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Technique Talk: Michael 'Venom' Page goes from freestyle to 'Six30' kickboxing

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Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

While still a prospect in development, Bellator welterweight Michael Page has helped broaden the idea of what's possible in the evolution of striking in professional, modern mixed martial arts. Using an unconventional style known as 'freestyle kickboxing' from which Page first learned the martial arts, Page eschews the static power-based style of Thai boxing for movement, blitzes and attacking from far distances, things almost unheard of among other popular striking styles in the sport.

In this interview with MMA Fighting, Page discusses the principles of freestyle kickboxing, both its benefits and challenges when used in MMA, why so few freestyle kickboxers have crossed over, how he's been forced to develop a clinch game, what he thinks of Conor McGregor's critique of Thai boxing and much more.

Partial transcript and full audio below:

Star-divide

How would you evaluate your performance against Nah-Shon Burrell at your last Bellator fight?

For me, personally, I wanted to do a lot more. I didn't feel I was at my best performance, I'd say. There were quite a few opportunities that I kinda missed during the fight that I reckon I could've capitalized on. But, it's all learning.

When you say 'opportunities', can you give me one specific example?

It's little things you go over in training. A couple of times I turned him into the cage and I created too much separation where I usually, in training, actually land a couple of big shots before I end up moving away.

The second one, when he missed a punch, he fell over. I took his back. Again, in training, I have a goal: take his back and land some strikes from there. When he got down, I let him stand back up. I don't even want to let him stand back. I didn't really land the kind of strikes I wanted to land.

I didn't mind that I didn't finish him, but I just wanted to land a few more devastating shots during the fight.

In terms of your striking, how did you feel from the outside you were able to do? Did you express yourself the way you wanted to?

Not at all. One of the reasons was [this was] the first time I've found the canvas slippery. Literally, the first thing I did when I walked into the cage was, I had to pour water down on the floor because it felt ridiculously slippery. I told my coach.

To be fair, I wasn't able to express myself the way I would normally because I couldn't move the same. I didn't want to risk doing anything and slipping or making a mistake because of that. I just kept everything basic.

Let's take a step back for a minute. What is, from your perspective, freestyle kickboxing?

Freestyle kickboxing is a points-scoring style, a points-scoring version of kickboxing. It's more based on speed and accuracy than power. Don't get me wrong. You need speed and power in a lot of the other kickboxing styles, but the whole point of the style is to knockout your opponent. It's more focused on landing bigger shots and this one is, literally, about your footwork, your agility and being able to hit without being hit. That's what freestyle kickboxing is.

Where is freestyle kickboxing the most popular today?

Weirdly enough, it is actually extremely popular in America. They have the biggest events for our competitions. If you was part of freestyle kickboxing and you wanted to go to one of the biggest events in the world, it would be in America. They got a lot of big shows that they run over there.

At the same time, it's all over Europe. It's massive all over Europe, it's just not well publicized.

What would you say is the closest relative to freestyle kickboxing?

I'd say the two closest things. One is sport karate because, again, it's based on being on a points system. And taekwondo as well. It's based on a points system.

But in terms of the style of attacks, how would freestyle kickboxing differ from the kick-heavy style of taekwondo? Are many of the techniques the same or is it just the points system you're referring to?

To be fair, obviously, we use similar techniques and we actually have a lot of taekwondo guys participate in our competitions. I just believe we've got quite a good mixture of the two.

Sport karate has more hands. You're bouncing on your toes around and your hands are a bit more relaxed, but they look quite similar to us. They are mainly striking with what we call reverse punches, a back-hand punch to the body. Attacks in taekwondo, they have a lot more dynamic and acrobatic kicks. We have a mixture of both. A lot of hand techniques and a lot of spinning kicks.

I think it's a mixture, like an in-between of the two.

Have you ever strictly trained in one of those styles?

No, I've never done that. I'll actually participate in karate events just for experience because I learn a lot by doing that as well. I've never actually just trained in it, specifically. What I actually started in was Lau Gar Kung Fu, which is a more traditional style and then moved onto the freestyle kickboxing.

