We all know the jab is the boxer’s most foundational weapon. It does almost everything, and everything it doesn’t do it helps to set up.
But if we had to pick which punch really embodies what it means to box, I might select the humble left hook instead. Boxing (including the boxing we see in MMA) is a curious combination of scientific craft and brute, animal violence. At one end of the spectrum is the jab, flexible, nuanced, and relatively unlikely to put your lights out; at the other, we’d probably all agree, is the right hand, the favored (and indeed only) punch of barroom brawlers.
And right smack in the middle is the humble left hook.
It’s subtle. It’s brutal. And often both at once.
If the jab is the perfect set-up, then the hook is the ideal companion. What the jab initiates, the hook punctuates.
This makes a fighter’s left hook an excellent barometer of his overall boxing skill. Anyone can flash a jab and come crashing in after it with a big right hand, but what happens next? Your average barroom brawler doesn’t throw left hooks, because the opening for the hook often doesn’t reveal itself until after the initial clash. Seeing and exploiting that opening requires clear eyes and a cool head—that is, at least, if you mean to avoid falling over your own feet and getting yourself chinned in the process.
Two, three, even four layers deep into an exchange: that is where the left hook thrives. And fighting in layers is the true mark of a consummate combat craftsman.
Last Saturday, at UFC 262, Charles Oliveira secured the UFC lightweight title. After nearly 11 years and an astounding 28 fights under the UFC banner, Oliveira delivered one of the most cathartic KOs I have ever seen—and he did it with one hell of a mean left hook.
So let’s cut the preamble and break it down.
Michael Chandler does not close distance so much as he slams it shut. Sometimes subtlety is the tradeoff for athleticism, and Chandler is among the most explosive athletes in the sport.
Chandler’s attacks almost always come on straight lines. We saw him pay for this in 2019, when Chandler dashed forward only to find Patricio Pitbull’s right hand waiting for him. But doing this requires skill, speed, and brass balls. It is no accident that Pitbull is the only man to ever beat Chandler in a straightforward collision. If Chandler is taking a risk crashing into the pocket, then so is the man who chooses to meet him head-on.
But what happens after the explosion? Chandler may hit like an 18-wheeler, but he handles about as well as one too. Take a look at this sequence from the first ten seconds of the fight.
1. Oliveira advances behind a Thai check. Chandler, sensing that Oliveira’s ability to retreat is compromised, plants his feet and prepares to lunge in.
2. Chandler comes in hard behind the jab.
3. And then the right hand, slinging it hard to Oliveira’s body.
4. His attack complete, Chandler hops straight back out of range.
Exploding forward is risky, but as Chandler’s career shows, it’s hardly a foolish gamble. In fact, Chandler does a good job of mitigating the risks inherent, leading with his jab and changing levels as he attacks.
Retreating on the same line, however, is never a good idea. A fighter who attacks on one angle should always retreat on a different one.
And that’s far from the only mistake on which Oliveira was able to capitalize.
So what is so wrong with this retreat?
For one, Chandler does a poor job of recovering his guard after punching. Look back at frame 4 of our first example and note how Chandler’s right hand drifts down to his chest as he pulls it back. A hand beside the chin is hardly the end-all-be-all of striking defense, but it wouldn’t have hurt.
Then there is the technique of the footwork. Note that Chandler’s retreat is not a step, but a hop. For a moment both feet leave the ground at once. Hopping is certainly a quicker way of creating space than a simple step, but the tradeoff is the prospect of eating a punch with absolutely no base to dissipate the force of the impact. A truck with no shocks is going to feel every bump in the road.
But by far the worst part of Chandler’s retreat is its predictability. Had he reset by stepping or pivoting to one side or the other, Oliveira may still have caught him at the end of his reach, but he would have at least had to adjust his position first. That split-second of adjustment could have been all Chandler needed to earn himself another chance—and who knows? Given the way the first round ended, one more chance may have been enough to win.
The way it was, all Oliveira had to do to anticipate the position of Chandler’s retreating chin was survive the initial exchange. He did, and this is what happened.
