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Technique Talk: Joey Villaseñor explores the beauty and brutality of body shots

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Body shots are revered among fight fans, but are still seldom seen despite their instant viciousness or value over the long haul in a fight. To be sure, their use is growing in mixed martial arts, but still lags in an era where four-ounce gloves still carry potency even in simplistic head hunting ventures.

In this episode of our Technique Talk series, we speak to Joey Villaseñor, a veteran of nearly 40 fights who competed in Strikeforce, PRIDE and other top organizations. He's also a coach at JacksonWink MMA who specializes in this area of MMA for the team.

Villaseñor helps illuminate what the value of the body shot is despite its infrequency, how use of them has changed in MMA and what, in all its grandeur and simplicity, makes the body shot such an alluring and effective weapon for fight aficionados.

Full audio and partial transcript below:

Why are a lot of fighters reluctant to throw to the body?

I think it comes down to training. There's not enough coaches emphasizing going to the body. I know that's something we emphasize at our gym, is going to the body and the importance of going to the body.

But I think under the stress of real-life fight sometimes, when you strip off all the gear and you just got this hand wrap with a four-ounce glove on with no shin pads, no head gear, no 16-ounce gloves, all that comfort disappears. A few shots make you feel like, 'Holy crap, man. I'm fighting for my life here.' It becomes more of a dangerous game, more real. People tend to fall into, they want to finish the fight. They want to end it, so they get punch crazy on the head. They want to do what they see all the time in how most fights are finished by knockouts, not finished by body shots.

I love a body shot finish because it shows mixing it up and how body shots can open the game to the head, but I think for most people, it gets more real and they close in on targeting on the head.

I'm sure there are a lot of coaches out there that specify body work, but under direct stress and stress of a real fight, people get drawn into head hunting. You even see it at high-level fighting. It's 99 [head] to 1 percent body, overall. There should be more of a balance and your fighters that are more well rounded and understand the fight game a little more and can handle the stress, those are the fighters you see attack the body more often.

Who are some of your favorite body attackers?

Body work in MMA, it goes not so much to punches as to snap kicks. I think the most efficient body strike in MMA is the snap kick to the body or what they call a pony tail, a Steven Seagal snap kick. Really fast strikes to the body. My teammate 'Cowboy' Cerrone's really good at striking to the rib cage/bread basket. That's just with a rooster-style snap kick. That's an efficient way of going to the body. When you're punching to the body, you have to be kinda close and your head is in proximity to get kneed and struck.

Then, of course, you've got your great boxers. There's a handful of boxers that stick out in my mind that attack the body. I learned how important body work was by training with boxers. Boxers were really efficient because all they had to do was punch the body or punch the head. They didn't have to worry about kicking, elbows and knees, so they're highly efficient at working the body. Boxers, primarily, can be a big benefit for MMA fighters. Boxers show extensive work going to the body with their hands, but when it comes to MMA, the strikes with the legs are a little bit more efficient with body work.

In terms of fighters competing today, is there anyone you notice doing great body work?

I'm super biased when it comes to fights. I'm a coach now. I am seeing body work more efficiently. Conor McGregor sticks out in my mind. I see him go to the body quite often. He's got a balanced attack. I might not be such a gigantic fan of his personality, but he's a huge asset to the sport and his body work, it's great. It's nice. He's got some great hands to the body. He mixes it up well and it opens up the strikes to the head.

I've got a couple of teammates that are really good going to the body, John Dodson and Cowboy Cerrone.

If I brought up the Diaz brothers, what would you say about their body work?

They're good at mixing it up. I know both the Diaz brothers when I was competing, they were both competing and we're old schoolers. I like the Diaz brothers.

Their body work isn't so much power as it is just touching to open up other opportunities. With their high number attacks, I'd say they're highly efficient at going to the body. Those two guys understand the concept of mixing it up.

And I believe the reason why they're so versed at it is because they've been in MMA long time and they get a lot, a lot of boxing work in with just strictly boxing. You hear them all the time talking about boxing with high-level guys.

You see a huge output with them, even from years back. Five, six years ago they were very efficient at going to the body, but as you see it now, they're a little more efficient with it because they understand the toll that it takes in a fight game like MMA where conditioning is very, very pivotal. You can really slow down an adversary by attacking the body. You don't have to put everything into it like you're throwing an overhand. You just have to touch them in the right places and it can really open up your game.

The liver shot is famous. Most people think of body shots as a way to set up other punches, but the liver shot is often a show closer. Do you feel like there's another area or way to target the body to get a similar reaction, the kind that earns instant results?

The problem with trying to land a liver shot in MMA is knees and kicks are involved. When your head is in that position, when you're dipping off trying to attack that position, you could get head kicked and/or kneed or snap kicked.

