UFC 238 was a promising card to look at but it managed to do more than deliver on the paper line up. There were three fights I would call four star—perhaps even four-and-a-half star—bangers, and a good handful of technical details worth highlighting here. While Donald Cerrone versus Tony Ferguson took the crown of Fight of the Night, Petr Yan versus Jimmie Rivera provided a thrilling technical contest which wasn’t far off the pace and tension of the Ferguson-Cerrone tilt.
Petr Yan vs Jimmie Rivera
Yan’s pressure had broken everyone he met up to this point in the UFC, but Rivera looked to be handling it very well early on. A combination of nice movement and direction changes got Yan overcommitting when Rivera was on the fence. On other occasions Rivera would grab a clinch and turn Yan’s back onto the cage before breaking free. And in between those two methods, he would simply trade with Yan and often come off the better. It was a well rounded performance and it seemed to be working until Yan found his mark at the end of the first round.
One of the great things about watching Yan work is that it isn’t just pressure that breaks his opponents, it is his unpredictable combination work. Alternating hands, doubling up, feints: it’s all there. One of Yan’s first real successes in the bout came in the form of a Cub Swanson favourite—the shifting left hook into the left body kick. Yan did this along the fence, extending his right hand to check Rivera’s jab. As Yan threw in and slapped the left hook, Rivera tried to duck under it (in this fashion he had already escaped the fence underneath Yan’s left hook a couple of times). Instead of running out into the space, Rivera was met with the body kick and it took some of the wind from his sails.
Yan stole the first round with a beautiful shifting left hook. This was the exact same hook with which Kyoji Horiguchi has been battering flyweights and bantamweights alike, and which T.J. Dillashaw used to stop Renan Barao in their second fight. The right hand is thrown (frame 2 below), the right foot shifts outside of the opponent’s lead foot (frame 3), and the head is usually weaved to avoid a stiff arm or a return. The left hook sneaks through essentially as a wide overhand swing from the southpaw stance. This technique is at its best when the opponent is attempting to strike—it is essentially a forward moving pre-emptive counter punch.
One of the effective techniques that Rivera used through this fight was the low-low kick. In the second round Rivera had Yan hobbling. The issue, of course, is that you can only low kick effectively when you have momentarily relieved the pressure of being put along the fence. Regardless, when Yan did score effectively and have Yan wobbly, he got tunnel vision and went for a number of low-low kicks in quick succession, allowing Yan to get the timing and simply retract his lead leg each time. The low-low kick is a relatively new innovation MMA and we have discussed it several times—including in our Martin Nguyen study. One of the interesting considerations is that with the naked low kick back in vogue and legitimately dangerous, the superman punch could be poised for a return. Defending low-low kicks by retracting the foot in the way that Yan was (and in the way that is advisable) leaves a fighter with both feet under his base and this is a great time to hit him. Ultimately the superman punch is somewhat frowned on by decent strikers, viewed as something of a gimmick, but Rivera seemed in the perfect spot to make use of it even if just to enter and score with longer combinations.
Tai Tuivasa vs Blagoi Ivanov
The scrap between Tuivasa and Ivanov was so heavyweight that it hurt. By that I mean that both swung hard, nuzzled heads, sweated, and gasped for air from the first round onwards, all while looking very little like world class fighting talents. Tuivasa’s boxing was hyped enormously by the commentary team but he fell victim again to an issue he had against Junior dos Santos—leading with his face against a man along the fence. This was especially noticeable because Ivanov is a southpaw, who dropped his hand to his waist as Tuivasa came in. Notice that Tuivasa is neither handfighting not bringing his hand up to guard as he dives in with his right hand, meaning that Ivanov could club him with the counter hook and drop him.
The one other interesting part of the slog was Tuivasa’s fence work. This is a constant through Tuivasa’s fights and builds on the method that Mark Hunt found best for dealing with wrestlers: get double underhooks (frame 1), post the head beneath the opponent’s and stand them up (frame 2), then stiff arm off and slam in an elbow through the space (frame 3).
Donald Cerrone vs Tony Ferguson
This fight was the focus of the event and, along with Marlon Moraes vs Henry Cejudo, will be the focus of this week’s podcast so I won’t get too into the weeds here. What was fascinating was that Ferguson’s back-turning, which seemed to be a bizarre quirk which worked on unexpectedness, is now an art form. Turning his back is now built into Ferguson’s style and he was able to do it multiple times, in rapid succession, against a fighter good enough to murder any other lightweight on the roster who attempted the same thing.
