Archive | April, 2012

Is Alistair Overeem the best striker in the heavyweight division? (Part 1)

26 Apr

As you all may or may not know, Alistair Overeem has tested positive for a significantly high ratio of Testosterone/Epitestosterone (14:1, vs. the normal human’s 1:1 or at most 3:1), an almost surefire indicator of steroid usage.  Ignore his ridiculous excuse of anti-inflammatory usage or his oft-repeated denials of cheating, this is as clear as it gets that Overeem’s ridiculous size growth (seriously, look at the picture) is more a result of pharmaceutical grade “help” than horse meat.

(don’t act like you weren’t surprised….)

That being said, let’s not forget that Alistair Overeem, cheater or not, has legitimate skills unique among the heavyweight division, and has made a strong case for being the best striker in the heavyweight division.  But not for the reason you might think!

Below I’ve listed some key strengths that I’ve seen in Overeem’s striking game.

Strengths:

Power:

With Overeem’s impressive gain in size, the one area where he’s demonstrated notable improvement is his strength and his overall ability to manhandle his opponents.  Take a look at the GIF below for an example from his recent tussle with the limited heavyweight brawler, Brett Rogers.

(Overeem introducing Brett Rogers to Muay Thai, StrikeForce Heavy Artillery, 2010)

As Brett comes charging in with a looping left hook, Overeem slips to the left and attempts to counter with an overhand right, landing on Rogers’ shoulder.  Going with the momentum of the move, Overeem transitions to a common Muay Thai  clinch technique, pushing your opponent’s upper body in one direction while using the knee to “trap” the lower body from following suit.  This has the effect of throwing your opponent off balance, or (at best) throwing him off his feet completely.  This particular technique is heavily reliant on upper body strength in addition to technique, and is what I would consider a “big man” move.  What is especially impressive about the above sequence is that not only does Overeem perform the technique with impressive crispness, but he throws Rogers so hard that he completely loses his balance and does a Lesnar-esque pirouette.   Remember, this is a 263 pound man that Overeem is throwing around casually like a sack of potatoes.  Such impressive strength serves him well in conjunction with his other key strength…..

Clinch:


Much has been made of Overeem’s K-1 (or Kickboxing) credentials, as well as his win in the K-1 GP of 2010 (historically the crowning achievement of heavyweight kickboxers, although this will likely change in the future).  This has led many to think of Overeem as a superlative striker…which is to say, having the best punches and kicks in the business.  While he is certainly capable in this particular realm (more on that in a second), what really lead to his victories in kickboxing (and MMA as well)  is actually his immense skill in the clinch.

For those unfamiliar with this term, the clinch (in a striking context) refers to when two combatants are locked in tight (as in less than 6 inches apart) and are engaged in a battle with (mostly) their upper body to attain dominant position….”stand-up wrestling” as it were.    Of course, the combat sport ruleset heavily dictates what is considered a “dominant position” in clinch fighting.  In boxing, the main objective is to tie up the opponent’s arms, whereas in Muay Thai, the dominant position is considered the “plum” (see the picture below), where elbows and knees can be landed with impunity and strong control of your opponent can be maintained.

(The best in the business demonstrating the “thai plum” in MMA)

Of course the MMA ruleset further confuses the rules of maintaining dominant position in the clinch by adding in wrestling and Judo, where dominant positions are heavily varied and reliant on the ability to take an opponent down.

Overeem’s clinch game draws heavily from both his MMA base as well as his more recent Muay Thai training, such that he doesn’t necessarily look for the Thai Plum before unleashing his brutal knees.  Below, a number of example gifs/fights with appropriate commentary.

(Classic Fight: Alistair Overeem vs. Vitor Belfort 1, PRIDE Middleweight Tournament: Elimination Round 2005)

Even before Overeem morphed into the steroid-fueled specimen we know today as “Ubereem”, he was heavily dependent on his clinch-based attack on his feet.  Case in point, watch the above fight with the vaunted striker Vitor Belfort.  Almost immediately, as Belfort looks to engage with his flashy (and fast!) hands, Overeem marches right in to secure the clinch and begins delivering brutal knees to Vitor’s midsection (0:53 mark), wearing him down for the kill.  It is a similar maneuver that leads to the fight ending submission (10:26 mark).  After some grinding ground and pound from Overeem, a standup (and yellow card! (10% deduction from the fighter’s purse)) leads to Vitor coming in a little reckless.  With Vitor charging in, Overeem easily secures a single collar tie (basically thai plum with only one hand) and delivers a pinpoint knee to Belfort’s chin, staggering him and causing him to shoot for a poor double leg takedown while leaving his head exposed.  Overeem takes the opportunity to latch on a vicious guillotine (his specialty submission), handing Belfort his first (and only!) technical submission loss ever in MMA.