I think a super efficient strike, like I was saying earlier, is that snap kick to the body. If you put the ball of your foot on somebody's rib cage or in their sternum...this is something you can go back and watch. The snap kick that Cerrone had. He had two or three of them that just dropped opponents or staggered them or hurt them, Jim Miller being one of those guys.

That wasn't a liver shot. That's the ball of your foot smashing into their body. And when people are punching, they're overextended and the rib cages are open. Just going down the centerline, throwing your hands and mixing up a snap kick down that centerline in putting that ball of your foot right in the solar plexus, that snap kick can stop people dead in their tracks.

Another one of my teammates that's really good at it is Kyle Noke. He had a stop two fights ago with a push kick, a really fast, efficient snap kick to the body. It stopped the fight.

I believe that is the most efficient to the body in all of MMA. If you can get a nice punch off, that's great, but what the snap kick gives you is range. I can stick my jab out there and not even come close to you, but extending my leg out will give me another foot to foot-and-a-half of reach. For a lot of people, they'll feel safe from the punches, but that snap kick can get in.

Now, your time has to be correct and you better not hit a down elbow or it could quite possibly stop you from snap kicking ever again. It'll definitely make you think twice.

So, getting your hands active, getting everything circular and then coming down the center line can be very pivotal.

What about attacking the rib cage itself? It's one thing to target an organ, but what about the shield of the organs?

I like the rib cage to attack. Whenever they're throwing a cross or jab, the hand has to be in a straight line and, therefore, the ribs are open whether it's a shin across the ribs or the ball of the foot across the ribs.

The ribs are an extremely valuable target. The thing with boxing gloves is you have 8 to 12 ounces and a hand wrap. When you skinny it down to an MMA glove, that can be an extremely hard surface and that, with some velocity, screaming into the rib cage can be highly effective.

Body shots, in general, all across the whole body, rib cage, sternum, organs, it's highly effective. Whether it knocks your opponent down or knocks the wind out of them or staggers them, what it does is it makes people miss breaths. During fights when you attack the body and they have to hold their breath in anticipation of getting hit and/or actually getting hit, you can slow down and mess up their breathing patterns. That can definitely play in your favor in the later rounds, especially when you're looking at championship rounds.

Whether people are defending it, if you're getting clean shots off, it's still going to pay dividends. Right off the bat, you hurt them or just numbers like Diaz brothers, just keep on attacking. Eventually, they take over because of conditioning. You're fatigued.

It's something I believe is starting to grow. You're seeing athletes taking more and more advantage of it. It's one of those duration-type strikes. If you get a clean drop or you kick them down with a body shot, great, but it can eventually and will eventually take a toll on your adversary and give you the edge in later rounds.

From the time when you started training up to now as a coach, how have body attacks changed?

From when I first started back in '98 was my first MMA fight, I believe, the sport has come a long way in the last 18 to 20 years. You're starting to see more and more people go to the body because of just trial and error and coaches emphasizing going to the body.

I see going to the body, I see it growing. It should be a staple. It's just like a one-two. Going to the body should be a staple just as a jab-cross.

When you show your opponent more looks and more attacks - whether it's leg kicks, body shots, body knees, body knees, head attacks - the more you show them, the more they have to defend. People and more and more understanding and utilizing the body more. I think we're going to see and upward swing in the body attack in the coming years.

You talked about attacking the body safely at range. What can be said about other forms of body attacks, like working in close range inside the clinch? Anderson Silva over Rich Franklin and Demetrious Johnson over Henry Cejudo. It's not merely that they're firing in close, but turning and pulling their opposition. How hard is that to pull off, both body work and forcing someone to dance with you?

With Silva and Rich Franklin, that's when Silva kneed him in the face, right? Put his nose sideways. That was a keen Muay Thai expert, somebody who understands the clinch against someone who's never really seen the clinch at that level. He just didn't know how to stop it. Anderson was doing such a great job of pulling him across his body and pulling him into those knees and eventually, because Rich was over protecting his rib cage, that's why Anderson was able to attack up to the nose. You start really over emphasizing on defending your body and that's where it can open up the head.

That's a skill set right there. That's why these guys became some of the best in the world and are the best in the world. That is something that has to be repeated over and over and has to kind of become a part of your fundamentals. Mighty Mouse is just so good everywhere, man. He's so good everywhere. It's a shame he doesn't get as much love and respect as he deserves. He's amazing. He's an amazing athlete and can do it everywhere. His speed and his accuracy and his wrestling. He just knows how to put it together.

Those are something that everybody should learn, but those are specialties. A lot of people are good in certain areas. Mighty Mouse is a once-in-a-lifetime fighter, just like [Georges] St-Pierre and Jon Jones. Everybody else, the 90 percent or 95 percent of us, have to have a hard work ethic. Things just don't come as naturally.

I'm not saying those guys don't put in work, but they also have this thing about them that makes them special.

