations, take angles, and follow up on them. The moment one of these methods forces Weidman into even a single backward step, Belfort must be on him. The openings will be there, and Belfort must be close enough to capitalize.
If you want to take the pep out of a pressure fighter, try giving him a taste of his own medicine. Weidman should win this fight, but he just might find his latest challenger a bitter pill to swallow.
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.