This weekend’s UFC card is understated. Fans sneered at the choice of main event from the get go, while the UFC has hidden Ryan Hall vs Darren Elkins on the prelims with almost no mention of it in the lead up to the card.
Germaine de Randamie vs Aspen Ladd
Aspen Ladd has a rare skill in the women’s divisions—she can actually hit with some force. Watch her catch the far wrist and hammer Tonya Evinger in the turtle, or slam elbows into Lina Lansberg’s head from a face down back mount and it is hard not to be impressed. Ladd has also hit on the genius move of screaming through her flurries on the mat. She might just be doing it from a primal place, or getting into the idea of using the kiai to increase the power of strikes, but by screaming throughout these flurries she can also convince referees to step in earlier than they perhaps might. We all remember Diego Sanchez winning fights where he got battered on the feet simply because he made more noise.
But my appreciation for Ladd goes beyond her killer instinct and hitting ability. She’s also a pretty slick grappler and more importantly, she really cares about her position. Ladd has hit some nice guard passes and transitions though her fights, but something that is obvious against many of the opponents she faces in her division is that she will never, ever attempt a head and arm throw. If you watch much women’s MMA that’s a pretty big deal. If she loses her underhooks and winds up with her back to the fence, Ladd actually pummels and improves her control before attempting to do anything.
What is concerning for Ladd in this bout is that she has had trouble in some areas where De Randamie excels. The Ladd-Lansberg fight showed that Ladd can be stifled in the clinch and hammered with knees to the body along the fence. Lansberg even did so out of the head post that De Randamie loves to use.
Lansberg adopts the head post, straightening Ladd up against the fence and getting her own hips back (1) in order to generate power on knees to Ladd’s stretched out midriff (2).
Then there is the mess that is Ladd’s striking. Generally this consists of going towards her opponent, attempting to palm their jab, and swinging back a jab or left hook of her own. Sometimes she’ll throw a step up body kick, but almost all of her work comes off her lead side—yet she stands almost entirely square and upright. This means that she lands a jab or counter-jab—the foundation of scientific boxing—but is right there for the counter. She beat Sijara Eubanks to the punch at the start of every exchange and left it having taken three more punches than Eubanks. And Eubanks was just there to bang—De Randamie will drop away and draw out lunges to land stiff counters.
To her credit, when Ladd’s coaches were insisting the need for a level change after the first round against Lansberg, Ladd went out and didn’t immediately drop on Lansberg’s hips. Instead she jabbed and hooked with her lead hand, got in Lansberg’s face, and convinced Lansberg to throw back.
After landing several jabs and flustering Lansberg, Ladd leads with a jab (1) and ducks a return (2).
The moment Lansberg did, Ladd dropped on a picture perfect double and turned the corner to complete it. Being on the losing end of the striking equation will happen but your opponent isn’t blind, they will know you want the takedown if you’re losing the feet. The secret to success in the takedowns is to at least present a game face on the feet and make the opponent strike with you before switching gears and wrestling them.
Ladd’s knee hits the floor between Lansberg’s feet and she has almost folded her in half with the shot (3). Ladd’s right foot slides up to her right and she drives off it to begin turning the corner into Lansberg (4).
Even if De Randamie seems like a horrible match up on the feet and in the clinch, Ladd is sitting at number four in the UFC’s bantamweight rankings behind only De Randamie, Ketlen Vieira and Holly Holm. With the rate Amanda Nunes is knocking off challengers, Ladd will probably end up locked in the cage with the Lioness soon—so there’s no better time to start slipping punches than now.
Urijah Faber vs Ricky Simon
This match up is a curiosity. Essentially the UFC recognized Urijah Faber’s name power in California and used him to prop up the card. His opponent, Ricky Simon is an undefeated prospect but has looked nowhere near unbeatable. In two of his last three, Simon took a battering and ground on through. But Simon’s most recent fight was definitely one worth writing home about as he took apart the veteran grappler, Rani Yahya.
Simon has a peculiar boxing style. He stands square and slips punches well, but doesn’t really use his left hook at all. In fact in many of his fights Simon will time beautiful slips beneath his opponent’s right hand, take a dominant angle, and do literally nothing with it. Against Yahya, Simon did show a beautiful short double as he began to time Yahya’s right hand. It was basically what a judoka would call a morote-gari or two handed reap. As Yahya stepped in to swing, Simon changed level slightly, hit Yahya with his shoulder, and pulled out the back of both knees. Similarly, when Yahya had Simon hurt, Simon ran Yahya onto a quick shoulder bump that put the Brazilian on his rump and broke his offence.
