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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Norfolk-Benavidez vs Figueiredo

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The Sideboard: Deiveson Figueiredo and the art of submission brawling

Prior to UFC 255 we look at how Deiveson Figueiredo showed some high level grappling against Benavidez, but there’s both more (and less) than meets the eye.

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

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By now, we know who Deiveson Figueiredo is and how we wants to win. He’s a strange brew of pressure brawling and scramble madness. His odd time signature striking and janky movement make him a nightmare of projectiles and dyed hair. But as with all sideboard columns, we’re not interested in what Deiveson does well. We’re interested in what he doesn’t do often enough that he does well.

To gear up for this one, I decided to watch the Benavidez rematch yet again, and my lord. I forgot how thorough it was. And I don’t mean onesided. I wouldn’t even call it a fight. It looked like a blood sacrifice. But we’re not here to fixate on the bloodletting. We’re here to talk technique.

To begin, I don’t like distinguishing between grappling versus ‘MMA grappling’. I just don’t find it particularly useful. You wouldn’t distinguish skating from ‘hockey skating’, or sprinting from ‘football sprinting’. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira wasn’t a better ‘MMA grappler’ than Marcio Pe De Pano Cruz. He was just a better mixed martial artist, period. However, I do think we can distinguish between the broad translation of techniques, and the different ways they communicate across the combat spectrum.

Deiveson has always had grappling in his back pocket. I wouldn’t consider him a full-tilt transition fighter. But he’s opportunistic, and understands pressure in an abstract sense: pressure doesn’t always have to look like a lunging right hand. I’ve embedded the Benavidez rematch because I found the grappling exchanges fascinating.

Following the first knockdown, what I find interesting about Deiveson’s approach here is that he’s never focused 100% on technique. Which is, I think, a good thing. Fighters are educated enough to know exactly how you need to do something in order to do it. I sometimes wonder if the efficacy of grappling in MMA has less to do with opponents knowing how to defend, and more to do with attackers not knowing how to adjust.

Before Deiveson takes Benavidez’ back, he uses elbows to essentially open up Benadivez’ guard. Once he does, he never fully commits to back control. You can tell this by well, everything. Traditionally, back control requires a seatbelt grip to control the opponent’s upper body or shoulders, and ‘hooks’ (one top, one bottom) to control an opponent’s lower body. One hook slides across the belly, either to lock in a body triangle, or create separation between an opponent’s legs to keep them from sliding over.

Deiveson never does any of that. He doesn’t have a clean grip across Banvidez’ shoulders, and his hooks aren’t even fully in. However, what he does have is an active posture. Pause at 2:22: notice how Deiveson’s heels are pointed more toward his own body than locked across Joe’s body or across Joe’s thighs. He may not have a full body squeeze, but he’s in complete control. In both instances of back control, Deiveson never positions himself fully even though he’s able to sink in the choke both times.

This may not be Figueredo’s Bat Signal, but it’s been with him his whole career. Against Tim Elliot he had what looked like a big left hand chambered before pulling away, allowing Elliot to go in for a takedown only to give Deiveson the choke he was looking for. When he tried to finish Joseph Morales with a guillotine, it was preceded by a brutal jab that knocked Morales down. He had Antonio de Miranda in a number of precarious positions and each one, whether it was mount, or side control — all started with a heavy strike.

Whether it’s just Figueredo using grappling to compliment his striking, or Figueredo using striking to compliment a broad grappling attack, I think there’s something to be said for the explicit way he creates what I like to call ‘positional brawling’ or submission brawling. It all creates a ‘looseness’ that has defined Figueredo’s game in a lot of ways. It’s also why I think he’s sometimes hard to define in the context of strict analysis. He’s never really conducting a string of precise techniques so much as establishing a series of tones. It’s a strange sensation, and not the kind of we’re used to experiencing in our champions: especially in a division as historically technical as flyweight.

‘What does Deiveson do well?’ In terms of technique, I think you’d be hard pressed to answer that question. But I think that’s because when people think of technique, their instinct is to compare it to engineering. One wrong move, and the technique itself loses its efficiency to variance or error. Richard Feynman’s famous question to NASA following the Challenge explosion is instructive here. ‘What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery?’

I find the question quite apt. MMA is littered with fighters who ignored the ‘machinery’, and made great use of the ‘wrong way.’ Never give up your back, right? Wrong. At least for Kazushi Sakuraba. Throw a spinning backfist and keep your arm straight, right? Wrong. At least if you’re Valentina Shevchenko. Who needs hooks for the rear naked choke when you’ve got that insane arm drag, gator roll setup thing that Marcelo Garcia used on Vitor Shaolin Ribeiro? And who needs jiu jitsu when you can just punch your way into a choke, like Figueredo?

Just to be clear, the ‘sideboard’ is not about fighters with aces up their sleeves, or Secret Weapons. Deiveson’s grappling is good, but as we saw against Jussier Formiga, it’s not exactly elite, and he sometimes gives up space for ostensibly no reason. Benavidez, while an excellent grappler in his own right, probably owed more to defeat to being hurt and discombobulated than lacking defensive prowess on the ground. Still, I think what Figueredo has found is a specific approach to scrambling, and positional exchanges that synchronize well with his instincts.

Whether Figueredo can use this against Alex Perez is another matter. It’s a stiff test given Perez’ development since the Benavidez fight (a fight I don’t consider very instructive for this matchup anyway). Deiveson will probably be better off brawling against a fighter more than willing to stand in the pocket. But that’s the joy of a Figueredo fight — the brawling never stops.

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