Monday, 22 May 2017

Wladimir Klitschko and the long man's defense

Wladimir Klitschko put on one of the better performances of his recent career in a losing effort to Anthony Joshua, partly due to the strength of his defence. Join us as we explore the principles and concepts that make his long defensive guard so effective.


It was the trio of Muhammad Ali, Joe Fraser, and George Foreman that ushered in the golden era of Heavyweight boxing in the 70s. Since then, the popularity and talent of the Heavyweight division has dwindled and the lower weight classes have come into prominence.

A new Heavyweight star was created recently however, as the modern iteration of the Heavyweight division saw its magnum opus. Anthony Joshua went to war with Wladimir Klitschko, taking the early rounds and surviving a Klitschko resurgence to pick up the knockout in the 11th round.

The fight itself was rife with narratives. There was the grizzled vet, the old lion near the end of his career rallying in what may be his last performance to give the young up and comer all he could handle. There was the prospect's potential coming to fruition on a grand stage, proving he could deal with adversity and dig deep, not to mention the proverbial passing of the torch. But there's one area I want to focus on in particular - Wladimir Klitschko's defensive system.

Tall, rangy fighters often develop a unique defensive system that focuses on making optimal use of their length. In contrast to the short, stocky build that lends itself to a tight guard, a lanky build allows one to make better use of their extended hands on defense.

These guards typically focus around parrying punches or stuffing them at the source with extended hands, as well as disruptions such as stiff-arms and cross faces to manipulate the opponent's weight and maintain distance. Exceptions exist of course, and occasionally you'll see a lengthy in-fighter or a short fighter who looks to maximize his reach (Luke Barnatt and John Makdessi come to mind respectively), but generally, the trend holds true.

This particular type of defense comes with its own set of drawbacks. The first thing a tall fighter learns when starting to strike is that he can prevent his sparring partners from coming close to him by extending his hands. Stiff-arms and frames are a great tool, but they do not make a complete defensive system. The inexperienced tall man that relies too heavily on these tools will often find himself eating bombs over top of his extended hands.

James Vick demonstrates the perils of playing that "handsy" game at an inappropriate range.

In addition, the tall fighter's distance can become a sort of safety net - instead of learning to see the punches coming and reacting to them individually, he may fall into the habit of resorting to a catch-all defense to get himself back at a comfortable range.

Even the greats aren't exempt from this problem, as the catch-all defense is a notable habit in the game of Jon Jones, one of MMA's greatest fighters. Jones doesn't have the eyes to consistently react to the strikes individually, so when pressed he'll lean back, extend his lead hand, cover up with his rear, and back out of range.

The problem with this tactic is that it's predictable. If your opponent shows the same response to anything you give them, you know the same openings are going to be there before you even start throwing. Wladimir Klitschko represents a final, evolved form of that tall man's defensive system. He's developed a deep repertoire of tools and knows how to maximize those tools to make optimum use of his reach.

Klitschko spent most of the fight keeping his lead leg either lined up with or slightly outside Joshua's lead leg. This maximizes the distance between them, making the jab a more prominent weapon, and the rear straight more difficult to land for either man without first taking an angle to the inside.

He would also disrupt Joshua's jab by prodding and pushing at his lead hand, as well as holding his lead arm across himself so their forearms would cross, impeding the path of either man's jab. This invites the imagery of fencers with crossed swords, each trying to poke and prod and create an opening for a kill-shot while denying their opponent any.

When Joshua bit and jabbed while Klitschko was holding his forearm across his body, he'd simply raise his arm up to deflect the blow over his head.

Klitschko spent most of the fight positioning himself in a way that lessens the threat of the straight from either man, but when he wanted to throw his own, he'd thrust his lead hand out as a feint or a hand-trap to distract Joshua while stepping toward his center line to take the angle necessary to land it. When Joshua took an angle toward Klitschko's center-line to open up his own straight, Klitschko would look to pivot away and reset his distance.

Klitschko uses that concept of a catch-all defense himself, but for him, it isn't the static crutch that it can become for less experienced strikers. When his opponent presses and he wants to get back to his range, he'll extend his lead hand in front of him and turn his rear forearm up to create a barrier in front of his face. The lead shoulder covers his chin on his left side and his rear forearm covers the right side of his face. His distance protects him from the threat of rear uppercuts and body shots, though a lead uppercut could sneak through his guard.

What makes this a useful tool for Klitschko rather than a restriction is his adaptability. He doesn't simply throw his hands up and lock himself into it while backing up, he has the ability to see the punches coming and react, as while as to vary his hand position based on his opponent's relative position and the weapons they're most likely to use given the circumstances.

When he had his preferred distance established with his lead foot occupying the same line as Joshua's, he would turn his rear forearm up and stick it straight out, creating a barrier right in front of his face. When Joshua took an angle to the inside, Klitschko's rear hand would drift outwards, preventing Joshua from hooking around his forearm.

This sequence perfectly encapsulates what Klitschko was trying to do with his defense. Joshua parries a jab and comes in with a lead hook, and Klitschko catches it on his forearm. Joshua enters again and uses a throwaway lead hook to set up his rear hand, and Klitschko sees it coming and rolls his lead shoulder up to protect his chin.

Klitschko also makes excellent use of frames. Note how he takes the lead hand away by parrying it with his rear hand or getting his rear forearm inside of it and tying it up. With his lead hand taken away and Klitschko's stiff-arm or cross face on him, Joshua has few options. Klitschko's lead shoulder is raised, covering his chin from any straights or rear hooks, while his frame prevents Joshua from transferring weight onto his front foot to throw them anyway.

