Initiative is . . . well, it's one of those things. There's nothing more important to success in martial arts and combat sports, yet the concept remains difficult to explain in concrete terms. The question of how initiative is gained, maintained, or lost is a complicated one, but understanding it means understanding the fight in its purest form.
In order to untangle this subject, we're going to look back at a couple of sequences from last Sunday's UFC Saskatoon, the main card of which was rife with excellent examples. And if you're keen for some more in-depth discussion of this topic, check out the Heavy Hands episode on initiative that came out earlier this week.
Simply put, initiative means control of the action. It's ringcraft in a more conceptual mode. In the most basic sense, the fighter who acts first usually has the initiative because his opponent is obligated to react to him or suffer the consequences. A smart fighter can turn that lead into a string of subsequent successes whether or not the opponent defends the first action successfully.
It's not always that simple, though.
Sometimes the fighter who acts first is unwittingly doing his opponent's bidding. Other times he may have already lost the overall initiative, and so his opponent may be able to comfortably react to anything he tries to lead with. In order to visualize the complex tug-of-war that is initiative I made this handy little chart.
As you can see, the upper half of the chart belongs to "Fighter A," and the lower to "Fighter B." Initiative is tracked by marking each fighter's actions on the gradations of the horizontal line. When the charted line travels upward, the initiative has moved in Fighter A's favor, and vice versa for Fighter B. The overall initiative--we'll call that "momentum"--belongs to the fighter on whose side the line resides, whether or not the line is moving upward or downward.
Sound complicated? Let's look at a specific exchange and then chart it. How about this one, from Neil Magny vs Erick Silva.
1. Magny uses a flicking triple jab to back Silva up. Silva covers up in defense.
2. Looking to come around this high guard, Magny throws a wide right that partially connects.
3. Smartly, he follows up with a long collar tie, just aiming to stabilize Silva's head and keep him shelled up.
4. And then a clean right uppercut that snaps Silva's head around.
5. Silva tries to back up farther, but Magny is on him with a double jab, and he quickly realizes that his back is to the fence.
6. Silva swings a desperate left hook that Magny easily avoids.
7. Magny tries to follow up with a hook of his own, but he lost the distance while evading Silva's counter, and he also misses.
8. Silva follows up with a winging overhand right. This misses too, but Magny feels compelled to backpedal . . .
9. . . . and both fighters return to the center of the cage.
Throughout this fight, Magny did an excellent job of controlling the initiative, limiting the already low-output Silva to long bouts of inactivity. That's not to say that Silva didn't make efforts, however, and there were notable momentum swings throughout the course of the bout. For the most part, though, Magny managed to keep the reins of the fight in his own hands.
Let's see how the sequence above looks on our chart.
Magny pushes the initiative in his favor with the first triple jab. Because Silva simply covers up and waits for Magny to go away, he makes it easy for Neil to build up a considerable lead. Each of his next three actions all tighten his grip on the initiative, and we could justifiably call this a momentum swing in the fight overall.
By the time Silva's back hits the fence, he has very little control of the course of the fight, but he is desperate, and he smartly chooses to scare Magny off with a few big shots. The first hook stops Magny's progression, but doesn't really move the line in Silva's favor. That's because the initiative is already strongly controlled by Magny, which allows him to react to Silva's attacks much more easily than Silva can react to his. Nonetheless, Magny is hesitant to jump right back in, and Silva reacts aggressively to his counter hook, finally tugging the initiative back toward his side of the court.
But since the momentum still belongs to Magny, Silva struggles to follow up at range. Both fighters move around for a few moments, and Silva hesitates too much, losing the small opening that his desperate counters had created for him. Magny quickly follows up with more offense of his own.
So you see how momentum, initiative writ large, can act like a runaway train. The more effectively one fighter controls the initiative, the more difficult it is for the opponent to get that initiative back, and the less effective his attempts to do so. Let's try another example, this one from Chad Laprise vs Francisco Trinaldo. This time, we'll see what Erick Silva wasn't able to show us: that a savvy fighter can regain and build upon initiative even when his opponent takes the lead.
1. Laprise lands a powerful inside low kick.
2. Trinaldo responds with a lunging left hand . . .
3. . . . followed by a shift right hook. Neither punch lands, but Laprise is forced back.
4. Trinaldo follows up immediately, not lunging in to attack but staying threateningly close to Laprise.
5. As Laprise moves and attempts to create space, Trinaldo worries him with rapid-fire flicker jabs. None land, but Laprise must constantly adjust to keep it that way.
6. Now Trinaldo fakes Laprise out with a body feint.
7. Trinaldo swats Laprise's lead hand down as he steps forward into range.
8. Laprise thinks about a check hook . . .
9. . . . but Trinaldo has predicted his lateral movement and shoots a left hand straight down the pipe before Laprise can get out of the way, knocking him to the ground.
Things were going relatively well for Laprise early on in this fight, but Trinaldo came in determined to put the pressure on his opponent, ultimately forcing Laprise to lose track of the distance and leave himself open for a brutal TKO.
Back to the chart!
In this case, Laprise starts out strong, leading with a successful low kick. Trinaldo has to react to this strike, but he fails to check in time. Trinaldo is crafty, however, and doesn't want this one lead to turn into a full-blown momentum swing. He lunges after Laprise, and though neither of his two counter punches land, they force Laprise back, and halt the momentum of the fight, preventing him from building on his initial success.
Now Trinaldo presses him, immediately regaining the momentum with some nice pressuring footwork and a long series of twitchy jabs. We're still on Laprise's side of the chart here, and Laprise reacts to these jabs fairly well, keeping Trinaldo at bay and moving laterally, forcing him to work if not necessarily managing to escape. Trinaldo is determined however, and he continues building momentum, feinting Laprise with a very "come-at-me-bro" body movement and getting him to second-guess himself.
That moment of hesitation is all Trinaldo needs, and he confidently steps forward, removing the threat of Laprise's jab as he goes. Note the distance between the two men at this point, just before the knockdown punch. Laprise could save himself by moving forward instead of retreating, smothering Trinaldo's attack, or he could utilize a little head movement to defend more quickly than he could with his feet--but Laprise is a footwork-first fighter, and he tries to pivot away from Trinaldo. And any pivot, no matter how quick, is a two-step movement. Trinaldo, with the initiative in his favor, sees this evasion coming, and cracks Laprise right after he steps off-line, but before he can swing his back leg around and complete the pivot.
Initiative is one of those things. Explaining it might be tough--and I'd be very surprised to see these charts popping up in any trainer's repertoires--but understanding the concept can be the difference between winning the exchange and losing the fight.
For more on initiative and UFC Saskatoon, don't forget to check out this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.