Slack Notes: Minakov, MVP and Movement Issues
If you were asked to come up with an overarching theme for the weekend’s MMA action, you might very well pick “disappointment.” Cain Velasquez at last returned to the cage, promising to be healthy and ready to pursue the heavyweight title he once held, then had his knee explode in under thirty seconds. Supposed kickboxers Michael ‘Venom’ Page and Paul Daley met in a grudge match then did almost no striking and instead wrestled for twenty five rancid minutes. Matt Mitrione and Sergei Kharitonov managed a No Contest in under thirty seconds of fighting. Even Paul Felder versus James Vick turned into more of a throw-shit-at-the-wall slog than a razor sharp striking match.
But one theme that stuck out was that of movement issues. Some fighters were confounded by a mobile target, while others struggled because of the flaws in their own basic locomotion, and there was an interesting contrast between the backward movement of James Vick and of Michael Page. This last example will, of course allow us to rope in a Conor McGregor example to up the view count on this slow weekend. But before we get into that let us touch on one of the weekend’s most frustrating fights: Vitaly Minakov versus Cheick Kongo.
The Previous Next Big Thing at Heavyweight
If you know Cheick Kongo you probably expected a bit of a grind on Saturday night but Kongo actually provided the sizzle in this fight while Minakov looked dull and uninspired. The one-time “next Fedor” got boxed up by a forty three year old Cheick Kongo and he looked absolutely clueless throughout. More than anything it was Minakov’s insistence on leading with the right hand each time he tried to engage that saw him on the wrong end of a striking lesson.
The right hand lead is flashy and less common, not because it is a bad way to initiate an attack but because it carries such significant disadvantages over the jab that the jab is almost always the better option. The right straight involves a turn of the shoulders and hips to square before throwing and comes from further away. The jab involves little shoulder or hip involvement before the strike is already obscuring the opponent’s vision, and the striking surface is already closer to the target. And bear in mind that all of that is if you are throwing a straight right lead with good form. Minakov was simply stepping out in front of his stance, throwing all of his weight onto his lead foot, and swinging overarm.
Minakov throws himself so far off balance that he has no real follow up. His left hand is pretty useless and he often simply tries to stumble into the clinch from this position. But herein lies the difference between leading with the left hand—implying that there is more to come after it—and simply throwing long, naked right hands with no set up and no real options after you miss or connect.
Things got worse when Kongo began circling out to his right in the second round. Each time Minakov threw his right hand along the fence, Kongo would step out to side and Minakov would be left out of position and unable to follow up, awkwardly staring at Kongo.
Perhaps Minakov wants to impress everyone with his speed by scoring right hand leads, perhaps he has no time for set ups and only has eyes for power, or perhaps he has spent too long as a big fish in a small pond on the Russian regional scene like Nikita Krylov. Whatever Minakov’s objections to it, the jab is not just a weapon for the fancy outfighter, it is the heart of boxing because it is a weapon that allows a fighter to move and fire without exposing himself unduly or throwing himself out of position to reach the opponent.
On the subject of jabbing, Andre Fili’s lead looked sharp and effective against Myles Jury on Sunday night. Fili’s hands have been coming along in leaps and bounds and even in his losing efforts they stand out as smooth. It was quite jarring to see Jury so out of sorts in the opening round with very few answers except to reach further and further out of his guard attempting to parry that jab. While Fili took the decision there were some tense moments as Jury’s occasional connections seemed to have a bigger impact on Fili than any one strike of Fili’s had on Jury. This could be something to do with Fili’s tendency to hang his chin out a little in his in-between movements, such as the various feinting series he will go into.
Fili was recognizing Jury’s overcommitments on defence and would routinely throw a long slappy hook around Jury’s reaching right hand, often using this in an attempt to land a right middle or high kick. Fili also landed good counters hands off a good outside slip / shoulder roll when Jury threw his right hand, allowing Jury to decide when Fili escalated from jabbing into power shots.
One thing a corner could ask for that might have improved Fili’s already impressive performance it would be a bit more willingness to step in and importantly to change levels. Not to pursue a takedown but to get inside through Jury’s own hands. The jab-and-duck has always been a favourite of this writer, but the jab followed by a body jab could also be a good look for Fili. Particularly as body work has a way of draining a man that a bloody nose just doesn’t, and MMA’s big proponents of the body jab (Junior dos Santos, Alexander Gustafsson) have done marvellous work in landing big blows to the head as the opponent makes defensive overcommitments to deal with the body jab.
Additionally, while Fili was hooking off the jab it was always from out at his comfortable jabbing range. He identified the opening (that Jury was reaching out for the jab) and the weapon, but to land a really solid hook it would have been good to see Fili use the shoulder feint combined with a step to draw the parry and cover some ground, then hook from his new location.
Fighting on Train Tracks
The term “fighting on train tracks” used to be a negative in the boxing world. Backing straight up means that you will eventually hit the ropes and then the opponent can drive in on you. Yet in mixed martial arts many top counter fighters routinely flee engagements in this way. James Vick and Michael ‘Venom’ Page share a straight retreat from their opponent but while Vick is constantly vulnerable, Page does a good job of setting himself up in a winning position before he is forced to move.
At the start of every round against Paul Daley, Michael Page immediately moved Daley onto the fence with nothing more than feints. The entire first round and much of the fight that followed was spent along the fence but Page’s leads were few and far between. Page wanted to fight on the counter and to drop away from Daley’s attacks and by putting Daley against the fence, Page was able to ensure that he had twenty feet of space behind him before he ever felt the negative affects of backing straight up. We discussed this at length over at Vice Sports in a piece titled The Distance Trap. Conor McGregor and Sean O’Malley both immediately back their opponent onto the fence and begin picking at them, but do their best work dropping back and countering from this position. With almost no chance of hitting the ropes even if the opponent doggedly pursues you out of range, this positioning mitigates many of the risks of backing straight up.
