Two heavyweights are about to fight, and both of them are good, skillful strikers.
Before we move ahead with the rest of this article, I’d like you to pause and reconsider that first sentence. Because when, I ask you, is the last time we were able to say that?
Sometimes, heavyweight MMA feels like a hackneyed vaudeville act. We all know, based on personal interactions, that a man’s size has little correlation with his aptitude or intelligence, and yet here they are, the heavyweights, ever ready to set beefy boys back a hundred years with a single clash of clumsy punches.
But Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Ciryl Gane are true advocates for the potential quality of this much-maligned division.
Rozenstruik, a seasoned kickboxer, is a devastating counter puncher. Endlessly patient, he possesses a full complement of strikes, all of them lightning fast by the standards of his class, and a keen eye for split-second openings.
But it’s Ciryl Gane who I want to focus on today. A Frenchman, Gane must have grown up drinking from the same source that watered Andre the Giant. Yet even at six-foot-six he is remarkably lean and lithe. Usually when we assess a heavyweight’s athleticism, we have to add that well-worn qualifier: “he’s fast for a heavyweight,” “he’s agile for a heavyweight,” “he’s well-conditioned for a heavyweight.” With Gane, that hardly seems necessary. Heavyweight he may be, but he is also fast, agile, and well-conditioned, full stop.
On top of that, with just seven pro fights under his belt he is already developing a diverse and punishing skillset. This is not the sort of cumbersome giant we were readying ourselves for back when Lesnar and Carwin were slinging canned hams around the cage. Gane fights out of the same camp that built Francis Ngannou, but for all of their physical similarities, Gane stolidly refuses to treat his size and athleticism like crutches.
On top of that Gane is an excellent kicker. Heavyweights get plenty of credit for heavy hands, but gracile kicks are hardly a hallmark of this division. Nonetheless, Gane’s kicks are as clever as they are crushing. Rozenstruik makes for a fascinating counterpart to this aspect of Gane’s game, as he is perhaps the most consistent counter-kicker of his entire class.
It would be a shame to let such a rare dynamic pass without getting into the nitty-gritty of kicking tactics. So without further ado, let’s get our feet wet.
As surely as position precedes submission, most seasoned kickers know to lead with the hands. While kicks cover a wider range and pack a greater wallop than even the hardest punches, they also leave the thrower far more vulnerable. Having a punch countered feels bad, but if you’re doing things right, at least you get to eat that counter with both feet firmly rooted to the ground. A kick, it hardly needs saying, requires at least one foot to go flying around at altitude; and that means danger.
Thus, kickers focus heavily on forcing their opponents out of position before launching such a risky strike. As any seasoned striker knows, a kick is only as good as its setup.
Ciryl Gane kicks with such confidence and power, it can often seem as if he eschews setups altogether. He seems to simply walk forward and boot his opponents at will. In reality, however, Gane has a keen eye for the smallest of cues at range. In addition to the frightful kicks, Gane possesses a long, ramrod of a jab. It is this weapon which most often creates the momentary openings Gane likes to put his shin through.
This body kick against Don’Tale Mayes sounded like a thirty-aught-six fired in an empty warehouse, but it was more than a mere assault on the sound barrier. Take a look at the sequence preceding it.
1. Gane moves into range, keeping an eye on Mayes’ lead hand.
2. As he closes in, he preemptively parries that lead hand, removing the threat.
3. Mayes gets his right hand up in time to stop Gane’s from crushing his face...
4. ...but his counter left hook goes well wide of the mark as he is shoved backward.
5. Back at neutral distance.
6. Gane takes a sharp step forward. This feint draws Mayes’ lead hand out again, trying to ward off whatever punch is coming next.
7. Except it isn’t a punch. Somehow, Mayes survives this thunderous kick to the ribs.
Gane’s reliance on feints is largely responsible for the impression that he doesn’t bother to set up his kicks. Usually, when we talk about a kicker leading with his hands, we picture a Dutch-style combination—two or three hard punches followed by a chopping kick. But that is far from the only way to safely execute a kick, nor is it the method Gane prefers.
Feints work best when the threat they imply has been firmly established. In short, if you want the other guy to worry about the mere suggestion of your jab, it’s best to feed him a few real ones first. This is what we see Gane doing in the above example when he tries to crack Mayes with a right hand. Mayes has to scramble to defend himself, and his flailing counter makes it pretty clear that he is anxious about follow-up punches.
