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Technique Talk: Dominick Cruz and the deliberate dance of footwork

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For a sport so heavily built upon and success predicated by offense, it's somewhat unusual to encounter a fighter who is as defensively-minded and scientific to his tactical approach to fighting as former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.

Cruz is a case study not merely in the continued evolution of mixed martial arts, but in actually helping to push those boundaries and developments himself with an entirely unique system of footwork that helped him go from respectable if ordinary professional to highly-respected world champion.

Yet, despite Cruz's success as well as the those who've also achieved in the sport with their own brands of footwork, it continues to be a tool many fighters either use poorly or not at all. If it's so effective, why isn't it more widely adopted?

In this exclusive interview with MMA Fighting, Cruz discusses a vast array of topics related to footwork: what it is, why it's critical, why some fighters don't use or need it for success, how he developed his own style, what the difference is in styles between fighters like Lyoto Machida and Frankie Edgar, which athletes have influenced his style of footwork and who, among all professional fighters, has the best footwork in modern mixed martial arts.

Partial transcription below with FULL AUDIO available.


When you hear the term 'footwork', what does that mean to you? How do you personally define it?

It sounds cheesy, but it's an expression of each person's own fighting style because I go kind of deep into it when I think what footwork means to me and everybody else.

For me, it's just an expression of how I fight because every step that you take to hurting somebody, to trying to win a fight, the first step taken has to be with your foot. It has to be a movement with your steps, where you move your feet. It has nothing to do with what your arms do, your hands, your head, nothing. It's all about where your feet go to set you up for punches, kicks, everything else.

It really is the basis for every single person who fights. It's the basis for their style.

You've somewhat already answered my next question, but can you give me a basic example of why footwork is so critical?

Footwork is so important because when you look at fighting in steps, it's hard to break down for the general public because you have to have a grid vision for fighting, almost. The way I look at things in fighting is I break it down into chunks.

It starts with your feet and then it goes to your hips. Once you use your feet, the power goes to your hips. Then it goes from your hips to your shoulders and arms and stuff. The bottom line is, in order for you to be able to do anything in a fight, you have to move your feet. It's everything. It's your mode of transportation. It's like having a car to go to work everyday. If you don't practice moving your feet the same way the rest of your body, it doesn't coincide together well.

How long did it take you to get where you are in terms of the proficiency of your footwork?

It's taken my entire career. If I go back to my first couple of fights out here in California when I first met my coach Eric Del Fierro, my footwork was there, but I hadn't been practicing it, and I hadn't focused on it yet. I didn't have the understanding yet of what footwork could do for me until later on in my career, that's when I figured it out.

When I started focusing on it solely and made it its own separate entity of training, that's when it really started to improve and make a difference in my fight game.

Was there an 'ah ha!' moment? Was there a moment where in developing footwork where you realized you needed to be doing things differently?

"What I figured out with footwork that's so difficult for people to understand is in order for footwork to be effective, you have to know what the other person is coming with next."

Yeah, the first time I learned to pivot out. I was hitting pads and then first time I was able to throw a punches, pivot out to a certain way.

With my footwork, it might look like I'm hopping around, doing all kinds of stuff, but there are actually 6 to 10 different patterns that I follow over and over that create a style, create a movement and set up punches in certain areas depending on who I'm fighting.

So, depending on who I'm fighting, I can switch every pattern that I make with my feet and always keep people offset. My 'ah ha!' moment was the first time I learned how to hit a pivot out and that was the first real footwork that I learned technically besides jumping rope.

Once you mastered pivoting, what were the other elements you added to elevate and improve your footwork? What was the learning progression?

What I figured out with footwork that's so difficult for people to understand is in order for footwork to be effective, you have to know what the other person is coming with next. In order for footwork to even have a part to play, you have to know your opponent's next step. That way you can move your feet in the right direction in the right place to set them up for whatever you want to set them up for.

I guess the answer to the question, though, is speed and plyometrics. Once I started learning the main gist of what I wanted to do, where I wanted to do it and how fast I wanted to do it, I started working on how to make it faster. The way to make any kind of footwork faster is plyometrics, jumping rope and tons and tons of drilling.

Once I learned a foot movement, a foot pattern that I wanted to set up, I would build it in my own head on my own time in between or after or before practices, and I would study that exact pattern. I would do it 50 to 100 times or for a three-minute round. I would it consecutively, over and over and over, as fast as I possibly could.

