It seemed impossible for Paul Daley and Michael Page to turn in a bad fight. They were both strikers, neither was known for his wrestling, and the two had been talking about fighting for so long that the grudge match needed to be settled with blows. Then Paul Daley came out and wrestled Michael Page for twenty five minutes and Page did just well enough to avoid complete derailment, but still against the absolute worst wrestler in the tournament (the best grapplers in the tourney all conspicuously started on the opposite side of the bracket to Page.)
In that Daley fight, Page actually looked pretty smart in early going. He came out and pushed Daley onto the fence immediately so that anything Daley did could fall short over the enormous distance through which Page could retreat. Daley’s takedown attempts—even if they surprised Page early on—took a long jog to reach the fence. Here’s a little diagram from the post fight article showing just how much leg work Daley would have to do, and just how much freedom Page has to retreat and / or angle off.
Against Dave Rickels, Page was walked towards the fence throughout the bout’s short duration, in spite of Rickels doing very little effective striking. There were some nice counter punches from Page, who hits best when the opponent is walking onto his blows, but it was noticeable that his long stance flattened out when he was pressured near the fence, and that is where Douglas Lima can become a double threat with both takedown attempts—pressing in along the fence—and low kicks. Page’s main method of dealing with low kicks has been to drop back out of range or step up the centre with a counter—both much harder with your feet wide and side stepping.
At his core Michael Page is just a point fighter. He’s an exceptionally good one, but everything in point fighting comes off either an intercepting counter—convincing the opponent to walk onto your blows (the Cyborg knee, the Rickels counter punches) or bursting in to hit them over a large distance that you have set up as a buffer zone (pretty much all of Page’s effective hitting against Daley). When Page bursts in it is usually off of a bounce, and you will the majority of his time in the cage is spent performing small bounces toward and away from his opponents. The secret of the bounce is that it maintains the potential to thrust forward out of the stance because it moves both feet towards the opponent at the same time. A forward bounce, hidden in a back and forth motion, is an extra step to gain some more ground before you lunge.
Often when he leads Page isn’t so much punching on top of his stance as he is chasing his hand in.
Over three matches with Raymond Daniels as a point fighter, lunging in with punches was responsible for the majority of Page’s success and Daniels went on record this week to say that Page’s distance management is some of the best he has ever seen.
Both feet bounce in, then Page lunges.
Perhaps the most interesting point in the match up with Lima is that Lima’s best weapons on the feet are the same as Daley’s. He has a booming left hook and a powerful right low kick, and he only occasionally bothers to work in combination. Where Daley was paralysed in front of Page, Lima’s success or failure will likely come down to how comfortable he is pushing forward and forcing exchanges. The left hook is the king of the counter punches because it cuts through exchanges so beautifully. Compare Page’s movement after his burst to that of Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson or Kyoji Horiguchi and you will see some openings here. Wonderboy will always dart out to the side after landing a punch. Horiguchi will either weave out to his right (often accompanied by a left hook), or physically shove his opponent away from him. Page—especially against Rickels—was getting in the habit of landing his good blow and then trying to leave the same way he entered, backing straight up. The break between in and out is the time that Lima might be best served to look for his left hook and especially for his low kicks, which are horrendous for point fighters if they connect as the point fighter is pushing off the leg and drifting out of range.
McKee vs Curran
A.J. McKee has been gaining a great deal of attention over the last couple of years and I must admit I’ve only just sat down to watch some of his fights back to back. Perhaps it was my familiarity with his father’s body of work that put me off—Antonio McKee was a mercilessly boring fighter even in his best showings. Whatever McKee Sr. is doing as a coach is remarkable because A.J. fights nothing like him and has, thus far, been thoroughly entertaining even in going the distance.
Whenever you study a fighter being billed as the next big thing a good idea is always to gun straight for their decisions. When the KO doesn’t happen immediately and the first line of tricks doesn’t end the fight, you get to see a bit more of the prospect’s game and their shortcomings. A.J. McKee’s decision victory over the hardy Justin Lawrence did more to convince me of his ability than any highlight reel. Through fifteen minutes with Lawrence, McKee adapted, demonstrated slick striking, and never really looked in trouble.
A southpaw, and a lengthy one at featherweight, McKee has developed a crisp jab that he fires up the inside of the opponent’s lead hand. In an open guard engagement that lead hand is supposed to be a constant hindrance, but McKee has impressive speed as he steps up the centre on the inside of his opponent’s lead foot.
Building the one-two off this and retreating out on an angle to his left, McKee can sharp shoot pretty effectively in an MMA boxing match.
With so much of the open guard match up focusing on achieving outside foot positioning—as it lines up the rear straight and the rear round kick—it is interesting that McKee seems to specialise in techniques which come off neutral or even inside foot positioning.
Similar to that rapier jab, he uses a step up side kick with good frequency. It’s not Bill Wallace type frequency, but he digs it in hard and makes his opponents back off. And like old Superfoot, McKee will also turn it into a hook kick when he gets the chance. His casual turning of his back to pirrouette back into position might lead to problems against better fighters who have studied the tape, but at the moment it goes completely unpunished and works well for him.
On the subject of side kicks from the open guard position, Holly Holm and even Michael Chandler have had good success using the side kick to counter and opponent circling past their lead leg. Stepping up and using the heel of their back foot to target the kick at their opponent’s new angle.
I was a little disappointed that the John Macapo fight ended so quickly because Macapo was doing a nice job of slipping in short counter right straights against McKee’s bursts, and McKee was getting wider and wilder with his shots as a result. Unfortunately the two brawled out of a scramble and Macapo ate one flush on the chin that turned his lights out, but it was certainly intriguing how well he was doing on the counter, where Lawrence had instead tried to put McKee on the back foot along the fence.
This weekend AJ McKee meets the well regarded Pat Curran. You might remember Curran from his solid showing against Eddie Alvarez when Alvarez was at the height of his powers, or for head kicking Marlon Sandro. Until a couple of years ago Curran was a fixture in the Bellator featherweight title scene. He won the belt in 2012 and defended it three times, before losing it to Dan Straus, winning it back, and then losing it to current champ Patricio Freire (with whom Curran is 1-1 in Bellator). His real issue in recent years has been actually getting to the cage: he’s managed just two fights since 2016 and had a couple of cancellations due to injury in between. While he might be getting a bit battle worn, he’s always been very defensively sound in both striking and grappling and as someone to drag McKee a little past the limits of raw talent he seems a good match.
This has been the briefest of overviews of a couple of the big names on the Bellator 221 card, but we haven’t even touched on the super fight between featherweight champ, Patricio Freire and lightweight champ, Michael Chandler. Plus there’s a whole card of fights from the UFC in Brazil! Make sure to tune into the Fights Gone By podcast tomorrow and we’ll try to get some of that done.