Why analyze fights? A detailed breakdown can help to predict the outcome of a contest--doubtless that is why bettors read articles like these, and just about every MMA-related media outlet publishes picks and predictions before every major event. A piece of fight analysis can also lend insight into the mindset of a particular fighter, asking why one man is aggressive where another is reactive, why one is reckless and the other cautious.
But personally, the most persistent reason for my own fight analysis is that it simply makes fights more enjoyable. I began breaking down fights because I discovered how much a detailed understanding of the techniques and strategies enhanced my experience. I could read about a fighter's tactics, and then watch them play out live, feeling that I truly understood what was going on, if even in a small way.
So in that spirit, let's take a look at three must-watch fighters competing this weekend at UFC 203, one of them on the prelims, one on the main card, and one in the main event. These are three tactics to look for at UFC 203.
Sean Spencer's Blinding Jab
Sean Spencer throws about 14 strikes per minute, and easily half of those are jabs. Fighting out of a semi-crouch, Spencer's left hand is constantly flicking up under the nose of his opponent, tickling like a gnat or biting like a fly. Spencer regularly doubles and triples his jab, landing it when he can, but determined to always keep it on his opponent's mind, and in his face.
As any seasoned boxer will tell you, the jab is more than an offensive weapon. It can do damage, and it remains one of the most reliable counters in the fistfighter's arsenal, but above all, the jab is a means to an end. For Sean Spencer, the right hand is that end.
1. Spencer stands in a solid position, just outside of Paulo Thiago's range.
2. He closes that distance with a jab, stepping forward with his left foot as he throws it.
3. At full extension, the jab doesn't quite connect, but it hangs before Thiago's face.
4. Spencer steps his right foot forward, regaining his position at a closer distance.
5. This time when he drives forward with a right hand, he is close enough to land, hard.
6. Down goes Thiago.
The jab allows Spencer to land his power shots cleanly, and without the opponent's knowledge. They say the punch that hurts you is the one you don't see coming, which is why, despite a record that suggests a distinct lack of punching power (83 percent of his wins are either decisions or submissions), Spencer has knocked down or badly hurt every one of his last four opponents. The right hand is not particularly heavy, but the left hand ensures that it lands right on the button. And because Spencer takes small steps, moving his rear foot into position after sliding in with his jab, he is able to extend beautifully through his target.
When Spencer takes on Yancy Medeiros in the featured Fight Pass preliminary, keep an eye on his left hand, and watch how he forces the opponent to do the same.
Alistair Overeem's Shift Hook
The heavyweight division is an unforgiving place. The punches are heavy, and all but the hardest chins crack eventually, usually sooner rather than later. When the man trying to hit you weighs as much as two Demetrious Johnsons, the consequences are dire.
So you have to respect the accomplishments of Alistair Overeem. At 36 years old, Overeem receives his long-awaited UFC title shot after a tempestuous career. He has seen sparks more than most of his compatriots, receiving nine knockouts over the course of his 17-year career; he has also achieved incredible success, claiming the Strikeforce, Dream, and K-1 championships. Of the current UFC roster, only Josh Barnett and Andrei Arlovski have competed longer, and The Reem is younger than both with over a dozen more fights on his record.
And for all of that time, Alistair Overeem has been more or less the same fighter--until very recently. Overeem is what fight fans call a "bully.". Like your mother told you when you were young, bullies only pick on you if you don't stand up for yourself. Fighters like Overeem are particularly dangerous when they control the pace and location of a fight--and just as weak when the tide begins to turn. Two of Overeem's first three UFC fights ended disappointingly, with the Demolition Man having his way only to fold mentally and physically when his opponent mustered the strength to fight back.
But in many of Overeem's most dramatic defeats, he was his own worst enemy. He would pile on from the opening bell, seeking to crush his opponent outright. By the time Alistair had discovered that his opponent wasn't going away, he had already expended too much energy to continue fighting aggressively, and his confidence started to crack, rendering him incapable of reverting what stamina did remain to defense. Overeem was like the anti-Diaz, winning easily until, suddenly, everything fell apart.
The consistency with which Overeem experienced this issue is what makes his renaissance so impressive. Because, along with the help of Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, The Reem has found a way to adapt his style to the specifics of his personality. The come-forward clinch fighter has turned into an out-fighter. He threw 71 strikes before being knocked out in the first round by Travis Browne--but only 77 over the course of three rounds against Roy Nelson. There is still something of the bully in his smug grin and showy antics, but instead of pushing his victim up against the locker, Overeem spits on him from the window of a passing car. This new style allows him to keep the attitude, but avoid the retaliation.
The shift is one crucial part of the new and improved Overeem. Take a look.
