Sunday, 14 June 2015

Johnson vs Cormier: One Size Doesn't Fit All

Anthony Johnson has approached all of his recent fights in relatively the same way. He walked Davis, Nogueira, and Gustafsson down, using his hands to fend off punches and shots and hold them in place for his own blows. His fight against Cormier however, shone some light onto the pitfalls of that style.

Unlike Davis, Cormier didn't need to take him down or even shoot in on his hips to out-grapple him. Johnson's panic-inducing cage cutting footwork enabled him to back Cormier up to the fence at will, where he was promptly clinched, turned, and pinned against the fence. Johnson's aggressive style is perfect for creating exchanges, but not great for keeping an opponent at bay. Cormier was able to use those exchanges to get a hold of Johnson as he moved forward and over-committed to punches.

The prelims were slightly disappointing, but the main card was filled with action and exciting finishes. The flyweights Joseph Benavidez and John Moraga kicked off the PPV with a thrilling barn burner, before Andrei Arlovski and Travis Browne knocked it out of the water.

Trading hooks without an adequate guard is a pervasive flaw in the defense of MMA fighters. Two fighters will miss with simultaneous right hands and follow up by standing in place and hammering a left hook with little protection for their chin other than the hope of landing first. Sergio Pettis recently got knocked out due to this in a fight he was otherwise dominating.

Andrei Arlovski presented a unique solution to this problem against Travis Browne. On two occasions in the fight, they both missed with right hands and were in position to trade hooks. Browne would come back with the hook, but Arlovski threw a shorter backfist that intercepted Browne’s momentum and stunned him.

 The standing backfist doesn’t see much use because it’s less powerful than a punch, leaves you open, and is generally far less useful, but standing shoulder to shoulder with an opponent who’s throwing a hook is the perfect situation to utilize it – your hips are already loaded to whip the hand back, and his momentum is carrying him straight into your fist. The motion of the backfist naturally protects your chin as well by hiding it behind your shoulder.

A few years ago in MMA, it was safe to assume the guy winging his hand back after missing a punch had no idea what he was doing, but the effective use of backfists has been steadily growing. Chris Weidman's knockout of Anderson Silva was set up by a non-committal backfist and just a few months ago, Melvin Blumer knocked Jeff Curran out with one in a similar situation to the Arlovski/Browne fight.

John Makdessi's gameplan against Donald Cerrone was to stay just outside of his punches, but close enough that he could step in and counter his kicks.

He was able to effectively slip just out of range on Cerrone's punches, but Cerrone adjusted and started using a shifting left straight to cover more distance and take advantage of Makdessi's slipping straight back.

Makdessi had success getting inside behind a body jab and later added onto it with left hooks, but it became predictable and Cerrone started countering the level changes with kicks and knees.

Near the beginning of the fight, Cerrone threw out a jab and Makdessi reacted by pulling his head straight back before coming in with a counter. A short while later, Cerrone throws out another and immediately follows it up with a headkick to take advantage of Makdessi's reaction.

The finish comes as Cerrone throws out a jab that Makdessi parries and a low kick that Makdessi reaches down to catch as it retracts. Makdessi fails to catch the kick and Cerrone fires off a headkick as soon as his foot touches down. Makdessi isn't able to get his arm up in time to defend his head and eats the kick right on his jaw with an open mouth, breaking his jaw and forcing him to call off the fight.

Chris Weidman came out and immediately took the center of the octagon against Vitor Belfort, using his typical methods to force an opponent to the cage - feinting, kicks, and his double right hand.

Weidman attempted a takedown as Belfort circled and swung a left hand, but Belfort was able to shift his stance, and with it, his weight, forcing Weidman to shoot past his center of gravity and throwing him into the cage.

Belfort misses with a lead straight and flurries, but Weidman does a good job of covering up and avoiding damage. Belfort only lands a few clean punches in this exchange, as Weidman is able to block many of the shots on his forearms and tie Belfort up.

Weidman paws at Belfort to set up a straight right, but Belfort counters over the top.

Both men meet hands and miss with a straight, then Weidman covers Belfort's lead hand and jabs over top of it as soon as Belfort moves it to throw a hook.

Weidman shoots in on Belfort's hips and steps out with his rear leg to finish by circling around, pulling Vitor's base out from under him. This marks the beginning of the end for Belfort, as the fight becomes a one-sided thrashing once it hits the ground, with Weidman pulling off the first ground and pound TKO in a title fight since Jon Jones dispatched an over-matched Chael Sonnen two years ago.

Daniel Cormier had trouble landing on Anthony Johnson early in their fight, as Johnson kept his hands square and open in the path of his punches to intercept them.

Johnson sent Cormier flying with a huge overhand early in the first round. He steps in behind a jab and Cormier bends back at the waist to avoid it. Johnson hops further in with an overhand and instead of ducking or angling out, Cormier moves straight back. He's bent too far backwards to just step back, with all his weight on his rear leg, so he steps back with his lead leg to momentarily take the weight off his rear leg, causing him to eat the overhand as his legs come together and leaving him badly out of position to take a punch. Johnson follows up with wild punches and Cormier is able to duck an overhand and catch Johnson over-committing as he slips around to the back.

After spending most of the first round in the clinch carrying Cormier's weight, Johnson comes out for the second round and counters a body kick with a headkick of his own. Cormier throws a left hook but Johnson stuffs his shoulder and ducks it, before stiff-arming his head away and slamming his foot into it. He continues using his hands to keep Cormier away while slamming kicks into him, but Cormier catches one and runs him into the cage. Johnson spends the rest of the round on his back and has difficulty standing up when the round ends due to fatigue from Cormier's smothering control and perhaps dizziness from some of the brutal ground and pound Cormier landed late in the round.

In the third round, Johnson backed Cormier to the fence before missing a couple shots and trying to grapple with him, even briefly taking him down, before he stood back up and pinned Johnson to the cage. Although he was exhausted, he still displayed very good takedown defense. Here he demonstrates incredible balance as Cormier elevates his leg, then as Cormier shoots in on his hips he immediately digs an underhook and crossfaces to stand Cormier up and keep him off the hips.

Johnson is so exhausted by this point that he can do little more than hold Cormier against the cage and Cormier sprawls, takes the back, and finishes with a choke.

The quality that makes fighters like Weidman, Jones, and Aldo so great is that they tailor their strategy to fit the opponent. Johnson using the same gameplan fight after fight makes him a challenge to be solved, albeit an incredibly dangerous challenge capable of stopping any man, rather than a fighter capable of adapting to whatever an opponent throws at him.

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