The word “timing” gets tossed about a lot in fight sport discussions, and really in discussions of sports in general. I think everyone innately knows what good timing is: you confront some sort of moving target, and you accurately predict where it is going to be, and when. In MMA, this frequently means landing a stop-hit, countering, or wrapping up a quick submission. When one of these attacks is timed well, the opponent rarely sees it coming.
But understanding what good timing looks like does not necessarily tell us why the particular instance of timing was effective.
UFC on Fox 23 was a very enjoyable night of fights, and it seemed that all of the most impactful moments were the result of excellent timing. Hell, maybe that’s just the case with every impressive athletic feat. Either way, this edition of the Technique Recap will look back at a few of my favorite examples, and attempt to analyze the patterns and behaviors through which the combatants were able to time their decisive blows, as well as the subtle groundwork they laid to make sure that their attacks would succeed.
It’s been a long time; welcome back to the Technique Recap.
Jorge Masvidal’s perfect counter
A long-forgotten mixed martial artist once said that timing beats speed, and in most cases this is true. There are many incredibly fast fighters who struggle to find homes for their strikes (Gary Russell Junior, I’m looking at you), and there are just as many syrupy-slow fighters who nonetheless manage to connect with great regularity (what’s up, Ben Rothwell). Speed matters less than timing, and that is a fact.
However, separating the two concepts completely would be a mistake. In truth, speed and timing go hand in hand. There are few things more dangerous and frustrating than a very fast fighter with very good timing. And in many cases, lightning speed is required in order to capitalize on an opening before it disappears. Often, timing is useless without the quickness to make it count.
In his bout with Donald Cerrone, Jorge Masvidal demonstrated a beautiful marriage of timing and explosvie speed. Near the end of the first round, he encountered a golden opportunity. With only a very small window of time in which to take advantage, speed was essential, and Masvidal delivered.
1. With Cerrone on the back foot, Masvidal sets his feet . . .
2. . . . and cracks Cerrone with his own trademark shot, a switch kick to the liver.
3. Eager to force a reaction out of Cerrone, Masvidal presses forward, occupying Cerrone’s hands . . .
4. . . . and flashing a jab in his face. Methodical pressure.
5. Cerrone bites. Perhaps prompted by Masvidal’s own kick, he lands a liver shot of his own.
6. However Masvidal will not let the fight go unanswered. In attempting to block the kick, he gets a grip on Cerrone’s ankle.
7. Now Masvidal does several things in quick succession. First, he flings Cerrone’s leg to his left, crossing Donald’s legs and putting him in an awkward position.
8. At almost the exact same time, Masvidal takes a deep step forward and, using the motion of his “parry” loads up a left hook.
9. This catches Cerrone on the chin while his left leg is still dangling in mid-air.
10. Cerrone manages to get both feet on the ground, but Masvidal’s follow-up right hand catches him on the temple before he can adjust. He is standing square as he eats the punch (I have illustrated this weak plane with a pair of colored lines).
11. Masvidal’s final left is about as academic as a chingaso to the dome can be; Cerrone is out on his feet.
Now Jorge Masvidal is a quick man. In particular, his hands are extremely fast–almost certainly some of the fastest in the welterweight division. Even so, he approaches this counter in methodical fashion. Arguably, it starts with the switch kick. Often fighters will use the strike they wish to draw from their opponent. The typical response to the jab is another jab. For Cerrone, owner of the best switch kick in the UFC, a shin to the ribs could be interpreted as an outright challenge: “You think you kick hard? Well try to top this.”
Then there is the subtle pressure. While waiting for Cerrone’s kick, Masvidal keeps his man busy. The more Cerrone has to worry about Jorge’s left hand flashing toward his face, the less he is able to judge distance or read the position of his opponent. And Masvidal is never in a weak position. He does not commit to his jabs, nor does he attempt to leap out of range when Cerrone strikes. He looks, for all the world, like a man expecting a switch kick in return. And though he opts to defend his head rather than his ribs (a look at Cerrone’s fight with Matt Brown is liable to make a man wary about his jaw), he is more than ready to plunge into the pocket with a combination as Cerrone struggles to right himself.
