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UFC London technical breakdown: Cooking ribs with Chris Curtis

BE striking analyst Connor Ruebusch breaks down the body shots UFC fighter Chris Curtis uses to break down his opponents.

UFC Fight Night: Curtis v Vieira Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Chris Curtis was a veteran of 24 fights when he competed on season two of DWTNCS (that’s Dana White’s Dancing with the Contenders, for the uninitiated). A sharp boxer with solid defense and heavy hands, Curtis was what we in the horse-trading business call a finished product. He was good, and he was ready.

Of the ten men up for contract consideration on that night, White chose to sign Alonzo Menifield (now 5-3 in the UFC) and fan favorite Greg Hardy (4-5 in the UFC plus one no contest, currently riding a three-fight skid).

Chris Curtis was not selected, despite an exciting performance which ended in a stellar KO. Also competing on the same card was Kevin Holland, who was likewise passed over.

Fortunately, for both men–and for Dana White and company, who really know how to pick ‘em–the modern UFC is in constant need of short-notice fill-ins. For Holland, that meant an appointment with light heavyweight contender Thiago Santos less than two months after his Contender Series bid. While Holland would go on to lose his overmatched debut, he has now amassed a remarkable 10-3, 1 NC record in the UFC and established himself as a contender in the welterweight division.

Curtis, meanwhile, would have to wait another 28 months before finally getting his summons to the big show, during which interim he competed in a staggering nine fights. At one point, while fighting in PFL, Curtis lost twice on the same night. He announced his retirement after the first, and then reaffirmed it.

It didn’t stick, thank goodness. Curtis was back in the cage within five months, and quickly put together a five-fight winning streak. Now 26-8 as a pro, less than two years removed from the worst night of his career, Curtis got the call to fight Phil Hawes at Madison Square Garden.

And here he is. 3-0 in the UFC with two spectacular KOs, Curtis is once more filling in on short notice, this time replacing Darren Till in the co-main event slot opposite middleweight contender Jack Hermansson.

Doubtless there are many reasons for Chris Curtis’ astounding success in this late stage of his long career. Clearly he is one hell of a hard bastard, a man who doesn’t know how to quit, even when he wants to. But we began this article with a mention of his veteran savvy, his completeness as a combat athlete. And nothing in MMA marks a veteran as well as his willingness to employ, shall we say, less glamorous techniques.

Everyone loves a knockout, and novice fighters tend to spend every second of every fight in single-minded pursuit of that sweet, sweet KO.

But guys like Chris Curtis know how to build up to the KO. How to break an opponent down piece by piece, confuse him, wear him out. Guys like Chris Curtis don’t chase the finish; they invest in it. They put money in the bank—even when their actual bank account has more cobwebs than cold hard cash.

In a word, veteran fighters work the body. And if we take that as the mark of a fighter’s wisdom, then Chris Curtis is practically Moses.

So with that, let’s take a trip into the kitchen and study how one old man cooks up a rack of ribs.

The Money Punch

There are lots of ways to attack the body, and, at the risk of painting with too broad a brush, they’re all good.

Body work is good in general, because it’s so efficient. The opponent’s torso is his largest target, and the most difficult to move out of the way. It’s harder to defend the body than it is the head, and extremely difficult to defend both at once, increasing the likelihood of a clean KO (this is how coaches sell young bucks on the idea of body work in the first place). Body work slows the opponent down, further increasing the likelihood that he will make a fatal mistake at some later stage in the fight. And—a crucial point for MMA fighters, specifically—body shots are a wrestler’s worst nightmare. Not only does a body shot serve as a readymade underhook in the case of a takedown attempt, but the very act of changing levels may turn that body shot into a head shot. And even if the wrestler doesn’t run face-first into the punch, the fact that said punch is aimed directly at his center of gravity makes driving through to secure the takedown a tall order.

Perhaps no single technique accomplishes all these objectives as elegantly as the one Chris Curtis likes best: the rear uppercut. Here’s an example from his win over Rodolfo Vieira.

