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Rise of a wrestle-boxer: The keys to Cody Stamann’s UFC 250 performance

Under absolutely unimaginable circumstances, bantamweight rising contender Cody Stamann showed off the tools of a future title challenger.

It’s safe to say that no one fighting in the UFC during the age of quarantine is having a normal training camp.

With limited access to gyms and other essential training utilities, fighters are having to reinvent their preparation and mix up their approach. The shaky nature of event bookings has led to a great deal of short notice matchups, many fighters are opting to compete up a weight class in order to eliminate a time and energy-consuming weight cut from the equation.

All of these complications must have seemed microscopic to bantamweight contender Cody Stamann. One week out from his UFC 250 clash with Brian Kelleher, Stamann’s 18-year-old brother passed away unexpectedly.

Stamann was candid in interviews during fight week - he was beyond devastated, but believed that his brother, his biggest fan, would have wanted him to compete. It’s impossible to imagine the weight of that loss. Fans may recall Jake Shields fighting Jake Ellenberger in a main event shortly after the death of his father, where he was stopped in under one minute by strikes for the first time since his third professional fight.

In the most trying circumstances possible, against a capable and dangerous opponent, Cody Stamman had the breakout performance of his career.

UFC 250: Stamman v Kelleher Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Level Manipulation

While Cody Stamann has had plenty of success as a wrestler in mixed martial arts, much of it has to do with his base skill competency, rather than a working process. In other words, he’s good at wrestling, but he isn’t as good at getting himself into favorable wrestling situations. Against Aljamain Sterling, for example, Stamann came out on top in several of their exchanges, but it was Sterling who had the tools to initiate those exchanges, and eventually he got what he wanted.

This is a problem for the majority of would-be offensive wrestlers in mixed martial arts. By no means is that an easy style to pursue - developing an effective striking-to-wrestling game requires long-term planning. The fighter in question has to learn and sharpen striking tools and concepts while simultaneously considering how they will link up with their wrestling.

Fortunately, advanced technique in striking arts, like boxing, match up extremely well with the most effective setups for wrestling in MMA.

Cody Stamann’s performance at UFC 250 exemplified exactly the kind of striking it will take to become a more efficient wrestler in MMA moving forward.

Likely due to a need to conserve energy, and Kelleher’s dangerous counters from front headlock, Stamann did not actually pull the trigger on these leg attacks, but the necessary setups were clearly present.

Leading and Pressuring

It sounds silly, but wrestling for MMA can be summarized as “lying about striking”.

At the highest level in freestyle wrestling, World and Olympic champions are getting to their attacks by establishing rhythm and patterns in the handfight, showing one of those looks to draw a reaction, then attacking or countering.

In MMA it’s very similar, although positioning relative to the outer boundary becomes much more important and is easier to manipulate.

The first problem to address is closing distance. Walking straight in may work against some opponents, if they’re bad enough on the backfoot, but most of the time a fighter needs to strike or threaten to strike in order to safely enter. For example, if your opponent likes a high guard, entering off a straight is ideal. If after one or two attempts, your opponent gets a read on that straight and prepares a counter, it’s necessary to feint that entry, draw the counter, and then capitalize on that opening.

The next problem is penetrating your opponent’s defenses. In wrestling, athletes have their head, hands, hips and feet to do work defensively. That’s where pressure tactics become important. If your opponent’s hands are low and ready to catch your entry with underhooks, feint high or strike high to draw up a guard. If your opponent is moving away laterally from your forward motion, hook or kick round to cut off their retreat.

From these basic ideas come layered attacks. It’s important not to show your opponent consistent patterns that they can read or time.

At UFC 250, Cody Stamann hadn’t exactly mastered these concepts, but his use of level changing made his pressure markedly more effective than in the past, and will serve him in future fights to set up his wrestling attack.

VIDEO CLIP: Cody Stamann leads vs. Brian Kelleher

The first and most obvious concept at work is level-changing strikes. Kelleher’s use of a high guard made the body an open target, it was already a logical choice. In general, entering to the body is wonderful for wrestlers because, if performed correctly, the motion will resemble that of a wrestling entry. That adds one more look for your opponent to consider as you burst into the pocket.

Kelleher lead frequently with a dipping jab upstairs, that motion naturally fed into the deeper level change to hit the body. The same can be said for his rear straight. What I loved the most about Stamann’s performance is that he didn’t stop at single body attacks, he lever punched and came back to the head, building on his work. Theoretically, the body attack should draw down the guard and open the head.

A wrestler should recognize that if they can get their opponent preoccupied with the body-head attack, it only takes one fake to use one of those striking opportunities to enter on a shot.

Even level fakes, with no strikes or feints, manipulated Kelleher’s guard.

Cody Stamann Brian Kelleher
Stamann probably could have attacked the body relentlessly.

You can imagine how effective it would be for Stamman to hit that level fake, allow Kelleher to relax again, feint up high and shoot in.

Now that he’s more focused on pressuring, Stamman’s kicking game will be much more beneficial in setting up his wrestling. Kicking high typically forces your opponent to not only bring the guard up, but back up straight in their stance. Look no further than former ACA lightweight champion Ali Bagov to see the efficacy of high kicking into shots.

Working Reactively

Stamann was much more effective leading than on the backfoot, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t technical leaps to see there as well.

VIDEO CLIP: Cody Stamann demonstrates a new level of craft on the backfoot vs. Brian Kelleher

One lovely note was Stamann’s habit of using “catch and pitch” tactics, parrying Kelleher’s soft entry strikes and firing back hard up top. They didn’t typically land clean, but it’s a great look for setting expectations. Kelleher’s weight is already coming forward, and as soon as Stamman begins to throw back, the high guard is up. Someone like Jussier Formiga has demonstrated how effective shot entries can be off parries.

Another note Stamman might be able to take from Formiga is how to enter the clinch off reactive head movement. As Kelleher crashed in with straight punching entries, Stamman was able to slip and torque back into stance with his left hook. It’s a great counter, but that punch can also be used to swing around for a collar tie, or on a lower level to gain an underhook.

Those opportunities are even more obvious when level changing in place to dip under strikes, and Stamann understood this.

Cody Stamann Brian Kelleher
That’s a takedown entry on a silver platter.

Stamann immediately released to strike, but you have to assume he saw the entry in front of him. Stamann has a powerful, driving double leg at his disposal, this would be the perfect situation to blast through.

Critiques and Conclusions

Oddly enough, the most problematic looks for Stamann moving forward as a wrestler, were the times he did actually take Kelleher down.

All of this motion and planting from Stamann made him a fairly reliable target to low kick. At first, Stamann was just eating them.

Eventually, Stamann and his corner got a read on Kelleher’s “tells”, how he plants and loads up before round kicking, and began to brace to catch the kicks.

VIDEO CLIP: Cody Stamman catches the kicks of Brian Kelleher

What I liked about Stamann’s reaction was that he was looking to jam the kicker, shooting his jab through as Kelleher exposed himself. I also liked that he utilized a dipping jab, which could later lend itself to body counters or true level changes.

What I didn’t like, was those concepts paired with using the rear hand to catch kicks.

If you’re jamming the kicker, it’s fairly safe to drop that hand and loop around to catch, but if the read on the range is off, you could be leaving your head completely vulnerable as a round kick comes crashing through.

Stamann was fairly disciplined about closing distance as Kelleher kicked, but there were clear examples of Stamann bracing and planting at a range where Kelleher could have aimed one level higher, had he seen it.

Overall, Cody Stamann showed us a version of himself, if paired with the wrestling game we’ve seen in previous fights, that could challenge for a title someday. I’ll be keeping a close eye on him moving forward.