On Saturday, March 16th, Darren Till made his return to the ring. This was his much anticipated comeback, the Liverpudlian’s first contest since his lopsided loss to Tyron Woodley last September. His opponent, Jorge Masvidal, was also making his return, and after a much longer layoff, stepping into the Octagon for the first time since November of 2017. It was to be a contest of the fresh face against the old heel, and most in the MMA world expected Till to win it.
In some ways, Darren Till embodies the new MMA landscape as much as Masvidal does the old. Like many of his generation, he is a tremendous weight bully, standing a well-built six foot and walking around north of 200 pounds, 30 higher than the welterweight limit. Like the trend-setting Conor McGregor, he is a striking specialist who rarely engages his opponents on the ground, though his sheer size and power make him a strong finisher in top position.
The 34 year-old Masvidal, on the other hand, is a much slimmer 5’11” (though, at the staredowns, he looked more than a mere inch shorter than Till). While still cutting somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 pounds to make 170, Masvidal appeared at least a full weight class smaller than Till in the cage. Gamebred is notably well-rounded, even among the peers of his generation. While he is known for his lightning quick hands, he is also a strong kicker, an adept wrestler — and none other than Demian Maia described him as “one the best jiu-jitsu fighters that I ever fought in the UFC.”
In this fight, Masvidal’s greatest advantage was one which he will retain over the likes of Darren Till until the day he dies: experience. Jorge’s pro career began all the way back in 2003, and he was facing elite opponents within two years of his debut. Prior to Till, he had taken on 45 professional fighters, ranging from Raphael Assuncao to Gilbert Melendez to Donald Cerrone. Before all of that, he was competing in bare knuckle brawls in the backyards of Perrine, Florida.
Experience matters, in a cage. Veteran fighters know how to manage their energy, and understand the values of defense, and adaptation. The accumulation of fight time brings with it calm and composure under duress. A veteran might choose to overwhelm a less seasoned foe in the beginning, a la Joe Benavidez against Alex Perez, or he might bide his time and wait for him to tire, as Rick Glenn did to Gavin Tucker. What matters most is that the veteran fighter never runs out of ideas.
It took a few unwanted lumps and a little experimentation on Jorge Masvidal’s part, but he hit upon the right idea not long into the first round of his fight with Till. Oftentimes, a matchup between an orthodox fighter like Masvidal and a southpaw like Till becomes a contest of back hands. Both fighters try to take the outside angle and land their crosses down the pipe. Oftentimes, however, it’s the left hook that serves as the secret anti-southpaw weapon.
As soon as Masvidal found a home for the right hand, he was trying to land the left hook after. Twice in the first round, he caught Till coming in with an overhand right before clipping his chin with the hook. What is it that makes this shot such an effective weapon against left-handed fighters?
Well, in short, it’s just difficult for southpaws to see it coming. Take a look at the left hook of James Toney, for example. After 11 hard rounds against southpaw swarmer Vasiliy Jirov, Toney sat on his stool and received some direct advice from Freddie Roach. “You gotta put this guy on his ass. I’m serious, now, okay? He outhustled you that round.”
“F—k,” replied Toney, shaking his head. “F—k.” With the chips down, he came out in the final round, and went to work (Toney, too, demonstrates the value of experience). He proceeded to rain down a storm of left hooks, till he finally managed to crack Jirov’s granite chin.
In these exchanges, you can see how sneaky this punch can be. Whereas another orthodox fighter would have a clear look at Toney as he loads his hips for the hook, the southpaw’s view is obstructed. It’s a problem baked into the very nature of his stance. Half the time, Jirov’s own arm is in the way, preventing him from seeing the hook coming until just after it has already arced over his right shoulder. His vulnerability is only exacerbated when he stands up tall, pulls straight back, or lets Toney angle even farther around to his blind side.
When Jorge Masvidal started landing his punches, Till did his best to adjust, though defense is not his strong suit. He began reading the right hand, and tried both parrying and pulling to get away from it. When he tried the former, Masvidal’s left caught him by surprise while his hands and eyes were still occupied with the right. The latter, however, was a little more successful. As long as Till could time the right hand, he could get out of range before the invisible left hook had a chance to find his chin.
