When it comes to fighting, nothing is more important than stance. A good stance is beyond fundamental; it is the foundation upon which fundamentals are built.
As such, most great fighters spend a vast amount of time perfecting their stance and the movements performed out of it. Right-handed fighters stand with their power hand in the rear, and lefties likewise. There are notable exceptions, but for the most part this is the way things are done. When these fighters find themselves out of position, they will focus their energies on returning to their foundation–their stance.
But what if a fighter was never really out of position? What if he were so comfortable on his feet that he could eschew the need for any reset at all, and simply attack? What if a fighter could fight without a stance?
Anthony Johnson has always been dangerous on the feet, a dynamo with fight-ending power from 170 pounds all the way up to 230. That hasn’t changed. What has changed, however, is the way that Johnson uses his power. Once prone to maniacally swinging until utterly exhausted (a state that, at welterweight, he usually reached within five minutes), Johnson has been steadily evolving into a more subtle breed of knockout artist: the aggressive counter puncher.
Stylistically, Johnson is a pressure fighter. In that regard, Saturday’s Stockholm main event was one of his finest performances, as he cut off the Octagon with ease and kept Alexander Gustafsson’s back to the fence for the majority of their brief encounter. Despite this tendency toward forward momentum, however, Johnson is never really at his best leading. He stalks his opponent, feinting or touching them with sharp, quick jabs, and waiting for them to commit so that he can counter. The counter right hand that first dropped Gustafsson to the canvas is a perfect example of that style at work (GIF).
The tricky thing about forward-moving counter punchers is that they tend to adopt a very flexible approach to stance. When one’s goal is to always be in position to land a knockout punch, the strictures of orthodox or southpaw mechanics seem comparatively unimportant–what matters to the aggressive counter puncher is that he is always close enough to return fire, and ever prepared to do so.
Here’s how Rumble does it.
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1. Johnson backs Phil Davis up toward the fence.
2. As Davis begins to circle to his right, Johnson squares his feet, shuffling sideways to stay between his opponent and center cage.
3. Davis tries to capitalize on this square stance, and he slaps down Johnson’s right hand with his left.
4. But Rumble easily predicts Davis’ follow-up cross, and steps his left leg back and to the left.
5. Suddenly it’s Davis who finds himself out of position, while Johnson is now ready to open fire from his southpaw stance.
While Johnson often appears vulnerable (and indeed he is), his awareness makes any attempt to capitalize on his wide-open stance a very risky proposition. Some fighters allow themselves to get out of position in their carelessness to chase an opponent down, but Johnson’s square stalking is a calculated choice, evinced by the fact that he is consistently looking to catch his overeager opponents out of position.
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1. Rumble moves toward Davis in orthodox.
2. Davis steps to his right, and Johnson immediately steps his left foot out to stay with him, essentially squaring his feet.
3. Davis loads up on a switch kick and Rumble slides his left foot back.
4. Moving with the kick, Johnson easily catches Davis’ ankle and prepares to counter, now from something of a wide southpaw stance.
5. Letting go of Davis’ leg, Johnson fires a kick from what is now his rear leg.
6. Davis’ life flashes before his eyes as Johnson’s foot wraps around the back of his head.
Johnson’s willingness to shift his feet allows him to throw from a variety of unpredictable angles and ranges. He doesn’t just fight from southpaw or orthodox–he fights without a stance at all, comfortably placing his feet wherever they need to be in order to avoid his opponent’s shots and generate powerful responses.
Of course, so far we’ve talked about Johnson’s ability to move his feet. Against Alexander Gustafsson he showed some of his best lateral movement yet, keeping the pressure on the Swede for the duration of the bout. This style of stance-less pressure fighting isn’t just defined by foot movement, however. In fact, one of its greatest advantages is the ability to attack without moving the feet.
There is no greater example of this than Mike Tyson. Watch him batter the woefully outmatched Donnie Long below.
At this point in the bout, Tyson had already dropped Long once, and was looking for the kill. Like Anthony Johnson, Tyson was a fearsome puncher, blessed with natural power and the speed with which to deliver it. It behooved him to keep his feet planted whenever he could, in order to get maximal leverage into his punches. Watch his feet once he gets Long to the ropes.
