“What is the most under-used strike in MMA?” This has to be the question most commonly seen by folks in my line of work, and for many years the easy answer was “the jab.” Boxers speak of this punch with an almost religious reverence, and for good reason. The jab is the heart of boxing. It defends, it interrupts, it hurts, it confuses, and it sets up any number of other strikes, not to mention a whole slew of defensive movements. Forward or backward, side-to-side, the jab can be thrown at just about any time and from just about any position. It is quick, long, and efficient. It is boxing.
And, I am happy to say, the jab has officially found its place in the sport of MMA. No longer are the powers of this fundamental punch ignored by MMA’s elite. A few weeks ago, Brad Tavares won a comfortable decision with little more than a trip-hammer jab and a low leg kick. Darren Till used a piercing jab to walk down and ultimately knock out Donald Cerrone in Gdansk. Andre Fili’s stinging jabs were key to his victory over the brachially-challenged Artem Lobov.
But no jabs can compare to those of the three masters we will see at UFC 217. Georges St-Pierre, T.J. Dillashaw, and Joanna Jedrzejcyk all have their own styles of jabbing, each suited to a different purpose. In this piece, we will look at those educated left hands and analyze the roles they play in the games of these great fighters.
Georges St-Pierre: The Power Jab
From day one, a young boxer will be taught to step in with his jab. Whether fencing from long range or trying to collapse the distance, every fighter needs to know how to advance behind the left hand. How that step is executed, however, has a profound effect on the power and utility of the punch.
For Georges St-Pierre, the power jab is the weapon of choice at range. So let’s find an example and examine how (and why) GSP steps in behind his left.
1. St-Pierre starts at long range, with his weight slightly forward.
2. Without shifting his weight, he quickly lifts his left foot . . .
3. . . . and falls, downward and forward, bringing his left foot and his left hand with him.
4. As his fist drives through the target, St-Pierre’s left foot attempts to do the same to the floor.
5. Recovering his stance, he swings his right leg around and resets at an angle.
As far as the footwork is concerned, St-Pierre’s advance is less of a step and more of a stomp. His whole left foot, heel and all, hits the ground (loudly) just as his fist hits the target. Rather than rocking his body weight from right to left, however, as one does with most punches, St-Pierre begins this movement with his left foot planted, bearing the majority of his weight. When, in Frame 2, Georges picks that foot off the ground, gravity takes hold. He begins to fall, and he gives that descent purpose by driving forward off the ball of his right foot, which stays on the ground as his entire body moves forward and downward at great speed.
When the foot hits, the punch connects. The fist flying forward and the heel slamming down—two powerful movements in perfect concert, and the result is a shivering blow that not only snaps back heads, but breaks bones, smashes noses, and generally makes life miserable for the man standing on the wrong end.
Jack Dempsey called this movement the “falling step,” and it is a key component of the true power jab. Like all fighting techniques, the power jab has its pros and cons. For St-Pierre, it enables a potent switch-up. Dropping one’s weight and driving forward is not only an effective way to ruin Josh Koscheck’s day with the jab; it is also the way to initiate a blast double. So when St-Pierre wants to set his opponent up for the takedown, he simply works him over with the jab for a while. Once the opponent begins to anticipate the punch, Georges will turn the same explosive movement into a tackle. And if the opponent starts stuffing the takedowns? Well, then going back to the jab is as easy as one-one-one.
St-Pierre likes a controlled pace and a long distance. The lunging power jab suits this style of fight perfectly—but then, we did mention that every technique has its drawbacks. To better understand them, however, we should first introduce the next left on our list, and the woman who uses it.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk: The Classic Jab
The jab may be the first chapter in the textbook of boxing (and it is), but the chapter is a long one, with plenty of endnotes. If you close your eyes and imagine a jab, however, chances are you will picture something very much like the left lead of Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
The strawweight champion has made mincemeat of her last three opponents, and while it would be a shame to ignore her subtle kicks, slashing elbows, and cracking right hand, Jedrzejczyk’s jab really does stand out. Most recently, against Jessica Andrade, Jedrzejczyk put on a jabbing masterclass, stifling the challenger at every turn with her ever-ready left hand. Partway through the performance, commentator Jon Anik suggested that hers could be the best jab, male or female, in all of MMA. He may be right.
Take a look.
1. Jedrzejczyk stands in a balanced stance.
2. Raising her left heel, she draws her weight back a bit, preparing to step forward.
3. The foot moves and the jab extends.
4. Driving into the punch with her rear leg, Jedrzejczyk catches herself with the ball of her left foot.
5. Note that, in comparison to that of St-Pierre, Jedrzejczyk’s step is short, and her punch has hardly penetrated the target.
6. As she withdraws her hand, Joanna slides her right leg back into position behind her . . .
7. . . . and threatens Andrade from her new angle.
