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Combat Course: Lessons from the Cage #1

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The first in a series of technical breakdowns of modern MMA from coach Kostas Fantaousakis.

Combat Course: Lessons from the Cage

An introduction

There are five individual sports/martial arts which comprise Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I tell my students that the first four are: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, freestyle wrestling, Muay Thai, and boxing. (Or variations of these. For example, one can be a karate practitioner instead of a kickboxer, a Catch wrestler instead of a Jiu Jitsu expert, or a Greco-Roman wrestler instead of a freestyle one). Then I usually ask them: which one is the fifth art?

Answer: It is the art of MMA-specific techniques. Those are hybrid techniques which do not originate from other specialized arts. Techniques like grinding and pummeling against the cage, and ground and pound strikes. The sport of MMA also includes the unique combination of techniques from totally unrelated disciplines like the use of wrestling to set up punches, striking attacks to set up takedowns, and strikes to set up submissions. The best pure MMA fighters of the modern era are Georges St-Pierre and Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson. They are pretty good at every individual discipline but their strength lies in that they are masters of combining these skills into an art which can beat all other fundamental disciplines.

Randy “the Natural” Couture
Randy "the Natural" Couture
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

One way to examine how MMA-specific techniques evolved is to study Randy Couture’s career. Randy was a pioneer who combined techniques of his sport of origin (Greco-Roman wrestling) with strikes, to make them effective under Octagon rules, thereby making them MMA-specific. Examples of these techniques are his famous single necktie to dirty boxing and his underhook control while delivering punches.

Mark Coleman is another example of a fighter who modified the advantages of his discipline for MMA. Coleman used his top wrestling game to deliver devastating ground and pound strikes.

MMA is a melting pot which forces all competitors to evolve and modify their game one way or another. Sparring has a lot to do with this transformation. For example if you come from a karate background and you spar with kickboxers, you will learn how to deal with low kicks, the Muay Thai clinch, jabs, and hooks. Eventually you will become a kickboxer yourself although fans will still identify you as a karate fighter.

Champions from other fighting sports, on the other hand, put different challenges on the table when they start competing in MMA. Mark Coleman, Lyoto Machida, and Mirko Cro Cop had great success in the beginning of their careers until MMA trainers and athletes adapted to their fighting styles. I do not care who you are, if there is enough fighting footage for them to study, your opponents will train specifically for your strengths and weaknesses and will eventually be able to counter you. As a result, this changes the MMA game by enriching it with new tactics and skills. But keep in mind that specialists are always dangerous and well-rounded fighters should never underestimate them. A BJJ world champion only needs to secure a takedown to beat an MMA fighter. A kickboxer only needs to land once.

To summarize, the focus of this series is to study striking and grappling for MMA. However, we must note that in order to expand and sharpen your MMA arsenal, you need to train with specialists of other sports any chance you get. GSP, for example, had training bases in Greg Jackson’s and Firaz Zahabi’s gyms, but also had a boxing coach, a Muay Thai coach, a wrestling coach, and others. This provided him with the opportunity to raise his level way above the average MMA sparring partner’s. Rolling with a BJJ world champion is not the same as grappling with your average MMA grappler. Finding good sparring/grappling partners is always a difficult task but is worth the effort.

MMA Coaches

MMA coach Greg Jackson
MMA coach Greg Jackson
photo by Esther Lin for MMA Fighting

The way I look at it, an MMA coach is an architect trying to build a house using the best materials and methods provided by specialized craftsmen. Individual sports are rivers of wisdom that join in the ocean which is MMA. So, in order to get better in MMA we should appreciate and study all effective forms of fighting in their own sport rules, and at the highest levels. But it takes a true MMA coach to know what works in MMA and what does not. To know, for example, that an overhook in the clinch will save you from getting knocked out in boxing but in MMA it will give an underhook to your opponent, and probably a takedown opportunity. Same techniques under different rules may produce different results.

A follower asked me on Twitter how he can identify a specialized MMA coach instead of the common BJJ or kickboxing coach teaching MMA. Unfortunately, this is no easy task. Our sport is relatively new and everybody seems to be learning through trial and error. There are not many MMA masterminds out there. It seems to me that coaches who have a grasp of the MMA game are Javier Mendez, Greg Jackson, and Matt Hume. Their fighters apply gameplans and tactics that go well beyond your traditional kickboxing or grappling game. For example, they combine the use of the cage, wrestling, and grinding to make opponents carry their weight and work harder.

These coaches’ conceptual framework is the “study of the game”. I first heard about the “game” concept from BJJ legend Marcelo Garcia. He focuses on teaching and understanding the grappling game as a whole rather than a list of individual techniques. Each move is a part of a puzzle, creating opportunities or countering attacks. What comes before and after every move is important, but the game is not just comprised of techniques in chains or combinations. Tactics and objectives are also very important.

What to expect from this new series on Bloody Elbow

During this series I will continue what I started doing on Twitter: I will analyze clips from actual fights in the form of gifs and screen captured photos to try and make sense out of seemingly random efforts, outcomes and applications of technique. I am not just looking for submissions and KOs here. These are often the result of fatigue and/or sheer luck. I am trying to find techniques that either follow concepts or reveal new concepts. Ideally, if there is a concept behind them, the same striking combos should produce the same or similar results with different opponents. These “theory in action” combos often take advantage of natural tendencies and logical reactions. For example, this was the secret behind Mike Tyson’s highly successful offensive combos. He would initiate a striking sequence that had a high chance of succeeding because of the anticipated reactions of his opponents. By the way, Tyson’s game will be extensively analyzed in future posts.

