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Wrestling for MMA: Jussier Formiga

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Exploring the strategic subtleties that allow grappling ace Jussier Formiga to take down and control physical, dynamic flyweights.

Traditionally, the most effective MMA wrestlers are physical, often brutish players.

Even slick operators like Zach Makovsky lean on insane athleticism to implement their strategy and craft.

When it comes to fighters with jiu jitsu backgrounds, their base wrestling skill varies wildly. There are some with next-to-no takedown game to speak of, who either attempt to wrestle in spite of this or do their best to encourage their opponent to engage them. Others, like Gilbert Burns, diligently trained a more straightforward, physical wrestling style and rounded out their game.

The lines start to blur when you look at someone like Demian Maia. In terms of mechanics or traditional evaluations of wrestling, he is not a good wrestler. However, he knows how to get to his shots, and has a system of grappling that stems from the positions he frequently ends up in off of said shots. My colleague Tom Elliot gave a fantastic account of Maia’s wrestling, against wrestlers.

I’d group flyweight contender Jussier Formiga with Maia’s class of wrestlers in MMA. A quick, but not particularly imposing athlete, Formiga’s progression as a fighter has been largely about simplifying his approach while sharpening a few basic tools.

While I’d never call him a striker, Formiga’s striking has become clean and functional. That on its own would be enough to see him through some tough matchups, but Formiga has demonstrated his intelligence by implementing masterful gameplans that revolve around one or two key concepts.

Formiga’s performance against Deiveson Figueiredo is perhaps the greatest example of what a physically outgunned fighter can do with a simplified approach based on a handful of precise reads. I elaborate and unpack that fight in depth here.

The outstanding theme of that fight is Formiga’s manipulation of linear attacks - he used his jab and entry feints to close distance, to interrupt Figueiredo’s entries, and to play with range in order to set up his clinch entries.

Let’s take a look at how Formiga’s wrestling approach has manifested over time, against opponents of differing attributes and styles.

UFC Fight Night: Formiga v Jorgensen Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Jussier Formiga vs. Scott Jorgensen

Against Formiga, Scott Jorgensen looked leagues ahead as a boxer. He was slipping Formiga’s jab entries and countering with a variety of rear hand strikes, his own entries repeatedly saw the two colliding.

At this point, Formiga’s clinch entry game was fairly reactive, and far more effective from closed stance matchups. On the lead he’d still be jabbing and looking to score, but on the backfoot Formiga would almost exclusively plant, hunker down and crash in with a wide shot designed to lead to the bodylock, or at least a strong underhook. From open stance, Formiga has a harder time hiding behind his lead shoulder and high guard, making that reaction significantly more dangerous. You can see that strategy bite him in both Joseph Benavidez bouts.

Within 30 seconds, Formiga demonstrated the general idea behind his clinch entries. Jorgensen entered with a lead hook, Formiga actually parries the hand, changes levels and arcs his own lead hook under the rear hand to attack the underhook. At the same time, Formiga is stepping straight in with his head down, reaching for the second underhook with his free hand.

Shrugging off to the back off the far-side underhook, Formiga attempted to arch and sag throw Jorgensen over the outside tripping leg. Ultimately the technique failed, as Jorgensen was able to free his leg and recover his base on the way down, but ultimately Formiga demonstrated how he could work his way to back control-adjacent positions on the feet.

Realizing this, Jorgensen made some key adjustments. The first was mixing up his strike selection on entries, bursting in behind his lead straight. Because of the mechanics built-in to that strike, Jorgensen is blocking that sloping path that Formiga uses to underhook with his check hook counter. Formiga ends up with a collar tie instead, which he immediately looks to switch to an overhook as Jorgensen comes across the back with the punching arm.

Formiga’s clinch attack is so dependent on strong underhooks, and his preference for entering on his own lead side was so clear, that Jorgensen was able to effectively shut down that entire part of his game by closing that window. Not only did his strike selection work to limit the space Formiga could use, but when they did crash in with room to maneuver, it was Jorgensen who hustled to dig his own underhook before Formiga could.

Even when Formiga did manage to loop that check hook into an underhook, the single underhook did not provide the Brazilian with a fast enough transition to capitalize. Jorgensen could overhook and limp back out without suffering any consequences. Formiga’s striking off the clinch break had not been developed at this point.

VIDEO CLIP: Scott Jorgensen shuts down Formiga’s clinch entry game

The end of the fight came off another clinch entry attempt by Formiga. As Jorgensen jabbed in, Formiga lowered his level and stepped in head-first, punching through the underhook on the lead side. Perhaps inadvertently, Formiga absolutely conked Jorgensen with a headbutt, sending the former D1 standout tumbling over backward, exposing his back.

