Sunday, 24 April 2016

UFC 197 Breakdown: Killing the Contenders

Perhaps the only story in MMA more intriguing than the ongoing UFC vs Conor McGregor power struggle is the redemption of a former champion.  The fact that Jones was never bested for his title, rather stripped due to his own actions, only increases the tension.  UFC 197 served as part one of Jones' redemption story as he turned in a workmanlike performance against OSP, rarely ceding control of the fight but also taking care not to venture too far outside his own comfort zone.  Part two will come at UFC 200 where he faces the reigning champ, Daniel Cormier.

Earlier on the card, Anthony Pettis faced Edson Barboza in a matchup that had striking enthusiasts drooling all over themselves from the moment it was announced. 

Pettis had trouble landing clean on Barboza all fight, and this was due to a large disparity in the craft of their entries and setups.  Pettis spent most of the fight trying to hide a straight or an overhand behind a jab, or simply stepping in with the overhand, while Barboza was mixing up his targets, milling and feinting, doubling up, and using complex combinations.  Barboza was catching and parrying Pettis' jab and countering with his own all fight, whereas Pettis had his guard manipulated and his reactions exploited by the varied offense of Barboza.

In the first sequence, Pettis explodes into a straight, aiming to dart off to his side, but he freezes for a moment and squares himself up in front of Barboza, allowing him to get off a combination.  In the second sequence, Pettis throws his weight into an overhand, leaving himself terribly out of position when it's slipped.

Pettis enters predictably, leaping forward in a straight line to throw the overhand.  Barboza pops him with a jab, ducks the overhand, and counters with an overhand left over top of Pettis' outstretched arm.  Pettis had success at one point distracting Barboza high and kicking him in the body, but he neglected to go back to it, preferring to head hunt instead.

Barboza mixed up his targets beautifully, using the body and legs to set up head strikes and vice versa.  Here he feints a jab, moving Pettis' guard up, then feints a jab to the body, moving his guard down and dropping Pettis' level to set up an overhand.

Combination work was an important factor in Barboza's success.  In the first sequence,   he changes his level and folds over his left hip.  Expecting a straight down the middle, Pettis covers up high, and Barboza digs a hook into his body.  Pettis tries to counter with a jab, opening up his body for the kick.  In the second sequence, Pettis tries to stiff-arm Barboza into a straight right, but Barboza slaps the arm away, goes to the body, and back up with a hook that sneaks through Pettis' loose guard.

Barboza has some of the craftiest leg kick setups in MMA.  In the first sequence, he picks his leg up, drawing the check from Pettis, and kicks as soon as it touches down, catching Pettis as he plants his foot.  In the second sequence, Pettis advances with an overhand and Barboza pivots off, putting him at a strong angle and squaring Pettis up, and hides the leg kick behind a lead hook.

There was a notable contrast in the footwork of both men.  Pettis took deep, long steps and would circle for 3 or 4 steps in one direction, before switching up and doing the same in the opposite direction.  This allowed Barboza to anticipate his movement and use it to his advantage.  In contrast, Barboza's short, tight pivots made it difficult for Pettis to predict where he was going.

Barboza chewed up the lead leg off Pettis with inside leg kicks throughout the fight.  Pettis' wide, consistent steps allowed Barboza to time them as he stepped forward.  Barboza would time the kicks just as Pettis' lead leg touched down, breaking his stance and preventing him from checking.  He also found success with the inside leg kick as a counter off the back foot to break Pettis' balance as he advanced.

Pettis' predictable footwork allowed Barboza to lead him into kicks.

In the first sequence, Pettis breaks his stance and begins to circle to his left.  He steps out with his left leg, squaring his stance, and must bring his right leg in to recompose it.  Recognizing this, Barboza times it with a step to the outside, shortening the path of his overhand and catching Pettis off guard.  In the second sequence, Pettis takes wide, consistent steps to his left, and Barboza times a step with a jab and pivot toward Pettis' center line.

Barboza's short pivots allowed him to take angles on Pettis to find offensive openings and break the flow off Pettis' combinations.  It's much harder to anticipate where Barboza is going because his pivots are tighter and faster, but also because he doesn't maintain a consistent rhythm.  While Pettis would continue circling at the same tempo, Barboza mixes up the speed and pacing of his steps.  Here he takes a short, slow step and pivot, before launching into a jab and pivoting off at full speed.

This loss sets Pettis back quite a bit.  Coming in on a two fight skid, Barboza seemed like a must-win for him.  The dos Anjos loss was a case of an elite opponent imposing his will and taking Pettis out of his game, and the Alvarez loss was a dubious decision under similar circumstances, but Barboza engaged Pettis in his own game and put on a clinic.  For Barboza, this is without a doubt the biggest win and most impressive performance of his career.  At age 30, with 7 years of professional competition under his belt, Barboza is starting to enter his prime and emerging as a potential contender.