So, my source for this footage will be striking and grappling matches of various disciplines and of course MMA fights. I will focus on MMA-specific techniques as well as techniques from specialized arts such as BJJ, Muay Thai or wrestling in a way that is uniquely applicable to MMA.

Combination Syntax

In this series I will also introduce my mittwork combo syntax. I got this idea from MMA legend, Bas Rutten. During an interview he described how he used to make notes of all successful moves he would see in fights. The problem with striking combos is they can get pretty lengthy. You can write down detailed information but a short sentence works better for me so I prefer to use this system. There is also the boxing numbering system, but I do not really use it as MMA is way more complicated than boxing.

Here are some common abbreviations:

rjab=southpaw jab

lhb=left hook to the body; runder=roll under

rhb=right hook to the body; lh=left hook

rc=right cross

The addition of a plus (+) sign means techniques taking place simultaneously. The opponent's moves are always in parentheses.

Combo syntax example: (jab), rslip, (jab), rslip+jab.

Explanation: opponent jabs, you slip right, opponent jabs, you slip right & jab simultaneously.

If this looks like mumbo jumbo to you, do not be discouraged. There will be a detailed analysis for all techniques posted here. I mostly use this syntax on Twitter to deal with the 140 character limit and to provide short notes for my students.

Let's get started with the first 5 techniques.

MMA specific technique: Rashad Evans’ punches to takedown

This is a great, aggressive, high-percentage move which should be taught in all MMA classes.

Rashad Evans

Notice in photos 1-3 how Rashad goes on the offensive with a wild left hook while his head moves to the other side, then closes the distance with a right hook to the body, cutting the angle as his head is changing levels moving to his left. This way he closes the distance, gains momentum and goes for an awesome double leg takedown.

Gif link

Here you have a clear example of a true MMA-specific technique. This is neither boxing nor wrestling, this is MMA. The combo has to be applied in a decisive manner, using the Tyson-style offensive mindset of initiating a sequence of techniques designed to cause specific reactions. There is no time to hesitate. This is a quick 1-2-3 technique with a single breath. Should the takedown fail, your opponent will probably be open to strikes.

Marcelo Garcia: Guillotine escape

Marcelo is a legendary master of guillotines. He barely uses arm chokes like D’Arces , anacondas, or even arm-in guillotines. He obviously knows a couple of things about escaping them.

Marcelo Garcia

Generally, to escape a guillotine your feet and body need to move to the opposite side of your trapped head. What is amazing in this technique (photos nr 5-8) is the elaborate knee sliding footwork he uses to go to the safe side. Take a look at the gif to appreciate the speed and accuracy of his form:

Gif link

Changpuek Kiatsongrit: kick grab to takedown

Beautiful sweep by seven-time world champion Muay Thai fighter Kiatsongrit in his fight against legendary Dutch kickboxer Rob Kaman.

Changpuek Kiatsongrit

To apply this technique you need to cross grab your opponent’s teep/front kick (ph. 5) and sweep with your right foot in one direction as your right arm pushes the head to the other side (ph. 9). You have to be relentless in the execution of this technique. Generally I prefer grabbing or blocking teeps with the hand of the opposite side (his left leg, your left hand). This opens up sweeps, left hooks and left high kicks. See gif below for the full sequence:

Gif link

Joanna Jedrzejczyk : left low kick vs southpaw

To all critics of women’s MMA: Female fighters totally delivered this year with some amazing fights. I was especially impressed by the great technique displayed by the UFC Women's Strawweight champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Here is a nice tactic she used to deal with her southpaw opponent, Jessica Andrade.

Joanna Jędrzejczyk

Traditionally, when you are fighting against a southpaw your goal is to land your right hand. You should be pushing your opponent’s right jab to your right while continuously stepping your left foot to the left (to the outside of their front right foot). It is obvious your opponent will be trying to do the same to you in order to land the left hand. This is an ongoing struggle.

Here Joana uses a different tactic. She leads with a left low kick while continuously moving to her left, the blind side of her southpaw opponent. This forces her opponent to reset and follow all the time. A subtle but nevertheless, very effective tactic.

Gif link

A Machida-style throw is also available should you decide to mix things up and step in. I plan to post an example of such a throw next week.

The Shogun punch

Finally, a couple of words about a highly effective punch: the punch Mauricio “Shogun” Rua used to knock out Chuck Liddell back at UFC 97.

Mauricio Shogun Rua

This is a jab/left hook hybrid using momentum generated by stepping in at an angle with your back foot. This particular type of footwork covers a longer distance and this punch is way stronger than a jab. For a split second it looks like you land in a southpaw position, however a simple hip twist can correct this problem and you can land a right hand, a left kick or a takedown.

You can see the punch in action below:

As you can also see in the following gif, Shogun tried to land this punch in his fight against Jon Jones but JJ, (who studies tape a lot in order to prepare for fights), was able to duck under and counter : Gif link

Thank you for your patience. Join me next week, only on Bloody Elbow.

About the Author: Kostas Fantaousakis is a researcher of fighting concepts, tactics, and techniques, and a state certified MMA, grappling, and wrestling coach in Greece. He teaches his unique Speedforce MMA mittwork system which combines strikes, takedowns, knees, and elbows applied in the continuous feedback mittwork system of the Mayweather family. Kostas is a brown belt in BJJ under MMA veteran and BJJ world champion Wander Braga (the teacher of Gabriel Napao Gonzaga).

Follow Kostas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kostasfant and search for #fantmoves

www.embracingthegrind.com