Page had meters to retreat into whether Daley struck or shot a takedown, and it was only when he was forced back onto the fence that he was forced to counter-wrestle. Additionally, the drop away counters disappeared in the periods Page was on the fence and he instead waited on jumping knees and big uppercuts—high reward strikes but something that could be exploited by future opponents or even Daley were he not seemingly reluctant to strike altogether. Daley was able to feint Page into jumping several times, taking both feet off the floor and sacrificing striking position, but positively refused to capitalize.
While the fight was a massive disappointment given the years of talk that led up to it, Page did have a few nice moments on the feet including the use of that stepping punch that is so common in point fighting and traditional karate competitions. In karate it is sometimes called an oi-zuki or a jun-zuki, sometimes it is just seen as a reverse punch with momentum, but you can readily see men like Gunnar Nelson use it in MMA to close the distance rapidly and it works exceptionally well for a man who wants to force a clinch.
For those intrigued by this technique (and who don’t have existing knee injuries), the method Ruyaro Araga teaches here will get you on the right track. But it is very important to come off a moving base, which is most easily done through bouncing.
In the UFC’s co-main event, Paul Felder tried to exploit the same flaws in James Vick that Justin Gaethje blasted through so succinctly a few months ago. In fairness to Vick his tendency to retreat on a straight line seemed somewhat checked in this fight—though it popped up from time to time as you would expect from a habit that is still being dealt with in training. Vick’s choice to lean straight back to avoid strikes was a constant though and it provided much of the excitement as Felder seemed to fall just short time and time again.
Felder made excellent use of the low-low kick, to the calf, in the early going and was conscious of the need to back Vick up and make exchanges happen near the fence. One thing that was sorely missing from Felder’s game for the most part was the double jab. This meant that Felder was often swinging long overhand rights and lefts which fell short, or kicking for the exposed lead leg just as Vick moved out of range. So much of besting and opponent who is good at fighting on a line and maintaining the distance is the art of making them move backwards without offering them any real openings to grab onto. Double jabbing works well against retreating footwork and the tendency to lean back, because it can carry a fighter into his right hand from right on top of an opponent who is bent over backwards. The double jab is perhaps the best weapon for the task of eating up distance, but any pairing of feints, jabs, or knee raises which allow the fighter to float in after them is a good shout.
Sometimes covering that little bit of extra distance before you drop the right hand can make all the difference.
Though Felder picked up the decision, and used the clinch well to tip the scales in his favour, his performance still looked more like a chasing or following sort of fight than a pressuring and cutting off sort of fight. Perhaps it is just my long-time fandom of Felder wanting things from him that he just hasn’t shown, but I cannot help but feel good ring pressure would benefit Felder so much as he is a big hitter, decent grappler, strong clinch striker, and loves spinning techniques which are doubly effective when the fence is cutting off the opponent’s retreat. However, Felder did find some lovely openings for spinning elbows and a slick back kick by breaking the chase to take a step back. Each time Vick stepped in as if Felder had shown some sign of weakness and each time Felder spun to try and take Vick’s head off.
Finally, though it doesn’t really fit with our theme of movement, Bryan Barbarena and Vicente Lucque fought an early contender for fight of the year. In fact the only movement worth remarking on was the absence of movement Lucque showed when under fire. Often Lucque would cover up and—while he was able to score with good counters at points—this often allowed Barbarena to pour on half-effort combinations and score a good blow for every three or four he threw. As with any really great fight, it was a story of adjustments and counter adjustments. At first Barbarena took stiff, fast straights from Lucque as so many others have, but soon it became apparent that the density of Barbarena’s noggin was something Lucque hadn’t encountered before.
When Barbarena came forward against a somewhat stunned Lucque, he found the Brazilian’s guard in the way of his big shots and instead leaned on volume. He would backfist off his hook, or throw a chopping outside-to-inside backfist instead of a hook. Barbarena threw some whipping thumb down hooks around the guard which were remiscent of the old furi-uchi or whip strike of old Okinawan karate. Additionally Barbarena was always controlling the hands and using these grips to turn over elbows: the number one thing you want to see a fighter doing when his opponent is covering up because frankly, why risk breaking a finger when you can smash right through the guard and possibly slice open a static target?
Barbarena didn’t commit to body shots which would have completed the checklist of “Things to Do Against A Covering Opponent” and this may have worked to his detriment. In fact John Crouch was desperately calling for stepping knees as Barbarena pinned Lucque’s hands to his head, and the few times Barbarena attempted the knee it landed unobstructed. But Lucque did realize that the body was a solid target against a man with an iron jaw and ten minutes left to fight. Digging front kicks, straight punches and the odd uppercut, Lucque dug himself back into the fight after a lop-sided start to round two.
Ultimately Lucque picked up a finish as he stunned Barbarena in the dying seconds. Barbarena was by no means perfect and the lesson here is, of course, that a great chin is not something to be relied upon, but more than anything he was fun and effective while showing thoughtful, nuanced striking in his own way even if it wasn’t textbook. Barbarena also wins the wushu trophy of the weekend for unveiling a strike never before seen in the UFC (as far as I can recall) – the gyaku mawashi geri or Anderson Silva inside-out kick to the lead leg.