With even a casual look around the UFC today, something is immediately apparent as it relates to striking: changes are afoot. Whether it's the movement training of Conor McGregor, the novelty of the footwork of Dominick Cruz or the ability of T.J. Dillashaw to be unpredictable as he shifts in the pocket, there is a new wave of striker taking over the elite ranks. Just as MMA itself was proof more than one style of unarmed combat was necessary to succeed, the game's elite strikers adopt that mentality both to their overall game as well as specific domains like their striking arsenal. They take what's useful, drop what isn't, learn from many different styles and create something new on their own.
As a consequence, they're not merely having massive success, but demonstrating a version of the game that visually looks different than what MMA audiences are accustomed to seeing. The questions, however, is why did it take so long for this to finally happen, how replicable at scale is all of it and what else can reasonably be added to their already advanced striking arsenals?
To help better make sense of this phenomenon, JacksonWink MMA's striking coach Brandon Gibson spoke to MMA Fighting about what's happened, why only studying traditional forms of striking is antiquated for modern MMA, who is leading the charge in striking's development and what's the next step in the game's evolution.
A partial transcript and full audio of our conversation is below:
Let's start with an overview of things. How would you describe the overall development of striking in mixed martial arts?
The development over the past 20 years has just been phenomenal to watch and witness. You saw the guys coming from a one discipline school to the sprawl-and-brawls of the Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes generation to the refined striking of GSP or Anderson [Silva] or Jon Jones, to now guys like Conor McGregor, who are just so diverse with their range and their technique and their fluidity.
I think it's been awesome to watch the development. I'm trying to stay ahead of it with my guys. I try to be at the tip of the spear with the development and stay ahead of these trends, offensively and defensively.
Historically, the level of grappling in MMA has been ahead of the striking, relatively speaking. That's changed considerably. Why did it take so long for striking to catch up?
I don't know. I think early on you had guys that were either grapplers or strikers. I think it was hard for them to effectively blend the two. Now we're seeing this generation that have been doing the wide variety of mixed martial arts for most of their adult life or coming up through as a teenager. It's becoming more natural for them to balance and find the transitional elements. Those were the biggest areas that were lacking for a long time.
I don't know why it took a while to catch up. I think just nullifying the wrestling and the grappling, it took these guys a while. I think learning the range and the levels an effective striker needed to have to be effective in this game also took a while to play out and get applied.
Just as an example to clarify what you're saying, can you give me an example of the transitional elements you spoke of?
I think maybe Anderson Silva-Rich Franklin I where we really say the effectiveness of that clinch range and that Thai plum being applied up against the fence to maybe like a Urijah Faber: hard level changes, wrestling feints to upward striking; to maybe a Jon Jones with dynamic spinning elbows up against the fence from a wrestling position to the dynamic kicks of Carlos Condit against GSP where GSP's exiting, thinking he was safe and Carlos was still able to find transitional long-range strikes.
When we look at the state of striking today, do you believe the influence of Thai boxing in MMA is fading? That's not to suggest it's ineffective, generally, but that it had an outsized profile that is regressing to a more normal level.
I do. I believe early on the Thai boxing style and the Dutch kickboxing style were so proficient in K-1 type striking and obviously in Thai boxing that everybody thought that was the best style to apply to MMA. I think now guys are getting away from it.
One, because of the height, the stance you need to be effective with that style, I don't think it transitions very well into a wrestling stance or a boxing stance. I also think the range wasn't as applicable now. You get these guys tall, wanting to throw a leg kick and they'd also be in range to get blast double legged like GSP and Thiago Alves. It also requires more of a square stance, which lessens the mobility of a fighter's footwork and overall movement.
Help me understand that. Why would a square stance, in part, limit mobility?
It's hard to quickly accelerate. It's hard to level change. It's hard to have any kind of lateral or circular movement whereas a longer, rangy stance like [T.J.] Dillashaw's or McGregor's or Jon Jones or even GSP's. It's much easier to be dynamic with your entries through the boxing range into the clinch range or retreating past a kicking range.
What has been the enduring contribution of Thai boxing in MMA?
I would definitely say the clinch positions. Thai plum-style clinch control to outside, even Greco-style trips and sweeps. I think that's still prominent. Definitely the knees and short-range elbows. I think those are all elements that are going to stay throughout the next generation of MMA striking, for sure, but I think the taller squared stance, emphasis on kicks as opposed to hands, I think some of that will get exposed and fade out.
To what extent did the focus on Thai boxing limit the overall upper body game, the game from the waist up?
