This weekend, Demetrious Johnson will make the 10th defense of his UFC flyweight title as the headliner of a UFC on Fox card absolutely stacked with top shelf talent and competitive, meaningful matchups. With talks of bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt challenging Johnson next, and Jose Aldo set to battle Max Holloway next month, the lighter weight classes have never been more exciting.
There is perhaps no better moment for Tom Duquesnoy to make his UFC debut.
A devastating knockout artist with a well-rounded skillset, The Fire Kid is well positioned to shake up the 135-pound pecking order. Garbrandt's bantamweight division is already chock-full of hard-punching and fast-scrambling contenders, but at just 23 years old, Tom Duquesnoy could turn out to be the very best of the bunch. Duquesnoy has honed his skills against an impressive array of European fighters. He took the BAMMA featherweight title from James Zackary in 2013, defended it three times, and then dropped down to bantamweight to take the title in that division, managing yet another defense before finally getting his call to the big stage.
The Frenchman will take on Patrick Williams on the Fox prelims. Williams is not expected to do very well against the young but seasoned contender, but I could not be more excited about the opportunity to watch The Fire Kid do his thing. While we wait impatiently for the action to come, let's take a look at the fighting style of the crown prince of violence.
On this week's episode of Heavy Hands, I described Duquesnoy's style as "Justin Gaethje with defense." While this is a little too reductive to really capture the essence of The Fire Kid, it gets at something essential to Duquesnoy's success. He is aggressive. He throws bombs. And he knows how to protect his chin.
Granted, Duquesnoy's defense is still a work in progress. At 23 years old, he has only been competing professionally for five years. And as an exceptionally aggressive fighter, Duquesnoy will always be more susceptible to damage than his more tentative contemporaries. Still, there is a lot to like about the defensive skills of the Frenchman, who manages to avoid serious damage while staying close enough to his opponent to deliver some brutal punishment of his own.
Here, against the much larger Brendan Loughnane, Duquesnoy shows no fear staying within range of his opponent. Fighting out of a southpaw stance, he uses a classic Muay Thai double-armed block to deny Loughnane's right high kick. Using both arms to catch a round kick helps to spread the impact over a larger surface area, decreasing the chance that a particularly powerful kick will fracture one of the arms.
Not satisfied with merely defending the kick, Duquesnoy goes to his trusty counter kicking game. Having dropped his weight onto his left foot to help absorb Loughnane's kick, he uncoils, throwing his weight in the opposite direction and taking an all but imperceptible step to open his hips and club the inside of Loughnane's thigh with a picture-perfect low kick. Duquesnoy briefly resets, adopting a defensive position should Loughnane counter his counter. Rather than simply throwing his hands up, however, he touches Loughnane's head with his right hand. Feeling that the distance is right for a follow-up, Duquesnoy takes another short step to the right to line his left shoulder up with Loughnane's chin, before uncorking a left hand to the jaw.
Take special note of the small adjustments Duquesnoy makes as he defends. This is the real key to his counter striking success. Tom does not simply defend himself. He takes advantage of his opponent's commitment by situating himself for a follow-up even as the strikes glance off of his guard. This habit of adjusting in the midst of an exchange to set up a violent retort is something you would expect to see from a veteran of the cage, but again: Duquesnoy is still a novice. Yet he flows beautifully from defense to offense, and rarely evades a block or strike without quickly responding in kind.
I have made no secret of my disdain for the orthodox high guard over the years. Not that keeping one's hands in a defensive position is a bad idea, but the notion that high hands = impenetrable defense is a deeply flawed one. Tom Duquesnoy, however, uses a high guard to brilliant effect. He does not hug his head for long periods of time, expecting his opponent not to find the obvious openings, but rather catches wide blows on his gloves and arms as he closes the distance to clinch.
And if you haven't seen what Tom Duquesnoy can do in the clinch--my friend, you are in for a treat.
In this sequence, Duquesnoy uses a few more veteran tricks to initiate an exchange with Shane Walsh. Touching Walsh's guard with his left hand, he gets a feel for the distance while also drawing Walsh's hands up. He sells the feint by doing the same with his right hand, loading weight onto his left hip as his palm meets Walsh's forearm. Walsh manages to deflect most of the impact of Duquesnoy's body shot, but his response is sloppy. He swings at Duquesnoy with his hands out of position, and the Frenchman steps inside the arc of these punches, keeping his guard tight to protect the sides of his head.
