Hey, remember this event? It seems like forever ago now, but I’ve finally finished my epic recap of UFC 167! I offer you a breakdown of the best techniques and strategies of the night, from Rick Story’s three round beatdown of Brian Ebersole, to Robbie Lawler’s gritty comeback against Rory MadDonald, and of course the titanic struggle between Johny Hendricks and welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
No use delaying it any further; let’s get on with it, starting with…
COUNTERING THE JAB
Featuring: Rick Story, Brian Ebersole
As a boxing fan, I’ve always liked Rick Story. His style of striking is gritty and in-your-face, and he pushes a relentless pace. Describing him, most people categorize him as a classic swarmer, and sometimes that’s exactly what he is, pressuring his opponent with punches to the head and body until he can work them against the fence, into the clinch, and down to the ground.
But Rick is more than just a pressure fighter. He is one of MMA’s best examples of that rare and ill-understood breed, the aggressive counter fighter. This side of Story’s personality really came out in his preliminary card bout with uber-veteran Brian Ebersole at UFC 167. Stalking Ebersole without remorse, Story maintained his stance and slowly shuffled forward, his head moving as he shifted his weight from hip to hip, loading one potential rib-cracking punch after another. Filled with fear (or puzzled boredom, judging by the look on his face), Brian Ebersole tried something crazy: the jab.
I don’t usually caption pictures but…
That’s right, the jab. And it totally worked–at least, until Story realized he knew about forty eight counters to this most basic of punches. Let’s run through the ways that Story beat Ebersole’s jab while coming forward all the time.
1. Rick backs Ebersole up near the fence.
2. Sensing his precarious position, Ebersole jabs, but Story jabs at the same time. Because Story’s head moves down and to the left with his jab, Ebersole’s punch misses, while Story connects with Ebersole’s neck.
3. Ebersole attempts to pull his right hand back to guard, but Story is too quick, and cracks him with the second part of a vicious two piece.
4. The punch finishes Story’s mission, putting Ebersole’s back flush to the fence.
Story didn’t jab much himself in this fight, but when he did, the contrast was clear. Much like in Silva vs. Okami (GIF), Story’s jab was almost always able to beat Ebersole’s, because Story’s jab was accompanied by a slight change of level and some built-in head movement, whereas Ebersole’s head stayed completely stationary throughout the punch.
1. Ebersole lands his jab again, this time throwing it behind a feint to throw Story’s timing off.
2. It works: Story’s counter right hook misses its mark by a wide margin.
3. Confidence growing, Ebersole goes back to the well, stepping forward behind another feint followed by a stiff jab. Unfortunately for him, Story reads this one like a book, and slips to the inside.
4. He lands a hard left hook to Ebersole’s temple as his weight shifts to the right.
Ah, the classic cross counter. This is an example of Story’s versatility in countering. He is capable of defending and then countering, but also understands the importance of intercepting the opponent’s strikes with solid ones of his own. And finally, the Rick Story special… body work.
1a. In this first sequence, Ebersole jabs and Story moves forward, slipping the jab to the inside as he does.
2a. Story uncorks a vicious right hook to the body, unimpeded by Ebersole’s guarding forearms, which cover only his head.
1b. Story feints his jab, prompting Ebersole to counter with a corkscrew jab of his own.
2b. Story slips to the inside. Just as with the cross counter, he throws his left at the same time as his slip, but this time it’s a straight punch to Ebersole’s exposed ribs.
Once again, Story demonstrates his understanding of the various types of counters. In the first sequence, the body shot was a wise choice. Ebersole knew he was about to be countered, and covered up immediately after missing his jab. His defensive shell failed to cover his body, however, and that’s exactly where Story went with his right hook.
The second counter is one of my favorites, particularly in the rare southpaw vs. southpaw fight, because the opponent’s jab takes their right elbow away from their body, exposing the tender, delicious liver. Story’s head moves on his initial jab feint, dropping weight onto his left foot, and Ebersole cleverly tries to counter with a corkscrew/up-jab, but Story’s head has already moved back over his right hip before Ebersole’s punch can get there. Story connects with Ebersole’s ribs just as his jab has fully extended, the two men’s weight clashing together. It almost certainly hurt Ebersole, though he hid it very well.
INTERNAL ROTATION & THE OUTSIDE ANGLE
Featuring: Robbie Lawler, Rory MacDonald
Much of the attention focused on UFC 167 was based around the idea of new vs. old. GSP, a veteran of both MMA and the UFC, would end up having a titanic struggle with Johny Hendricks, a relative novice to the sport. Less than an hour before that fight, however, Robbie Lawler made a very strong argument for the old timers, putting his twelve years of experience to work and claiming an upset victory over the new-breediest welterweight of them all, Rory MacDonald.
How did he do it? Even after the fight, not many people will be claiming that Robbie Lawler is a more polished striker than his vanquished foe. Nor will they say that he had an easy time with his opponent. In fact, Lawler looked at times awkward on the feet, struggling with MacDonald’s reach advantage, and succumbing to a handful of takedown attempts from the Tristar product.