I think it got away from the transitional aspects of allowing wrestlers to wrestle or strikers to defend shots. I think that tall stance and Thai boxers, they're not known as the greatest boxers, right? It is that emphasis on kicks. Where we really saw good boxers-wrestlers take over, like Georges St-Pierre, who just utilized his jab and his single and double so well, it negated and neutralized a lot of the traditional Thai boxing style.
I think we got away from just the tall, teep-style kicks and heavy leg kicks because we kept getting taken down by good wrestlers.
Nothing has ever replaced Thai boxing as the dominant model of striking. Why?
I think that's a good point. Maybe it's something that got rooted in early MMA that Thai boxing was the solution. It was one of those core elements and the guys never really did get away from it. I think there's still a lot of gyms here in America and outside the country, too, that are very Thai boxing and Dutch-style-based striking. We still see effective strikers come from that system, guys like [Anthony] 'Rumble' Johnson under the tutelage of Dutch kickboxer Henri Hooft. He's been very effective at his MMA-based striking.
But, overall, I think there's not enough collaboration. I think a lot of these coaches just want to coach and teach their system as opposed to collaborating what makes their fighter effective. I think that's why it's been so rooted and intertwined with the game, period. I don't think too many coaches were quick to adapt to new trends in MMA like Cung Le's san shou or Machida's karate.
The jiu-jitsu community has its own issues with collaboration, but would you say, generally speaking, it's a more collaborative community in terms of sharing best practices?
Yeah, I think I've seen a lot more collaboration between the wrestlers and the jiu-jitsu community as well where I think that strikers, the different striking system aren't too quick to collaborate with each other.
There's been great strikers that have worked very well with jiu-jitsu, but as far as different striking methods, collaborating with each other, that's not something I've seen that much of.
I've always taken boxing's criticisms of MMA striking with a grain of salt. As time goes on, however, they're really beginning to resonate with me. Precepts that make boxing what it is - movement, angles and, in particular, timing - that is really coming to the foreground with the more elite strikers today. Do you agree with this characterization?
I definitely believe those are really important elements. I was raised with karate and boxing, so that's my background. But I do think boxing, from a defensive standpoint, is still very, very, very flawed in transitions to MMA.
Holly Holm, with her great boxing background, was able to negate Ronda Rousey with MMA striking. Ronda's been very focused on traditional boxing and I think it showed a lot of flaws in that fight.
The transitions of being able to be balanced and accurate and be precise and tight angles and footwork do have their place in modern MMA striking.
Defensively, why is boxing for MMA purposes as taught by boxers problematic?
Because of the range of MMA. Just the size of the Octagon to the typical distance in a MMA fight is fought, a lot of traditional boxing elements don't transition that well into it.
From a defensive standpoint, a 'Philly shell' isn't going to make you stop a head kick. There's too many openings, but there are, like I said, a lot of elements of boxing from tight pivots to angular footwork to feints and parries that are definitely going to continue to grow in this sport.
What happened where it feels like all of a sudden, you're beginning to notice clearly the guys who can shift in the pocket, show tighter fundamentals have a dramatic advantage?
A good example of this evolution is a guy like Alistair Overeem. Alistair was K-1 Grand Prix champ. He had so much success early in his career marching guys down in a Dutch-Thai style and finding his clinch knees and finding his big body kicks and uppercuts to the Alistair that fought this past Saturday night: very patient, long-range footwork, lots of feints and he finally found that inside slip against Junior [dos Santos] and he was able to find that one-punch knockout.
It was set up with 8 minutes of movement and range and feints, everything that was the opposite of Alistair of five years ago, just march guys down and throw giant knees.
To what extent did he have to be reminded these changes are necessary or was he basically always aware and the conversion just took a while?
Alistair was always aware. He just had to find the right coaching staff to inspire him to lay out that blueprint and to collaborate with him. Obviously, he still has super effective traditional movement and moves. We just have to put him in the right spot to exploit these other guys.
Guys like T.J. Dillashaw or Dominck Cruz or Conor McGregor are finding openings based off of these old precepts of what should and shouldn't be from a stance or a Thai boxing movement or boxing movement. These are the guys that are trying to find those transitional openings and elements and break the norm.
Let's talk about those guys. What are the insights that T.J. Dillashaw has that he's bringing to light with his striking performances?
One of biggest advantages is T.J.'s seen guys with movement like Renan [Barao] thousands and thousands of rounds, but Renan's never seen movement like Dillashaw has. Myself, as a striking coach, I know a lot of these schools and their fighters and their gyms, are only used to seeing one type of movement. Then to be able to exploit that in the cage where their brain is trying to fire and recognize these new patterns and movements and make some logical understanding of what's going on, it's too late. They're already too far behind.