It has often been noted that MMA fighters sometimes keep their hands low in order to enable the digging of underhooks. If takedown defense is a priority, it can help to keep the hands in a position from which they can quickly drive up under the armpits of a shooting wrestler. By the same logic, boxers often use a high guard in order to facilitate catches, parries and blocks. If the hands are close to the chin to start with, the fighter will have to move but a very little distance to intercept incoming blows.
Tom Duquesnoy's aggressive high guard is a brilliant twist on this same concept. Duquesnoy loves to step in and immediately tie up his opponent's head, or place his hands on his chest to shove him off-balance. To this end, Duquesnoy is always looking for inside position. He wants his elbows tight to his body (to prevent the opponent from gaining an easy underhook) and his hands inside those of the opponent. In grappling and wrestling, inside position means options. The man with inside position can block his opponent's bicepses to prevent counter strikes, he can grab the head to generate leverage, and he can throw short strikes up the middle.
By charging forward over short distances with his hands tight to his head, Duquesnoy essentially guarantees that he will gain that inside position. If the opponent attempts to counter with punches, so much the better. Duquesnoy's tight guard will deflect the wider blows, and by slipping and shifting his feet on the way in, Tom can negate straight punches and uppercuts. As the fists bounce harmlessly off of his forearms, Duquesnoy slides in past them and, riding his adversary's strikes back to their starting point, he achieves a clinch with dominant inside grips.
In this instance, Duquesnoy turns that inside position into a side clinch, crossfacing Walsh with his left arm as he pivots around to his right. Though Walsh manages to achieve a loose underhook, Duquesnoy's rigid left arm prevents him from tying up. And because Tom secured the inside position as he stepped into the clinch, his right arm is conveniently situated over Walsh's left. There is nothing Walsh can do to block the short downward elbow that sends him plummeting to the canvas.
ADAPTING TO DISTANCE
There are a few things that can mark a prospect out as a bonafide natural. Scrambling is one of them, being a skill that depends as much on innate athleticism as it does on thoughtful training. Timing is another. Timing, too, can be learned, but when young fighters are capable of landing perfect counters in open space on a moving target, you know that you are looking at a fighting savant. Tom Duquesnoy is a dynamic scrambler, and his timing is phenomenal--but the one thing that sets Duquesnoy apart in my mind is his ability to adjust to sudden changes in distance without missing a single beat.
After enduring a tough first round against the massive Krzysztof Klaczek, Duquesnoy began to break his heavily-muscled foe down. The first clearly damaging strike of the fight came in the third round, in the form of a knee to the liver. Not how Duquesnoy catches Klaczek's jab and maintains contact even after defending the punch. As in our previous examples, this connection serves as a probe for the Frenchman, a physical assurance that he is indeed close enough to throw the strike he wants. The knee comes up at a diagonal angle, essentially a round kick with a shorter arc. This is something you will see often in Muay Thai, and Duquesnoy applies it perfectly and painfully to his opponent's vital organs.
Klaczek survives the first liver shot, but Duquesnoy immediately senses that he is ripe for the finish. Knowing that he has hurt his opponent to the body, he stalks him and waits for an opportunity to attack the same target again. The opening comes seconds later, and Duquesnoy goes for the same strike, reaching for his opponent's outstretched arms and launching the knee. This time, however, Klaczek pulls away. Rather than resetting, Duquesnoy simply . . . extends the strike. The roundhouse knee transforms into a roundhouse kick mid-flight, and Tom's shin crashes into the liver of his foe, sending him to the ground wearing a pained grimace.
Duquesnoy's probing hands come in handy once again. He fails to make contact with Klaczek's wrist, as before, but even this seemingly empty swipe contains valuable information. Because Duquesnoy can feel that Klaczek is no longer occupying the space immediately in front of him, he knows that the knee will not land even as he begins to throw it. That he manages to change the strike on the fly while still finding the target with perfect accuracy is a testament to Duquesnoy's training and exceptional instincts.
