Usually, for the professional MMA geek, a flash knockout is the worst possible outcome. Just like a coach studying tape (but considerably lamer and a lot less useful), we analysts make most of our reads by picking out repeating patterns. And the larger your sample size, the more repetitions you get, the easier the patterns are to find.
When, however, IT IS ALL OVER in a matter of moments, it can be difficult to know what to say. Usually you’re left no less confused than the fighter on the wrong end of the KO, and just as frustratingly bereft of answers.
Sometimes, though, a knockout is just too perfect not to think about, over and over again. It ceases to be a mere piece of technique and becomes a work of art; instead of frustrating your thoughts, it fills your head with all sorts of colors and ideas. A truly shocking, skillful KO can set your imagination running wild even as it temporarily reboots the imagination of the person on the wrong end of it.
Last Saturday, at UFC 261, Rose Namajunas delivered just such a knockout. She spent just about 70 seconds moving around getting a look at Weili Zhang before sliding forward and casually booting the champ in the head to once again claim the UFC strawweight title.
It was an absolute humdinger of a kick. Perfectly timed, perfectly placed, and thrown with what can only be described as perfect ease, it is equally pleasing to the eye whether slowed down or viewed at full speed (provided, of course, you are a sadist). Within the space of a second, the strike confused Zhang’s defenses before gliding in to meet her chin as delicately as a bird lighting on a branch.
For Namajunas, who delivered a similarly stunning first-round KO in her second title effort, it was probably the most flawlessly executed single strike of her career, and it deserves to be appreciated on its own merits.
Let’s break down a few of the elements of this fresh masterpiece.
1. After a few upper body feints, Rose takes a few small adjustment steps to line herself up with Zhang’s center-line.
2. As she takes her angle, Rose shows Zhang just a flash of a kick feint—enough to put the idea in her head.
3. Now Namajunas begins her kick. She slides her back foot forward first, dangerously narrowing her stance, but adding a little reach to her kick.
4. Namajunas lifts her chambered leg. If Zhang didn’t catch onto the footwork, she is well aware by now that a kick is coming her way.
5. She jerks her own lead leg back to protect it—which does unfortunately little to prevent Rose’s instep smacking into the side of her neck.
6. And new, etc.
The first thing that may jump out at you is just how badly Zhang misreads the knockout blow. While Namajunas aims straight for the head, the champion clearly suspects a low kick, yanking her lead leg back without giving a second thought to the position of her chin. We all know that the strike you do not see is more often than not the one that knocks you out, and there is no doubt given her reaction that this particular strike catches Zhang completely blind—which helps to explain why, despite being thrown with impressive speed but little power, the kick nonetheless knocks her almost completely senseless.
But there’s more to this knockout than mere speed. Rose further minimizes any telegraphing by keeping her leg chambered until the crucial moment. Look again at Frame 4, and you’ll see that it really is very difficult to tell where this kick is headed even just before it strikes the target. That’s because Namajunas leads with her knee, keeping her heel pinned to the back of her thigh until, at the last possible moment, the leg unfolds and catapults the foot to the target. This is a style of kicking preferred in most schools of Karate and Taekwondo, and is reminiscent of the feared head kicks often thrown by Robert Whittaker and Lyoto Machida (click through for some GIFs).
And then there is the deception of the eyeline. If you can, watch the whole fight again (it won’t take you long), paying close attention to how consistently Namajunas maintains eye contact with her opponent’s chest. This isn’t because she’s some kind of ogler; she simply wants to take eye feints out of the equation.
Any fighter who looks into their opponent’s eyes (as many fighters do) signs themself up for a dangerous game. It is sometimes possible to quickly ascertain the target of an incoming strike by following the other fighter’s eyes—but this also opens the door to misdirection. The aforementioned Lyoto Machida excels at disguising his kicks in just this way: he locks eyes with his opponent, then looks sharply downward as he chambers a kick, only to send it rocketing up toward the jaw. In fact, you can see him doing exactly that in the GIF linked above.
Rose Namajunas chooses to avoid the risks inherent to this game while still reaping some of the benefits. While keeping one’s eyes fixed on the opponent’s chest can make it all but impossible to sell a kick with a glance like Machida, it also prevents the opponent from gathering any ocular information whatsoever as to said kick’s intended target, real or feigned.
Opinions differ as to which default eyeline is “correct,” but Namajunas’ disciplined, sternum-gazing ways only add to the problems facing a foe attempting to suss out her intentions.
MEANWHILE, ON THE WRONG END
Of course, just up and throwing a naked kick like this is a gamble. Rose is fortunate that Weili chose to stand her ground and defend the kick, thus pinning her success or failure on her own ability to read it correctly. If, on the other hand, she had seen only a kick coming and decided instead to crash in and counter no matter where that kick was aimed, it might have been Rose kissing the canvas just 78 seconds into the fight.
But sometimes… you just gotta throw shit out there and see what works. And often the perfect time to do so is within the first few minutes of a bout, before the opponent has had a chance to settle down and run your various inputs through the database of her muscle memory.
Indeed, Weili Zhang may be particularly susceptible to such calculated risks.