Where we as, I like to think of myself as a next-generation striking coach, I know what these traditional boxers are used to seeing. I know what these traditional Thai boxers are used to seeing. I'm looking for areas where we can disrupt that from a defensive standpoint.
Technically, can you give me a couple of examples of things he does that feeds off the more predictable reactions and movements that someone like Barao might give him?
Obviously the angles and being able to switch stances through combinations, I think that's an element that's throwing a lot of guys off. Even five years ago you would see a guy, like a Matt Hughes, for example. If he was in his southpaw stance, you knew he wanted to shoot. If he was in his orthodox stance, you knew he wanted to strike. That was easier to break down from a game plan side.
Now we're seeing these guys that are transitioning through strikes and combos and finding they're maybe stronger stance to shoot takedowns and then transitioning back through for good angles, use southpaw flanks or orthodox flanks, finding super effective striking. I think that was the biggest thing T.J. was able to exploit against Renan.
What about Conor McGregor? When you look at what he did, what'd you see as some of the dominant advantages he enjoyed in retrospect?
One thing that Conor's really revolutionizing is that long-range stance. It's low, it's long, he's able to close distance very rapidly. He's able to utilize his reach very, very well. He's able to move at a variety of angles and be able to strike in motion. That's an area where I feel like a lot of these guys are also behind.
Jose's entrance, Conor's seen that a million times. Even though I think two Saturdays ago was traditional, class-book step back, find your counter right down the center, Conor's movement made Jose force his way into that range. That was Jose's mistake.
Conor's also really good at pressuring guys up against the fence line, using the cage and finding his circular attacks, his spinning attacks, to take away their movement and range, like the [Chad] Mendes finish.
One thing that's been on my mind is lethality at different ranges. Techniques used to have their rigid place for their specified range. Now the lines are getting blurred, e.g. Carlos Condit throwing the elbow in boxing range against Thiago Alves. Is the ability to blur these lines another component of the development of striking?
100 percent and that's something we're working very hard on. Carlos was able to kind of highlight that transition through ranges where guys are looking for resets or they're looking for just traditional boxing from a boxing range.
Jon Jones was able to really exemplify that early on, too, against Rashad Evans where Rashad was so worried about Jon's hands in his boxing range and Jon was able to control Rashad's hands and step through into those roll over elbows.
I do think that's an area where myself, especially, I'm trying to change this game. I'm trying to find these openings and find these guys with these defensive habits where they're not anticipating or expecting clinch range strikes from a boxing range or kick attacks from a boxing range. We're trying to put in these vastly new elements.
To what extent is this development guess and check? You guys on the frontier of this are figuring it out as you go. Is that also maybe why the process of striking development in MMA has been a little bit slower?
Yeah, I think so. Absolutely. A lot of these old coaches were stuck in their ways and they knew that their style worked. Now that the game's changing, they're not necessarily willing to adapt and change themselves. They want to keep teaching their same secrets, their same formula.
A guy like me, I'm not trying to teach some standard set kata that applies for everyone. I'm trying to find the elements that works very well for Alistair Overeem and polish them up in all of these different areas and collaborate with him like we're musicians. I train Overeem very different than I do Condit, Jones or a guy like John Dodson. I don't look at myself like a set style striking coach. I always look at myself as a collaborator and I'm trying to find through these natural movements and strengths that these guys have, areas that we can really add onto an exploit out of their opponents.
Duane Ludwig was seemingly able to do a lot for Team Alpha Male, which is interesting because it's improvement at scale. Does that mean that the next level [after that] is catering to each individual?
What Duane was able to bring to Alpha Male really shined during that period he was there. Guys like T.J. really took to it. Obviously the [Renan] Barao fights highlight, I think, Duane's style with that group of fighters.
The next generation, I wouldn't necessarily say needs that because those polished basics and defense will never go away. But I don't look at myself as that white belt or blue belt instructor. I'm working with very, very high-level guys where I am able as a striking coach to find those finite little details and rhythms and off rhythms that work well for them. Overall MMA striking will always need those core fundamentals especially base and good balance, good defensive awareness, good accuracy and good movement.
Is there an argument to be made that if you're a high-level UFC fighter - either champion or championship contender - that not only does it make sense to not do team training to preserve yourself physically, but you need that collaborative experience with a coach to maximize potential?
100 percent. I'm definitely a big believer that for these high-level guys that have had so many fights and they've reached the upper echelon of UFC, sparring isn't really beneficial for them. I'm definitely aware of long-term brain injury, long-term health and defense is always my top, top, top priority. With that being said, I feel like I can give Carlos Condit a lot more with an additional pad session or drill session than he would get out of going three rounds with some random guys that are at the gym that day.