But what Robbie Lawler lacked in grace, he made up for in grit, and the simple fact that he had a strategy, and saw it through.
Lawler spent the first round of the fight pot-shotting his lengthy opponent with lengthy strikes of his own. In particular, he looked for the lead outside low kick, and found it again, and again, and again.
In the first two minutes of the fight, Lawler landed the right low kick six times cleanly. Rory MacDonald showed no intention of checking the kick, though after a few had landed it was clear that the kicks were bothering him. Why wasn’t he able to stop Robbie from kicking his leg at will? Let’s take a look at his stance.
Observe, for I have helpfully highlighted and zoomed in on all the important bits. MacDonald’s lead foot is very important here, especially compared with Lawler’s. Both of Rory’s feet are pointed to his right, almost as if he’s riding a surf board. Robbie, on the other hand, has his lead foot pointed directly at MacDonald. Rory also has most of his weight on his front leg, with his rear leg stuck out too far behind him.
What this means is that Rory can do very little to stop Robbie Lawler from taking an outside angle on him. When his lead foot is already not pointed at Robbie’s center line, then all it takes is a small step to Rory’s left to completely negate his offense and defense. Rory can circle and move back to keep Robbie from taking advantage of that angle, but with nothing to stop movement to that side initially, he will always be a step behind Robbie. Worse, with his weight over his left foot he will have a much harder time lifting that foot to check kicks.
As a result, Rory ate kick after kick on the feet, struggling to utilize his jab and movement to keep Robbie out of his space. And it was those outside leg kicks which set up the right hook that Robbie found success with later.
1. At the start of round 3, MacDonald paws at Lawler with the jab.
2. Robbie counters his forward step with the tried and true outside leg kick, which buckles the knee of MacDonald somewhat.
3. He follows up with a left high kick that is blocked…
4. …but uses the recovery from the kick to work his right foot even further outside Rory’s pronated left foot. Robbie lands a right hook to intercept a straight right from Rory.
The angle in frame four isn’t great (for a clearer view of the punch, you can watch it in mega-slo-mo-GIF-form here), but the important thing is the positioning of the feet. Rory is attempting to throw a straight right from a terrible position. Not only is his left foot still turned away from Lawler, but his entire body is not facing Robbie’s centerline. His straight right goes completely wide of the mark as Lawler, who actually is positioned properly, cracks him with a monster right hook. It’s all because of those right low kicks that Robbie is able to land this right hook, and because of the right hook he is nearly able to knock Rory out with a vicious left to the jaw just minutes later. (GIF)
So, Robbie Lawler just became the third ranked welterweight in the UFC… all thanks to Rory MacDonald’s left foot.
ADJUSTMENTS: A CLASH OF STYLES
Featuring: Georges St-Pierre, Johny Hendricks
Forget the controversial first round for a minute. Forget the ridiculous claims that “everybody knows who really won,” or that the champion’s face is proof that he failed to truly defend his belt. Forget all of the drama and remember that Saturday, November 16th, we witnessed a truly great championship fight. Few men have pushed Georges St-Pierre the way that Hendricks did, and Georges has never looked better in fighting urgently and desperately for his long-coveted title. This was a clash of styles that will go down in history, I hope, as one of the best title fights of Georges St-Pierre’s legendary reign, even if it has likely come at the end of his era.
Like most great fights in history, this one was as much a battle of wills as it was a battle of skill. Both men needed this fight to be fought at completely different ranges and paces, and the thrill of the fight was the result of each of them vying against one another to do so. Hendricks needed to put St-Pierre in his power arc, where he could hurt the champion with his powerful strikes. St-Pierre, on the other hand, needed to keep Hendricks on the end of his jab and kicks. This was a great, back-and-forth contest because, at different times throughout the fight, both men succeeded. Best of all, whenever one man would have a moment of success, the other would be put in a position to either adjust or accept loss, and both men successfully adjusted multiple times.
THE INSIDE ANGLE
As a stark reminder of the power he truly does possess, Johny Hendricks just had to land one really clean punch, and land he did. In the second minute of round two, Hendricks was the first of the two men to capitalize on what was learned in the close first round.
1. St-Pierre connects with an outside low kick and Hendricks drops his weight, cocking his left hand.
2. Hendricks lunges forward with his left before Georges can regain his stance from the kick. Still, the champ begins moving to his left, and covers up to avoid the shot.
3. Hendricks’ left foot leaves the ground and comes forward with his left hand. He is now squared, almost in a southpaw stance. Georges circles away.
4. As St-Pierre brings his right foot around to return to orthodox, Hendricks throws a shift punch, stepping with his right foot as he throws his left uppercut. He catches St-Pierre from an inside angle, striking straight across the champion’s weak plane, illustrated in red.
5. A second angle: Hendricks is nearly southpaw. Again, St-Pierre’s weak plane is drawn in red.
6. Hendricks shifts back to orthodox as he throws his left hand, now perfectly positioned to attack Georges’s weak plane, as illustrated by the green arrow extending from the point of his right foot.