If we look back at Zhang’s star-making battle with Joanna Jedrzejzczyk, we may glimpse the very same openings which Namajunas and trainer Trevor Wittman saw in camp (if, indeed, this was a prepared move and not something Rose simply found on the fly). This would not, after all, be the first time the two of them conspired to produce a stunning, title-winning knockout in the first round.
Keeping that in mind as we review Zhang-Jedrzejczyk, the first thing we notice is that, while Jedrzejczyk did enjoy some success leading with kicks in the first couple minutes, by the end of round one Zhang had come up with sensible counters for just about every kick that came her way. She would catch one, evade the next, and crash straight through another, affording each kick its own defense before moving in to punish Jedrzejczyk with heavy blows.
After a certain point, Jedrzejczyk had to set up more or less all of her kicks to find an opening that wouldn’t get her countered. And, in fact, at least one of those openings looks remarkably similar to the KO at UFC 261.
1. Zhang inches onto the cusp of punching range.
2. As she leads with her jab, Jedrzejczyk sticks her own jab in Zhang’s face, more with the intent of distracting her than doing damage.
3. As Zhang withdraws, she can see that Jedrzejczyk is following her retreat with a kick.
4. Just as Jedrzejczyk’s foot connects, we can see that Zhang, confused, is attempting to protect her lead leg just as she did against Namajunas—in fact, we can even see Joanna selling the low kick by looking down as she kicks high.
Looking further, we can actually find instances of this exact defensive technique littered all throughout Zhang’s battle with Jedrzejczyk. More interesting than the specific technique, however, is the mindset which leads Zhang to use it.
At her core, Weili Zhang is a counter puncher—but not just any counter puncher. Zhang has the countering instincts (if not the skill) of a Juan Manuel Marquez: she wants to capitalize on her opponent’s mistakes, yes, but she doesn’t much like waiting around or giving ground in order to make a few safe reads first. In other words, Zhang doesn’t mind taking chances early on—or ever—as long as it means she can pay back whatever offense comes her way as quickly and decisively as possible. She wants those counters now, and after that she wants them again, and again.
As the fight with Jedrzejczyk showed, she is particularly attuned to countering kicks. As far as Weili is concerned, each and every kick might as well be a flashing neon side reading “PUNCH ME NOW.” It’s an invitation she finds it hard to refuse.
This mindset is not without merit. As far as blanket rules go, “counter every kick” is a hell of a lot smarter than, say, “run away from every kick,” a tack taken by far too many other MMA fighters.
For one, kicks are bound to be some of the most powerful strikes in any opponent’s arsenal, so it makes sense to counter them early and often, if only to keep the opponent from throwing too many.
What’s more, kicks work best going forward, so many kickers will only grow in confidence and creativity if you give ground instead of planting to return fire.
And finally, there just aren’t many better times to land a really solid counter than when the opponent is throwing (or recovering from) a kick. Remember, Namajunas was gambling just as much as Weili by putting that strike out there without first establishing a competing threat. Even a kick as expertly executed as this one must, by design, leave the thrower momentarily teetering on one leg. Positively ripe for a kill shot.
So the basic idea underpinning Zhang’s game is not unsound. What, then, might she have done differently to avoid catastrophe?
Well, even if she were uncertain about the kick’s intended target, Zhang might have opted for a more universally effective defense, rather than whipping her leg out of range while leaving her chin well within it. For example, she might have tried a one-size-fits-all “Thai block,” as you see in so many Muay Thai and kickboxing bouts. Namajunas might have gone on to exploit this form of defense down the line, but it almost certainly would have worked in the moment.
Likewise, a same-time counter punch would have been a far safer gamble than the one which Zhang elected. Obviously she didn’t know what kind of kick she was dealing with, but she did know it was a kick; she might have simply stepped into it and let fly a good, hard punch, like we mentioned earlier. When in doubt, naked aggression is never the worst idea. The best defense, after all, is a good offense.
Conversely, Zhang could have removed herself from danger entirely by moving both feet instead of just one. When presented with the first perplexing signs of Namajunas’ impending kick, Zhang might have admitted her ignorance, stepped back, and safely got the whole hell out of Dodge. Too much retreating footwork can end up encouraging the dedicated kicker, but then, that’s hardly an insurmountable obstacle for a counter puncher of Zhang’s quality—if it’s even an obstacle at all.
More kicks mean more opportunities to land particularly juicy counters, and Zhang doubtless would have capitalized on those opportunities had she avoided her first mistake, or merely survived it.
This should be nothing if not a learning experience for the Chinese fighter. Like Namajunas herself, who suffered defeat during her first crack at the belt, Zhang would be well advised to take this setback as a lesson on the values of discipline, poise, and patience. She lacks the advantage of youth Rose enjoyed back in 2014, but she remains a phenomenal athlete who has already demonstrated an ability to adapt rapidly between one fight and the next.
With potential rematches against both Namajunas and Jedrzejczyk on the horizon, and a whole host of other exciting strawweight battles from which to choose, there is no reason that Weili Zhang shouldn’t come back from this shocking defeat sharper and craftier than ever. You lose, and you learn.
And sometimes, despite all your best efforts, life just kicks you in the head.