What is the impression of mixed martial arts inside the freestyle kickboxing world?

I think it's an impression that a lot of us had when we were doing freestyle. A lot of people in general from the outside have [it]. It's very rough. It's a lot tougher. It's a bit more of a jump up to go and do.

I think for years, that's why we didn't have many people from our sport go over. Just obviously the change and being able to do it because it .

To be fair, now that I've done it, I wouldn't say I've been hit any harder. I know it's smaller gloves [in MMA]. Now that I have experience in both, I've been hit clean. When you get hit clean - and again, our gloves aren't massive either, I think eight ounces - when you're shooting forward and someone else is shooting forward, some shots can feel just the same.

From an outsider's perspective, punching in freestyle kickboxing looks like you leap into it. There doesn't seem to be much of a consistent jab. Is that a fair characterization?

Yeah. Well, we call it a blitz. Literally, it's a very long-range technique.

The positives for it is that your distancing for actually landing shots is increased. I can hit you from further away than most people are used to in MMA.

The negatives to it is because your base isn't grounded, you don't have the same kind of power. That's where we use speed and accuracy to cause more devastation.

What about the idea of combinations? From the outsider's perspective, it looks like combinations in freestyle kickboxing are only when there's one hand and one foot or an unloading on someone when they're defensively shelled. Is that accurate?

Yeah, that's exactly it because everything stops once someone has landed a shot. I can back someone into a corner where you can't really move and can actually fire a combination, but it would be too dangerous to stand in front of your guy and throw combinations and make him snap a hand out or snap a foot out, and that's it. That's the end of your combination, anyway. The ref will actually stop it and start it back at a starting point and you start the fight again.

It's very stop and start. The most you'll see is one and two hit combinations. Sometimes three. Some people might throw a couple of hands and end with a kick or start with a kick and finish with a hand. I'd say it's three at the most you really get. It's not big combinations.

In Thai boxing, they say it's the art of eight limbs and there's certain principles that make up the core of what it is. Are there central principles to freestyle kickboxing?

I'd say it's massively to do with your movement and your distancing. If you're static in any way, you struggle to get anywhere in the sport. It can be quite frustrating. We've actually had a couple of full contact guys, I've seen them come in and try out just to see what it's about. Because they're so used to standing in front of people and actually swinging and brawling, when they get hit or touched and everything stops, they don't really get a chance to throw anything, it can be very frustrating. It's more to do with your movement than anything. You have to be able to move your feet.

It's weird because I've spoken to people and they're like, "Do you believe that your stand-up has improved in any way?" People obviously think because of the style I came in with you wouldn't learn as much. But because the stand-up style is so different from what I'm used to, I've learned so much. Like, a ridiculous amount of stand-up skills I've added to my game.


Conor McGregor isn't a freestyle kickboxer, but has been critical of the static positioning of Thai boxing as practiced by MMA fighters. What do you make of that criticism?

I think a Thai boxer against another Thai boxer is very suited because the range very similar. I'm going off of my experience, any time I've sparred someone from Thai boxing, they get extremely frustrated because I'm never in front of them. The movement around them is different as well.

I think they're a lot more of a slower pace, but the difference is when those guys hit you, the power that comes out of their punches is kicks is considerably more, I'd say, to what we put out in our kicks and our punches.

With regards to distancing, it does leave them a bit open for people like Conor McGregor, who moves around a lot at distance. He doesn't mind fighting at longer range. And also, I'd even say for wrestlers. If you go a good wrestler in front of you and you're very static. All the guys want to do is find their distance and that's it. They want to shoot for the takedown and you're going to be on your back.

What do you make of someone like Jose Aldo, a fighter who trains in a Thai boxing style but compliments it with large defensive movements out of the way or reflexive punch slipping?

It's the way forward. There's nothing wrong with Thai boxing. Thai boxing is an amazing stand-up sport, but you have to take its strengths and know where you have to adapt and use other strengths. He may have done boxing before and worked on his head movement or just has a boxing teacher who helps him with his movement. He's got amazing low kicks as well. I think he got that from his Thai boxing, but he also adapted in a more - I'm just going to say - 'freestyle' style. He's adapted and learned to be a bit more elusive. It helps with him landing shots and obviously people not landing on him.