That's really the only way I was able to pick up any kind of footwork and really have any kind of taking it to the next level besides just knowing a pattern and trying it.

Are there athletes that you've borrowed from, maybe a piece here or there?

Oh, definitely. Running backs in football and defensive backs in football, also.

Running backs because when they run up to a line, a football defensive and offensive line work off a plane in the middle of the field, basically a giant wall that's there. That wall is what they both push up against when really it's an imaginary wall if the rules don't make it that. That wall wouldn't even be there if the lineman were allowed to step aside and throw the defensive lineman over the top of them by cutting the corner, but that wall is there because those guys don't want to allow one centimeter advance up the field.

With that wall there, now the football game for defensive backs, wide receivers, everybody around the offensive and defensive line, it now becomes a game of parallels. You gotta run with this wall and so, that being said, running backs and defensive backs have to learn how to use their feet moving parallel, back and forth across the line and super fast. That's not a natural movement. Natural movement is forward and back just like in a fight. If you look at a fight, everybody in fighting moves their left foot forward, the right foot forward and the same backwards.

What I'm trying to say is everybody moves forward and back, no one moves side to side in a fight. In football, everybody moves side to side and everybody at the line moves forward, but once they hit that line it now becomes a parallel game.

It's a non-natural motion, but if you watch those guys, and if you watch them in the combine, those are all the characteristics that make the best wide receivers and the best running backs in the world. It's how fast and how good they can go into a sprint from an unnatural movement.

What about in the combat sports world? Is there any athlete or fighter there whose footwork you admire or borrow from?

A lot of guys have footwork, but I really think that it's something that has been kind of forgotten. It's kind of a forgotten thing.

You've got guys that use it, but people that use it more than anything are boxers. I watch a lot of boxing, too, for that reason. The biggest person that's probably influenced me the most in the type of footwork that I use would have to be Muhammad Ali and Willie Pep.

I looked [Pep] up a while back when I was younger and I started watching his tapes. They're old school, black and white. One thing that really stuck out to me about Willie Pep that is huge for mixed martial arts is, I didn't look for somebody who moved their feet. I looked for somebody who moved their feet right for the sport of mixed martial arts in boxing.

You can look at a lot of fighters in mixed martial arts today. A lot of them were NCAA wrestlers. They could've even been four-time All Americans, four-time national champions. They come over to fighting and they just can't adjust to the sport. That's because their wrestling didn't adjust well to the sport of mixed martial arts.

You have to do the same thing with footwork in boxing. You have to look at whose footwork matches and works well with fighting in MMA. The reason I say that is because you don't want to sit still in mixed martial arts. You'll get taken down. You have to be able to switch your feet because you have to hit odd angles because people are coming at you from every position that's never been studied ever. It's generally a new sport. Really, there's no wrong move in MMA because everything is still being invented. Everything's still new.

Willie Pep, if you look at his old tapes, would steer people into his power, would steer people into his footwork, would steer people into his punches. That's even another level of footwork that you can take it to when you get as good as that. You're not just moving your feet, you're not just following the patterns that you drilled for years and years and years, but now you're steering people into the punches that you're throwing. Your opponent thinks you're getting cut off by them when actually you're moving them into the punch that you want to throw. That's when footwork gets to that next level.

How would you grade the overall level of footwork in modern, high-level professional MMA?

"Willie Pep, if you look at his old tapes, would steer people into his power, would steer people into his footwork, would steer people into his punches. That's even another level of footwork that you can take it to when you get as good as that."

That's a rough thing to ask me because there is no grade for anything right now. It's such a new thing that you would have to grade everything as a whole. Just grading footwork, it almost seems insignificant because there's not even been a grade made for me, so how would I know?

I would say wrestling MMA is decent to very good. I would say the same for jiu-jitsu. Striking is getting better. But I can't say I see a lot of guys who put a heavy emphasis on footwork. Is that a fair characterization?

I think that footwork is all about a perception. That's why it hasn't been attacked a lot, but really, it's common sense to a guy like me because like I said, when I'm standing across the cage from another person, before I throw one punch, what's the first thing I'm going to move? My feet. If the very first thing I'm going to move in a fight is my feet, why isn't that the very first thing that I work on?

If you look at it that way, mixed martial arts hasn't even touched footwork as an art yet besides a few guys. It would be lower weight class guys, everybody from 155 [pounds] and down. Once you get heavier and heavier and heavier, the footwork gets more and more watered down, more and more basic.