UFC Fight Night: Formiga v Makovsky Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Jussier Formiga vs. Zach Makovsky

I’ve written extensively about Zach Makovsky. His athleticism, analytical approach to fighting, and creative entry game are bright points in an already talent-rich division.

Makovsky’s southpaw approach led to an open-stance matchup between the two. As both fighters are fairly reliant on their jabs as a means for entry, it made for an uncomfortable dynamic. Their lead hands lined up and it took extended pawing and maneuvering in jabbing range to actually land.

Perhaps knowing this coming in, Formiga prepared specifically for rear hand entries, countering them with his clinch entries. It wasn’t pretty, but on a consistent basis, Formiga timed Makovsky stepping in with his straight - slipping outside, level changing, and pivoting as he dug double underhooks for the bodylock. It’s similar to the closed stance slip-duck-under that we’ve been seeing from Petr Yan lately, his has a heavier emphasis on the pivot and he uses his head as a lever to open up the window under the arm.

VIDEO CLIP: Jussier Formiga slips the rear hand of Zach Makovsky to enter the clinch

One factor allowing Formiga to read this entry so well may be the distance he kept. Likely due to the handfight, Makovsky couldn’t put himself in range to just pop off rear hand strikes, he had to step in on his punches. In the cases where Makovsky did just load up on his rear hand, without closing in with his lead hand, Formiga saw him coming and was prepared to capitalize.

Off the outside slip, Formiga’s clinch entry is very similar to a reactive or intercepting takedown. He’s level changing and making a committed entry, but instead of attacking the hips, he’s shooting his arms through for underhooks and turning the corner to shrug to rear standing, rather than to get an angle to collapse the legs.

Compare these entries to what happens when Makovsky comes in behind his lead hand first.

VIDEO CLIP: Jussier Formiga’s clinch attempts come up shallow

The reason is pretty simple. When Makovsky steps in and the rear hand isn’t coming, Formiga takes a step back. He’s still finding that outside slip, but the distance isn’t right, he’s only getting his head past the wrist, Makovsky still has his feet under him and can easily move out of clinching range.

This dynamic worked fantastically for Makovsky. He was able to enter, get Formiga reaching and slipping, step back to avoid it, then step back in to attack his opponent, who was now out of position.

That exact sequence is what gave Makovsky his own entry for a snatch single, which he easily ran the pipe on.

It’s important to emphasize how Formiga gets to these positions, rather than what he does when he gets to them. It doesn’t matter how skilled your are off a bodylock or rear standing if you have no process or system in place to ensure you can reach them in the first place.

With that being said, for the most part Formiga did a lovely job once they began to scramble from upper body positions.

VIDEO CLIP: Formiga and Makovsky battle for top position

Formiga’s urgency and speed are on display here to get to rear standing, but what’s even more impressive is how persistently he fights hands and reestablishes his grips as Makovsky works to peel them off. Any grappling fan will appreciate how Formiga returned Makovsky to the mat off rear standing with no hooks, kicking his hips up and letting the falling momentum tip Makovsky forward, Leo Vieira style.

From the seated back mount, Makovsky never stopped attacking those grips, finally achieving enough separation to explode back in to try and reverse to guard. Falling off the top, Formiga switched off and yanked the base leg out to break Makovsky down. Ultimately Makovsky did reverse position, but it was a great look from Formiga.

Things were just as competitive when Formiga got deep on the bodylock. Makovsky whizzered and tried to keep a side-on angle, but Formiga was able to step in front and circle until he completely disrupted Makovsky’s base, planting him on his back. However, on the second attempt, Makovsky adjusted by keeping his hips tight and timing the attempt to finish. As Formiga dropped to finish the bodylock, Makovsky released the whizzer and posted to retain height, landing in top position.

While this was a highly competitive fight, Formiga demonstrated his system against a southpaw with a marked athletic advantage.

Jussier Formiga vs. Sergio Pettis

Four years later, Formiga had expanded and refined his approach significantly.

Instead of waiting on the entries of his opponent and relying on reactive defense to get to favorable clinch positions, he worked to create his own opportunities. A springing jab and darting lead cross became his main weapons, they worked to limit the exchanges he needed to participate in, and they masked true takedown entries.

These principles are explained in full, with examples, in my breakdown of his fight with Deiveson Figueiredo.

Once Formiga became comfortable boxing and controlling entries with his eyes open, things seemed to slow down for him. Against both Pettis and Figueiredo, Formiga looked clairvoyant. He had narrowed each of their games to a few key reads, then based his offensive striking and grappling chain off of them in a systematic process.

As a volume striker, Sergio Pettis has a few consistent pieces to his approach. He almost always leads with his jab, and as long as his opponent isn’t a static power punching threat who isn’t attempting to pressure hard or burst in, he’ll stand his ground and extend exchanges, hunting for counters.