I think that is the focus of our gym altogether. Our top-level guys don't really spar that much. They spend a lot more time specific drilling, specific game plan with really working together based on their opponent and what we want to get out of the fight.
The movement Alistair Overeem showed the other night was things we had been drilling for three months. It was great to see it all come to fruition and play out like we had hoped it would. He spent a lot more time on that than random sparring. When he did spar, he worked on game plan specific stuff.
If there were no concerns about brain injury or beating the body down, would you still taper back on some of the sparring?
Yeah, a lot of these guys I see spar from almost a conditioning element or moral-psychological development. I don't know how many go in and spar with purpose or intent to work on X, Y and Z and implement A, B and C. I think they just get in with guys who are the sparring partners that want to impose their will and they try to impose their's right back and they leave too many miles in the gym.
I'm an advocate that if you're going to spar, you should spar with intention on getting better. You should go in there with a game plan that will be applicable to your upcoming fight, not just go in there for the sake of throwing down.
I think when you're at a younger age and younger level, that is needed, to find that toughness, to find those things that can only be taught in the gym. But at the high level, absolutely not.
In terms of the growth of striking, has it gotten better more on the offensive or defensive side?
It's definitely gotten better on the offensive side. Defensively, there's still a lot of areas that need to be polished and worked. Kinda going back to our discussion on boxing or even Thai boxing, when these guys are used to training with 16-ounce gloves, they develop defensive habits that keep them safe with those types of gloves on. Then when you switch to four-ounce gloves all of sudden certain punches you're used to blocking with a certain style aren't working anymore. Now you're eating punches and getting knocked out.
I was always a fan of Rampage Jackson. He would do that high block in PRIDE where we he would cover even the back of his head, he would get his elbow up so high. I was always a fan of that because big boxing gloves, these guys have a tendency to get lazy. They'll cover just their chin, which ends up covering their jaw and ear. Come fight night, they get blasted in the ear and knocked out.
I do know we have a ways to go on the defensive side of things. I think the footwork and range awareness are the first frontiers of breaking into that new defensive style.
Another element that needs to be taken into consideration is when UFC has a big cage or a small cage. Obviously we see a lot higher knockout rates when UFC has events with the small cage. As a coach, I need to be aware of that and have a game plan and defensive movement that take the small cage into account because it's very different angles in there.
Can you give a quick example of different angles you might see between the two cages?
In that small cage, it's very easy to corral the opponent up against the fence. If I was having a small cage fight, I'd have my fighters work on a lot of juke-style footwork up against the fence line where you don't know if they're exiting to the lead side or power side or level changing and shooting right through. Whereas in the big cage, it is easier to find that exit range and circle out quickly. The pressure in that small cage makes a big difference.
With all of these factors taken together, where we we headed with striking in MMA?
It's going to need to maintain a balance of the traditional, polished basics and then also include the creative elements: the feints, the long-range striking, aggressive level changes, tight angles. Even from a conditioning standpoint, I bet we're going to see more of that natural movement playing a role into the upper echelon fighter's camps.
Conor moving with Ido Portal under a stick everybody may think is goofy, but it's about his accuracy in motion, it's about his overall balance, it's about his positional awareness. I think you'll see that at a higher level into play and more and more. The balance for a guy like me as a coach is to say, 'Ok, well, that's cool. We also need to get a thousand jabs in on that bag.'
Dominick Cruz is going to take on T.J. Dillashaw here soon. The technical possibilities there seem almost limitless. In terms of footwork, what are you expecting between the two?
I think that footwork is going to be outstanding. Both of them are going to be trying to working to out flank one another. We're going to see a lot of transitions, swtich stances throughout. They're going to be pressuring each other and trying to flank with that switch stance.
I think where it's really going to play out is in that boxing range. Whoever is going to be more dominant in that boxing range is going to get their hand raised. From that long kicking range, it's going to be a movement fest and it's going to be the first one to make a defensive movement error, that's going to get capitalized on.
I don't think Dominick's going to have a lot of ring rust. I kinda thought he was going to in his last one and he went out there and got the job done quickly. One benefit Cruz has even though he's been on the bench is doing that analysis job for FOX and for the UFC. His mind has never gotten to take a break. He's been watching and breaking these things down technically and I think he's been doing a very good job at it. He's going to be ready for Dillashaw's movement. I'm interested to see if he can apply his own and pressure Dillashaw back with his movement. It's going to be interesting to see.