In a fight between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson at the peak of their career, who wins? To this day the debate rages on. One can imagine Tyson stalking forward waiting for the opportunity to deliver a devastating hook as Ali dances in circles snapping his jab while looking to avoid and then capitalize on a Tyson error. Though their champion heart and status make this fight attractive, it can be argued it’s the style matchup that makes it fascinating.
While Tyson spent his career turning perfecting a style that turned a reach handicap into an advantage, Ali spent his career capitalizing honing his style to capitalize on his supreme reach. With all things being equal, a reach advantage can be quite a benefit as highlighted by Estelami’s (2014) research on predictors of victory in MMA.
What’s in a Style?
Cus D’Amato, Tyson’s genius trainer who produced three world boxing champions, understood the need to overcome the reach advantage and set about perfecting this type of style as evidenced by the elusive aggression displayed by fighters like Tyson, Floyd Patterson, and Jose Torres. He effectively turned the reach “advantage” into a reach “disadvantage.”
But what is a style? For the purpose of this article, styles can be considered a combination of high frequency behaviors that fighters apply under specific combat conditions. More specifically, “styles are made up of a complex interplay between genetics, physiological characteristics, historical factors, and contact with environment variables” (Gavoni & Gomez, 2015).
Understanding styles is critical for developing a fighter’s skill set and for strategic fight planning. In the illustration above, can you imagine Tyson training and fighting like Ali, or vice versa? It’s safe to say they would have not reached the pinnacle of the sport had they not perfected a style that matched genetic predispositions like height and reach.
Types of Styles
Styles can be broken down into 3 general classifications (Gavoni, 2013): short-range, mid-range. and long-range. Fluent practitioners of a specific style (e.g. Tyson was fluent in short-range) within the classification system likely follow the 80-20 rule…80% of the time they use their “go to stylistic skills,” and 20% of the time they utilize elements of the other two classifications. While many fighters do not employ a style that fits cleanly into one classification, most tactically apply elements of a given style under the right conditions. Fluent practitioners of a style can be illustrated by the following exemplars:
*Note: Given the nature of short-range styles in MMA, fluent practitioners are relative to the sport and are rare because of the danger of certain short-range tactics.
Very dynamic, styles are made up of fundamental elements like posture, stance, footwork, hand positioning, punch types and output, and trunk rotation. Each style has its own strengths and weaknesses that are magnified under certain conditions in MMA.
Short-Range – “The Bull”
The short range style can be considered the “peek-a-boo” of MMA. Fighters who employ is move forward like a “bull” attacking with fire and fury. In essence, it is intended to be used against opponents with greater striking range. While elements can be used by any fighter, the style is ideal for relatively shorter fighters who prefer to move forward when striking or seeking a takedown. This is in contrast to the taller fighter who is seeking to utilize superior range for striking and avoiding the take down.
Fighters who are most successfully with this style are highly aggressive and throw hooks and overhands with “bad intentions” by maximizing trunk rotation through a more squared stance. Because of the explosive nature of the style, combos are intended to be thrown in bursts and Head movement should be “just enough,” and punches thrown with the head “off-line” to maximize power and reach while simultaneously incorporating defense.
While the aggressive nature of the style makes is very exciting, it is precise head movement that makes it work. This can be observed in the first half of Tyson’s career where he would use his opponent’s offense as an opportunity to slip and rip.
In MMA, short-range styles are like Unicorns, rare indeed. Most fighters employ elements of the short range style tactically as the opportunity arises, but not as their staple. Strengths of this style include infiltration of an opponent’s reach, takedown positioning, and fight finishing punches. Because the style requires head movement to overcome reach advantages, fighters are best served by “slipping and rolling” just enough to elude punches without comprising posture and kick defense.
Punches from this style should be thrown with the head “off-line” in order to maximize power while simultaneously incorporating defense. As a result of the head movement, a major weaknesses of this style includes susceptibility to knees, head kicks and counter punches. Fighters who wish to be successful with this style should be equipped with granite chins as they will give one to take one.
Mid-Range – “The Tank”
Mid-range is the “default” style and these tactics are fundamental to any striking approach. Instead of “slipping and ripping” like short-range tactics, the mid-range style relies heavily on what can be called “catching and throwing.” This strategies requires fighters use their hands, shoulders and arms, to absorb or “catch” the opponent’s offense and then immediately “throw” a strike to counter. Every fighter must have some level of proficiency with mid-range tactics. Even Tyson caught punches.
Fighters who effectively employ this style are like a “tank” moving forward into enemy fire with impenetrable defense. While fluent practitioners tend to be those of average height (as compared with short or explosive as fighters like Tyson who excel at short-range styles), a high guard with subtle, steady movement allows fighters to more safely close the distance on the opponent. Once within striking distance, the fighter uses tight and fast punches and kicks to a variety of areas.
The mid-range style allows the fighter to remain in a position where he or she can consistently defend and apply the largest variety of offense not available because of the nature of the other styles. Because of the high guard and plodding forward movement of this style, weaknesses include increased takedown susceptibility.
