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UFC 244: How Masvidal Took Apart Diaz, and the Kevin Lee Cross Counter

In putting together A Filthy Casual’s Guide to Jorge Masvidal I watched through something like thirty of Masvidal’s fights to analyse his tendencies and the adjustments he made from opponent to opponent. In Saturday’s main event against Nate Diaz, Masvidal essentially performed a playlist of his greatest hits and faced very little adversity while doing it. And in spite of all the insistence that Diaz was evolving and shoring up the gaping, well known holes in his game, the same old problems shone through and allowed Masvidal to run away with the fight.

I went as far as to call Masvidal one of MMA’s best body kickers in my pre-fight analysis. He gets to the body frequently, he always kicks into the open side, and he is more comfortable than most of MMA’s strikers in fighting off the leg grab that might follow. He is also competent at scoring his body kicks with both legs, out of both stances. While Masvidal has done a lot of great work with his switch kick and stepping lead leg kick to the bread basket over the years, Diaz’s southpaw stance gave him the opportunity to uncork his right leg, and he quickly winded Diaz.

The Diaz brothers value bodywork but have also struggled when confronted with it in the past. Moreover, it is a great alternative to wasting effort and hurting your hands trying to knock them out with head trauma. Masvidal targeted the body with his kicking game, his knees to the gut from the clinch, his left hooks to the body, and even on the mat with downward punches as he stood over Diaz.

This made the writer think back to the work of Fedor Emelianenko in RINGS, where the strange rules prevented the best ground and pounder in MMA history from punching his opponent in the head, so he awkwardly hooked to the body as the referee sheepishly insisted “no face, no face.” A more recent example came a couple of hours before Diaz vs Masvidal, when Shane Burgos had dropped Makwan Amirkhani with body shots and refused to get distracted on the mat. Using his leg-side knee from side control to enter a mounted crucifix with the “wrong” leg—he freed his leg-side hand to punch Amirkhani’s body.

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The unexpected part of Masvidal’s kicking game was the lack of low kicking. We mentioned that as Masvidal is an orthodox fighter, his lead leg kick would be the one to exploit Diaz’s long, toed-in stance, which meant he wouldn’t be able to get quite as vicious with it as a southpaw would. However, Masvidal eschewed the low kicks for the most part except in the form of his favourite lead leg stomping kick into the knee, and a side kick to the lead leg when he fought southpaw. The low line straight kicks did hide some of his entries though. When Masvidal stood southpaw and side kicked Diaz’s lead leg, Diaz began picking it up and trying to kick back at the same time. Masvidal was able to step in and crack Diaz while he was squared up and on one leg, just as Conor McGregor did multiple times in their second fight.

Elbows on the break were always going to be important in this bout, but in the Filthy Casual’s Guide we observed that Masvidal really isn’t an active striker from the clinch in many of his bouts. Against Diaz he went to knees to the body from the head post, elbowed on the break, and hunted for collar ties from which to elbow. He did this with such determination that it was obvious American Top Team had Diaz scouted. Not only does tying Diaz up prevent him from working his hands and building volume, but both Diaz brothers are known for their propensity to cut (due in large part to scar tissue around their eyes). The very first pair of elbows that Masvidal landed from a collar tie opened up the gash over Diaz’s eye which would go on to stop the fight.

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While Masvidal moved off the fence and avoided Diaz for the most part, it never seemed like a life and death decision to do so. When Masvidal found himself cornered and didn’t feel he could make the angle to escape, he simply ducked in on Diaz and tied him up—halting all of Diaz’s offence. In the match up between Darren Till and Kelvin Gastelum earlier in the evening, Darren Till used exactly the same method to smother Kelvin Gastelum, refusing to engage on Gastelum’s terms and instead picking away at him with kicks and straight shots from long range. While there wasn’t a whole lot to talk about in that fight and it didn’t win over many fans, it was about the best showing you could hope for from Till—a very defensively minded performance where he showed that he has been putting in work to keep his chin hidden and angle off when he retreats.

While the low kick was largely absent in Masivdal vs Diaz, the lateral movement that has undone Nate Diaz so many times before was still a key part of the gameplan. Never has Diaz’s footwork looked so inefficient. Even when he was able to get Masvidal to the fence on his own terms, Diaz would quickly lose Masvidal and the ATT fighter would be out on the other side of the cage. So often Diaz’s pressure relies on his man staying in place and submitting to the engagement as Diaz drowns him.

Here Diaz enters almost side on, having done nothing to control Masvidal’s lead hand and so eats the usual Masvidal jab and is left with his back to Masvidal as Masvidal slides past his lead shoulder. This moment sums up almost everything that went wrong for Diaz out in the open through this fight.

Here Diaz enters almost side on, having done nothing to control Masvidal’s lead hand and so eats the usual Masvidal jab and is left with his back to Masvidal as Masvidal slides past his lead shoulder. This moment sums up almost everything that went wrong for Diaz out in the open through this fight.

Diaz was also unable to hand fight effectively with Masvidal. Where Darren Till and Tim Means took away Masvidal’s formidable jab and shot straights down the centre, Diaz slapped at Masvidal’s lead hand, but would then try to enter with a lead hook to the body or a wide right handed swing to the head—allowing Masvidal to shoot his jab straight down the centre to jam Diaz.

The stoppage was questionable to say the least, but the fight had been almost entirely one way traffic as Diaz’s long standing weaknesses were put under a spotlight once again.

Quite unexpectedly it was Kevin Lee who stole the show at UFC 244 with one of the gnarliest knockouts in recent memory, against the previously untouchable Gregor Gillespie. The two men exchanged jabs for much of the early going and Lee seemed to be putting his remarkable reach to work well. A one-two which fell short was followed immediately with a jab to close the door on the combination and it jacked Gillespie’s head back as he tried to come in on the counter.

After a couple of minutes of trading jabs and warming up, Lee timed a slip to the inside of Gillespie’s and fired a cross counter over the top. As Gillespie stumbled back, Lee stepped up into a lead leg high kick which activated Gillespie’s rag doll physics.

What is intriguing about this counter combination is that I cannot recall seeing it that often, but it seems perfectly set up to exploit a common outcome of the cross counter. In A Filthy Casual’s Guide to Vicente Luque we discussed Luque’s use of the right hand across the top of his opponent’s jab and how it stands out as a knockout counterpunch, but that it works every bit as well as a gap closer. Not only does the fighter get inside his opponent’s jab, but even if he connects on nothing but the top of the opponent’s head or shoulder, he will often knock them off balance. Luque sent Hector Urbina to the fence in this way and was able to move in and follow up with shots to knock Urbina out. Jack Dempsey also closed the distance with the cross counter against Gene Tunney and knocked Tunney down with follow up shots.

In the figure below, the yellow line represents the direction in which the cross counter breaks the jabbing fighter’s balance—by throwing his upper body back and towards the right of his stance. As the cross counter is a counter to a jab, the attacking fighter’s stance is already extended as he has just come in off his back foot. This means that on a lot of occasions the jabbing fighter will have to bring his lead foot back underneath him as his balance breaks.

Figure

Figure

If you watched Stephen Thompson vs Vicente Luque with a close eye, you would have noticed that Luque fired his right hand across the top of Thompson’s jab a good few times, and on several occasions he sent Thompson stumbling back on exactly the same line that Gillespie did against Lee.

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Lee’s combination might have been heat of the moment, or a well practiced go-to, but it has that beautiful synergy between blows that all the best set ups do and it is certainly going to be trained into this writer’s arsenal.