The feint that follows is nothing but footwork. You might even call it a deliberate telegraph. Gane steps into range with such confidence that Mayes has no doubt another attack is coming. He’s ready for it. The problem, of course, is that he’s ready for the wrong sort of strike. That pawing left hand is all Gane needs. This is a trigger we see again and again in the Frenchman’s fights: he moves forward, threatening with long straight punches; and the moment he sees his opponent reaching out to measure the distance or ward off a blow to the head, he fires the kick. It is a nigh-subliminal cue which Gane works diligently to create again and again.
How’s Taste My Big Teep-Teep?
One thing that really stands out about Gane’s kicking game is his teep.
The teep is a straight kick, like a Karate snap-kick but with a greater emphasis on hip thrust. It’s Muay Thai’s answer to the boxing jab, in more ways than one. Like a jab, the teep’s long reach and straight trajectory make it an ideal weapon for warding off a pressuring opponent, or driving a timid one backward. It works well for setting up other punches and kicks, and is by far the best one-size-fits-all counter available to eight-limbed strikers. As the jab does for boxers, the teep nestles comfortably into the games of any and all nakmuay, regardless of style.
And yet very few MMA fighters use it.
Ciryl Gane is a proud exception to the trend. France has long been Europe’s most prolific producer of Muay Thai stylists, and Gane has clearly benefited from that particular martial environment. His teep is a devastating weapon, a penetrating blow which drives the wind out of an opponent’s lungs even as it drives his body across the cage. Gane uses the teep defensively, to keep aggressive opponents at bay, but with his predilection for pressure, the kick usually serves to keep foes on their heels.
In particular, Gane likes to use the teep following a reset or angle change. Often, after an attempted exchange of punches, Gane will pivot and find himself staring down the sights at an opponent a little too close and a little too confident for comfort.
Nothing a fresh abdominal stab-wound won’t fix.
1. Gane edges toward Tanner Boser.
2. A long jab falls just short as Boser begins to evade.
3. Gane pivots behind his jab, settling in at a new angle as Boser moves clockwise away from him.
4. It looks almost as if Boser is moving into the path of a right hand, but Gane already knows he was too far away to touch with the jab. Instead of drawing back a fist, he chambers his leg...
5. ...and drives the ball of his foot into Boser’s breadbasket.
MMA fighters typically think of circular strikes when they want to intercept an evasive adversary. Round kicks are a common choice, their scything arcs presenting a formidable obstacle for a circling opponent. Presented with the same moving target, however, Gane tends to prefer the teep.
The reasoning is as straightforward as the kick itself. Whenever an opponent circles clockwise (assuming two orthodox fighters), there is a brief moment at which he squares himself to his opponent, presenting his center-line and the wide target of the abdomen it bisects. You can see Gane anticipating this moment in Frame 4 of our last example, and in Frame 5 his calculations are proven correct. The teep lands so squarely that even as Boser’s body folds in half it is driven straight back, despite the inertia of his lateral movement.
This isn’t as easy as it looks, and that’s probably why we see so few teeps in the Octagon. You can try this out yourself if you have a heavy bag handy (or a friend with strong abs and a surfeit of patience). Try ten consecutive teeps and see how many grip the target without sliding off to one side or the other. If the bag starts spinning when you kick it (or your toes keep getting tangled up in your friend’s shirt) you’ve missed the mark. And that’s against a stationary target. Now try it on a moving opponent, and you get some idea of why so few fighters other than Gane utilize the technique. It can be done—and, as Gane shows, it can be extremely effective—but it takes skill.
As with the jab, there are countless variations of this one kick, and Gane uses many of them. Gane’s teep usually targets the body, but he is perfectly happy to stomp on his opponent’s hip or knee. He also tried to turn Don’Tale Mayes into a Pez dispenser with one savage teep to the face. In Thailand, where the soles of the feet provoke both moral and physical disgust, this strike is a profound insult. We don’t know how Don’Tale Mayes feels about feet, but one suspects that Ciryl Gane would be satisfied merely to know that it hurt.
Sometimes fighters will extend the reach and power of their teeps by rotating the leg inward, turning the strike into a sort of teep/side-kick hybrid. This is the favored teep of Muay Thai legend Saenchai (you can watch an entire Saenchai highlight video comprised solely of these kicks and clever attacks built off of them), and Gane makes use of the same technique on a regular basis.