In terms of weaknesses, though, when you look at the state of MMA, what do you feel is a common mistake in terms of striking?

For me, I'd say more the 'tough guy' ego thing. People think a show of strength is showing you can be hit and not go down. You're tough to not go down and you can stand and swing. Me personally, I prefer to not get hit at all. I know I've been hit with massive shots and I've not gone down. That doesn't mean I'm going to want to stand in front of someone because I know it only takes being a couple of inches in the other direction or in the right spot for me to go down. It's an unnecessary show of masculinity I think a lot of people fall into, especially when you get caught with one big shot.

The only time to go for it if you know yourself you've lost two rounds and you just want to you need to go in for the win. That's the only time I'd say, "You know what? Just put your head down and take the win. Whatever happens, happens." But in general, I think it's unnecessary to try and have that kind of show of masculinity. I think that's where a lot of strikers go wrong.

Generally speaking, would you say the striking is as good as the wrestling or not as good?

I'd say it's not as good. It's getting better and I think it's getting better because people's wrestling is...they're kind of out-matching each other in the wrestling. So, for five minutes they're having to stand and strike a lot more than they'd normally have to because everyone is almost on the same level now with regards to defending takedowns or going for takedowns or standing up. Takedowns aren't even lasting long anymore. People are getting taken to the floor and after a couple of seconds, people are popping back up to their feet.

I think people are now having to stand and strike a lot more, which means they're having to spend a bit more time in the gym working on it. They've been improving, but at the moment, yeah, wrestling is definitely better than the striking.

Is there any kind of clinching at all in freestyle kickboxing?

No, not at all. But there are two styles of combat that we do. Light contact, which is similar to a normal kickboxing match, but it's just light contact. In that one, it's just an accumulation of points. In that style, you're able to clinch and work on your clinching game.

How have you developed your clinch game for MMA?

Most of my clinch game now has been developed more so from the second I came to MMA. It's one of the new things I've got used to. To be fair, the clinching we do, it wasn't as tactical as I do it. There was no real kind of game plan to the clinching that we did. After a while, the referee would just break it up. We didn't pay too much attention to it.

Now I teach my kickboxing students the way I'm clinching in the wrestling. It's helping develop their clinching skills. It's giving them skills they never really had before. I think because the second I got into this sport I literally had to defend clinches and takedowns all the time, because that's all anyone was ever doing to me, my clinch game was developed because it was forced to be developed. That's where my weak point was. Training day in and day out, I find that one of my stronger points now just because I had to do it so much from the beginning. People don't want to stand and trade with me in any way, so they say,"'let's get close to him, grab him, take him down or push him into the cage, use bully tactics" and now I'm able to turn, defend takedowns and so on.

How offensive is clinch? How much of your clinch game have you figured out can hurt people?

What initially is more to do with, like you say, allowing me to create space, but then you start to figure out the kind of strikes you're able to land while you're there. I got to thinking, "What could I do from there?" Sometimes I'll land one of my long strikes and stay in and not even try to break away. Land one of my long strikes, stay in, clinch, land a couple more strikes, break away and then turn things up again.

It's just putting that progression over time. Defensively I'm happy to be there. I'm not worried about an opponent having their way with me and then slowly work on the offensive style.

Fair to say that maybe you've taken just a little bit from some of the ways you attack in freestyle kickboxing and incorporated it into your close-range clinch attacks?

Yeah, just a little. It's weird because I've spoken to people and they're like, "Do you believe that your stand-up has improved in any way?" People obviously think because of the style I came in with you wouldn't learn as much. But because the stand-up style is so different from what I'm used to, I've learned so much. Like, a ridiculous amount of stand-up skills I've added to my game.

Even down to the fact that we never had low kicks in our style. People don't realize that because it's kickboxing, they assume we can do low kicks. We didn't have low kicks, knees or elbows in the freestyle points. A lot I had to adapt to.