If this was a solution to the problem of Masvidal’s left hand, it was only a temporary one, effective only as long as it took Masvidal to adjust in turn. In the second round, Masvidal went back to the two-three combination, landing both punches on the counter and forcing Till to back off. Then he turned southpaw, himself, flashed some fancy footwork, and ended Till’s night with a single punch.
1. Masvidal adopts a southpaw stance, moving forward to engage Till.
2. He draws his right foot back, throwing out his right arm as a feint at the same time.
3. Till pulls back, beginning to retreat while Masvidal drives forward onto his left leg, loading it like a spring.
4. Masvidal turns potential energy into kinetic. Till only spots his overhand left after it has already cleared his shoulder.
5. Too late. Masvidal lands in a southpaw stance, following through his punch.
6. Till is out before he hits the ground.
On the broadcast, commentator John Gooden accurately compared Masvidal’s shuffling footwork to that of Tyron Woodley. Something about it also smacks of the blitzing flurries of Stephen Thompson, or Lyoto Machida. Nor does it look all that dissimilar from Robert Whittaker setting up a signature head kick. The point of it, though, is simple: it’s a dynamic way to cover distance. All of those quick, shuffling steps throw the weight back and forth, loading the legs with lots of potential energy, ready to be unleashed in the form of a strike. Most importantly, however, Masvidal manages to plant his left foot a good two feet farther forward, bringing him closer to the target before he unleashes the overhand left.
While squaring up and lunging forward out of one’s stance might seem like an invitation for a counter, countering happens to be one thing Darren Till doesn’t actually do all that often. It is likely, if he or his camp did any tape study at all, that Masvidal came into the bout well aware of this fact, and expected to exploit it. Whether it was the result of careful strategy or clever improvisation, Masvidal’s footwork put him in range to land the sneaky left on an opponent who was becoming increasingly determined to put as much space as possible between them.
As for the punch itself, it’s not exactly a left hook, is it?
Till was clearly having a hard time seeing the left hand coming, but he was starting to retreat out of range whenever Jorge tried to lead. The thing about open stance matchups is that they tend to occur at a fairly long range, to begin with. When the fighters are in opposite stances, the front foot of each is opposed by that of the other. Finding ways around this obstacle comprises much of the tactical battle, in these bouts.
If, however, both fighters are in the same stance, their front feet are preceded only by a good amount of open space. Either man is free to step straight forward into the pocket, as long as he doesn’t get hit on the way. In these matchups, the range tends to be considerably closer.
Masvidal’s aggressive footwork enables him to collapse the distance with shocking speed. A bold move that might have otherwise been a telegraph works, thanks in part to Gamebred’s clever feints. It is the southpaw position, however, that allows him to get so close, so directly. As a result, he stays right on top of Till as he retreats, and the killer left hook, now transformed into a long overhand, flies all but unseen to the target.
Let’s turn to James Toney again for another take on this same premise. Against Jirov, Toney was actually up on all three cards going into the final round, though neither he nor Freddie Roach could have known that, at the time. In the eleventh frame of his bout with Michael Nunn, on the other hand, circumstances were truly dire. Nunn was ahead on all three scorecards, by eight, six, and four points respectively. Toney needed a knockout to win, and he knew that the southpaw’s chin was open to his left hand.
Toney rarely flashed the kind of quick feet that Masvidal used to confuse Till. In his case, the finishing blow is preceded by a counter right hand. Just grazing the target, Toney lets the force of the punch drag him out of his stance. He ends up in a southpaw position just like Nunn’s, and suddenly much closer to his target. With deceptive timing, Toney casually steps forward into the pocket, seeming utterly confident that Nunn cannot see the left overhand rocketing toward his chin. His certainty is validated when the blow connects, catching Nunn standing tall, lazily searching for Toney’s head with an uppercut.
There may be little in common between Nunn and Till aside from their stances, but when hit on the chin with an overhand left, both men go stiff in similar fashion.
The lesson to take away from all of this is as straightforward as Jorge Masvidal: whether you are Darren Till or Michael Nunn, the punch you don’t see is the one that knocks you out. And if, like both of those men, you are a southpaw, the punch you don’t see is very likely to be a left hook.
For more analysis like this, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.