Almost everyone expected Demetrious Johnson to defeat Henry Cejudo, but almost no one expected him to destroy the Olympic gold medalist wrestler in the clinch inside of 3 minutes.

The fight started off on an interesting note, with Cejudo immediately taking the center of the Octagon and DJ moving around on the outside, picking away with leg kicks.  Johnson has settled into the role of pressure fighter in recent bouts, and it's a role he's taken to very well, but this fight serves as a reminder that Johnson can do everything well.  For his part, Cejudo's pressure game was technically sound, cutting off the cage well, pivoting on his back foot, and using kicks to cut off DJ's lateral movement.

The first clinch exchange was competitive and demonstrated the incredible skill of both men in the clinch.  After moving around on the outside for a while, DJ threw a straight left and struck into the clinch.

1 - DJ strikes into the clinch.  Cejudo immediately ducks for underhooks, but DJ is ready, slipping in his left underhook and getting his right forearm in between their bodies.
2 - They move to over/under and Cejudo pulls his left underhook out, looking for wrist or bicep control
3 - DJ immediately swims his hand outside and secures wrist control
4 - Cejudo takes his overhooking hand that he was using to block DJ's hip and threads it under DJ's right arm to strip off his wrist control.
5 - DJ pulls his wrist out of Cejudo's grip, allowing Cejudo to take inside bicep control
6 - DJ swims his arm right back in to take inside control. (Gfy)

After this, they trade inside control and throw a few knees before DJ breaks with an overhand.

Their next clinch exchange went better for Cejudo.  DJ throws a knee and steps forward, squaring his stance up.  Cejudo backs his hips out, encouraging DJ to come forward, and launches into an inside trip.  DJ step his left leg out to avoid it, but as his stance is already square, lengthening it further compromises his balance and it's unclear whether the trip caught his foot or his lack of balance and Cejudo's upper body pressure caused him to fall.  On the ground, DJ establishes inside bicep control and uses that and a butterfly hook to create enough space to get his feet on the hips, before kicking Cejudo away.  Note how DJ gives a small initial push, baiting Cejudo to push back and load his weight onto DJ's legs, before kicking him up and off.

Cejudo tries to push DJ to the cage, but DJ pulls Cejudo's head past him and circles away.  Cejudo follows him and manages to square him up, but DJ immediately grabs a double collar tie and changes directions, circling this time to his right and hurting Cejudo with a knee.

 DJ likes to strike from a single collar tie on one side and inside bicep control on the other.  His skill at finding openings in the clinch is unparalleled in MMA, except perhaps by the man in our next fight, Jon Jones.  Cejudo reaches up to contest the bicep control and DJ uses it as an opportunity to slam a knee into the exposed midsection.

The finish starts off the same way, with Cejudo reaching up and DJ digging in a knee.  This brings Cejudo's left arm back down, and DJ grabs a double collar tie and elbows him in the face while angling out to keep Cejudo off-balance and turn him into the strikes.  Cejudo's hand comes back up to guard his face and DJ controls the outside of his bicep, pulling his arm away from his body to create openings for knees.  Hurt by the knees, Cejudo lowers his right hand to guard his body and DJ immediately moves his right hand back up to Cejudo's head and pulls it into a knee coming up Cejudo's right side.  Cejudo wobbles backwards and DJ follows, measuring the distance with his right hand and sending a straight left down the pipe.  Cejudo ducks into the clinch and DJ destroys him with a knee to the body, before finishing up with cursory ground and pound.

After being out for a over year, Jones looked a bit rusty.   He didn't show off any new aspects of his game, but he did impressively dominate a solid fighter in OSP.  Ultimately, this fight gave Jones an opportunity to shake off the cobwebs and get back into the feel of the Octagon before he attempts to retake the belt.

Jones has shown himself to be vulnerable to leg kicks in the past and OSP had some success with them early, but Jones eventually caught one and that was the last time OSP committed to a leg kick.  OSP attempted some body kicks as well, but gave them up after Jones caught a few.  Instead of abandoning the round kicks altogether, it would've been sensible for OSP to abandon the naked kicks and start setting them up with his hands.

Much has been said about the tendency of MMA fighters to move their head diligently outside of striking range but keep it bolt upright and stationary in close.  OSP does that with his feet.  He'll back out of range and circle a quarter around the Octagon, but he spent far too much time standing stationary in front of Jones.  Alexander Gustafsson demonstrated the stifling effect of lateral movement on Jones' linear kicks and OSP would have been wise to take heed.  Throughout the fight, Jones skewered his lead leg with oblique kicks, low-line side kicks, and even a flying stomp.  The problems with standing still in front of Jones compound, as the kicks reduce your ability to move and make you even more stationary.

