In terms of commercial success, 2017 was not the windfall MMA experienced in 2016. However, in terms of technical growth and action inside the cage, there’s a strong argument to make 2017 was one of the best years in recent memory. It isn’t merely that the very upper tier of fighters are experimenting, evolving and creating more dynamic styles. Even competitors on the preliminary portion of cards are demonstrating incredibly strong technical acumen in ways previously considered nearly impossible.
To better understand this growth and change, we asked some of the better coaches, minds and analysts in the sport to reflect on what they saw as the areas of biggest technical, tactical or strategic development this past year. Notably, while there is some overlap in their answers, the diversity of their responses reflect the scale of development happening in multiple facets of the sport.
For some, 2017 was the year of the knee. For others, it was stance switching. For others, still, it was the expanded use of wrist control from turtle. The truth, naturally, is that it was all of these and much more.
Here are the assessments to the biggest areas of growth in MMA fighting in 2017 from some of the sport’s most-insightful experts.
Dan Hardy, MMA analyst
In the past few years, since the majority of fighters stepping into the Octagon have been mixed martial artists as opposed to purists and specialists, I see stages of whittling down. At the moment, I think we are in the end of a shedding phase with the grappling arts, where many gyms and fighters are focusing on sequences to high percentage submissions (like RNC and head and arm variations in men's MMA and armbars in women's), instead of an all-encompassing submission offensive and defensive game. Much like a few years back when GSP just learned the wrestling needed to take people down and smash them, instead of the whole collegiate syllabus.
Adversely, I think the striking arts are still very elementary, and people are able to exploit one powerful weapon and build a whole game around it. The nuances of planning and timing, understanding how to set traps, etc. is only really used by the very high-level guys.
I'm also noticing that weight cutting and physical size advantages in the middle weight classes is no longer appearing as beneficial. RDA, Masvidal, Cowboy, Covington, Perry, etc. at welterweight. Whittaker, Gastelum, GSP, etc. at 185.
It's almost like the 'goldilocks zone' for fighters around 170-200lbs has shifted, and giving up a little size makes no real difference to the fight as long as there isn't a huge technical deficit.
Brandon Gibson, JacksonWink MMA
While 2017 may have been the year of the hook (especially UFC 217), I think the area that I saw the most amount of growth would be the standing elbow.
- Ricard Ramos' spinning elbow KO against Aiemann Zahabi at UFC 217
- Mike Perry's clinch elbow KO of Jake Ellenberger at UFC Nashville
- Matt Brown catching Diego Sanchez' kick and transitioning into a vicious standing elbow KO at UFC Norfolk
- Gaston Bolanos' counter spinning elbowing KO of Rick Gutierrez at Bellator 189
- Paul Felder's intercepting elbow on Alessandro Ricci at UFC Halifax
Each of these elbows were throwing from a different range, some off pressure, some were used in the clinch, and some were used defensively. Ramos used his as a counter against Zahabi's heavy pressure against the cage, and wasn't afraid to keep throwing it until it landed. Perry was able to make space off the over/under clinch position and land his elbow before Ellenberger could land his attack. This is a position we generally see up against the fence, not the open mat. Matt Brown was able to control Diego's posture while posting him to the fence, then he used the position to unleash an arching elbow that resulted in the knockout. Gaston Bolanos was able to use the open mat to cut an angle off Gutierrez's forward pressure to set up his fight ending counter elbow. And while Paul Felder's intercepting elbow against Ricci didn't result in an intimidate knockout, it just took a few ground and pound punches to seal the deal.
Fighters are becoming much more aware of the openings for elbows, especially off clinch transitions. I look for this powerful weapon to become an even greater threat in 2018.
John Wood, Syndicate MMA
One of the of the biggest trends I’ve seen change in MMA recently is the movement and diversity in a lot of the fighters footwork and striking. You are seeing a lot of the traditional martial arts really come back into play like karate, taekwondo, and so on. It’s getting a lot harder to figure people out now.
MMA is starting to really become its own hybrid martial art, whereas before you kinda only had to worry about a specific style: Boxing, wrestling, muay thai, jiu-jitsu. Over the last couple years as a coach I’ve always kept this in mind when game planning for opponents and I am very cautious to not “over game-plan” due to the fact that styles and techniques are constantly shifting and improving.
I myself have always been a big fan of movement and good footwork, but I always caution my fighters that it also has its downfalls. The more you move and take risks with the fancier techniques, the more you also put your yourself at risk to get hit or taken down. You see it all the time with some of the top fighters in the world who are relying heavily on movement who come out of fights with their faces looking like hammered dog s—t, because the have started to rely on footwork instead and head movement instead of the good ole “keep your hands up” and block punches strategy.
Either way it’s awesome to see how much this sport is evolving and changing all the time.
Mark Henry, coach of Eddie Alvarez, Marlon Moraes, Frankie Edgar and others
I think one of the biggest change-ups I've seen in 2017, and the last few years, are same hand/same side kick. For example, fake a right hand, then throw a right head kick. This goes against boxing slipping your head off. Marlon Moraes knocked out Josh Hill with this. Donald Cerrone and T.J. Dillashaw both use this now. Rory MacDonald almost finished Robbie Lawler with it and many others use this technique more and more.
Also, more fighters are switching orthodox to southpaw more, which means you have to make sure you dictate a certain percent of sparring rounds to both in camp. A lot of champs have had much success with this: Jon Jones, T.J. Dillashaw, Max Holloway, Dominick Cruz, etc. Frankie Edgar used this against Gray Maynard in their last fight. Gray fought like other southpaws so we used the lead right a lot. The plan was to go southpaw and shoot on his right hand. Frankie shot and Gray defended, so Frankie went uppercut once he defended and stunned Gray, then finished with right hooks and ground and pound. But the set up was off switching stances.
Jimmy Smith, former Bellator color commentator
It seems like the rangy, spinning techniques have really become extremely popular across the board. The old ‘that would never work in MMA’ dogma has been replaced by an openness to unorthodox techniques. It isn’t just the ‘he’s so athletic he can pull it off’ crowd either.
Steven Wright, War Room MMA
On the feet, the biggest developments I am noticing is elite fighters are finding comfort exchanging. In general, MMA is take turns striking. One will be on offense and the other will back away until it is their turn. This makes a lot of offense scores more like a sudden car crash after careful driving. However, in either Holloway/Aldo fight or Ortega/Moicano and, to a more brutal extent, Curran/Albu, you are seeing a lot more comfort in the pocket. Which means more skilled, high-level violent exchanges. We are already seeing heads off center for exchanges, understanding of flurry distance, and improved vision which helps prevent big shots from dropping fighters. Next you will see rolling with punches to lower impacts and parry counters.
For the ground, there is nothing more pleasing to the MMA product than the slow death of closed guard. Fighters and coaching staffs are prioritizing getting back to the feet. You are seeing a lot less fighters pulling guard and waiting for the stand up that might not come. Best example of the year was Mousasi/Weidman. Once, Mousasi accepted guard and was beaten up for 25 minutes by Mo Lawal. His corner was confident in the Weidman fight preparations that he would get up if taken down. He used two butterfly elevations, one for a scramble that got him to his knees and feet after fighting off a choke, the other a lift that created enough separation to escape. He also used two reach-over body locks to get up, and after giving up mount, he rolled, trapped the bottom leg, and created a scramble to get to his feet. He never settled for locking in his guard. Not only is the new MMA fighter more equipped to stay out of closed guard, but the old ones are growing with the times.
Din Thomas, American Top Team
The biggest area of growth in MMA in 2017 has been fighters ability to manipulate the system using trash talk and fan support. Knowing that attention and viewership takes precedence over quality of skill, fighters have used bully tactics in order to gain interest in matchups and pander to the lowest common denominator in the psychology of the MMA fan.
Andre Pederneiras, Nova Uniao
In my opinion, the strategic aspect is what has evolved the most in MMA. An athlete that doesn’t follow a strategic plan today has little chances of victory, considering that, if his opponent has done his homework — studying and watching his weak points and doing everything he can to explore those weak points — the odds of someone who hasn’t done (that) and has a strategy ready to actually win are very slim.
Andre Dida, Kings MMA
MMA is reaching a level where athletes are having a hard time getting their opponents down. Everyone knows they are already losing a fight if they go to the ground and stay on their backs, and there’s a good chance they (end up) cut with an elbow, submitted or knocked out. MMA fighters are investing more time in takedown defense, and that is reflecting on more fighters standing and trading.
In the striking area, I’ve seen more athletes using the deai, like Lyoto Machida and Conor McGregor. Keep your hand low, bounce and move, and land straights and crosses with your back hand. I noticed that a while ago, and I’ve always believed in this.
Since not many fighters manage to get the fight to the ground, you don’t see fights as boring as used to happen more often in the past, with both fighters exchanging position close to the cage and doing pretty much nothing. Champions are being constantly studied, and they are getting more knockouts because they know they will have to stand and trade. Everyone is going in this direction.
I believe that the future of MMA is what T.J. Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz do. You watch them fight and you don’t see a clear martial art. They do everything, but there’s no clear martial art like in other fighters. MMA is like Formula 1: Everyone has the same engine, so what makes the difference is strategy and intelligence in combat. Everyone knows how to punch and kick in the UFC, so you have to be smart.
Dave Camarillo, Guerrilla Jiu-Jitsu
Fluidity: The training is evolving. Fighters are more likely to train with dynamic fluid movement vs. barbaric, ‘punch them in the face’ hard sparring. It is a classic scientist vs. caveman spectrum.
However, Conor McGregor is a good example of too much fluid training and not enough grit. He gasses. I think the greatest evolution for the future is finding the balance for the specific fighter and their body. But longevity should continue playing a role in how fighters prepare for fights.
Jimmy Gifford, striking coach
As a striking coach, it’s easy to see the progress in the stand-up game: Striking, footwork, head movement and angles. On top of that, I believe we are seeing the true MMA fighter now. In the past, you would see a specialist that learned how to do other things. A striker learning takedown defense. A BJJ black belt learning to strike. For years, that was the game. Now we are seeing more well-rounded fighters: Wrestlers who look as solid standing, strikers who have high-level BJJ. More and more young people are training in “MMA.” The sport is growing so fast in terms of skill set. The overall talent is growing.
Daniel Cormier, UFC light heavyweight champion, American Kickboxing Academy
Honestly, I think this year the technique that truly has shown itself is fighting behind the jab. Before, fighters would throw blind kicks and overhand rights. Now you see a more measured, technical approach to the stand up and that starts with the jab. Look at the evolution of Max Holloway. It starts with his jab, which allows him to fight at a range guys can’t match. I know it may seem simple, but the more guys use the jab, the higher the level of fighting will go. That’s been my biggest takeaway from the year, honestly. Simple, but true.
There are a ton of other things, but none of them are effective if not for that jab to set things up. I’ve seen boxing at highest level where guys control a fight with a jab and now your starting to see that in MMA.
Go to Max Holloway vs. Jose Aldo I. The finishing sequence starts with the jab. Then after the jab has stung him over and over, lead hook right hand follows. Game over. Fight two, Aldo winging big power strikes, Max is calm, straight shots always with the jab. Even in close. It’s crazy.
Ivan Flores, Gracie Technics
I think for the most part what I’ve noticed this past year is more of a mainstream trend of camps practicing “anti” arts. What I mean by that is instead of really learning the actual art or craft, guys are just practicing ways of neutralizing opposing arts/techniques. On one side, it’s a smart way to achieve a certain amount of success without the huge time investment. The downfall to that is more fighters and coaches are seeing that as a long-term answer, and are undervaluing the details of the craft, which is limiting growth. As a result, MMA is getting a lot more all-around guys, but not quite as many specialists in comparison. I think that’s why a lot more fighters are roaming around trying to manage their own camps in search of missing pieces to the puzzle.
Another really big thing that stands out to me when I watch fights is massive gaps in defensive fundamentals. I really believe that it’s a byproduct of the point I discussed above. There’s a lot of people treating MMA like it’s an art, and forgetting that it’s a sport. Don’t get me wrong, like I said, you can achieve a certain amount of success. However, the holes that are left will also stunt the growth of your fight IQ’s potential.
It’s still been an exciting year in MMA watching the evolution continue to shift. It’s kinda crazy how quick camps are now at applying a technique they see someone do just the prior week. It’s like the calf kick. It’s an effective low kick that’s a lot more difficult to defend than the traditional roundhouse kick to the thigh. Damages the leg quickly and isn’t as easy to run a takedown on. Once that technique was performed well in a fight, it caught on fire with everyone.
Eric del Fierro, Alliance MMA
I think, as a whole, the biggest improvements we are seeing in the sport are in striking and in counter wrestling (standing back up).
MMA fighters now are putting together combinations, countering, feints and effective use of range to land their strikes, whereas before we used to see single punches, loaded strikes with no setups. We would only see effective use of combinations in marquee fights. We can now see prelims and even lower level fights using higher level striking technique.
And where wrestling a few years ago dominated the sport, now we don’t see as many takedowns or as much control of a downed opponent as we used to.
Not because we don’t have high level wrestlers in the sport, but more because everyone is getting so good at getting up and not allowing for any control.
Tom Lawlor, UFC fighter and Syndicate MMA coach
In the world of MMA, I often find that MMA itself is behind the times when it comes to the evolution of martial arts themselves. I think the biggest area of growth that will occur in 2018 has just had it’s surface scratched in the form of combat jiu-jitsu.
Due to time limits, past rule changes, and interpretations of these changes, there has been an increase in the amount of time spent on the feet compared to on the ground. While you could point to an increase in better takedown defense as a reason why, I believe that a lack of focus on developing proper defense under strikes on the ground, and subsequent offense, has allowed a important and useful facet of MMA to fall by the wayside. I believe that as some form of combat jiu-jitsu has a chance to become more prevalent and popular, we will see a return of submissions in 2018! (Maybe this is all just wishful thinking.)
John Crouch, MMA Lab
I feel like striking has improved by just leaps and bounds. People are really, really good strikers. Royce Gracie was my teacher. I started doing this, he beat me up to get ready for some of his fights. Just seeing how good people are at striking — everybody's a black belt in jiu-jitsu, everybody wrestles well, but just how dangerous people are on their feet with all of their weapons, for me, that's been the biggest thing I've noticed.
Martial arts and fighting, and pretty much life, comes down to good fundamentals. That's my opinion. I learned good fundamentals where I came from and all the coaches that are really great are good fundamentalists. Once you have a strong house, you can decorate the house any way you want. I feel like starting with good fundamentals and then you expert with stuff. You watch everything, you try to come up with new ideas. If somebody does something different, you throw it in the mix and see how it goes. I rely on our guys being good fundamentally and adding the tricks on top of it.
Ray Longo, Longo and Weidman Mixed Martial Arts
The guy that popped into my head was this kid Zabit (Magomedsharipov), who Mark Henry has, who literally can do everything. That's the key. He's a great wrestler, his striking is on point, and it's a guy that really excels in boxing, Thai boxing, jiu-jitsu, and wrestling at a top level.
On the other hand, you got a guy like (Kelvin) Gastelum who has a 1-2 and he's marching through everybody. He's not the best kicker, his jiu-jitsu is probably on par with a couple of things, and his wrestling is decent but not crazy. You have a guy that really believes in a couple of fundamentals. He has a great chin and great mindset and he's marching through guys at a heavier weight class, which I find fascinating.
Then you get a guy like Khabib (Nurmagomedov), who has rudimentary striking at this point. He's not the best striker, but holy sh*t, he's imposing his will with what he does good, which is the wrestling and the ground-and-pound.
The well-roundedness I've seen in a couple of guys that are growing and the sport should be farther ahead than where it's actually at right now. Then, on the other hand, you've still got guys that can impose one skill set. I find that fascinating in today's day and age.
In 2018, however, I think the guys like Zabit are going to start to take over. You're going to have to be world-class in those four areas: Boxing, Thai boxing, jiu-jitsu, wrestling. My philosophy always was you put two guys in a cage, the guy with the superior mix of attributes is walking out a winner and the other guy a loser. Timing, power, spatial relationship, distance management, cardio. The attributes are really the key. It has nothing to do with the techniques. I think that's what you're seeing.