More novel, however, is the inverse sibling of this technique: a teep thrown with external rotation, so that the knee points outward at the moment of impact. Whereas the side-kick variation swings up from the outside, this teep chambers itself within the pocket of space between the two fighters. Gane likes this version especially well. Its advantages are twofold. Firstly, it works better at closer ranges, requiring less extension to get the ball of the foot on target than does the longer side-kick variety. Secondly, the “inside” chamber enables the kick to sneak right between the elbows of a defending foe, making it especially difficult to block or catch. Watch any one of Gane’s fights and you will see him befuddling his opponent’s defenses with this tricky kick.
Playing with Expectations
Like a skeleton lacking connective tissue, even the most varied of kicking games is easily broken apart without some systematic linking between techniques. This is where Gane’s kicking game really blossoms—and if his most recent bout is any indication, the connective tissue of his game is only getting stronger and more flexible with time.
Check out this beautiful sequence of techniques from that aforementioned fight with Junior Dos Santos.
1. As in our first example, Gane feints high to draw Dos Santos’ attention toward his hands. As soon as Junior’s left hand drifts toward him...
2. ...Gane unleashes a punishing body kick. Dos Santos starts checking only after the strike has slipped past his defenses.
3. Now Gane resets.
4. With a feint, he tests whether or not Dos Santos has learned his lesson.
5. As expected, Dos Santos reacts to the feint with a check: the threat is established.
6. Gane drifts backward, drawing a hesitant Dos Santos toward him.
7. As Gane chambers another left round kick, he looks directly at Dos Santos’ midsection, signalling quite clearly: “body kick incoming.”
8. Junior buys it. He tries to check the expected body kick, immobilizing him and distracting him from the high kick that nearly takes his head off.
You really have to watch the GIF of this one to appreciate Gane’s subtlety. Not only is there enough connective tissue here to make a hearty broth—Gane’s feints and footwork both contribute to the seamlessness of this switch-up—but Ciryl works overtime to sell the deception until the last possible moment.
The fact that he fixes Dos Santos’ body with his eyes while firing that final high kick is certainly part of it. Such misdirection is common even in MMA because it works. But it’s the speed of the strike that really sells the illusion. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say lack of speed, because Gane really throws the high kick tremendously slow.
Watch it again, and note how gradually Gane initiates his kick. This is done very deliberately; Gane knows he is at a safe distance, and his work earlier in the sequence has already assured him that Dos Santos is focused on blocking these strikes, not countering them. As such, he actually wants Dos Santos to see the kick coming. The check Dos Santos has already tried twice in quick succession is a perfectly viable answer to a body kick, but the best defense against head kicks is to to lean or step out of range, and this cannot be done with one foot dangling in the breeze. Gane doesn’t just throw the kick, he shows it, letting Dos Santos assure himself that he has his bases covered right up until the moment the kick accelerates suddenly toward its real target.
That Dos Santos survives this kick comes down to a combination of instincts, distance, and luck. Such things matter in MMA—especially at heavyweight.
Ciryl Gane is an exceptionally talented and skilled heavyweight prospect, and just may be the best kicker in the entire division. A big part of the interest in his upcoming matchup is how much better suited Jairzinho Rozenstruik is to deal with these specialized weapons.
In particular, Rozenstruik is a practiced counter-kicker. He will likely be open for a great many of Gane’s favorite kick attacks, but Rozenstruik almost never eats a kick without immediately giving one back. This is one of the surest ways to land a really clean, powerful leg kick. In fact, of all the beautiful kicks Gane threw at Junior Dos Santos, the one which really changed the complexion of the fight was a counter kick, sent thudding into Dos Santos’ hamstring after he whiffed on a haymaker left hook.
Gane has already proven susceptible to counters in general. His long, lunging punches frequently compromise his balance, and comparatively speaking, kicks are much harder to control. Whether Rozenstruik will be able to take away Gane’s most effective weapons is surely one of the most interesting facets of this rarest breed of heavyweight fight.
For fans accustomed to grimy, hideous beef boy brawls, Ciryl Gane is a breath of fresh, cool air. But this is still heavyweight, the class of consequences, and there are no points awarded for style. Ciryl Gane may be the heavyweight contender we’ve all been waiting for, but none of us will know for sure until he beats someone who can get kicked and kick back.
For more on Rozenstruik-Gane, plus a look back at Derrick Lewis’ (Heavyweight Classic™ model) big win over Curtis Blaydes, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.