Megan Anderson: A Final Hope to Beat Cyborg?
If you have been following the Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino debacle and the atrocious state of the women’s featherweight division, you will have heard vague allusions to a big Australian lass who could pose a threat to the title a little way down the line. At UFC 225 this weekend Invicta’s featherweight champion, Megan Anderson makes her long awaited UFC debut against Holly Holm. There is a degree of excitement amongst fans and media to see Anderson back in action, a year removed from winning her Invicta belt, but the truth is that the less you know about Anderson, the more exciting a prospect she is. Once you get into the details she begins to look worryingly underdeveloped as a fighter.
Anderson made her Invicta debut against Belgium’s Cindy Dandois. Anderson was the betting favourite and as Dandois came out and walked herself straight back into the fence, it became apparent that Dandois was not comfortable on the feet. (In the two years since the Anderson fight, Dandois found her way to the UFC to put on one of the most embarrassing stand up performances of all time.) Anderson, billed as the striker, held off cautiously for a moment before finally stepping in, pumping her hands and squaring up to offer an easy takedown attempt to Dandois.
The trouble with Anderson is that, while she is billed as a striker, her striking isn’t particularly crisp and is entirely focused on the offensive. She will come in behind pumping straights—left-right, or sometimes right-right while her left hand hangs redundantly in space—and she gives no thought for defence whatsoever. Spare Peggy Morgan—a famous glutton for punishment—every single one of Anderson’s Invicta opponents has cracked her with hard counter punches as she overcommitted. Big power connections are thin on the ground in women’s MMA, but Anderson seems to tee them up perfectly against everyone she fights. Against Amber Leibrock, fresh off her career debut which she won by overhand, Anderson kept walking onto that same overhand with her left hand dangling down in front of her and her head bolt upright. In striking a degree of anticipation is necessary but Anderson seemed completely numb to Leibrock’s one reaction to everything she did.
Perhaps it is forgivable against Leibrock because that was 2016, an entirely different time. Charmaine Tweet should not be chinning any potential Cyborg Slayer though.
Each time Anderson presses, she leaves herself completely exposed for a counter and given that Justino’s main selling point has been her hitting power this seems like a pretty significant flaw. Moreover, if there is one thing we know that Holly Holm can do it is circle the cage and land the counter left straight as her opponent pursues. In fact, that is most of Holm’s game.
Anderson’s saving grace in these flurries along the fence has been her height and length. She scarcely moves her head and her hands are rarely in position to defend her, but she still comes out on top in these clumsy exchanges as her opponents swing short just often enough.
But Anderson doesn’t seem to understand how to consciously use her length. Consistently she will jab with her hands low and eat either a simultaneous jab from the opponent or a counter right hand in the aftermath.
The truth is that for all the talk of her striking, Anderson has been picking up most of her victories in the clinch along the fence and with her conditioning. The loss to Cindy Dandois was embarassing—at the beginning of the second round Dandois was simply able to walk through Anderson’s punches and rag-doll her down by a headlock.
Follow that disastrous Invicta debut, Anderson began working with James Krauss and has steadily improved her wrestling. In fact, the more you watch of Anderson the more you realize it is her clinch work which wins her these by tiring and damaging opponents and making the most of her height. Typically now Anderson will walk her opponent to the fence, dive into a clinch, and work them over with knees. Similar to Jon Jones, Alistair Overeem and other tall inside fighters in MMA, Anderson posts her head underneath her opponents, gets her hips well back, and has room to build some force on her strikes. Typically her knees to the body take the pep from her opponents’ step.
When her opponents try and worm their head free and overcommit it to one side, the gangly Anderson brings a knee upstairs and can do some real damage.
Each time the clinch is broken, Anderson will walk the opponent back to the fence and come in behind the right hand again. It’s a tried and true method but it isn’t the prettiest.
With all of that in mind, let us not forget that Anderson’s opponent is a case study in failing to deliver on high expectations. Holly Holm stormed through the regional scene, stopping six out of the seven record-padders she met. Then Holm got to the UFC and looked decidedly less top notch against Raquel Pennington and Marion Reneau… before blasting through Ronda Rousey with one of the most perfectly executed and tailor made gameplans in UFC championship history. There is nothing to say that Anderson couldn’t have something in the tank that makes her a horrible match up for Holm or Cyborg, but just hasn’t been forced to show anything of it against the level of opposition she has met so far.
Megan Anderson has had a year away from competition and while that is not ideal for most fighters, the leaps and bounds that she made in her grappling after beginning work with James Krauss through 2016 and 2017 are something that we can cling to. To come in as an unknown and best established star, Holly Holm would certainly propel her into a title shot and gloss over any of the cautious pessimism one might get from studying her Invicta bouts. Whatever the case, if you care about women’s featherweight and you’re not interested in the Holm-Justino rematch, Anderson is the only thing going.