Click image for larger version. Watch the GIF

1. Curtis puts up his guard, inviting Rodolfo Vieira to throw something at it.

2. Vieira obliges, firing a probing jab which Curtis parries, using the opportunity to step into range.

3. This step-in comes with a feint, which Vieira reacts to, parrying what he thinks is a jab...

4. ...leaving him wide open for the Chris Curtis special, a left uppercut to the pit of the stomach.

This example succinctly demonstrates a few of Curtis’ favorite tactics—using the high guard to draw offense (read: openings) out of his opponent, transitioning smoothly from defense to offense, throwing in feints to confuse the opponent’s timing and defenses—but I want to focus on that one, ingenious punch. The back hand uppercut to the body.

This isn’t a punch you see very often, especially in MMA. It doesn’t feel quite as natural to throw as the cross or the lead hook. The moment just after you pull your elbow back and sight up the shot is a scary one: you feel exposed, vulnerable, easy to predict. And once the punch has landed, there you are: smack in the pocket, feeling the pressing need to either follow up with more punches or else get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

But damn, is it effective. The uppercut works well against an opponent who instinctively ducks, but if he stands there and does nothing it will still land just fine. The trajectory is diagonal, not straight up-and-down. An uppercut doesn’t become an underhook the way other body shots do; it practically is an underhook. And because the uppercut swoops up from below, it is particularly effective at punishing takedown attempts, or any other aggressive posture.

Countering to the Body

Countering to the body isn’t easy. Most fighters feel more exposed while throwing body shots, so it doesn’t come natural to fire them in the middle of an exchange. The safest and most efficient way to throw a body shot is to change levels—ideally, you bend your knees until you can throw the body punch in more or less the same way you would a punch to the head. But doing so requires a stable position and solid footwork, which means you can’t allow whatever defense you use to prepare your counter to compromise your balance or the integrity of your stance.

But counter shots to the body are absolutely devastating.

Counters in general are effective because they land when the opponent isn’t ready to be hit; he thinks he’s punching you one moment, and then the next—bam—it turns out he’s got it backwards. If his initial attack has thrown off his position, then all the better. That way he’ll not only be surprised by the punch, but less capable of physically withstanding it. A solid stance helps to absorb and dissipate the shock of impact; a compromised stance... doesn’t.

All of these factors apply to body shot counters, with one additional advantage over head shots: they really, really suck. Body shots hurt—actually hurt. A blow to the face doesn’t feel good. It certainly will hurt if you haven’t spent two minutes walking to the cage while adrenaline floods your veins. But body shots just plain hurt, no matter how pumped you are. A head shot may stun but a good body shot is withering. It takes the wind out of you, and the will to fight with it. All the worse if you don’t see it coming, if you throw yourself onto it. God help you if you happen to be sucking in a breath when it connects.

Curtis counters to the body better than the vast majority of MMA fighters. Here he is checking Brendan Allen’s excitement with a pair of sharp shots to the midriff.

Click image for larger version. Watch the GIF

1. Curtis edges into range, squaring his shoulders.

2. One of Curtis’ favorite strikes: an Eddie Alvarez-esque dart left, like a rear hand jab.

3. Curtis resets.

4. Brendan Allen wants to get that punch back. He lunges in with a cross of his own, which Curtis parries.

5. Immediately after defending, Curtis drops his level and throws a right hook—which doesn’t land, but serves to get him into position for...

6. ...the usual left uppercut to the belly...

7. ...followed by a right hook to the ribs.

8. Allen tries to grab hold of Curtis and counter with a clinch attack, but Curtis rolls out of his grasp and pivots to safely reset.

Note how Curtis positions himself for those two rib roasters. He doesn’t get all the way down, so he’s making eye contact with Allen’s nipples, but there’s enough of level change for him to find his targets without reaching too far. Had Allen followed the cross in frame 4 with a left hook, it would have sailed over Curtis’ head. He does get the idea to grab Curtis by the back of the head somewhere between frames 7 and 8, but the Action Man isn’t as clinchable as he may appear. If he were bent forward at the waist, he’d be a prime target for some brutal clinch knees. Instead, with Curtis sitting down into his stance, Allen finds his posture difficult to break, and loses him before he can get off a single strike.

