The examples used in this article are from the fights that Yokkao and ONE Championship have uploaded publicly to Youtube and they will also be linked.
When Jonathan Haggerty was fighting on Yokkao shows in the United Kingdom he was sometimes referred to as Liam Harrison’s heir apparent. Harrison is a legend of UK Muay Thai and is still very much going but his results have always been something of a mixed bag. Haggerty has nothing like the experience that Harrison has accrued but suddenly finds himself as the hottest property in Muay Thai and kickboxing circles as in his twelfth or fifteenth fight (depending on who is counting), Haggerty pulled an incredible upset against Sam-a Gaiyanghadao. Sam-a had over 400 fights to his name, is a certifiable legend in Muay Thai, and was the ONE flyweight Muay Thai champion at the time.
Anyone with a passing familiarity with combat sports knows that experience isn’t everything but that any Thai competing at the highest levels will likely have had a hundred or more bouts through their childhood and teens. However, Haggerty having such success at the highest level in such a small number of bouts leaves him as something of an enigma. The film on him is sparce and while habits can be gleaned from studying it, he is still very much a fighter in development rather than an old hand wheeling out his usual tricks.
Watch Haggerty’s fights in Yokkao and you will be treated to commentators rambling on about how he likes to bang with his hands. Then watch his ONE fights and you will notice that Haggerty has almost completely eschewed boxing in favour of an outside kicking game and moving straight in on elbows when he wants to close. Being largely unknown is a huge advantage in a fight—provided you’re good enough to capitalize on it—but to overcome such a huge experience gap in such a short time should confirm you what you really need to know about Haggerty: he is crafty as a fox and fighting him is not just another day at the office doing Muay Thai even for a legend like Sam-a.
The Kicking Game
Lead leg kicking seems to have always been a large part of Haggerty’s game and there exists a decent amount of evidence to suggest that he is left footed despite fighting orthodox. Haggerty seldom throws his right leg and instead sets up much of his kickboxing off dexterous lead leg work. Often adopting a more classical, light-lead-leg stance, he will spend much of his time in the opening rounds of his fights establishing the lead leg in the same way a scientific boxer would with his jab.
There are the short teeps to the midsection, the switch kicks to the lead leg and body, and the odd high kick thrown in there, but Haggerty has such a good handle on his balance and distancing that he will often be able to score his lead leg round kicks while giving ground. Kicking while going backwards is tricky and you will already know that one of the best ways to trouble a kicker is to keep them backing up so that they are reluctant to get up on one leg for fear of you stepping down the centre. In Muay Thai you have the teep as a short, needling nudge and you needn’t worry as much about giving up the leg, because running through on the takedown is a non-factor—but gliding back and timing round kicks to the body is still very difficult to do and takes some top notch anticipation and footwork.
Haggerty’s Yokkao fight versus Keith McLachlan shows off his kicking game and particularly this counter kicking element wonderfully.
That left round kick gets into the body often under his man’s arm as he advances. Haggerty often takes a break while leaning on the ropes and frustrating the opponent’s advances with a short teep when they want to enter. As the second round begins, Haggerty slides back and instead throws the left round kick high, effectively ending the fight.
Against southpaws, and particularly against Sam-a, Haggerty’s game incorporates a great many short teeps to the front of the thigh as well. In fact, in one of the short features ONE produced on Haggerty the champ discussed his gameplan for Sam-a: stating that teeps to the lead leg would be used to break the Thai legend’s rhythm while circling past the lead leg and using cross checks to shut down Sam-a’s powerful left leg.
In the course of studying Haggerty I found myself making some comparisons with the Japanese kickboxer, Takeru Segawa. I’m sure that will surprise many readers but consider that both men are active and dexterous lead leg kickers who use that facet of their game to get inside and do their real hurting at close range. Long range harassment and then a sudden change of distance into exchanging range.
While the two share that key principle, the application is obviously very different. Takeru goes after his man throwing in kicks relentlessly, pushing them around the ring with front kicks, and falling into punching range.
Taken from Takeru: The Paradoxical Fighting Style of Kickboxing’s Bantamweight King at Vice.
Haggerty sets himself up to fight on the outside and to outpoint and annoy his opponent, then uses feigned kicks to enter. The entries do not exist without establishing an annoying kicking game and the seeming desire to keep the opponent on the outside, but the entries are where the hurting happens.
One of the kicks that Haggerty works diligently to establish is his switch kick. A classic Muay Thai staple, the lead leg is hopped back and the rear foot is hopped slightly forward to set the hips to throw a kick with a bit more horsepower than it would have straight out of the stance. Watch a top tier fast kicker like Buakaw and the whole thing from stance to switch to kick happens in a beat.