Long-Range – “The Sniper”
There tends to be lots of confusion regarding this style as pundits can be heard admonishing “he needs to keep his hands up!” Even seasoned commentators like UFC’s Joe Rogan and HBO’s Jim Lampley fall back on this “go-to” recommendation. While this is true sometimes, for the long range fighter, keeping their hands lowered is an asset. If one needs evidence of this, just observe the hand positioning of many great fighters. Fighters most effective with the “long-range” style tend to be those with a reach advantage who wish to give their opponent they can be hit because of their lowered guard. They use distance as their built in defense.
This style, used fluently by fighters like Conor McGregor and Stephen Thompson, is also an effective one for those fighters who are attempting to avoid takedowns. Tyron Woodley recently applied defensive elements of the long-range style when he effectively defended a multitude of takedown efforts by Demian Maia and their fight earlier this year. Because of the distance used by practitioners of this style, it is in direct contrast of the short-range style (think Tyson vs Ali).
Relaxed in nature, this style works best when used by fighters with superior reach against opponents moving forward aggressively. Much like a “sniper” waiting for just the right moment to pull the trigger, the long-range style practitioners use “micro footwork” to float just outside the range of their opponent searching for the counter. Where the short-range style tends to use hooks and overhands delivered with full trunk rotation, the long-range fighter focuses on precise and accurate straight punches to maximize distance and avoid mid and short-range counters. To maximize their reach advantage, increase speed, and minimize the distance traveled by each punch, the long-range fighter tends to keep their guard relaxed, lowered, and angled forward (as opposed to vertically like the mid-range style) to decrease the distance the punch must travel.
Kicks most effectively employed by this style tend to be longer range like oblique or teep kicks. By fighting long and using a “micro footwork” with lateral movement, defense is simultaneously incorporated as the fighter strives to remain just outside the opponents reach to “snipe” an incoming opponent. As illustrated in the Woodley-Maia fight, the long-range style increases a fighter’s takedown defense. In addition it increases hand speed because of the relaxed nature of the shoulders and arms. Weaknesses include increased susceptibility to leg kicks and the perception the fighter is “running.” To minimize this perception, it is important the long-range striker consistently use the opponent’s aggression as an opportunity to counter aggressively.
Styles Make Fights
Remember, most fighters do not fit cleanly into one style classification, and elements of each style can be used regardless of a fighter’s genetic makeup. Some fighters simply apply elements of a style tactically during a fight. Some exemplars of fighters who equally apply elements of all 3 ranges tactically as their regular style include fighters like Cody Garbrandt in MMA and the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard in boxing.
Some coaches believe in a one-style-fits-all approach to the sport as they attempt to fit the fighter to the style. This can work when the right fighter meets the right coach (e.g. Tyson and D’Amato). It is my firmest belief that “fighter-centric” approaches must be taken whereby the coach fits the style to the fighter. Regardless of the style, one simple philosophy should remain foundational: Always finish with defense; use defense to set up offense.
Understanding styles and their nuances can be helpful to fighters for differentiating training regiments to capitalize on their potential stylistic strengths or for strategic preparation for targeted opponents.
Gavoni, P., (2013). Paulie gloves striking systems for mixed martial arts. A coaching manual. Paulie Gloves, LLC.
Gavoni, P., & Gomez, F. (2015). If styles make fights, what makes styles? A Break Down Of Style Characteristics in Fighting. Scifighting Magazine
An expert in human performance and leadership in education, Dr. Paul "Paulie" Gavoni has worked in education and human services for 22 years to provide administrative teams, teachers, and staff with coaching and consultation in analyzing and developing behavior and performance management systems to positively impact achievement. As COO of Kaleidoscope Interventions and Puzzle Box Academy, Dr. Paulie is passionate about applying Organizational Behavior Management (the science of human behavior for organizations) strategies to establish positive environments that engage and bring out the best in employees so they can bring out the best in the children they serve.
Beyond his work in education and human services, Dr. Paulie is also a highly respected coach in combat sports. In 1992, Dr. Paulie began boxing in South Florida and went on to win a Florida Golden Gloves Heavyweight Title in 1998. Since then, Coach “Paulie Gloves,” as he is known in the MMA community, has trained many champions and UFC vets using technologies rooted in the behavioral sciences. A featured coach in the book Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams a the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts and the MMA feature Ring to Cage: How four former boxers mold MMA’s finest, Coach Paulie is also an author who has written for online magazines such as Scifighting, Last Word on Sports, and Bloody Elbow; most recently he has published his own book with Manny Rodriguez titled Quick Wins! Accelerating School Transformation through Science, Engagement, and Leadership.
Dr. Paulie earned a Master’s in Social Work from Barry University, a Specialist of Education with a concentration in Educational Leadership from NSU, and a Doctorate of Education with a concentration in Organizational Leadership from NSU.