The differences between this and the power jab of St-Pierre are (pun intended) striking. Since we looked St-Pierre’s step first, let’s compare the footwork of Jedrzejczyk. First, note that the champ starts with a more neutral stance, weight distributed evenly between front and back foot. In fact, Joanna subtly adjusts her weight before firing the jab, pulling back slightly and raising her heel to make that left leg a little bit lighter. When she takes her step, only the ball of Jedrzejczyk’s left foot touches the ground. Even if the heel does touch down for a moment of stability, it never sticks to the canvas. The heel is not planted.
This is sometimes called a “cat-step,” not because it works particularly well for stepping on cats, but because it mimics the gingerliness with which cats place their paws. True to its name, the cat-step imbues Jedrzejczyk’s jab with an agility that St-Pierre’s lacks.
By replacing the dynamic falling step with something more controlled, Jedrzejczyk sacrifices power in favor of mobility. More of a spring than a stomp, the cat-step allows her to throw some weight into the jab without overcommitting and exposing herself to counters. With the power jab, the left leg starts coiled and ends planted. With the classic jab, the left leg starts relaxed and coils on impact without planting at all, making it easy to spring away or adjust the feet for a follow-up strike.
Though it lacks the commanding power of the GSP jab, Joanna’s left lead is not weightless. It’s true power, however, lies in its speed, and the speed with which it can be followed. Georges St-Pierre’s jab may be famous, but his right hand is infamously weak, mostly because his style of jabbing requires total commitment. And the more a fighter commits to his initial strike, the harder it becomes to recenter himself for the follow-up. Jedrzejczyk’s jab allows her to keep a higher pace and fight at a closer range, where a premium is placed on tight footwork and sharp counterpunching—both of which would be much more difficult were she not able to adjust direction and angle on the fly.
TJ Dillashaw: The Flicker Jab
With TJ Dillashaw, we have a chance to see the true flexibility of this weapon in action. While the former bantamweight champ does throw a classic jab from time to time, the flicker jab is his staple.
1. Dillashaw (in blue) throws a hook on the retreat . . .
2. . . . but Joe Soto (in gray) stays right on him, steadily pressuring him toward the fence.
3. Dillashaw extends his right arm, tasting a bit of Soto’s leather at the same time.
4. Dillashaw retracts his hand and pulls back, more aware of the distance now that he has felt Soto’s jab. He moves to his left as he retreats, hiding the steps behind his flashing right hand.
5. Seizing on his new angle, Dillashaw simply reaches out and mashes his knuckles into his opponent’s guard.
6. As Soto begins to retreat, Dillashaw moves his feet to keep up with him.
7. A quick test of range, and the target is too far away to do anything but prod with the jab.
8. This time, as Dillashaw withdraws his jab, he hop-steps forward, to move quickly as Soto attempts to flee.
9. Now, when the arm reaches out, Soto’s guard stops it short of full extension. Dillashaw knows he is close enough to throw something else.
10. He chooses a short overhand left.
The flicker jab is all about procuring information (for the man throwing it) and obstructing information (from the one being jabbed). Unlike our two stepping jabs, it requires little to no commitment of body weight, making it remarkably versatile. Advancing or retreating, after the cross or after the hook, as a set-up or a safety net--the flicker jab (and it’s close cousin, the pawing jab) tells a fighter like Dillashaw exactly how far he is from his opponent. If you have never sparred, you would be shocked at how rapidly your sense of distance evaporates after one solid punch in the face. When the eyes become unreliable, it helps to have a bit of tactile feedback to hold onto.
From the opponent’s perspective, the flicker jab is less of a measuring stick and more of a nuisance. Dillashaw rarely even draws his hand all the way back to his cheek after throwing it, because his goal is to keep that fist in his adversary’s face for as long as he needs to get into position for his next move. The flicker jab does not do damage; it gauges distance and bothers the hell out of unsuspecting opponents. It defends, it informs, and it disguises.
Note that, in the sequence above, Dillashaw’s feet are relatively free while his flicker jab is working—a sharp contrast to the coordinated steps involved in our first two jabs. In truth, however, footwork is vitally important to this punch. The roles, however, are somewhat reversed. Rather than the feet guiding and powering the hand, it is the act of punching which informs the feet. How far Dillashaw moves (and in what direction) depends entirely on what data his pawing lead is able to collect.
The major drawback of the flicker jab is that--well, it doesn’t actually hurt to get hit by it. In order to have the desired effect on the opponent, the flicker jab must be established as a threat--which means it must be accompanied by at least a sprinkling of more damaging jabs--your trip-hammers, your up-jabs, and your corkscrews, for instance--and, of course, the two jabs we have already examined work wonderfully, as well.
And if you like to block and parry with your lead hand, the extended, repetitive motion of the flicker jab will have you waiting quite a while before that glove returns to your chin. If you are the type of person who hates a “lazy jab,” then the flicker jab is not for you.
If, however, you are the type of person who appreciates supreme skill and craft, then I advise you to watch UFC 217 this Saturday. Is the main event relevant? No, not really. Is every fight a coinflip? No, not at all. Will Dana White be there? Probably.
But the jabs, people! The jabs will be beautiful. And with this piece in the back of your mind, you won’t even need to crack your boxing textbook to appreciate them.