This is a particularly crafty one.  Jones shifts forward from orthodox to southpaw and back, before stepping through with his right leg and throwing a shifting side kick to the knee.

Similar to Pettis, OSP's habit of circling predictably at range allowed Jones to capitalize, leading him into round kicks, spinning back kicks, and a spinning axe kick (oh my!).  He would often break his stance and cross his feet while circling predictably one way, allowing Jones to anticipate exactly where he was going and attack without fear of a counter.

OSP spent most of the fight trying to snipe at Jones with single punches.  When fighting someone like Jones, who sets himself up outside of punching range and is incredibly skilled at maintaining it, leaping in with single punches just isn't a viable gameplan.  Jones takes a step back and OSP's punch misses.  OSP spent too much time in Jones' range and not enough time trying to work through it.  He would stay on the outside in kicking range, then try to explode in with a punch.  This often left him overextended and out of position to follow up.  OSP's length gave Jones a bit of trouble in gauging distance early, but once he settled in and found his range he was able to make most of OSP's lone shots miss.

Where OSP did find success was with his combinations, which makes it all the more puzzling that he threw so few.   While Jon Jones has developed into one of the best fighters to ever compete in MMA, his striking still shows signs of being a little green.  Jones has difficulty seeing and reacting to individual strikes and tends to rely on a universal defense.  He leans his body back, extends his lead hand (and fingers), covers up with his rear, and backs up.  He's getting better at slipping and parrying, but he uses this universal defense often in response to any strike.  When OSP advanced with combinations, Jones would lean his body back, extend his lead hand, cover up with his rear, and back up, allowing OSP to prompt a reaction and find the openings not protected by that guard.

OSP advances with a jab and a straight that nails Jones on the chin as he backs up.  He follows up with a couple sloppy hooks and lets Jones off the hook as he walks away.

OSP flicks a couple jabs in Jones' face while sidestepping.  Jones' reaction leaves him squared up and hunched over at the waist, with his head staring straight at the ground, and OSP follows up with... a noncommittal straight and uppercut.  Jones was wide open for a knee, a kick to the leg or body, an uppercut up the middle, hooks to the side of his head, or a takedown as he came up, but OSP failed to capitalize.

The main thing that separates fighters like Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson from the rest is their skill in transitions.  Those little "in between" moments marking changes in range and phase, and their ability to blend the boundaries of striking and grappling.  Jones demonstrates his transitional brilliance here, ducking into the clinch as OSP advances, hitting a perfectly timed footsweep as OSP steps back, and using OSP's get up to land a knee to the body and turn him into the cage.

Jones steps in, smothering OSP's arms and using his wrist control to limit OSP's options and gauge his distance on an elbow.  OSP's can't defend the left side of his face, as his broken arm hangs limply at his side.

OSP's size and athleticism allowed him to break away from the clinch, but Jones still found ways to demonstrate why he's one of the best clinch fighters in MMA.

Jones grabs a collar tie off a kick and uses the collar tie and bicep control to land an elbow, before grabbing OSP's wrist, pinning it down, and pulling him into a knee.

Jones flows between positions in the clinch, but he uses double wrist control as a sort of base of operations from which he can manipulate his opponents hand positioning to set up different attacks.  He lets go of OSP's right wrist and OSP, expecting an elbow or hook around the side, tightens his hands to his ear, but Jones comes up the middle with a back elbow.  He moves back to double wrist control and pins OSP's arms to his chest, before slicing an elbow over OSP's right arm.  He'll also use it to set up takedowns.

Both of the champions on this card (whether in title or spirit) dominated their competition, but their manner of victory surprised many fans.  Jon Jones did what he had to do and got the job done.  He looked impressive and controlled the entire fight, making sure not to take any unnecessary risks and limiting the openings he presented, but it wasn't his greatest performance.  It didn't need to be though, as this fight serves to get Jones prepared for a meeting with Cormier at UFC 200.  Considered uninteresting by many for reasons I can never understand, Demetrious Johnson stole the show and silenced the haters, thrashing his challenger in the first round.  Johnson has now finished over half of his title fights, hopefully this incredible performance will boost his stock and increase his drawing power. 

OSP came out of the fight looking good - he went 5 hard rounds with one of the best to ever do it and landed some shots along the way.  Henry Cejudo came out in a decidedly worse position, but this loss could turn out to be a great thing for Cejudo.  As fast as his progression has been since joining the UFC, he's still in his 3rd year of professional competition.  Look for Cejudo to take his game back to the drawing board and learn from this fight, coming back stronger in the future.

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