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TJ Dillashaw's 'Neo Footwork': Is it real, is it new, & does it work? (part 1 of 2)

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Bloody Elbow's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch asks: is the footwork of men like TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz better than standard footwork, and is it really a whole new style?

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

During last Saturday's Dillashaw-Barao II, UFC commentator Joe Rogan uttered a phrase that caught my ear: neo footwork. Specifically, he used this term to describe the style of footwork that TJ Dillashaw has developed under the tutelage of Duane Ludwig. "The analysts call it 'neo footwork,'" Rogan claimed. As an analyst who had never heard the term before I was curious, and decided to seek out the source of Joe's phrasing.

WHAT IS IT?

With a quick Google search I was able to trace the term back to The Underground's Kirik Jenness. To quote his explanation of the term--which he told me he picked up from training partners in his local MMA gym--Jenness describes neo footwork as " being able to strike effectively from anywhere, rather than trying to line everything up from the modified orthodox boxing stance that predominates in MMA."

Which . . . sounds pretty good, right? Origins aside, the term gives you an instant idea of the style to which it refers. If you look at the footwork of men like Dominick Cruz, TJ Dillashaw, and Demetrious Johnson it becomes easy to imagine them all as members of the same school. MMA being such a trend-driven sport, it's not difficult to find less-renowned examples either. Men like Buddy Roberts and Ernest Chavez come to mind. Instantly the term conjures up images of the stance-switching, shift-punching, and foot-feinting that have become commonplace in modern MMA.

However, the question remains: is this actually something new?

Many of the movements of "neo footwork" predate the modern era of MMA. For centuries fighters have been adapting their footwork to the realities of their fights, compensating for an over-extended cross by turning it into a shift, or covering a sloppy retreat with a jab that shoots out suddenly from the opposite stance. To me, this kind of thing has always been a hallmark of "natural" strikers, those who react and adjust on the fly, rather than striking in a strictly premeditated fashion. And if Jersey Joe Walcott was pulling off moves that Dominick Cruz only dreams of back in the 30s and 40s, can we really call it "neo" footwork?

ISOLATED EXAMPLES

As a striking sport that bears great resemblance to modern MMA, boxing has its fair share of switch-hitters--men who go against conventional wisdom by fighting out of both orthodox and southpaw stances. And often you will catch these fighters performing techniques very similar, if not identical, to those of the supposed "neo footwork" movement.

Marvin Hagler was well known for his ability to fight out of either stance, and he would often make the switch mid-attack, using a little maneuver called a shift. The shift is a very old technique. In boxing, it has often been called the "Ketchel Shift" and the "Fitzsimmons Shift," after Stanley Ketchel and Bob Fitzsimmons, both of whom dominated the sport before or during the turn of the 20th Century. And now, thanks to MMA, it has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Here you can see "Marvelous" Marvin hitting a nice shift against Fully Obel, stepping off-line in his southpaw stance before closing the gap between himself and his retreating opponent with shift-step, followed by a pair of hooks from his (now lead) left side.

Terence Crawford is a modern-day boxer who uses many of the same tricks, and appears to be as comfortable fighting southpaw as he is in his natural orthodox stance. In fact, Crawford often spends several rounds in a row fighting lefty, leaving his opponent utterly surprised and unprepared when he makes the seemingly random decision to switch in the middle of an exchange.

Here, Crawford follows a lead left cross, from southpaw, with a tight left hook from orthodox, stunning Yuriorkis Gamboa with the sudden change in distance and angle. Following up, he uses Hagler's shift in reverse, creating a gap by switching stances on the retreat, and then filling that space with a short right uppercut as Gamboa attempts to pursue him.

That last trick is reminiscent of Mike Tyson, whose well-deserved reputation as a feared puncher tends to overshadow his undeniable boxing skill. Tyson was a master of the lead hook, and adjusted his feet as needed to throw hooks from either hand. Here, you can see him using a quick hop in lieu of a conventional pivot to turn what almost appears to be a southpaw stance into orthodox, before unleashing a ferocious left hook that sends James Tillis to the canvas. I call this technique the "D'Amato Shift," after Cus D'Amato, who trained Mike Tyson when he was young, though it may have just as well been the brainchild of Kevin Rooney, Tyson's head trainer for many years, or even Iron Mike himself. If you want to learn more about the technique, check out the video I made about it, here.

Tyson was not only a fine practitioner of the Sweet Science, but a veritable boxing historian. Along with D'Amato, who had already brought Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight title in 1956 well before Tyson's run in the '80s, Mike studied classic fights and fighters like few champions before or since. So it's hard to believe that any aspect of Tyson's style, while unorthodox for its time, was not rooted in the history of the art. Tyson wasn't the first to use these techniques, but he and his trainers were among the first to systematize them.

Which raises the question: why not teach fighters, systematically, what to do when they find themselves in an unconventional position? The trainer's ideal is typically to have a fighter so well-prepared that he doesn't put himself out of position at all; an athlete so finely tuned that he is always balanced, always in a defensively responsible position, and always ready to throw punches with ill intent.

But the reality is always different. Every fighter misjudges distance. Every fighter overcommits and throws himself too heartily into some attacks. Every fighter leaves himself open at times. So why not make the spaces between positions as comfortable and as stable as possible? Why not make those spaces into positions of their own?

Essentially, that seems to be the approach of many MMA trainers and fighters today. While there are some mindless imitators among the current crop of switch-hitters--likely the same men and women who became obsessed with front kicks after watching Anderson Silva use one to separate Vitor Belfort from his senses--there are also plenty who make the intelligent, tactical decision to fight out of both stances, and even to fight without a set stance at all. Considering the many examples of similar techniques throughout the history of modern combat sports, this approach isn't quite as revolutionary as some might have you think, but it's not nothing, either.

Like Mike Tyson and his trainers, MMA fighters today are starting to take those in-between positions and codify them. It's an attempt to turn the wild unpredictability of combat into a teachable system, and I find it hard to fault that. Men like Matt Hume, Duane Ludwig, and Eric Del Fierro are at the cutting edge of MMA technique, proving the continued viability of time-tested techniques, and compiling and arranging them like few others ever have. I don't know if I like the term "neo footwork" all that much, but maybe it'll grow on me--as much as the fighting styles it seeks to identify already have.

In part two of this piece, we'll look at some specific examples of "neo footwork" in the fights of TJ Dillashaw, Dominick Cruz, and Demetrious Johnson with an eye for the risks and rewards of this approach.