It feels like ages since we’ve had one of these, but UFC: Nashville strikes me as the perfect event for a good old fashioned Tech Recap. All in all it was a very entertaining card, replete with tactical battles between skilled martial artists–even the admittedly frustrating heavyweight contest between Jared Rosholt and Timothy Johnson was worth the price of admission, at least from where I was sitting. It was the perfect encapsulation of what a fight night card should be, with prospects of varying relevancy sorting out their respective places in the pecking order against well-matched opponents. In fact, with the exception of a handful of mismatches (some of them quite unexpected), this turned out to be one of the most competitively matched cards we’ve seen in some time, which afforded us the opportunity to see technique applied and tested in a meaningful, challenging environment.
I suppose all of that sounds a little geeky, but hey–this is the Technique Recap. That’s what I’m here for. So without further ado, let’s talk about jabs.
Go to any MMA forum, find the inevitable slew of “which technique is underused in MMA today?” threads, and I guarantee you will find at least one user espousing “teh jab” as the one thing MMA fighters can’t ever seem to get right. Most of us know what a jab is on the most basic level, and most of us know that the jab is a staple of the technically sound boxer’s toolkit. And since we can all agree that mixed martial artists don’t typically box as well as boxers, it’s easy to just say “jab more,” and be done with it.
The thing is, this even happens in boxing gyms. You might call the jab the quintessential “underused” technique. That’s because the jab, more than any other technique, has picked up a sort of mythical quality over the years. Dating back to the days when proud British boxers espoused the science of the sport, and looked down on their American counterparts for their rough-and-tumble style of fighting, the jab has long been considered the fundamental piece of any boxer’s arsenal. Boxing is the jab, as far as some are concerned.
And that’s why boxing gyms the world over are stocked with onlookers, with no experience or training of any kind, who watch kids sparring and shout at them to “jab, jab, jab!” Which, while not inherently bad advice, requires about as much insight and coaching ability as “breathe, breathe! Inhale then exhale!”
Turns out it’s easy to sound like you know what you’re talking about if you restrict yourself to simple undeniable truths. “Use the jab,” is an old favorite among know-it-alls for the same reason old standards like “keep your hands up!” and “stick and move!” continue to crop up in bleachers and commentary booths around the globe. It sounds like good advice, because it is, but devoid of context it’s nothing but jargon. Stick and move to where? Keep my hands up when? And use my jab how?
That last question is a good one for UFC: Nashville because, as it happens, there are mixed martial artists who know how and when to use a jab. Two of them, Sirwan Kakai and Beneil Dariush, showed exactly why the command “use the jab” is such a loaded one.
Featuring: Beneil Dariush
Opinions on the questionable decision aside, Michael Johnson vs Beneil Dariush was every bit the fight we were looking forward to, a tactical battle between two of the lightweight division’s most promising new contenders. And though he may not have deserved the nod, Beneil Dariush made a real impression on me. Personally, I expected the Kings MMA fighter to struggle mightily with the pressure of Johnson, as he has with other, less dangerous opponents. In fact, given the way that Dariush shelled up and retreated from Carlos Diego Ferrera less than a year ago, I half-expected Johnson to knock him out.
Consider my reaction, then, when Dariush, instead of retreating and throwing his hands up in the face of Johnson’s assault, did this:
1. Johnson controls the center of the Octagon, with Dariush circling the perimeter.
2. Johnson tenses as if preparing to throw . . .
3. . . . and Dariush interrupts him with a long jab. As he throws he steps to his right . . .
4. . . . which allows him to step back on an angle afterward, completely avoiding Johnson’s counter jab.
5. Dariush continues to circle, and Johnson stays with him.
6. Sensing an attack once again, Dariush feints his jab, prompting a reaction from Johnson.
7. Initiative momentarily regained, Benny steps in with a real jab, which falls slightly short.
8. Without hesitation, Dariush takes a second step forward . . .
9. . . . and extends another jab, this one to Johnson’s chest. Johnson tries to parry, and brings his head forward as he absorbs the body shot.