Perhaps the reason that performance resonated with me was that it reminded me of Takanori Gomi’s PRIDE lightweight grand prix run. Rather than skittishly throw straight blows and sprawling hard whenever Yahya hinted at a level change, Simon walked him down and hammered him with hard uppercuts and digs to the body. On the one hand, these punches require your hands to drop below your shoulder line and leave you more defensively vulernable in the striking, but on the other hand they are almost impossible to duck underneath. When Simon missed a big counter uppercut in the second round he even began throwing his right uppercut low, to Yahya’s chest as he ducked in—this is a vintage Gomi look and something you still almost never see in MMA.
But this still seems like a winnable fight for Urijah Faber if he hasn’t suffered an enormous physical decline in his time off. His game was always overhands, double legs, guillotines and back takes. While Simon can show some neat slips when he times his opponent’s right hand, he also gets hammered with quick rights fairly often. Montel Griffin, Merab Dvalishivili and Rani Yahya all cracked him with hard straights down the pipe that wobbled him.
Additionally, Simon’s tendency to duck under the right hand means he could be susceptible to the closest thing Faber does to a combination or set up, that is to throw a couple of overhands, then swing his hand wide, but come up from underneath with an uppercut. This was how Faber hurt Brian Bowles before finishing him. Against Dvalishivili, Simon lost the first round by ducking straight onto a right uppercut that he clearly misread.
Faber’s overhands have Bowles ducking and covering up, so he steps in to fake the overhand (1) but comes up the middle with the uppercut and pops Bowles head back like a Pez dispenser (2).
Simon has a lot of potential but as yet his performances in the Octagon have been a little lackluster. He refuses to kick, his jab is an afterthought, and he can slip a punch well—particularly once he has gotten the read on his man—but offers no counters. Obviously we have no idea what condition Faber will turn up in… but don’t rule out the possibility of a rushed Faber title fight in 2020 just yet.
Ryan Hall vs Darren Elkins
The only other fight jumping from the paper is Hall vs Elkins. Hall is coming off a stunning submission victory over B.J. Penn in his last fight but once again, that’s B.J. Penn in 2019. Granted, he has a victory over bare knuckle boxing legend, Artem Lobov but in MMA at least Elkins is the stiffest test Hall has faced. Elkins is a scrappy wrestler and an awkward striker. He’s not an especially dangerous striker (though don’t tell that to poor Mirsad Bektic) but then neither is Hall. While neither man’s kickboxing is held in high esteem by fans, both have their interesting looks.
Hall has been working the Stephen Thompson southpaw kicking game into his arsenal and it pairs wonderfully with his rolling leg entanglements. The side kick keeps his opponent at range and, when he becomes more comfortable, can be used as a powerful winding weapon. The hook kick and round kick to the head can be used off the same set up step that the side kick uses and that in essence is the Bill Wallace triple attack. And if Hall’s leg is caught the opponent has to resist the urge to either run through him or stand tall and kick out his standing leg because both of those actions completely expose the fighter to leg entanglements if Hall rolls underneath them. If you haven’t yet checked out the Filthy Casual’s Guide I put together for fun on the Youtube channel, that will clue you in on most of Ryan Hall’s most notable quirks. Elkins meanwhile has a slick little right uppercut to left body kick that he throws over and over again with decent success.
While the potential for this one to remain a lukewarm kickboxing match is considerable, the wrestling versus grappling match up is compelling. Hall occasionally enters for a nice double leg or ducks into a clinch, but most of his success has been with the upside down shots. Elkins is a very competent wrestler and certainly Saul Rogers was able to keep Hall off his legs with sprawls and—as Hall became wearier in the second round—but simply running out of Hall’s attempts to entangle him. This match up gets very interesting if Elkins takes top position on the mat—with his knees on the floor.
Hall will be the first to tell you that Jiu Jitsu isn’t magic and top position is still so much better than the bottom. Hall was stalled out in ground exchanges by Rogers and while he mounted some offence from the closed guard against Artem Lobov, the closed guard is just not a great position from which to try and submit people in MMA. It is an area where a technical divide can be narrowed very quickly with relatively simple stalling tactics.
Yet the bottom game becomes a bit more dangerous when placed in the context of a different kind of fight. For instance, Ricardo Lamas had great success sweeping and attacking Elkins (and Mirsad Bektic) from the bottom position. That was because Elkins wanted desperately to keep Lamas down and Lamas was threatening to stand up. So every time Lamas threatened to stand up from that neat little single butterfly hook guard he uses, Elkins would plough head first into the guillotine or an overhead sweep. If Hall offers little threat on the feet, the threat of the stand up might not produce the openings for sweeps and submissions. If Hall pulls guard in the traditional way on Elkins (as he did against Rogers and Lobov) then the threat of him performing stand up becomes even less meaningful. But then while Jiu Jitsu isn’t magic, they call Hall “The Wizard” for a reason, he is a very clever technician and he keeps surprising us with new twists on his old tricks.
It is a weird little Fight Night card, and there’s not a whole lot smacking you in the face as you look down the bout order, but you can always rely on something interesting or at least odd to happen even if the name power isn’t tremendous, and we’ll catch up on that come Monday.