Striking Styles in MMA: The Hidden Defense

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Written in collaboration with Mikey Rod, Boxing Coach at American Top Team

To the uninitiated, boxing appears to be a game of offense. One characterized by the frequency and intensity of punches thrown. However, this perspective falls far short of the truth. Anybody can throw punches. Some people can even take them. But the true Sweet Science, as boxing was dubbed almost a century ago, is rooted in effective defense. Fighters who focus on equipping themselves with “heavy artillery” will win fights; however, they will hit a wall early in their career as the level of competition increases. In order to have sustainability and become a champion in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), defense must not only be effective, but it must be used effectively. Chinese General and philosopher Sun Tzu recognized the importance of defense when he said “Invincibility lies in the defense, the possibility of victory in the attack.”  When fighters feel “invincible,” they fight to win. This as opposed to fighters who question their defensive ability and fight to avoid losing. An effective defense not only allows fighters to feel relaxed in a way that allows for confident and fluent decision making, but each instance of defense provides the fighter an opportunity to unleash their offense, thus increasing their chances of victory through attack.

Defense = Offense

If you ever witness top tier coaches train a fighter, you might hear something that resembles “Always finish with defense. Always use your defense to set up your offense.” From our perspective, each time an opponent throws a strike, the fighter should be searching for opportunities to capitalize and counter with a strike. In his famous book The Art of War, Sun Tzu was also quoted as saying, “Hence that general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.”  This is a strong point.  We would like to add that fighters who are skilled in defense also use it to attack. Unfortunately, too often fighters miss occasions to counter-attack as they only use their defense to do just that…defend.  In their eagerness to avoid strikes, they are unable to “see” the openings available to them. This is unfortunate as many fighters in their impatience to smash their opponent (think Hulk!) forget that the sweet science is about hitting and not being hit.  In other words, they are leaving themselves open in their almost maniacal search of the knockout. Masters of defense like Mike Tyson, Pernell Whitaker, Floyd Mayweather and Anderson Silva understood that an opponent’s offense was more of an opportunity than a threat.  Each time an opponent threw punches, an opportunity was provided to capitalize with a well-timed strike. In fact, the greatest fighters actually had defense built into their offense. Not only are they able to attack while defending; they are able to defend while attacking.

Striking styles in MMA and boxing can offer defense that leads to offense.

Styles & Defense

There are different types of defense that can be used depending on the fighter’s physical attributes and game plan. Let’s take a look at a couple of well-known fighter’s styles to see how they effectively used defense to set up their offense.

Short-Range Defense

Many folks have a vision of Mike Tyson doing what they believe he did “best”–knocking dudes out. But if one were to review video of him prior to his loss to Buster Douglas, they would witness him effectively using his defense to slip inside and unleash hell. What we believe Tyson did “best” during the pinnacle of his career was throwing a punch, quickly moving his head to avoid the counter, and then immediately “countering the counter” with a bomb accelerated by perfect body positioning employed through his “impregnable defense” (that’s Tyson’s quote, not ours!). Like clockwork, he throws a punch, finishes with defense, and then use this defense to set up his offense. His defense, commonly referred to as “slipping and rolling” or “bobbing and weaving,” is most effectively used as a short-range style by shorter fighters who are attempting to move inside the rangier fighter’s reach.  Post Buster Douglas, Tyson’s use of defense to set up his offense dramatically decreases and is replaced with what we believe to be an over reliance on his incredible punching power. The result was not good.

What even some of the more astute observers might miss when admiring Tyson’s prowess is the hidden defense in his offense. Watch closely as Tyson’s head moves offline as he delivers many of his punches. Not only does this head movement generate more power as he is essentially driving through his opponent, it is also effectively acting as a “slip” as it allows him to avoid a rangier punchers counter as he simultaneously delivers his offense.

