In a fight, the difference between victory and defeat can hinge on a single miss. Say you overcommit to a punch and find yourself off-balance, too close to the opponent's fists. Or you latch onto an armbar, only for the opponent to throw your legs aside and slither into mount. Or you shoot for a takedown, but instead of connecting your hands around your adversary's hips, your chin connects with his knee. Counter opportunities are everywhere in fighting--there are even counters to counters! And more than anything else, it is the threat of a counter that makes a fight exciting. A counter is a consequence, and consequences render action meaningful.
Let's take a look at three different kinds of counters that we might expect to see at UFC 191 this Saturday, September 5th.
THE THREE TIMES
Rhythm is the relationship between an initial attack and the counter attack with which it's punished. All counters can be placed into three different categories.
1. Full-beat counters
These counters allow the initial attack to miss completely before punishing the opponent with a powerful response
2. Half-beat counters
These counters allow minimal time to pass between the defending of the initial attack and the response
3. Same-time counters
These counters meet an anticipated attack while it is still being executed
Simple enough, right? UFC 191 should give us ample opportunity to see all of these counters in action, but there are a few fighters in particular that
Andrei Arlovski is a man with limitations like any other. For example, a conspicuously human chin in a division of giants. His recent resurgence has nothing to do with the removal of these limitations, but the development of a style that accounts for them--you don't go three (and a bit) rounds with Anthony Johnson unless you've learned a few things about defense. Once happy to brawl with absolutely anyone, Arlovski is now keen to box his opponents from long range, feinting and poking away and forcing them to attack first, at which point he clubs them with his right hand, still one of the fastest and heaviest of its kind in the history of heavyweight MMA.
Arlovski's chosen method of countering was very successful in his recent victory over Travis Browne, a fight which Andrei, aside from a characteristic flash knockdown, more or less dominated from start to finish.
1. Travis Browne feints to the body . . .
2. . . . and attacks with a right hand upstairs, which Arlovski twists his body to block.
3. Now Arlovski's weight is loaded onto his right leg, and Browne's head is right in the pocket.
4. Browne tries to duck, but Arlovski's uppercut smashes him behind the ear as his head goes down.
The logic behind this kind of counter makes it ideal for Arlovski's purposes. First of all, a full-beat counter places defense at the forefront. The opponent's attack is completely negated before the counter even gets started. Second, it allows for a powerful, fully-coiled strike. Whether slipping, rolling, or blocking, most defensive movements should place the body in a stable offensive position, with the weight of the body poised over one leg and ready to be thrown into an attack.
Arlovski's counters are more often than not of the full-beat variety, and it suits him perfectly. With a premium placed on defending the initial strike, Arlovski can protect his chin from the powerful hitters of his division before attacking. When he does attack, his blows carry the full force of his considerable power. The drawback of the full-beat counter is that it takes a little longer to execute--a "full beat" passes between the opponent's attack and the fighter's response--but against reckless heavyweights, whose large bodies make it more difficult to recover balance, Arlovski's windows of opportunity are open longer than most.
Look for "Pitbull" to utilize this same block-and-counter right against Frank Mir on Saturday.
Francisco Rivera is one of the most committed counter punchers in all of MMA, and a wonderful example of "aggressive defense." Rarely does Rivera let a punch go by without attempting to punish the man who threw it. This has gotten him into trouble in the past, against opponents who were able to key in on his head movement and hit him with anticipatory shots, but recently against Urijah Faber Rivera showed a very calculated approach, letting go his counters only after he had convinced his opponent to chase him, and figured out just how he would do it.
1. Rivera throws a right head kick at Faber.
2. It falls short, and he spins around, slightly out of position but slightly too far away.
3. Used to relying on his speed, Faber closes the distance and throws a left hand . . .
4. . . . but Rivera steps back just enough to make him miss.
5. Immediately after evading the hook, Rivera responds with one of his own, finding Faber's jaw . . .
6. . . . and then nearly knocking it off with a follow-up overhand right.
Half-beat counters follow the same logic as full-beat counters, allowing the fighter to defend (or, in cases where the initial attack connects, to collect himself) before firing back. The difference is that the half-beat counter is simply . . . well, half as slow as the full-beat counter. What it gains in speed, however, a half-beat counter lacks in power. Most half-beat counters are more stinging rap than knockout blow.
But not all of us are lucky enough to have a 240-pound Travis Browne lunging after us. Against an opponent who recovers quickly from misses, or one who keeps his balance well whether he connects or not, a half-beat counter is just what you need to bridge the gap between "make him miss" and "make him pay." Rivera's counter jabs and left hooks are usually the first part of a combination, a quick attack to stabilize the target in his mind before he follows through with the finisher.
Rivera will no doubt use a variety of counters against John Lineker this weekend, but keep an eye out for the small defensive movements he makes followed by quick attacks, leaving Lineker more vulnerable to heavy follow-ups.
Paul Felder is one of the most promising talents in the UFC. His close loss to Edson Barboza gives an idea of how skilled a pure striker he may soon become, but his game is clearly built around the idea of countering wrestlers. Felder throws uppercuts, kicks, and knees perfectly targeted to catch crouching opponents. If they commit to their takedowns, then they run into the strike and get hurt. If they hesitate, Felder succeeds in standing his opponent up and forcing him to strike. That was the unenviable position of Danny Castillo when he fought Felder in January.
1. Felder measures the distance, pawing with his jab.
2. Castillo does a little testing of his own, feinting a right hand by throwing his right shoulder forward.
3. Seeing Felder react, Castillo quickly jumps in, feinting the right hand again to set up a takedown.
4. But Felder senses the set-up, and throws up his left leg just as Castillo lunges into his overhand, running himself into the point of Felder's knee.
5. Felder even follows up with a right hook that backs Castillo off, takedown completely abandoned.
As its name implies, the same-time counter is thrown simultaneously with the opponent's attack. As a result, it requires even more astute anticipation than either of the other counters, and makes no allowance for an initial defensive technique. Any defense in a same-time counter must be built into the counter itself--note how Felder pulls his head back as he throws his knee, removing it from the arc of Castillo's right hand. It's a risky maneuver: if Felder were to misjudge the distance, he would be hit in a compromised position, and might even wind up on the canvas. All same-time counters carry this risk. In an effort to create a collision with the opponent, the counter fighter puts himself in harm's way. He might lunge chin-first into the attack he aimed to avoid, or fall prey to the takedown he hoped to punish. But when same-time counters do connect, they are almost always significant, and frequently fight-ending.
Felder's confidence in his same-time counters is a testament to how well he reads his opponents. Ross Pearson most likely won't be looking to take Felder down, but he will almost certainly use level-changes to set up counter punches of his own. Look for Felder to throw the same quick knee to catch Pearson's chin on the way down.
For more on the stacked fight card of UFC 191, check out this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.