1. Overeem stands in a southpaw semi-crouch, opposite Junior Dos Santos.
2. He steps forward, placing his lead foot outside that of Dos Santos.
3. And though he does not connect cleanly, his wide left opens a cut on Dos Santos' cheek.
4. Having settled his weight on his right foot, Overeem now brings his left forward and to the side, shifting weight back to his left and smacking Dos Santos with a right hook in the process.
A shift occurs when a fighter steps out of his stance, essentially walking forward and bringing his rear foot closer to the opponent without first having his lead foot do the same. Usually this movement is talked about as a means of closing distance, and it does do that--but there is more to it. There are inherent weaknesses in a shift, you see. Closing the dorsal distance between the feet diminishes the stability of the stance. If a fighter is hit cleanly in this position, he is essentially caught with his feet square, and he is more liable to lose his balance, and his senses.
Fortunately, the fix for this problem is also built right into the shift. As each foot moves forward, weight is transferred onto it. Fighters use this weight transfer to land powerful punches, but a planted foot is also a good base for defensive movement. Note, in the example above, how Overeem's head moves from side to side as he throws. As his shifting foot touches the ground, he folds at the hip and leans very slightly over that foot. This side-to-side movement mitigates the risk of a compromised stance.
With this movement Overeem is able to land calculated strikes from awkward positions, all while protecting his chin, which is a little too mortal by heavyweight standards. When Overeem knocked out Junior Dos Santos, it was with a shift.
1. Overeem stands in orthodox now.
2. He feints an overhand right and Dos Santos jabs, missing Overeem's head as he slips to his left.
3. With his weight to the left, Overeem drives to his right, sliding his right foot forward . . .
4. . . . and smashing Dos Santos on the jaw with a left hook just as his heel hits the canvas.
5. As Dos Santos goes down, you can see that Overeem's weight is gathered over his right foot.
6. And he automatically shifts back to his left, regaining his stance with a new angle and a new head position.
This time when Alistair shifts, he takes a much longer step, closing the distance rapidly as he notices Dos Santos pulling back out of range. Even so, there is a slipping movement built into every step. Overeem sways side-to-side as he wades into his power punches, and that makes him hard hitting, and hard to hit. You can see the head movement very clearly by viewing the GIF attached to the last example.
It has been a long road for The Demolition Man. He went from Overeem to Ubereem and back again. Now he's achieved a new and unprecedented style. Outereem?
Jimmie Rivera's Feints
Jimmie Rivera will face his first big test at UFC 203, squaring off with longtime contender and little legend Urijah Faber. Like Faber, Rivera shows his opponent a lot of different things from long range. But whereas The California Kid sticks to different "looks," switching stances and posturing before using raw athleticism to close the distance, Rivera is extremely subtle. Rivera will spend an entire minute selling attacks without every delivering. In doing so, he forces his opponent to guess, and once he has them guessing, he can play with their expectations, and control the fight.
1. Rivera bounces on his toes well outside of Iuri Alcantara's reach.
2. To test the waters, he feints, dropping his heel to the canvas and bending his knees as he steps forward.
3. Alcantara backs up a little bit, but it's just a feint. Rivera returns to his stance.
4. Another feint carries Rivera closer, this time including a reach for the leg.
5. Alcantara senses a takedown and jumps for a flying knee counter . . .
6. . . . but Rivera is already back in his original stance, and standing closer still.
7. Alcantara knows he has lost the initiative, and he tries to jog away and reset. Rivera stays right in front of him . . .
8. . . . and pounces with a left hook as Iuri's back nears the fence.
9. Alcantara is forced to counter with his feet out of position.
10. And now Rivera has him truly trapped. He feints again, demanding a reaction this time.
11. Though Rivera just narrowly avoids Alcantara's knee as he lands a right to the body . . .
12. . . . he gets the Brazilian back with a clean hook to the temple.
Rivera's feints are not mere movements of the body. They are convincing. He understands distance very well, and deliberately flirts with striking range in order to force reactions out of his opponent. His body language says "strike," and he is close enough to land--how can Alcantara not react? The beauty of Rivera's feinting is that he doesn't even have to capitalize on any specific openings for it to be effective. He will draw hands out of position and hide kicks behind punches, but what really matters is that he makes his opponent think, while he is free to plan his next move. There is a very real difference between getting to think and being made to think, and Rivera understands it perfectly.
When you watch UFC 203, you can keep yourself engaged in any number of ways. Talk about the action with your friends and family, in the room or online; have a drink, eat some good food (or some bad food); study the fighters and try to understand their thoughts as they play their bloody, high-stakes version of speed chess. All that really matters is that you enjoy the fights--and I hope this helps.
For an in-depth breakdown of these and other UFC 203 fighters, check out this week's episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.