Even though Pettis frequently switched stances, the jab was a constant, and that’s what Formiga honed in on. However, he utilized a variety of looks to work off the jab, never showing one thing too many times. If he became too predictable, Pettis could start to counter and build.

For the most part, from closed stance, he parried the jab with his own lead hand, then either jabbed off the parry, dipping levels, or jab-hooked around the hands. After realizing this pattern, Pettis began to pull back after jabbing, giving Formiga enough comfort to step in with his rear hand and attack in the pocket.

After a full round of showing this look, Formiga struck. He looked to catch the jab of Pettis as always, and as he planted to step in for his usual answer, Formiga changed levels and shot a double, opting to circle toward the head side for some unknown reason. His footwork on the finish was great, but the head positioning allowed Pettis to flex his legs back and stay mobile.

VIDEO CLIP: Jussier Formiga builds off the jab of Sergio Pettis to lay out his wrestling gameplan

However, the double leg just really isn’t a great attack for Formiga, who tends to excel with more procedural techniques than those that require hustle and muscle if the shot isn’t perfect.

From closed stance, Formiga had a much more direct path to the snatch single, and he was extremely comfortable slipping the jab and gaining a dominant angle before shooting. From there, Formiga gets a high grip on the leg, C-steps and yanks, forcing Pettis to turn toward the single. Right off that motion, Formiga climbs up and latches onto the bodylock, and later on rear standing. Off the bodylock, he uses beautiful circling footwork to get Pettis resisting in one direction, then blocked with an outside trip and dragged the bodylock across to the other side.

That was by far Formiga’s most consistent setup. He did find success with different looks throughout the fight. Pettis continued to attack with both the lead and rear inside low kick with little setup, and Formiga eventually sought to catch the kick and look to finish his single. In this case, Pettis was able to insert a high butterfly hook, elevate and roll Formiga through to avoid the takedown.

We saw this again against Figueiredo, but Formiga’s coolest setup, and the one that takes the least time to program into your opponent, is the double rear hand entry. This is his main weapon for setting up takedowns in open stance matchups. Formiga lowers his level and bursts in with two rights, a straight followed by a quick hook. On the break, Formiga waits a few beats, then appears to burst back in, throwing his rear shoulder forward.

It’s a brilliant tactic against counterpunchers like Pettis and Figueiredo, who both can be relied upon to be prepared to punish an attack if they see it twice straight. Pettis throws to intercept with his own cross, and Formiga gets a clean shot on his hips, with his feet planted. Formiga still looks to turn the corner on the wrong side, but he completes the double.

VIDEO CLIP: Jussier Formiga disguises his open stance double with a rear hand entry

The Joseph Benavidez rematch does hold valuable intel, and it was a great fight, but it more or less played out in the way I described in the Figueiredo breakdown. Formiga did find success creating space to punish Benavidez’s blitzes and naked attacks, he even found his takedown entries, but the scrambling and southpaw body attacks of Benavidez were his kryptonite.

Jussier Formiga vs. Brandon Moreno (UFC Brasilia)

If this fight does indeed go down on Saturday, and if Formiga is himself, I see a clear path to get to these same positions.

Sergio Pettis and Brandon Moreno are fairly distinct operators, but there are a few key shared tendencies that bode well for Formiga.

Most importantly, Moreno has been leaning on his jab. We already know how well schooled Formiga is at setting up his game around countering and programming a persistent jabber. What’s even better for Formiga is that Moreno, much more often than not, fights out of the orthodox stance.

That means not only does Formiga get the closed stance jabbing match he prefers, but he’s also lined up for his more reliable takedown entries and defensive maneuvers.

When you add in the fact that Moreno’s pressure is more measured than swarming, making him less likely to make Formiga uncomfortable or out of position on the backfoot, you can see a familiar gameplan coming together for Formiga.

Now, Jussier Formiga is aging, and Brandon Moreno is dynamic and dangerous enough to make things interesting, even with his approach from the Kai Kara-France fight. It’s entirely possible that Moreno makes his own reads and looks to attack the open stance defensive vulnerabilities of Formiga. It’s a look without much evidence to reliably suspect, but you never know.

Despite my appreciation for Brandon Moreno, it’s only right that Formiga gets his long-awaited title shot. In his last five bouts, he’s 4-1 with a loss to Joseph Benavidez and a win over Deiveson Figueiredo, the two men currently contending for the title.

No matter how his career plays out from here, we can only hope that Jussier Formiga receives due respect for his prolific grappling attack, the amazing improvements he made as a striker, and the unique “fight IQ” demonstrated by his brilliant gameplans.