Thus, the parry is the keystone of this combination. Masvidal does not simply block Cerrone’s kick; he catches it, and forcefully throws the leg aside. The opening for his combination is still brief, but by adding a few milliseconds to Cerrone’s recovery gives him just enough time to pounce. It also puts Cerrone into a totally vulnerable position. Balance is a crucial aspect of punch resistence, and there is no surer way to get hurt by a strike than to absorb it with one foot hovering off the ground.
Jorge Masvidal has had a long and impressive career. As far as a road warrior’s resume is concerned, his is topped only, perhaps, by that of the man he just knocked out. Which more or less makes this the best win of his fighting life. And if timing that brilliant seems almost accidental, consider this: Masvidal finished Cerrone with nearly the exact same combination less than a minute into the second round (GIF). They don’t call him “Gamebred” for nothing; Jorge Masvidal knows his counters.
Li Jingliang’s blistering lead right
First things first, I would like to make a humble plea. I like to think I have helped establish several popular “pet names” in the MMA community, unofficial monikers that nonetheless suit the fighters to which they are given exactly. “Killashaw” and “Ill Dill” have caught on somewhat for TJ Dillashaw. Likewise “Pretty Tony” is basically Anthony Pettis’ de facto name among a certain subset of the MMA community at this point.
One name, however, refuses to catch on, and this I cannot abide. To me, Li Jingliang is not merely “The Leech.” To me, he is Zhao Louis. Look:
Tell me that man does not bear a striking resemblance to the legendary Brown Bomber, and I will call you a liar. The similarities are not merely cosmetic. Li doesn’t possess Louis’ titanic power, but he does hit hard. He lets his shots go from mid-range, feet well-planted beneath his body. He moves his feet slowly but with clear purpose. He has a cracking jab. All trademark components of Louis’ game, and–for God’s sake, he looks just like Joe Louis! Now, I have thought about this long and hard, and I promise: the nickname is not offensive. “Zhao” is a perfectly common Chinese name, and I for one cannot imagine anyone being insulted by a multi-faceted comparison to the second greatest heavyweight of all time. It’s a good nickname. Please use it.
So. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the punch. At UFC on Fox 23, Li faced promotional newcomer Bobby “Nashty” Nash, whose nickname is charming but–let’s be honest–nowhere near as perfect as “Zhao Louis.” Nash is a real power puncher–certainly a harder hitter than Li–and he forced the Chinese fighter to withstand a tremendous amount of punishment before slowing down midway through the second round. No amount of concussive force could knock loose whatever mechanism allows Li to time his strikes, however, and 30 seconds before the end of the second frame he landed a thunderbolt of a lead right. Check it out.
1. Li stands in center cage, having just pressured Nash toward the fence.
2. Ready to take his turn, Nash steps forward.
3. Li takes a small step back in response.
4. Nash marches forward again.
5. And Li immediately hops back another foot or so. He does not match Nash’s movement perfectly, instead allowing Nash to catch up to him inch by inch.
6. As Nash takes one more step forward, loading up his left hand as he does, Li springs the trap. With textbook form he twists his body and drops a stunning lead right directly onto Nash’s jaw.
7. And though Nash is just about unconscious already, Li has the presence of mind to roll under that left hook and pivot away from any follow-ups.
The key to this beautifully timed punch lies in the way that Li gives ground. After scoring a few shots and pushing Nash to the perimeter of the cage, he waits to see how Nash will respond. He does this waiting at such a distance that Nash would have to take a big step forward before attacking. Predictably, that is exactly what Nash does, but before he can set his feet, Li steps back again. This is a fairly small step, but importantly, it is also one which keeps Li’s feet in a strong, stable position, directly beneath his torso.
Here, Nash displays two common habits of the inexperienced fighter. Usually green fighters tend to eat up whatever space is given them. They also fight in turns. Savvy vets can manipulate these tendencies, and that is precisely what Li Jingliang does here. By driving Nash back with strikes and then withdrawing, he encourages the young fighter to respond in kind. And by maintaining a gap between himself and his opponent, he convinces Nash to chase. The novice puncher is blind to the subtle closing of distance caused by Li’s precise footwork. With each step forward, he knows only that he is not yet in range–so he takes another.