Then, as that happens, you see the power scale go up. That's what makes footwork so arguable. Something I hear more than anything is, 'Well, you're not knocking anybody out, Dominick, because you're not setting you feet'. Well, I'm also not getting hit at all. The whole point of winning a fight is to not get touched, not get hit and hit the other person. I'm hitting the other person twice as much as they're hitting me.

I might not have knocked a lot of people out, but I'm winning fights and not taking damage. In my book, that's what a fight is about. The knockout comes later when you learn to sit on your feet. You look at guys like Jeremy Stephens. Certain guys have this god-given gift of power, but if you look at all of them, their feet and their legs are set so stationary, so wide, so heavy on the ground, that they're able to throw everything they have from the feet all the way through.

You look at a guy like me, I'm always moving my feet to punch you and not be there by the time you try to punch me back. That takes away a little bit of power. It's an art and it takes a gentle working into it to find the happy medium of power, footwork, movement and being stationary altogether.

Let's go over some cases. Hector Lombard is very flat footed, but extremely explosive. Would you characterize him as having bad footwork or footwork that caters to his natural athletic gifts?

That's what it is right there. I think everybody chooses the footwork that works for their body and their strengths and their power. It's the same thing as when someone decides that they're going to be a southpaw or conventional stance striker. When you first walk into the gym, you don't know. You just go with what feels right. That's what fighters do with their footwork. I do think if they thought about it a lot harder and a lot more, it could improve and make their game better.

Again, though, that's 100 percent preference. Who am I? Look how many people have won tons of fights never even thinking about footwork ever. This is merely just a conversation to discuss the matters of the progression of the sport of MMA, too, though. That does come with footwork in the future.

Let's talk about two guys that are diametrically opposed, at least it seems that way from the layman's eyes, but both are considered to have great footwork. One is Frankie Edgar and the other is Lyoto Machida. How would you compare and contrast their two styles and what does it say about footwork in MMA that it can simultaneously be so different among the athletes?

First I'll break down their styles and why it looks the way it looks.

With Machida, it looks like he's blitzing, but actually he's doing that next step of footwork that I was explaining to you earlier. He's steering people into his punches. I've watched tons and tons of Machida tape covering him as an analyst on FOX. I've actually stolen tons of angles from him because his angles from karate are complete opposite of any angle you see in boxing, kickboxing or anything else.

Stuff that would be off limits is not off limits in karate. He hits weird angles that nobody's seen before and he's able to do that because he's able to switch his stance. Machida literally circles towards the power side of fighters to switch to a southpaw stance in the middle of the movement and blitz forward with a straight left hand and a straight right hand. That's completely non-fundamental. He's able to do that because he's able to steer people where he wants them to set up the power. Now he's hitting you twice as hard because he's getting you to set your feet where there's no movement to counter. There's also nowhere for you to go in order to dodge the punch because all your weight is on that leg that he moved you on.

That's what Machida does. He has that steering footwork style. He's got great footwork, great movement, great speed, but more than anything he understands range. When you understand range as good as Machida, now you can steer people where you want because they can't come inside. You're already keeping them at the perfect range that you like. Once you do that, you're dictating the fight. Now you can move them where you want to set up the punches, kicks, knees from the range that you like, which you've done already.

"Machida literally circles towards the power side of fighters to switch to a southpaw stance in the middle of the movement and blitz forward with a straight left hand and a straight right hand. That's completely non-fundamental."

The first step with Machida is to beat his range and dismantle it, shut it down. Otherwise he's just going to pick you apart the entire night and you can't take him down.

Now, Frankie Edgar has a different style. His style is more similar to what I do and that's why it looks so much more move-y, but he's also a lot smaller and a lot lighter. He looks a lot more agile, non-stop movement because Frankie's always feinting. And Frankie's always feinting because that takes away power from flat-footed people. There's a lot of powerful, flat-footed people in the 145-pound division and if you don't feint and keep people biting, then they're going to knock you out.

Frankie understands that if you go in-out, in-out, in-out, in-out, and sometimes I throw in-out and sometimes I don't throw when I move in and out, now the fighter doesn't know if they want to counter me or wait for me to punch. When you do that, you put guesses in their head. Now Frankie's able to move all around, wherever he wants, however he wants, countering, being offensive, but he only works offensively if the feints are keeping you from throwing your offense.