In the past, as recently as the Condit fight, Hendricks has doubled and tripled up on his left hand in a rather sloppy fashion, completely losing his stance and simply winging punches at random. If nothing else, Dan Henderson’s recent loss to Vitor Belfort should prove that compromising one’s own stance in the hope of landing a lucky punch is just not worth it. This time, however, Hendricks used some clever footwork to out-position one of the greatest footwork-artists in the UFC.
Though the left foot coming forward on the left straight is not ideal, Hendricks is relatively safe throwing it that way against St-Pierre, never known for his uppercuts or knees. Hendricks feels safe to lunge in, losing his stance in the process. Lyoto Machida is another fighter who uses the shift punch to great effect, and he would typically throw his second strike from this point, launching his right hand as his left foot came forward (GIF). This perfectly illustrates the mechanics of the shift punch as a whole: as the fighter steps, his weight transfers from one foot to the other. The punch is thrown from the initial lead foot, which then becomes the rear foot as the opposite foot moves forward, bearing the weight and adding impetus to the punch.
Unlike Machida, Hendricks stuck to his trusty left hand, allowing Georges a moment to nearly regain stance before launching forward again and catching the champion at the perfect angle to hurt him. The result was a compact, powerful uppercut that not only hit St-Pierre while he was square (a certain other dominant champion was recently taught this same physics lesson), but also before he could completely plant his foot. The impact is almost indiscernible in the GIF, but St-Pierre’s body tells the tale, as his knees nearly give out and he is forced to go completely on the defensive.
Hendricks had now taken control of the fight, and the onus was on the champion to sieze back the momentum.
THE SCIENCE OF TAKING A SHOT
Throughout the fight, St-Pierre used small, subtle steps and movements to take the notorious sting off of Hendricks’ punches. He was so successful in this that, were we to all completely forget just ten seconds of the second round, we’d be convinced that either Hendricks doesn’t hit as hard as we had previously thought, or that St-Pierre has a better chin than he’s usually given credit for. The real key, however, was St-Pierre’s footwork. The following sequence takes place mere seconds after the punch that staggered the champion, and yet Georges’s footwork has already improved and adapted, and he deftly avoids the same over-anxious movement that got him hurt initially.
1. St-Pierre throws an inside low kick, and Hendricks checks it.
2. Johny plants his checking leg and counters with a short left hand that catches St-Pierre clean on the temple. Note, however, that this time the champion has chosen to remain in southpaw momentarily rather than rush back to orthodox and get hurt in the switch.
3. Hendricks steps into a right hook, and St-Pierre pulls, avoiding it.
4. Only now, after creating some space, does Georges reestablish his orthodox stance. As if sensing his finish slipping away, Hendricks smacks him with a back-handed jab.
5. Now relatively well-positioned, St-Pierre absorbs a left uppercut-remember, this is the same punch that so badly hurt him moments before.
6. Hendricks follows the uppercut with a hard right hook. St-Pierre’s back foot is still firmly planted, knee bent, and so he is able to take the punch even as he lifts his left foot.
7. The champion maneuvers his lead foot to the outside of Hendricks’ lead foot, vying for the outside angle, where he will be safe from Johny’s left hand.
8. Hendricks pursues him behind a jab.
9. Georges responds with a left hook to the chin.
This sequence seems complicated, but it really just boils down to St-Pierre maintaining composure and constantly, even in the midst of a ferocious onslaught from the challenger, readjusting to keep himself in a position in which he can absorb Hendricks’ power. Hendricks does hit very hard, but the two opponents he flattened with single shots prior to his fight with St-Pierre were both caught in poor positions as they tried desperately to avoid his left hand–Martin Kampmann was caught leaning and moving backwards, his rear foot not planted (GIF), while Jon Fitch was completely square, attempting to step back into southpaw (GIF). Though Georges was initially caught out of position, he quickly learned his lesson and took all of Hendricks’ follow-up punches like… well, like a champ.
There is a science to taking punishment, and St-Pierre’s composure was a key ingredient to his ability to absorb Hendricks onslaught. Whether or not you agree with the decision, never forget that UFC 167 offered an incredible night of fights, capped off by one of the most exciting title fights in UFC history. Hopefully neither fighter’s legacy will be tarnished by this performance once the post-fight storm has passed. Instead, if this was truly his last fight, let’s remember Georges St-Pierre as the dominant champion who valiantly defended his belt one last time, putting forth an effort of titanic will to overcome his greatest test to date. And let’s remember Johny Hendricks as the man who, despite losing on two of the judge’s scorecards, pressed GSP like no one before him, and nearly knocked out one of the greatest fighters of all time.
For more fight analysis, check out Connor’s new podcast Heavy Hands. Tonight’s new episode features an interview with Lyte Burly, boxing trainer and pioneer of the little-known New York-bred fighting system 52 Blocks. And be sure to tune in next week, when we’ll be interviewing UFC welterweight contender Matt Brown!
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