If you look closely, you can see the expression of shock on Nash’s face right after he eats the punch. Li gave him space, encouraged him to enter it, and then nailed him with a crackling blow just as it was occurring to Nash that he was finally close enough to hit–and be hit.
There is also something clever in Li’s posture just before he unleashes the strike. Note that his weight is commited forward, his head leaned toward his opponent, and situated over his own left hip. This positioning indicates very strongly that Li is preparing to unload a left hook, or perhaps dance off to his left behind a quick jab. It does not suggest a right hand, the power for which is usually generated by first pulling one’s weight back over the right leg. So not only is Li drawing Nash into range, he is actively disguising the strike with which he intends to capitalize on that range.
I have already made a great show of comparing Li to Joe Louis, but this particular move is strikingly reminiscent of the counter right hand with which Juan Manuel Marquez knocked out Manny Pacquiao in 2012 (GIF). The real genius of this trick? The thing which makes the right hand seem like an unlikely counter–improper weight distribution–doesn’t matter one lick when the opponent runs straight into it.
Valentina Shevchenko’s sublime submission
When it comes to MMA, timing is typically spoken of in the context of striking. This probably has something to do with the fact that there is usually a great deal of drama surrounding a really well timed strike: heads snap back, knees buckle, and bodies hit the ground. What’s not to love? But of course, timing is essential in every phase of MMA. Without proper timing, even the most explosive blast double can be stuffed, the most technical sweep rendered flaccid and and ineffective. I guess if there’s one thing you ought to take away from this article (other than the Zhao Louis thing), it should be that timing is everything in a fight–or at least, timing affects everything in a fight..
So when Valentina Shevchenko locked up an armbar on Julianna Pena, it was not merely the surprise of a kickboxer throwing up submissions that prevented Pena from escaping. It was, as I’m sure you can already guess, perfect timing. Let’s take a look.
1. Shevchenko holds Pena in her closed guard, pulling her down with both arms and legs.
2. Pena, who wants to strike, is forced to frame with both arms to regain her posture.
3. As she does so, Shevchenko folds her left arm over Pena’s right wrist (circled), trapping it in place.
4. Unworried, Pena attempts to smash Shevchenko’s nose with a hammerfist, but Valentina reaches up and turns her body to deflect the strike with her left arm.
5. As Shevchenko relinquishes the fairly loose grip of her left arm, she switches for a tight, right-handed grip on Pena’s wrist (circled).
6. Pena attempts another strike, and Shevchenko deflects it the same way. This combination of movements causes Pena’s posture to lower, and puts her torso at an angle to that of her opponent (as indicated by colored lines).
7. Sensing her chance, Shevchenko gets a cross-grip behind Pena’s head to prevent her from posturing up and freeing her wrist, and uses the leverage of this grip to rotate her hips.
8. Arm controlled, posture broken, leg over the face–the fight is all but over.
9. Once the armbar is locked in and extended, no amount of squirming will enable Pena to overcome her opponent’s leverage. She taps out, and likely spends a few moments contemplating what a broken arm will feel like once the adrenaline has worn off. And perhaps which color cast she should get.
In broad terms, there are three components to an armbar: 1) posture, 2) angle, and 3) control of the arm. Shevchenko takes care of the arm early, controlling the wrist first with one and then with the other hand. As Pena rears back to strike, either ignorant or unafraid of the threat, Shevchenko quickly plans out her next move. So when Pena drops another hammerfist, Shevchenko deflects it to the side. This causes the momentum of Pena’s strike to carry her head downward, breaking her posture, and directs the force of that strike to the side, creating an angle.
In a sense, Shevchenko’s timing enables her to let Pena do much of the work for her. And with the keen senses of a counter striker, she sees the position coming far in advance, and springs the trap the moment Pena’s ability to defend is compromised.
Timing was key to Valentina’s breakout win over Holly Holm, whom she countered over and over with precise, stinging shots, and it was no less important here. Perhaps there is no better example of the importance of this nebulous aspect of MMA than this: thanks to precision timing, Valentina Shevchenko was able to both outstrike a champion boxer, and submit a grappling specialist. If that isn’t proof of the power of timing, then I don’t know what is.
Eager for more analysis of these and many other great fighters? How about interviews with UFC champions and world-class trainers? Check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.
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