If he feints and feints and gets you to throw, now he sees what you're going to throw at him. Now he's able to counter you or take you down. Everything comes off of feints. If you don't bite on his feints, you think you know that he's full of it and he's not really going to actually throw every time, you just stand there, then he's going to up his offense and beat you on points by throwing a crazy amount of offense. If you do counter and you decide to throw on him, he's going to counter you and take you down or he's going to see what you throw, stay away from danger and come up with new offense according to how you're adjusting to him.

That's what feints do. That's what footwork does for Frankie.

How much of footwork is tailored toward offense and how much is tailored toward defense or are the two seamlessly blended?

It all depends on how you do it. I like to make it seamlessly the same thing. I like to make my defense and offense mixed and look the same. When I enter with my footwork, I'm also entering on a weak side, so that I'm not taking damage when I decide to be offensive. I'm also taking my head off the center line to do the same.

A lot of guys don't do that. A lot of guys just move their feet and they come in and they're throwing or they're not. I like to throw from a strategic position to minimize the amount of attacks that the defensive guy has against me being offensive.

Is there a limit to getting good at footwork? Is there a certain point where you can only do so much of it before it has a maximum saturation effect?

I think it's just as effective as you can build on it. You can't put a limit on anything, really. I don't think. You just gotta work with it until you see where it's benefitting you. Footwork, it's not a must, but this is one of those things that I truly believe, that evolution of the sport will involve better footwork.

How I chose to work on my footwork was this easy. I looked down the line of everybody's style and everybody in the world and what they were doing. I had to find a way that I could make things different because you're looking at everybody's style and they're all doing the same stuff, working on the same things. What's going to make me win if they're already prepared for everything that everybody's doing to them?

I wanted to bring a different dynamic, a different look, a different thought process and a different style into the sport. That started with footwork. It started with angles and it started with defensive thinking. I think that when mixed martial arts continues to grow, that's going to be the way of thinking because you're only wearing four ounce gloves and no shin guards. The goal is to not be touched when you're wearing that little of equipment.

In boxing, you get a six ounce glove? That's another two ounces.

I think it's eight.

Eight-ounce gloves. That's another four ounces. That's twice the amount of leather you get on your hands. Why would I ever, ever try to copy a style like boxing or muay Thai where they don't even wear the same gloves we wear? You don't want to be hit. And the only way to not be hit is to move your feet and your head.

Was there ever a moment where you were building your own footwork and your own patterns and you used something only realizing later doing so was an error?

Of course, there's failures. You try things and things fail, but there's really not a lot of things that don't work. There's things that just fail. The bad thing about failing when you're in practice or in a fight is you get knocked out. You know? That's the only way to learn, unfortunately. There's no easy way to learn in the sport. The only way is taking damage and understanding 'I took too much damage doing that. I'm not going to do that again'.

How would you assess the footwork of Urijah Faber?

Faber has this stance where he sits super wide and he sits super wide for maximum power. He likes to fake the left hook and the left-six to the body in order to land his big overhand right. His overhand right is his biggest, most-threatening weapon. It will always be that because he has a natural timing on it, also. While he does have power to knock people out, he also has the timing on the right hand that a lot of people don't have, similar to Johny Hendricks, but his is a left hand.

For the footwork for him, it wasn't really that big of a deal, I don't think. Honestly, the best footwork I ever saw from him was when he fought me. I think that's when it looked like he trained it more than ever because he knew he was going to have to be moving with me. When he fought me that second time, that was the best footwork I've seen from him and he really didn't use it against anybody else except for myself, which baffles me. I thought that was something he really could've used against [Renan] Barao to mix in with his takedowns, but it didn't happen. Faber's got better footwork than he uses, in my opinion.

Discounting you for just a moment, who has the best footwork in the UFC?

Demetrious Johnson.

Tell me why.

Because he knows how to switch stance and he understands angles. He understands where you're not taking damage. He understands where you need to be to not take damage, not to mention, his feet. He's literally the only person I've ever fought that I literally said, 'Man, he's fast. He's really, really fast.'

He wasn't just fast with his hands and his head. He was fast with his feet, which is nothing that I had ran into yet. That's one of the things I love about that fight with DJ was it really challenged me to come up with an adjustment. His feet and his movement from his feet actually were a little bit faster than mine, but the edge that I had on him was my size and I could also move my feet, but I had that extra wrestling aspect of it to bring to the table also.

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