10. This puts him right in the path of a short overhand left right to the side of the jaw.
Now here we have four distinct uses of a single attack. First, Dariush uses his jab as a simple deterrent, timing the quick flash of his right hand perfectly to stop Johnson from jumping in with an attack of his own. This is the jab in its most basic utility, a relatively powerless weapon that can be brought to bear very quickly.
Next, in Frame 6, we have a feint based on this same principle. This feint accomplishes much the same goal as the first jab, halting Johnson’s advance, but without even the slight commitment required of an aimed punch. In addition, the feint puts hesitation in Johnson’s mind: once he’s bitten on a feint he is forced to put just a little more thought into each future reaction, and the more time he spends thinking, the less time he spends attacking.
After that, Dariush uses his jab as a measuring stick in Frame 7. Now I suspect that he actually intended to land this jab, but the fact that it falls short makes it an impromptu measuring device nonetheless. When Dariush feels that he is unable to catch Johnson with his punch, he knows that he needs to step forward to continue his attack, which he does in Frame 8.
Finally, we have a jab to the chest. The placement of this punch matters as much as the timing. By preceding a strike to the head with one to the body, Dariush makes Johnson’s job a lot more difficult, coaxing his hands and body out of position to defend. Measurement is an important aspect of this jab as well. Having closed the distance considerably, Dariush feels his right hand connect well before his arm reaches full extension, which tells him that he stands at the perfect distance for a powerful, short cross.
The fact that Dariush can box this well after so little time in the sport–and with no striking background–says a lot about his potential. Just six years into his professional MMA career, this jiu jitsu specialist can jab better than almost every other fighter in the lightweight division.
THE UTILITY OF LIABILITY
Featuring: Sirwan Kakai
I’m not sure I came away from UFC: Nashville impressed by any fighter as much as I was by Sirwan Kakai. I made the mistake of writing Kakai off prior to the event. Knowing that he was facing the wrestle-boxing berserker that is Frankie Saenz, who fights an awful lot like a tiny version of WSOF lightweight champion Justin Gaethje, I sort of expected Kakai to get blown out of the water. He proved me wrong, and came dangerously close to beating one of bantamweight’s best prospects, all with a very educated jab.
The thing that makes a jab such a difficult technique to wrap your head around is that it works even when it fails. Getting a fighter to throw his jab isn’t even half the battle; the most important thing is getting him to understand how to use it–whether it lands or not, and even if it gets him in trouble.
1. Kakai steps in and catches Saenz with a hard jab to the body.
2. Saenz pops out from behind Herb Dean to counter with a right hand that clips Kakai on the temple and forces him to retreat.
3. Back at range, Kakai circles and draws Saenz back in.
4. Again he jabs to the body, but this time he’s ready for the follow-up.
5. When the right hand counter comes, Kakai is already out of range and off to the side.
6. As Saenz stumbles in after his missed punch, Kakai whips his left hand back around . . .
7. . . . and cracks Saenz with a clean left hook.
Had Kakai not understood the full utility of his jab, he might have stopped throwing it after Frame 2. Saenz easily read Kakai’s body jab and countered it, which instantly made that weapon a liability. But even a liability can be an advantage if you play your cards right. Kakai understood that his body jab left him open, but more importantly he understood that Saenz saw the opening, which meant that he could be set up.
Fighting is a complex thing that takes decades of experience to fully understand–and even then, you’ll find yourself learning new things, or finding new ways to look at old problems. Even something as simple and basic as the jab has layers upon layers of context that must be considered before assessing its true value. We all know that a jab is good, and we all know that its good to keep your hands up. But those statements alone are meaningless if you’re not willing to ask why.
Now that we’ve talked at length about out-fighting, it’s time to look at the other half of the equation. Come back later this week and we’ll look at UFC: Nashville a little closer–against the fence, in the clinch, and in your face.
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