I remember the first six months of my training I was limping home every time I went in to training because I could see people throwing leg kicks, but I didn't know how to react to it. I'd never seen it before. I've learned so much on my stand-up as well.

Do you wish freestyle kickboxing incorporated things like low kicks?

I think what I'm doing now, I do kinda wish we had a bit more to our freestyle, but then again, I think it would drastically change the actual style itself. It'd probably become more of what other kickboxing styles are.

At the same time, I'm extremely happy what I've taken from there, anyway. It's helped me massively with what I'm doing now. I probably wouldn't change it, but maybe I'd have liked to have learned a bit of Thai boxing beforehand as well just so I was used to.

Thai boxing supporters believe everyone can train in the style, recognizing only a few can be elite. Freestyle kickboxing seems like one of those styles where you have to be light, agile and athletic. It's not as usable for everybody. Do you think that's a fair criticism?

I think if you give someone a certain amount of time, they will eventually develop to the style, develop to the rules if they are really determined to do well in it. I think everyone can get to a decent standard, but yes, you do have to change your thought process.

If you're coming into it fresh, you're fine. I feel its easier to start in freestyle and then adapt to other striking styles than it is to start in boxing or Thai boxing and then come to freestyle. It's very hard to then re-train your brain to work out of freestyle. I think most people I've had come in, they end up leaving again because it's too frustrating for them. That's the only time it plays a role. If you're new to martial arts in general and you started in freestyle, then you'd pick it up.

Would you like to see more freestyle kickboxers give it a try or is it just that there's something to be said for how quickly you can pick up those other skills?

Definitely. I think, for me, even down to my jiu-jitsu, I was extremely relaxed, naturally, going onto the floor, which is weird. I know a lot of stand-up people would be extremely tense to begin with, but I was relaxed. I was rolling with guys who'd done jiu-jitsu for years and they were knackered by the end of the rolls. I was working hard, but because I was extremely relaxed because I felt like I could work under pressure, naturally. Freestyle is like a fast chess game. You're mentally working yourself. I feel it's the same with the jiu-jitsu. I kind of adapted to that very quickly.

Adjusting my skills to different things was quite easy for me because I was able to think under that kind of pressure. I could see more while I was doing it. Being in freestyle helped me adjust to all the different things I needed to learn.

A jiu-jitsu competitor will compete almost every weekend. How often does a freestyle kickboxer compete in a calendar year?

It's exactly the same. I went to my first jiu-jitsu competition after three months of being in MMA. I went to a jiu-jitsu competition and I felt like I was at home. The whole thing, it's very manic. Loads of mats going on at the same time, people warming up, it's almost identical to that. They're just doing a different thing while on the mats and they're wearing different clothes, but it's almost identical.

Every weekend, there are so many different associations, you can have two or three different competitions going on in different places. We were always, every weekend, traveling somewhere and fighting somewhere.

Again, it's an all day thing. You can do more than one section as well. Because it's points, you weren't really too worried about weight divisions per se. You fight in your weight, but then comfortably go up a weight, although it does play a part because heavier people move in their body weight, at that speed, the impact is different. But if you were comfortable, if you were a well-established fighter, you could fight in any weight division. That's exactly what people would do. They would literally go there, pick two or three weight divisions. They'd be fighting all day.

Is there an absolute division like there is in jiu-jitsu?

Yes, exactly the same. We call it the 'open weight'. A lot of times, they have prize money in that. They'd even format it like, if you win your section you can entire the open weight. Or, they'd say once you paid for your original section, you can do the open weight.

For example, one of the biggest open weights I have ever been in, there was probably about 300 and something competitors all going for first place. You're literally fighting all day. It's knockouts or the second you're out, it moves on.

You started in freestyle, but now you're a mixed martial artist. If you had to give a name to your style of kickboxing, what would it be?

I would call the style of mine Six30 aka Hands Down Kickboxing.*

*This answer was not mentioned during the interview, but in a follow-up conversation over email.