But you mentioned the safety of body attacks at distance. Is it a 'safe place' to do body work when you're in tight like that?

I think it just depends on styles. Getting in close, you better be strong, you better have good wrestling takedown defense. Getting in close, you can be effective going to the body there as well as on the outside, but I think it comes down to styles. Some people like crowding their adversaries and they want to get to those throwing knees.

Anderson Silva, he loves the Muay Thai clinch and he loves throwing the knees there. He feels very comfortable there. He crowds you with his hips and he attacks you with his knees. I don't think there's any kind of separation in it. You can be a distance fighter and enjoy it from the outside or you can be an in tight fighter and still be highly effective going to the body. I believe it's all just a matter of styles.

Some people prefer one space over the other. Me being a shorter fighter at 185 pounds, fighting bigger and rangier guys, I liked fighting in the clinch. I liked kneeing to the body. I liked working body shots from that distance and that range. I probably wouldn't lower my level from outside range to attack the body just because of a knee or snap kick.

Being mixed in both areas is great, but it comes down to styles. If you like that grinding, off the fence smothering people, then you're going to enjoy that style of fighting.

Another issue is body work, but in ground and pound. To what extent do you think there is a way to innovate body work in that space? Not a lot of guys do it and so the game has stayed relatively the same.

When you're training with someone on the ground, you don't go ape s--t. You don't go hard. Then when you're in that fight and you have the option to go hard, you just never really conditioned to go to the body hard. It's one of those things you have to make a default. You have to be aggressive when you're sparring, to create that aggression so when you're in the fight, it's not unfamiliar to you.

But I think body work on the ground can be highly effective. You can drop an elbow to the ribs, you can hammerfist the sternum. There are multiple ways to attack the body and especially when someone is holding your head down. You can come circular and attack the rib cage. You don't have to punch it full power. You just want to punch enough to defend that position and then weaken their hold and posture up, then attack the head.

It's just so hard to finish body shots in that proximity just because you have to generate so much velocity and energy that it's going to have to take you turning your shoulder and really opening up to do it. When people do that, they generate too much space and that's when they get caught in armbars and triangles.

You can be very good at it, but it's more touch-touch-touch. It's hard to draw back and try to hammer something down because you have to rotate to generate that kind of velocity. So many people get caught in triangles because they're generating too much space.

You want to control somebody's hips when you're on top. You don't want to over rotate and then let them be mobile. So you don't see people cock back and generate as much velocity.

I do believe there are a few strikes that can really help you out. When you pinching the hips, you can roll over and roll an elbow into the sternum or an elbow to the rib cage. Those types of strikes can be highly effective. But you won't see many finishes from there because of the positional disadvantage.

That hip control, that's another reason why from side control, we don't see a lot knees to the ribs, right? They're trying to keep proximity even though that's a vicious strike.

If I have you in side control, I'm going to have the knee that is closest to your hips in your hips. The other arm is going to be pinching on the other side. I could use that knee on that back side to strike. That can be very efficient, but what you don't want to do is when in side control, the knee that is closest to the hip is the one you don't want to be drawing back.

When you draw that knee away from their hips, you generate space and that's when they can get into half guard or full guard. I do love that strike. It was one of the strikes I used as an MMA fighter myself. Sometimes people get into such a high-panicked state of mind when they're fighting, they go ape and they forget there has to be the [correct] knee to attack that rib cage. Don't use the knee in the hip, controlling the hip. Use the knee that is not controlling the hip.

Usually in side control, my knee is going to be there. I might have an underhook on the other side and then the elbow on the other side is going to be pinching the other side of the hips. A lot of people to generate force will push on the hip and I can rotate at the hip as long as my knee stays at your hip.

Fighting is a great deal hip rotation whether it's punching, kicking, defending shots and defending on the ground. Hips are such a pivotal aspect in all areas of fighting. Once we get our athletes to understand how important controlling the hips are, it'll definitely open up the other side for knees.

From any time in training or fighting, do you have a favorite body shot moment?

Against southpaws, that rear side snap kick is highly effective, whether it's to the head or the body. I faced a southpaw in one of my fights and I had that snap kick working to the body at an efficient rate. I know I hurt my adversary a few times to the body.

Whenever I go southpaw with my training partners in the gym, that snap kick to the body - southie vs. righty - is an effective shot. There's been times in training with great athletes that I've either stopped them with a snap kick or I've been in the clinch and I've opened my hips up and drop a body shot. I've dropped a few guys and I've been dropped myself.

One of the things about being dropped in training that I want everyone to understand is, when you have a bad day - when you get dropped to the body - I tell my students this all the time: Be thankful you had a bad day here amongst your brothers rather than out there against the enemy.

When you take a body shot and it drops you, understand that you just learned the valuable lesson of how pivotal and important the body shot is. It's something that cannot be overlooked.