The Sucker

For some, body shots are enough on their own. It’s a species of strike for the connoisseurs, the people who neither want nor need a sloppy, parking lot brawl getting in the way of a nice, tactical bout of proper fisticuffs.

Of course, what normal people like about body shots is that they lead to dudes getting knocked the fuck out.

Fortunately, Chris Curtis isn’t above playing to the cheap seats. He’d be perfectly happy to finish you outright with the body shots alone, but once they start landing clean, he is absolutely gonna chuck a few at your chin just to be safe.

Click image for larger version. Watch the GIF

1. A familiar position: Curtis backs Brendan Allen up to the fence, then throws up the guard, inviting Allen to make the first move.

2. Like Vieira in our first example, Allen tries a probing jab which Curtis slaps down...

3. ...before firing a jab of his own right across the bow.

4. Curtis hop-steps to the right, taking an outside angle on Allen and loading his left hand in the same movement.

5. Curtis sends in that thudding left uppercut to the body. Allen, to his credit, catches the punch on his elbow.

6. His defense successful, Allen begins to reposition himself to fire back, pivoting to his left to open up his own rear hand.

7. Not quick enough. Curtis finishes his combination with a short right hook, which sneaks over Allen’s shoulder and nails him before he has a chance to see it coming.

Everyone knows why body shots lead to knockouts. You hit the guy in the belly, he drops his guard.

That is part of what happens here. Allen shells up to block the body shot, defending his abdomen with both hands. Curtis’ right might have been blocked if Allen’s left stayed glued to his cheek. Then again, Curtis might not have thrown a right hook at all if Allen kept both hands up—he may just have hit the body a second time, and all the nerds would have cheered. But there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Allen’s defensive technique. It would have been possible to block or deflect Curtis’ right hand with a shoulder, or Allen might have simply moved his head.

The greater part of this knockout has to do with Curtis’ positioning. Previous examples have already shown how Curtis uses his punches (and feints) to bridge the gap between positions. He might feint in order to close distance, or throw a blinding punch while he changes levels to attack the body, or pivot while throwing a hook. Fighters like to call themselves warriors, but they’re more like duellists. A warrior usually has buddies around to lay down some covering fire; a duellist has to do it all on his own.

Take another look at Curtis’ footwork. Watch the GIF. He hits a small pivot while parrying Allen’s jab. As he fires back with his own, he hop-steps to the right. This complex movement changes the angle of attack, giving Curtis’ left hand a clear line to the center of Allen’s body, while simultaneously closing the gap and transferring weight onto the back foot to lend more power to the punch. This precise positioning forces Allen to commit heavily to his defense of the body shot, giving Curtis time to maneuver further. By the time Allen has blocked the left hand, Curtis has slid completely out of his crosshairs. Before he can even think about throwing back or continuing to defend, he has to move his feet—but he just doesn’t have time.

The final punch Curtis throws is barely even a right hook. It’s almost perfectly straight, and travels only about eight inches before smashing into Allen’s jaw. And because it comes off the rotation of Curtis’ beloved left uppercut, it packs more than enough power to send Allen reeling. Most importantly, Allen simply doesn’t see it coming—a crucial ingredient of almost every knockout punch. The southpaw right hook is always a sneaky shot; it has a way of hiding behind the orthodox fighter’s own shoulder until just before it crushes him, and it comes from a shorter distance than the left hand he’s usually expecting. These factors are only enhanced by the fact that Curtis uses each action preceding the right hook to completely outposition his foe.

Chris Curtis is a remarkable fighter. Aside from the fact that he seems like a genuinely friendly guy, even capable of being nice to Sean Strickland, he is an interesting athlete to watch. Shorter than many of his opponents, more specialized than most, Curtis keeps surpassing expectations because he knows exactly how his toolkit works.

It might have taken a long time—too long—for Chris Curtis’ UFC dreams to come true, but a few extra years of polishing don’t seem to have hurt him at all. If you want to cook ribs in the UFC, a little seasoning helps.

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For more on Chris Curtis and the other, lesser fighters of UFC FIght Night: Blaydes vs Aspinall, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.