Nothing tells you more about Haggerty’s fight IQ than how he uses his switch kick. There are plenty of instances where Haggerty kicks his opponent’s lead leg or body without a switch just as adequately as with the switch. A lot of the time it seems like he is switching because he wants the opponent to acknowledge the switch.
Take a look at this little flurry at the end of a round against Sam-a.
The switch kick is applied, a teep breaks up the action, and then a short switch feint allows Haggerty to lance a straight right down the pipe.
Take a look at how short that feint is. It is clearly there, and draws a reaction, but it is no bigger than it needs to be against the opponent Haggerty is facing. This is something we discuss pretty often on the podcast—sometimes you’re going to meet opponents who won’t fall for your feints because you’re not convincing enough, but other times you’re going to meet opponents who won’t fall for your feints because they need them to be even more obvious. Sam-a might not fall for a huge Jackson-Wink / Dom Cruz attempt at a switch into a right hand, but this short, clipped feint allows Haggerty to get in and doesn’t require him to commit to a full change of stance.
Here’s a bit of a rougher application of the same idea from the same fight. The switch gets Sam-a up on one leg and Haggerty moves in to throw hands. Haggerty isn’t a particularly slick boxer but by setting up when he moves in (and often getting his opponent on one leg) he can land cleanly.
For a different application of the same switch step, Joseph Lasiri raises his lead knee and Haggerty switches, parries the knee across with his lead hand and slides down the side to score a good kick from a southpaw stance and a dominant angle. Check out the whole fight here.
Like that switch step, Haggerty’s other favourite entry is a simple technique that almost anyone could do, but it is made effective by the groundwork he lays with his kicking game. Effective use of the teep—especially to the lead thigh and hip—set up a beautiful raised knee entry.
In karate styles these high knee entries are often called tobi-komi and the purpose of the high knee is to protect the body from the reverse punch to the body which is ubiquitous in point karate. When paired with a needling teep in Muay Thai, this entry works far better because the preliminary motion is the same as a technique designed to maintain distance, but the follow up is a rapid close of distance. The best fake outs are not just one technique that looks like another, but pairing techniques with entirely different purposes and defences.
This leads into the technique which has attracted Haggerty a lot of attention and one which he uses fairly frequently: the overhead elbow. Coming in behind the raised knee, Haggerty will land himself on top of the opponent and bring an elbow down and forward from overhead.
We could spend some time here being picky about the difference between a downward elbow, a chopping elbow, and a spike elbow but all we really need to know is that in Muay Thai the strict downward is typically used to the collar bone or to the top of the head and another variation travels forward more and is used into the face. Haggerty manages to really get his shoulder and the strike going forward into the opponent. Similar to the way that Muangthai manages to punch into his opponent with what is often considered an “upward elbow”. Haggerty has success with these too from a high guard, but not to the same degree as Muangthai who has built an entire style around them.
I focus on this point because in MMA referees have begun to give as much leeway as possible on the twelve-to-six elbow rule. If the hand comes from slightly behind the head and the elbow is arced, most referees will use that as an excuse to ignore it. In other words, I am patiently waiting for someone to apply Haggerty’s elbow in the UFC and to open up the floodgates for everyone to attempt it.
Haggerty uses this elbow frequently in his fights and has hit just about everyone he’s fought in the last couple of years with the knee raise to downward elbow combo. Occasionally you will even see him attempt to follow one of these elbows with another from the other side like a pasty English Tony Jaa.
When he really wants to get stuck in, you will catch Haggerty simply getting his forearms up and stepping in. This was notable in the later stages of the Sam-a contest. Coming in between his guard Haggerty would crash his head into Sam-a and then turn into a back elbow. A nodder into spinning shit will always get the Slacky seal of approval.
Jonathan Haggerty is a great technician, no doubt, but that alone would not have fans as excited as they are about his title defence this weekend. As smooth as he is, Haggerty can have a tear up when he needs to and Rodtang is exactly the kind of fighter who could force him into it. Rodtang has been affectionately called “Muay Thai Gaethje” by MMA fans, and gave a spectacular account of himself against Tenshin Nasukawa when the young knockout artist’s punches couldn’t even faze the Thai. Tenshin got the decision but by the end he was a rag in the breeze—running from Rodtang and throwing himself to the floor to get breaks whenever possible. From one striking wunderkind to another, let us see if Rodtang can break Haggerty’s technical front lines and test his heart too.