Both clips end with Klitschko using his frame to break Joshua's balance and push him back. Framing benefits from longer limbs and is universal in its application to combat sports.

You'll see sequences in wrestling of one wrestler attempting to clear the frames of his opponent to get a clear path onto his hips, while in Muay Thai you'll see fighters stuff knees and round kicks by pushing on the shoulders of their opponent to prevent them from transferring weight into the strike.

Part of what makes Klitschko so excellent defensively is his knowledge of the drawbacks of his defensive system. No system is perfect, and choosing a defensive system requires careful consideration of the benefits and drawbacks, and how they fit into your game. When you know what openings your guard is presenting, you can devise the ways an opponent is most likely to go about attacking those openings, and this knowledge can inform your attempts to mitigate those opportunities.

Klitschko's hand position leaves him wide open to body shots, but he has tactics to mitigate that opening. Here Joshua enters with a lead hook to the body and Klitschko pivots away from it, taking off the impact, and ties him up in the clinch.

The tall fighter's guard is usually prioritized for long range, but closing distance can be just as important as maintaining it. No matter how good an out fighter one is - how skilled he is at maintaining distance through footwork and sticking his opponent on the end of a jab - he's bound to face an opponent that can force him in the pocket at some point. Tying them up in the clinch is one way to deal with this threat, which is why many out fighters like to be all the way out or all the way in.

Jon Jones employed this strategy against Daniel Cormier, forcing him to walk through body shots on his way to the pocket and tying him up in the clinch when he got there.

Tall MMA fighters or Nak Muays can utilize elbows in the pocket, but Klitschko only has his fists on long arms, which can be ungainly to swing around in the pocket. Whenever an opponent changes levels to move in on him or crowd him, Klitschko will attempt to tie them up and smother their offense. Ducking down is especially risky as Klitschko will lean his weight over his opponent's back in order to tire him out.

Anthony Joshua hurt Klitschko numerous times in this fight, but his most successful offense came in flurries by using frames to prevent Klitschko from grabbing onto him in order to catch a break.

Having recently been stunned by a lead hook, Klitschko desperately seeks the clinch, ducking in on Joshua's hips and coming up to wrap around his head. Joshua catches a collar tie with his left hand and uses his forearm to create distance to throw more punches, denying Klitschko the refuge he seeks in the clinch. Throughout the sequence, he uses his forearms, elbows, and shoulders to create barriers between his body and Klitschko's face.

Later on in the fight, Klitschko began cross-parrying Joshua's jab in an attempt to counter with his straight. Parries are typically done by sweeping the punch across the face in a short motion with a flick of the wrist on the same side as the punch (so right-hand parries the jab of an orthodox opponent), while cross-parries are done by reaching across one's body and slapping the punch aside with the opposite hand.

Cross-parries create a perfect line to land the straight by clearing the opponent's hand and shoulder out of the way, but they also expose you to your opponent's straight by taking away the hand that would be guarding against it. Despite the potential danger, cross-parrying fit with Klitschko's tactic of carrying his lead hand across his body to deny Joshua's jab and put his lead shoulder in the way of his chin.

Early in the 11th round, Joshua flashed his jab to draw the cross-parry from Klitschko before immediately smashing in a clean straight as Klitschko's lead hand chased the jab. This straight stunned Klitschko and gave Joshua the confidence to up his offensive output.

Later in the round, Joshua again flashed his jab to draw the cross-parry, but this time he slipped the counter and weaved out to the side, catching Klitschko behind the head with his forearm on a hook and moving his head down into a monstrous uppercut. This marked the beginning of the end for Klitschko as Joshua soon followed up and put him on the canvas.

The finish from here was elementary as Klitschko was out of it after that uppercut landed, but the image of Klitschko leaning against the ropes, getting shellacked by finishing blows from Joshua illustrates another important point about tall fighters. When in danger, it's often a natural reaction for a tall fighter to pull his weight back over his heels and stand straight up, or even bend backwards slightly. Pulling the weight back is great when they have their distancing perfect and are able to make the punches fall short of their face, but it's often used in panic when an opponent closes distance or when they're taking damage on the inside.

The problem with standing up tall when an opponent can hit you is that you're maximizing the surface area of your body that they can target, as well as removing the spring in your stance that allows you to take punches without getting hurt. Bending the knees and getting low minimizes the openings you're presenting and puts you in a stronger position to defend punches.

 Alexander Gustafsson has been continually plagued by a habit of standing straight up in dangerous situations.

Klitschko's length served him well on the outside and he did a good job of bending his legs and getting low on the inside throughout the fight, but instinct took over after he was rocked by the uppercut. The fight ended as he was trapped in the corner with his feet squared, attempting to pull back from the punches and giving Joshua free access to his body and head in doing so.

Length generally provides a great benefit for a fighter's defense. It allows him to attack from a range in which his opponent can't hit him and maximizes the utility of tactics that require some extension of the hands such as parries, smothering hand traps, and frames.

By carrying his hands out in front of him in a long guard, a lengthy fighter can suppress opportunities for his opponent's attack before they even begin. However, it is crucial to be aware of the openings your guard presents and to build strategies for mitigating your opponent's ability to exploit them (and if you don't think your guard has those openings, you'll eventually have the pleasure of discovering them mid-fight).

For Klitschko, this fight may mark his last hurrah after 20 years in the sport, many of those years spent at the very top of it. At the age of 41, it's nothing short of incredible that he was able to present one of the best versions of himself and put on such a closely contested match with an elite boxer nearly half his age.

As for Joshua, this fight is only the beginning. He's proved all the hype was deserved and that he belongs up there with the elite. A fight between him and Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder seems like the way to go from here, although Klitschko may choose to exercise a rematch clause in his contract.