In some ways, Ferguson is like a modern Kazushi Sakuraba. Hold on, hear me out. Sakuraba had success against the Gracie family because he was able to give his back up repeatedly, in an age where that was supposed to be instant death. His effectiveness in this position which was supposed to be an instant victory for the opponent made him a nightmare to deal with. You got a body lock on Saku and he turned his back and started working to separate your wrists and attack a kimura.
Tony Ferguson instead uses his back to draw opponents in for turning elbows, or to roll underneath and attack a leg, or to roll into a granby and throw them over the top of him. In fact, through this fight Ferguson used the back turn in a similar way to the way that Dominick Cruz, Eddie Alvarez and others use “the dart”. But instead of gliding out the side into a new stance, Ferguson turns his back and the opponent, like clockwork, steps in to hug him. Against Cerrone it was noticeable that when he completes his spin, Ferguson will always return to inside position with his head, blocking the clinch proper.
Notice that Ferguson punches with his right (frame 1), steps past Cerrone and ducks down using his back as a shield, then turns to post his head underneath Cerrone’s (frame 3), preventing the clinch.
Ferguson was able to repeatedly lead, turn, and connect his back elbow as a counter. In fact, in its own janky, bizarre way, this is an application of leading to get on the counter. For instance in this example Ferguson scores a jab (frame 1), ducks to evade a counter (frame 2), and is able to capitalize by continuing a turn into elbow (frame 3).
We discussed Ferguson’s pressure in our Patreon preview, and how pressure could be used to take away Cerrone’s kicks. Cerrone is the famed kicker and yet Ferguson’s stumpy, ugly kicks were the only one’s landing, because his forward pressure prevented Cerrone from kicking comfortably. That Ferguson front kick went in constantly and seemed to slow Cerrone down.
Ferguson lands a digging front kick to the gut, then punches Cerrone as he recovers his leg.
The take away from this fight should be the same as any other time that Ferguson fights. This man has fought the best combatants in the world and hasn’t lost since before Henry Cejudo began his professional career—his chin might be up in the air and his combinations may be as far from textbook as you can imagine—but the only thing that matters is that he is making his style work. Striking science isn’t really a science, you can take a nothing blow and wind up unconscious, you can take someone’s best shot on the jaw and surprise yourself by staying upright. Striking is equal parts art and a crap shoot – working out whether Ferguson is painting a masterpiece or on an amazing run of luck is something that will keep fans wondering until long after his incredible streak ends.
Valentina Shevchenko vs Jessica Eye
Suitably removed from her fanbase, I think we can admit that Valentina Shevchenko is pretty bloody wonderful. Her division is woeful, but we have to blame her tremendous ability for making that that so obvious. Jessica Eye has scrappy contests with everyone else in the division even if she isn’t raising any eyebrows, and Shevchenko effortlessly handled her.
Put aside the knockout, Jessica Eye was completely defused long before that happened. Eye used to have a decent jab and almost nothing else, but in her recent run she has focused almost entirely on a right straight or swing, followed by a stepping right hook. This right to stepping right can work wonderfully but it is one of those moves that comes with a massive caveat about leaving one’s stance and exposing oneself in the process. Shevchenko wasn’t having any of it.
Eye charged from the get go and Shevchenko—being one of about 15 people in the UFC who remembers that the cage exists even when she can’t see it behind her—took a step back and circled off. And that was the pattern of the match established—Eye wanted to grit her teeth and step in swinging but Valentina would break the line of attack and Eye would just follow her around.
Notice the overextension on Eye’s straight as Shevchenko leaves the line of attack to the right of the frame.
The great thing about a right hand happy opponent, especially if you’re a southpaw kickboxer who does her best work with her left leg, is that every time that right hand comes out the right elbow leaves the opponent’s side. Conversely, if you land a couple of body kicks, that right hand is going to be reluctant to leave the house. So Shevchenko circled out and punted Eye any time she felt like It.
Notice Valentina’s inside foot position because she is always circling out to her left.
The right hand was so laboured and telegraphed that Shevchenko was able to easily time it, duck in and theaten Eye’s back before taking her down and controlling her on the ground for the remainder of the first round.
Shevchenko almost finished an americana from the mounted crucifix (slowly squeezing out the mount at the top of the hierarchy of positions in MMA), but Eye gutted through and the round ended. Round 2 was more of the same, circling and body kicking, until Shevchenko went high with a kick instead and knocked Eye stiff. A tremendous performance but one which makes you wonder what the UFC can actually do to build compelling matches for Shevchenko at this weight.