As I sat on my couch watching the Ultimate Fight Night card that preceded the premier of The Ultimate Fighter’s twelfth season, I found myself to be a victim of a case of deja vu followed by a personal revelation. As staff photographer Mallory Mejia (who also happens to be my live in girlfriend) will tell you, I have a tendency to become frustrated by the basic technical errors elite level mixed martial artists make in their stand-up. This often results in a verbal assault on the television. This was the case Wednesday night. The revelation came later that evening during a Spike TV special on the impact of Royce Gracie. BJJ and American amateur wrestling are directly to blame for the sad state of affairs in MMA striking. In part one of this article, I will examine first the white belt level errors in all but the elite of MMA strikers stand-up and then, in part two of this article, I will share the revelation of how BJJ and wrestling are to blame. MMA striking is a joke in the K-1, Professional Karate Association, World Alliance of Kickboxing Organizations, and professional boxing worlds. This is due to the extremely basic flaws in MMA’s predominantly Muay Thai based stand up game. MMA fighters have shown a disturbing tendency to take an easy power approach to their striking, focusing on big one shot power, basic two or three strike combinations, and the simplicity of circular strikes to generate power in kicks. Solid footwork, accurate snapping kicks, and four or five strike combinations are only seen in the most elite of MMA strikers.
I’ll start with footwork. The very first thing any white belt is taught about footwork before his first sparring session is what I always called the five pointed star. This is the principle of footwork that states there are only five directions a fighter should ever move in: forward, left, right, forward-left, forward-right, away-left, or away-right. A fighter should NEVER step straight away from his opponent at anytime. This is basic even in Thai boxing which is notorious for its poor footwork. So why is it that we see almost every fighter at some point moving straight away from an attacking opponent while winging wide hooks in a blind hope one will land? The next error of MMA footwork is the myth that many MMA camp perpetuate that foot work is defensive or used only to control distance. This is so wrong it’s actually painful to hear someone say. Footwork is absolutely key to setting up successful combinations. Just as the small hip movements and little pushes and pulls are the basis of how a jiu-jitsu player gets his opponent in the position he wants for a sweep or escape, good footwork and control of the angles is how a top level kick boxer maneuvers an opponent into a place where he is out of position to defend himself.
The next thing I will touch on is a direct result of Muay Thai training, the use of telegraphed circular kicks to generate power. There are two principle differences between a Thai kick and a kick from almost any other style, including its closest relatives Lethwei and Tomoi. The first is that they involve whipping the already extended leg around with the hips instead of bringing the leg around bent and snapping the lower leg out to the extended position at the last moment. This style of kick is very easy to throw and can be developed into and effective weapon with only a few months of training. This is due to the fact that there is no need to develop the timing necessary to effectively use a snapping kick. This results in a less powerful kick that is easy to see coming and leaves the kicker’s balance at risk for a longer period of time. Thai kicks also strike with the shin as opposed to the instep or ball of the foot as is taught in other styles. This is the easy way out plain and simple. Kicking with the shin completely negates the need to develop refined accuracy and technique with the kick. A strike with the ball or instep of the foot has been scientifically proven to do significantly more damage and, more importantly, to cause damage to deeper tissues than the shin kick. The trade off? It takes years of training to develop the timing and accuracy to effectively use a snapping kick. I can take two identical students and teach on perfect Muay Thai and one perfect karate and you will notice two distinct things. First, the Muay Thai student will develop a lot of power very quickly, doing serious damage within five or six months while the karate student takes much longer to begin developing his power. Second, after about a year and a half of diligent training, you will notice that the karate kicker is not only doing more damage, but he is sustaining less injuries to his legs and is much more difficult to defend against. The logical conclusion of this experiment would be this: Thai style striking is inferior but is much easier to develop.
The last major striking crime committed by MMA fighters is the lack of solid combination training. Combos are more than throwing two or three strikes together, which is rare enough in MMA, they are set ups. Just as a BJJ black belt uses the armbar to set up the sweep that sets up the kimura that sets up the fight ending guillotine, every strike in a combo leads to an ultimate goal. Its not just the simple fact that multiple strikes are harder to evade than single strikes, its the idea that if you slip this jab the only way to stop the following hook is to move right into the line of fire for this extremely damaging knee strike. The majority of MMA fighters need to learn how to throw more than one strike at a time, those who do need to learn how to throw intelligent combinations with a strategy instead of merely focusing on volume. Perfect examples of this concept are”The Dragon” Lyoto Machida (16-1) and “The Spider” Anderson Silva (27-4). Watch them fight closely and you will notice that the strikes that our wonderfully ignorant commentators say are hard to evade because they ” are unorthodox” “come from weird angles” or ”are just so fast” are actually just basic strikes that are thrown after using other strikes to back their opponents into a position from which they cannot evade or otherwise defend the blow.
These are the basic striking elements that nearly every MMA fighter, even at the UFC level lack. I have long pondered why it was that these simple tactics were always absent from MMA. I understood, at least in theory, why the striking gravitated towards Thai boxing strikes; like a nitrous bottle on a car, they provide cheap easy power. The easy, if far less effective, striking of the Muay Thai style allowed fighters to devote more time the submission styles which have no quick and easy version. I could never, however, understand why such simple basic were omitted from MMA training. In part two of this article, I will examine why I believe this happened.