1. Once again Chandler jabs.
2. Unlike the first round, Oliveira has no interest in retreating. He creates enough distance to evade the jab by stepping his right foot back a couple inches, but his lead foot stays put in punching distance.
3. Seeing this, Chandler decides to force Oliveira back. He throws away another jab...
4. ...and follows with the same lunging right hand. Only this time, Oliveira chooses to trade with him.
5. Both right hands miss the mark, and Chandler begins his retreat. Oliveira, however, stays right where he is and eyes his target.
6. This time, as Chandler hops back with his guard low, Oliveira meets him with a cracking left hook.
7. The beginning of the end, less than ten seconds into round two.
Not only does Oliveira maintain the pocket, he does a much better job than Chandler of keeping his eyes on the opponent. A predictable retreat could be forgiven if Chandler had put Oliveira out of position, or obstructed his line of sight—but that doesn’t happen. As soon as Oliveira feels his right hand punching air, he sights Chandler’s chin, anticipates his linear retreat, and puts him down.
Now there are many ways to throw a hook. Perhaps my favorite is what I have taken to calling a “lawnmower hook,” in which force is generated by ripping weight from the front foot to the back (not unlike the motion of starting a lawnmower). Not only does this movement lend power to the punch, but it adds a layer of defense: as weight transfers from one foot to the other, the head changes position as well, drawing out of range even as the punch connects. Yves Edwards delivered a perfect rendition of this strike when he flatlined Jeremy Stephens in 2012.
Oliveira’s hook is an entirely different beast.
This is what you might call a “forward hook.” There is still weight transfer, of course. Oliveira’s stance starts a little wide, with his right foot stuck out behind him, and you can see that foot dragged forward at the moment of impact in order to catch the weight thrown toward it. But that foot is not near enough to Oliveira’s center of balance for him to really sit back on the punch. In fact, doing so would have lost him the range he needed to catch Chandler going backwards—unless Oliveira wanted to try a Frazier-esque leaping hook, and we already know how risky it can be to leap into the pocket.
A greater part of the force here comes from torque, not weight transfer. Look again at the position of Oliveira’s upper body in frame 4: he is not merely squared up with Chandler, but almost turned away from him. The follow-through of that wayward right hand twists Olivera’s body to the left, loading everything on that side—his back, his hip, the muscles of his leg—like a spring.
This is what makes the hook such a natural and perfect companion to the right hand. Miss your target and overthrow? No problem! All that wound up energy has to go somewhere, and the left hook is the ideal vehicle.
Often, fighters will attempt to generate additional force on a forward hook by extending their legs like a weightlifter’s power clean. That’s a mistake. Standing up tall not only makes it more difficult to follow-up with any technique, be it offensive or defensive, but also compromises the shock-absorbing properties of the stance just the same as a hop, but worse. Hopping backward is risky, but defensible; at the very least, you’re putting some space between yourself and the opponent. Popping bolt upright in the middle of an exchange, on the other hand, is simply a horrible idea.
But Oliveira controls his legs almost perfectly, and stays well-seated in his stance throughout the motion of the punch. He simply twists through, from left to right, and drags the hook straight through Chandler’s chin.
A clean left hook is hardly the most remarkable aspect of Oliveira’s long-awaited title win. This is a man who fought 28 times over 11 years under the UFC banner before ever sniffing a title shot, and he spent much of that time struggling and failing to overcome adversity in the cage. Michael Chandler gave Oliveira plenty of adversity to deal with in round one, ending the frame with a knockdown and a salvo of vicious coffin nail punches on the ground. Yet when Oliveira came out for round two, he was far from defeated. If anything, the beating seemed only to have pissed him off, and steeled him to push Chandler backward and return the favor.
The fact that Oliveira, a legendary submission artist, sealed the deal with one of the finest left hooks the Octagon has ever seen is just icing on the cake (or maybe that should be “frost on the tips”). Whatever you thought you knew about Charles Oliveira before (and you can count me among the most persistent doubters), this result forces you to reevaluate.
Charles Oliveira is a new man, and now he’s the champ. I would advise staying away from him in future.
But whatever you do, don’t back up on a straight line.
For more on Charles Oliveira’s big win and the rest of UFC 262, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching.