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MMA trends to watch in 2018: How fighting is changing and evolving

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Max Holloway vs Jose Aldo
Max Holloway vs Jose Aldo
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Every passing year in mixed martial arts sees changes. Some of them are evolutionary; others are cyclical. Taking a look at the most recent trends can tell us where the future is going as smart fighters and camps react to the prevailing conditions.

By and large, 2017 was considered a down year in major MMA at least when it came to business. But in the cage, the competition remained fierce. New techniques and approaches shot to the forefront, and as always, there were new champions crowned while veterans departed the championship scene.

Let’s take a look at some of the major trends of 2017:

Emphasis on output

A look down the list of current UFC champions shows a group that is generally insistent on setting and keeping a frenetic pace.

While this kind of approach has been embraced by the Diaz brothers and a select few others as far back as a decade ago, it has been rapidly adopted by many elite fighters, particularly within the last 2-3 years. It has also gained growing emphasis with the changes in MMA’s scoring rules, which now allow for more liberal use of 10-8 rounds.

Perhaps its most notable proponent is Max Holloway, the featherweight champion who puts on a blistering pace and dares opponents to keep up. In his UFC 218 TKO win over Jose Aldo, Holloway threw 406 strikes in less than three full rounds, per FightMetric. That’s an average of 27.3 strikes per rapid-fire minute, forcing Aldo to both input reams of information and output significant reserves of energy in response. Holloway has discovered that essentially, he can sprint farther and faster than opponents, and opponents haven’t figured a way to slow him. It’s a key element to his rise, and one with no natural answer, forcing opponents to try to match gas tanks with him.

In a Fight of the Year nominee, Justin Gaethje and Michael Johnson were both able to sustain a furious pace, combining to throw 374 significant strikes in less than two rounds before Gaethje could stop Johnson with knees from the clinch.

In November, Nina Ansaroff and Angela Hill combined to throw 545 strikes in a three-round bout. Even the big guys get in on the act. In a successful heavyweight title defense, Stipe Miocic bombed Junior dos Santos with 56 strikes in less than a half-round. In his April win over Anthony Johnson, champion Daniel Cormier fired off 63 punches in just over three-and-a-half minutes of the second round before cinching the fight-ending choke.

While that kind of volume approach is taxing both physically and mentally, it’s not just about strike quantity.

Demetrious Johnson is a great example of complementing his strike totals with a diverse skill set. In October, Johnson finished Ray Borg in the fifth round of their flyweight title bout. Johnson launched 212 strikes during the match, but also completed eight takedowns, a technique that requires much more energy than any standard strike. On top of that, he completed 19 guard passes and attempted two submissions before finishing.

Other fighters up the intensity as the bout goes on. An example of that was Cub Swanson, who threw 83 strikes in the fifth round of his April matchup with Artem Lobov. That number is the second-highest total of strikes he’s ever thrown in a UFC round, despite the fact he was 33 years old at the time of the fight.

More than ever, fighters are showing an ability to keep and sustain a radical pace, and those who cannot keep up may be doomed.

The best fighters are no longer exclusively headhunters

With small gloves that can slip their way through a guard, it’s no wonder that fighters get caught up in targeting the head. Throughout most of the history of MMA, whether you were kicking or punching, you were probably going upstairs. At UFC 66 for example, when Chuck Liddell knocked out Tito Ortiz, 93.2 percent of his significant strikes were aimed at Ortiz’s head. That type of ratio was fairly commonplace for that time.

Five years later, in 2011, Demetrious Johnson and Dominick Cruz met. Those two are both brilliant tacticians, and were in the midst of changing the game in various ways. During that fight, Johnson targeted the head on 72.9 percent of significant strikes while Cruz did marginally better at 69.1 percent of significant strikes.

Compare that to today and some of the best fighters have moved even closer to a 50/50 split. UFC women’s strawweight title loss aside, Joanna Jedrzejczyk is at the vanguard of the movement. At UFC 211, she landed 225 significant strikes, and a majority of them were to alternate targets like the head and body. Only 44.9 percent were to opponent Jessica Andrade’s head.

T.J. Dillashaw is another one who mixes up his targeting. In his recent win over Cody Garbrandt, he went to the head 60.1 percent of the time.

In his breakthrough win over Johny Hendricks at UFC 217, rookie star Paulo Costa landed 49 percent of his strikes to Hendricks’ body and legs.

Body and leg striking takes a certain amount of discipline and confidence, because the counter is often coming back as a head shot, yet more and more fighters seem to understand that breaking an opponent’s base may pay faster dividends than exclusively targeting the head.

While that original temptation remains strong, changing levels to the body and legs results in a higher strike percentage and clearly works to wear down opponents. Expect to see more fighters adopting it in 2018.

Low leg kicks are having their moment

MMA: UFC 215-Stephens vs Melendez Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since 6-foot-1, 210-pound Marco Ruas used leg kicks to chop down 6-foot-8, 300-pound Paul Varelans at UFC 7, the technique has been a staple of the complete fighter’s arsenal. But for nearly two decades, the kick to the thigh has been the favored leg kick target of choice in MMA.

While that is certainly still the case, within the last 12-18 months, we have seen an increased reliance on the low leg kick, which aims for the calf with the goal of threatening stance stability and decreasing power.

For years, the low kick was generally ignored in MMA for fear of the technique being blocked and the threat of injury that occurs with a proper defense of the technique. While some fighters have occasionally featured it, it wasn’t until the UFC title reign of former champion Benson Henderson that it started to see more regular use.

Henderson used the low kick as an effective weapon in many of his title matches, most notably against Nate Diaz in 2012 in a shutout performance, even dropping him in the first round with it. Since then, it has slowly but surely been added to the repertories of major fighters.

In 2017, low kicks became a major weapon used in fights of the highest stakes. In Bellator, lightweight title challenger Brent Primus’ use of the technique effectively shut down the left leg of champion Michael Chandler and led to one of the year’s biggest upsets. In the UFC, Jeremy Stephens punished Gilbert Melendez’s lead leg at UFC 215, leaving it grotesquely swollen after 32 landed kicks. During the process, he tied a UFC record with five knockdowns in a three-round fight.

Most recently, Rafael dos Anjos hobbled Robbie Lawler with low kicks, limiting his movement and power in paving his way to a decisive win.

As a camp, American Top Team has truly seemed to embrace the technique over the last calendar year. Top-ranked stars including Jedrzejczyk and dos Santos have made it a regular tool in their arsenals, and upstart welterweight Colby Covington effectively used it to batter Demian Maia during the biggest win of his career.

Like most sports, MMA follows the direction of its biggest winners. As the technique continues to pay dividends, expect to see more of it.

Defined style preferences still dominate

A few years ago, when the new generation of stars like Rory MacDonald emerged on the scene, it was assumed that we were seeing the beginning of a pronounced shift in the sport. Athletes were supposed to have the ability to do everything and be great at it all. Instead of specialists like say, Maia, most fighters would be equally comfortable in all areas, resulting in fights that were wholly comprised of free-flowing improvisation.

Aside from a scant few notable examples, that is hardly the case. What we’ve seen as young fighters have emerged on the scene to replace the old guard is that they are quite similar to their predecessors; they have preferences for one element of the game and fashion an approach that funnels the fight to their strengths.

Take, for instance, current middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who favors a high-output, power striking game. This above all us defines him as a fighter, and nearly everything he does in a fight encourages this kind of action. For example, despite his Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, he rarely goes for takedowns. He has attempted only six in his 12 UFC bouts, and his tries have actually slowed as he’s grown more comfortable and confident in what he does well. In his last four fights, which includes over 52 minutes of cage time, he hasn’t tried a single takedown.

The same holds true for former UFC bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt, who feels most confident in the standup and stays away from wrestling despite his decorated background, and even disdains the clinch.

Conversely, Covington prizes his wrestling game first and spends significant energy resources on takedowns and top control. In his last three fights, he has completed 26 takedowns.

While it is true that fighters are generally far better in all areas than they were a decade ago, it is also true that each one has a specific area that is his or her fighting identity, and that doesn’t appear likely to change.

Specialized training camps seem to be growing in popularity

A few years ago, super-camps were all the rage in MMA. There was Xtreme Couture, Team Jackson-Winkeljohn, Nova Uniao, American Kickboxing Academy and many more. It was woven deep enough into MMA fight culture that The Ultimate Fighter even produced a season that featured American Top Team against the Blackzilians in a camp vs. camp format.

While most of those super-camps still exist in some form, many of them have seen their profiles dim slightly while athletes opting for the more personal, customized attention offered by smaller camps have risen to the forefront.

Miocic is a great example of a fighter who has worked exclusively with a small gym that shepherded his rise to the top of the sport. Miocic first walked into Cleveland’s Strong Style MMA over a decade ago and never left. His UFC 220 challenger Francis Ngannou has taken a different approach to customizing his training, moving to Las Vegas and working with local coaches like Dewey Cooper, Jerome LeBanner and Vinny Magalhaes while continuing to have his Paris-based coach Fernand Lopez oversee his progress.

Whittaker has chosen to remain in Australia, where coaches from various gyms like Justin Fitzgerald (Stand Strong Boxing) and Alex Prates and Mauricio Cavicchini (Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Smeaton Grange) oversee his development.

Cris “Cyborg” Justino trains her boxing with Jason Parillo, her jiu-jitsu with Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles Maciel, and her wrestling with former UFC champ Tito Ortiz. Along the way, she brings in top-notch partners like boxing champs Claressa Shields and Cecilia Braekhus.

Brian Ortega trains his jiu-jitsu with Rener Gracie and his boxing with James Luhrsen. Volkan Oezdemir trains with Combat Club in Florida. The list goes on.

For a time it seemed that super camps would come to dominate the major MMA landscape. But while super camps serve a valuable purpose of centralizing training in one place, they are not for everyone. Some fighters want to hear different voices and to work with different partners on a more regular basis. As knowledge has been shared around the world, the number of smaller quality camps has exploded, offering fighters more room for customizing their experience to their preferences.

Some of these trends will continue into 2018, but others will see pushback. Low leg kicks, for example, come with their share of risk, so we may see the pendulum swing on those sooner rather than later. Others, like increased fighter output, may be likely to become a more prominent feature in the next year and beyond. But all of that is an educated guess. In gyms all across the world, coaches and athletes are innovating and determining in secret what the future of the sport will look like, and the viewing public can’t wait to see it all unfold.