Las Vegas, UNITED STATES: (FILES) A file picture taken 22 November 1986 in Las Vegas shows Mike Tyson (R) fighting heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight world champion in history. Twenty years after, the "Baddest Man on the Planet" is aging as badly as any boxing cautionary tale. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Las Vegas, UNITED STATES: (FILES) A file picture taken 22 November 1986 in Las Vegas shows Mike Tyson (R) fighting heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight world champion in history. Twenty years after, the “Baddest Man on the Planet” is aging as badly as any boxing cautionary tale. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Long-Range Defense

Let’s compare Tyson’s style with Roy Jones Jr.  Tyson moved forward with his guard high using lots of head movement, and throwing punches explosively from a crouched defensive position. In contrast, Jones typically stood tall using a long-range style with his guard lowered as he often moved slightly back and laterally while searching for opportunities to attack. Jones’ defense, what we will call “draw and counter,” was primarily based on timing, foot movement, and distance where he was able to effectively capitalize on an opponent’s aggression.

Muhammad Ali, while aesthetically different, also capitalized on a long-range style.  Offensively he “touched” his opponent with a jab, “drew” them forward with foot movement, and then capitalize on their aggression by “firing” a punch using his distance enhanced by slight angles. Anderson Silva and Conor McGregor are also good models of MMA fighters who used this strategy very effectively. Fighters who possess a longer reach are best suited for this style.  The strength of the defense incorporated within this style is that it can be used to draw (bait) the opponent into a well-timed counter attack as the opponent has the illusion the fighter can be attacked because of their lowered guard. Fighters like Jones, Ali, Silva, and McGregor used this style to psychologically wear their opponent down as he over thinks his strategy.

In this sense, the opponent’s offensive attack is being altered as he may be reluctant to commit offense in fear of being countered. In addition, he may perceive an opening that is not actually there, thus increasing the opportunity for a counter attack as the opponent attempts to capitalize on this “bait and switch” technique. Finally, the defense incorporated into this style can be used to “psych” the opponent into believing a counter is imminent, when in actuality, the fighter is simply recovering. Because the opponent suspects the counter, the reduced offense results in “not getting hit.” a.k.a. hidden defense!

Muhammad Ali, while aesthetically different, also capitalized on a long-range style.

One of the funny things about the long-range style is that the “hidden” defense is actually in plain sight.  It is simply the distance.   Because fighters like Jones, Ali, Silva, and McGregor were able to keep their opponents at the end of their reach (long for their respective weight class) and they were able to effectively avoid being caught with a counter while striking as the opponents literally could not reach them with their tighter punches. Each of these fighters could even successfully counter while backing up as they sought to capitalize on their reach and timing.

Mid-Range Defense

Finally, in between these two styles (long-range and short-range) is what can be referred to as a mid-range style.  Mid-range styles rely more heavily on what can be called “catching and throwing” or “catching and releasing” whereby fighters use their hands, arms, and shoulders to absorb or “catch” the opponent’s offense and then immediately “throw” back. This style is the “default” style, if you will, and is used at some level within short-range and long-range styles. Every fighter must know how to catch punches. Fighters that have effectively employed this style include Floyd Mayweather, Julio Ceasar Chavez, James Toney and Felix Trinidad.

MMA fighters that come to mind are Chris Weidman, Donald Cerrone, and more recently in his career, Robbie Lawler. For fighters who prefer to move forward but are not as short or explosive as fighters like Tyson, a tight guard with subtle movement can be more safely used to close the distance on the opponent while allowing the fighter to catch strikes. Once within striking distance, tight and fast counter punches to different target areas (e.g. hooks to the head, uppercuts, body/liver shots) are available in response to the opponents strikes. Fighters can also use what we call pivot/shift techniques. This allows the fighter to change the angle of attack, and at the same time reduces the opponent’s counter ability by placing the fighter off the center line or firing zone while providing an opportunity to counter.  a.k.a. hidden defense!

Keys to Victory

Finally, Sun Tzu reminds us that “Every battle is won before it is fought.” Preparation through deliberate practice to condition and master skills is the key to victory.  Fighters who deliberately practice intelligent and elusive defense set the stage for aggressive and effective offense. As a fighter’s self-efficacy or belief in their ability builds through their defense, offensive techniques and strategic decision making are accelerated. This is a result of the relaxation and confidence that comes from mastery experiences. Moreover, a good defense results in increased fighter safety, an extended career, increased victories, and a healthier and happier post-fighting life!

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