Aside from the small steps necessary to get full weight transfer into these strikes, there is very little actual footwork going on here. The relative position of Tyson’s feet changes very little. What changes is the orientation of his upper body over that static stance. As Long stumbles from one side to the other, Tyson simply swivels his torso and keeps the pressure on him, aided by the ropes that block Long’s escape. When Long first hits the ropes, Tyson attacks with a right cross to the body from an orthodox stance. A snapping left hook upstairs pushes Long to Tyson’s left, and Mike simply orients his shoulders to keep facing his prey. His next left hand is more of a cross than a hook, and suddenly his short right hands become lead uppercuts and hooks. Finally, Long stumbles back to the right and collapses, but Tyson already appears to be back in his orthodox stance as he goes down, ready to keep punching from his original position.
When Tyson had an opponent hurt, he became the epicenter of a whirlwind of power punches. His comfort throwing out of either stance allowed him to attack ruthlessly with very little actual footwork. In other words, no matter how Long moved around Iron Mike, he somehow always found himself standing right in front of him.
Anthony Johnson is no Mike Tyson, but he’s shown an aptitude for the same fearsome flexibility.
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1. Johnson walks the stunned Gustafsson into the fence.
2. He takes a step forward with his right leg, loading up his left kick.
3. The kick fails to land clean, but it keeps Gustafsson from circling to his left.
4. As Johnson’s left foot returns to the canvas, he finds himself in southpaw.
5. Content to punch from this position, he measures Gustafsson with his left hand . . .
6. . . . and unloads a series of punches with his right.
As in the Tyson example, the boundary of the ring is very important. While Tyson had his man trapped against the ropes, Johnson has his up against the fence. This limits Gustafsson’s options for escape–essentially, he can circle along the cage either to his right or his left. WIth his powerful left high kick, Johnson instantly convinced Gustafsson not to circle to his right. Then, landing in southpaw, Johnson used his right leg as a boundary to keep Gustafsson from circling the other way, before quickly backing up that virtual threat with the very real threat of his right hand.
No matter which way Gustafsson aimed to go, Johnson was ready and willing to bomb him with devastating punches–no footwork required.
Another reason for Johnson’s devastating accuracy was his method of measurement. In many ways Rumble is still a rudimentary striker, but his methods are practical and undeniably effective. Rather than relying on a combination punching ability that he, frankly, doesn’t yet possess, Johnson fired a steady stream of overhands and uppercuts from one hand at a time, using his non-punching arm to keep Gustafsson in range, and in his sights.
Let’s look at that final sequence on the feet once again, with a different focus.
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1. Loading up an obvious right uppercut, Johnson lays his left hand across the back of Gustafsson’s neck.
2. Missing with his first punch, he presses down on Gustafsson’s neck with his left as the Swede ducks his head.
3. With Rumble’s hand breaking his posture, Gustafsson can neither move effectively nor see the next blow coming.
4. This uppercut lands clean.
5. As Gustafsson reels backward, Johnson once again uses his left hand to measure his target . . .
6. . . . but Gustafsson’s erratic movement causes his overhand right to miss. Johnson simply keeps that arm on Gustafsson’s shoulder.
7. And starts throwing with the left hand instead, clubbing Gustafsson with an uppercut.
8. His right hand still on the Swede’s shoulder, he loads up another punch . . .
9. . . . and misses.
10. Undeterred, he goes back to his original tactic, pushing Gustafsson off balance with his left hand . . .
11. . . . and landing a rabbit punch as he ducks his head once again.
More sophisticated than it might seem at first, this constant measurement allows Johnson to keep his hurt opponent trapped while he confidently and generously applies power punches to his head. What is most impressive is Johnson’s “sticky” hands. Missing with one punch, he simply keeps that hand in contact with his opponent’s body, making it easier to land subsequent blows with the other hand. Switching methodically from side-to-side, he can ensure that he is always at the perfect range to land devastating shots, all while using subtle pushes and pulls to break the balance and posture of his opponent.
If nothing else, Anthony Johnson’s growth as a striker is a huge credit to the training abilities of Henri Hooft and Pedro Diaz, the striking coaches at the increasingly impressive Blackzilians camp in Boca Raton, Florida. Once a vulnerable brawler with considerable power, Johnson has made a complete transformation in the last three years, emerging a dangerous light heavyweight contender who stands a serious chance of becoming the division’s new king.
For more fight analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. On last week’s episode, Connor and Sherdog’s Patrick Wyman break down Gustafsson-Johnson in-depth. Wednesday we will look back at the bout, and look forward to the magnificence of Anderson Silva vs Nick Diaz, a fascinating fight for aspiring fight analysts everywhere.
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