To quote my colleague Phil Mackenzie, "the ability to judge distance is probably the most difficult and inherently fragile part of MMA, something which warps and bloats under pressure." In a fistfight, when your arteries are pumping with adrenaline, when the fight or flight response takes over and your very nerves are screaming at you to choose the latter, safer option, your sense of distance can get away from you very quickly. You think the opponent is standing out of range, when suddenly he snaps your head back with a punch. Realizing that he must be close enough to counter, you throw back and swipe harmlessly at empty air, having missed his nigh imperceptible backward step. Shaky confidence makes it hard to judge distance, and failing to judge distance makes it hard to feel confident. It is a brutal feedback loop that most fighters--most--have to whittle away over years of training.
You already know that Tom Duquesnoy is not one of these fighters.
When TJ Dillashaw put a striking clinic on Mike Easton, it was this fluid manipulation of distance that caught my eye. Had I been less of a chicken about it and trusted my gut, it would have been one of the reasons I favored Dillashaw in his first fight with Barao. Well, fool me once. In TJ Dillashaw's division, Tom Duquesnoy is the only other fighter who displays such a smooth, natural feel for the changing space between himself and his opponent. Whether turning knees into kicks or shifting stance to land a string of crackling punches, Duquesnoy obviously just . . . gets it.
TURNING A FISTFIGHT INTO A SHOVING MATCH
We have already mentioned Duquesnoy's penchant for shoving opponents, but this seemingly basic technique deserves more attention. Strangely, there are very few mixed martial artists who take advantage of the rudimentary, two-handed push, despite the fact that it requires little energy, nullifies many forms of offense, and puts the opponent in a vulnerable position as he struggles to regain his balance.
Duquesnoy likes to bob and roll under punches as he steps into the pocket. Because he has faced such tough competition under the BAMMA banner, he has seen many opponents attempt to counter these momentary level changes with quick clinch knees. Typically Duquesnoy's antagonist will see him duck, reach for his head, and immediately lift a leg to land the counter. Does it work? Almost never--all thanks to the simple, two-handed shove.
Once again, the inside position granted by Duquesnoy's tight high guard comes in handy. With his knees bent and his hands inside, Duquesnoy has all the leverage. What might have been a beautiful counter turns quickly into a potentially costly mistake, as Philpott is caught off-balance with only one foot on the floor.
In addition to stuffing his opponent's counters, Duquesnoy also uses the shove to great effect when he is the one pressing the attack.
Here are two neat little shoves from Duquesnoy from his one-sided beating o the badly overmatched James Zackary. In the first sequence, Duquesnoy gets that coveted inside position by stepping inside of a wide right hand. With both hands on Zackary's collarbones, Duquesnoy bends his knees and pushes his much taller opponent away. This forces Zackary to settle his weight on his right foot in an attempt to counteract the force of the shove, at which point Duquesnoy cuts a quick angle to Zackary's left and hammers the inside of his thigh with a chopping low kick.
In the second sequence, Duquesnoy has Zackary pressed up against the chainlink. There is little hope of off-balancing his opponent with the fence at his back, but the two-handed thrust is still useful. Duquesnoy uses his inside position to push himself away from Zackary, who is desperately trying to hold The Fire Kid in the clinch. Where some fighters might be cautious to extend both hands at once, Duquesnoy has little fear of a counter. He keeps his palms planted on Zackary's shoulders, preventing him from turning into a strike. As in our last example, Duquesnoy successfully denies a knee with his shove, but more importantly, he creates enough space for a devastating elbow to the eye socket.
Tom Duquesnoy still has growing left to do, but he is absolutely already a world-class fighter, capable of taking on many of the top 15 bantamweights in the UFC. He is fast and strong, powerful and slick. More importantly, he fights with a depth of skill that belies his years. I assume the UFC intends to use Patrick Williams as a test of Duquesnoy's wrestling. In all likelihood, however, he will serve as an unwilling partner in a demonstration of The Fire Kid's vicious talents.
UFC on Fox 24 will be Tom Duquesnoy's introduction to the wider world of MMA fans. Whether by knockout or submission, there is little doubt that the crown prince of violence will put on one hell of a show. Long may he reign.
For more on Tom Duquesnoy and the rest of the stacked UFC on Fox 24 card, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.