Even when making his successful transition from MMA to K-1, Overeem has made his clinch game as the centerpiece of his striking.  Watch his early contests with Peter Aerts or Remy Bonjasky;  rather than relying on kickboxing combinations, Overeem seeks to bully his opponents around by throwing them from the clinch with his brute strength or delivering brutal knees from any clinch position, more or less wearing his opponent down with his size and power.  He would carry this aspect of his game into the K-1 World Grand Prix 2009 with shocking results (see the gif).

(Overeem sending Ewerton Texeira into another dimension with a brutal knee from the clinch, K-1 World GP 2009)

Upon his arrival to the UFC vs. Brock Lesnar, we see that Overeem is very aware of his advantage in this phase of combat, and has continued to make it the centerpiece of his game.

(Overeem performing some “surgery” to Lesnar, UFC 141 2011)

When this fight was first announced, many believed that Overeem would seek to maintain his distance and play the traditional kickboxing game with the gunshy Lesnar.  From the start of the fight however, we see that Overeem marches right into Lesnar and grabs a dominant position to deliver a brutal knee to Lesnar’s midsection, and folding the big man in half with a second knee.  Many wondered why Lesnar didn’t immediately bullrush Overeem to the cage and try for a takedown.  In my opinion, those knees in the first round were the reason why Lesnar hesitated to shoot or clinch with Overeem.  Lesnar was very wary of getting hit again in that position, thus nullifying his best chance to put Overeem on his back and winning the fight.  Of course, we all know how this fight ended;  Overeem drops Brock with a killer liver kick and pounds him for the TKO.

Although likely irrelevant at this point, I believe Alistair would have utilized that very same strategy vs. Junior Dos Santos.  Rather than playing the traditional distance game where Overeem would have to rely on his powerful kicks to keep JDS’s combinations at bay, Alistair would have pressed JDS up against the cage to deliver knees and elbows to wear him down en route to a later round TKO or submission.  This is a time honored strategy in combat sports, and is perhaps the most effective way to defeat a power-punching combination machine like JDS.  Look toward Evander Holyfield/Mike Tyson, or Randy Couture/Vitor Belfort 1 for good historical examples of this strategy’s devastating effectiveness.

Crisp Boxing Technique:

First, a little history lesson:

Historically, K-1 has differentiated itself from Muay Thai through it’s focus on punches and kicks.  Whereas Muay Thai has a strong component of clinch-fighting and knees, K-1 more or less discouraged this phase of stand-up with fast referee breaks in the clinch and no elbows.  Enter Buakaw Por Pramuk, perhaps the #2/#3 striker in the world at his weight class of 70Kg, and certainly one of the most famous Muay Thai powerhouses in the world.  With his arrival in K-1 Max (welterweight) Grand Prix 2004,  Buakaw demonstrated the effectiveness of a strong clinch game, manhandling such top K-1 talent as Albert Kraus and Japanese heartthrob Masato.  In an effort to protect their favored fighters from this Thai menace, K-1 instituted a series of rule changes effectively banning clinch fighting, culminating a ban on the Thai Plum in 2010, right before Overeem’s run to victory in the Grand Prix.

Of course, such a rule would heavily limit Overeem’s skill set in the K-1 circuit, which has convinced him to develop his game to include very crisp boxing.

Overeem has always had good technique with his punches, as seen in this famous sequence from Dynamite 2008 against  K-1 bad boy Badr Hari, who is ranked in the top 3 among heavyweight kickboxers (regardless of style).

(Goodnight Sweet Prince, Dynamite 2008)

Note the perfect setup and technique of Overeem’s fight ending left hook: his right hand is in perfect position against his cheek, and he beautifully turns his left shoulder and waist over when throwing the punch.  The result is a technically precise and short counter hook that not only protects Overeem from Badr’s wild punch, but also allows him to land perfectly on Badr’s chin, leading to a one shot knockout.

Following the egregious K-1 rule change banning clinches, Overeem further worked on his boxing to incorporate head movement and precise counter striking…something he used to seal his entry into the K-1 World Grand Prix of 2010 in his fight against Ben Edwards.

(Overeem KOs Ben Edwards, K-1 World GP 2010 Qualifying 16)

OK, so this is not the “perfect” gif to illustrate my point, but I think you can see the gist of what I’m getting at.

Note the first knockdown in the sequence:  Ben Edwards throws an ill-advised right uppercut from way too far out with no setup, and Overeem responds by slipping to his left perfectly and uncorking a picture perfect overhand right to Edward’s chin.  What’s not shown is the first knockdown in the fight, when Overeem drops Edward with a right hand counterpunch by slipping one of Edward’s wild punches.  This is a great demonstration of one of the most underutilized (and most important!) skills in boxing: head movement.  The key to victory in striking is the commonly repeated idiom: “Hit and Don’t Get Hit”, and proper head movement is one method that can carry you to success.  Rather than moving your entire body (which, although appropriate, can sometimes be difficult to carry out and tiring to perform), a subtle movement to the left or right with your head and upper body can allow your opponent to miss his strike, and still leave you in position to land a counterpunch of your own.  Counterpunches can often have an increased effect on the opponent, as he/she likely is not expecting the blow…something that Overeem demonstrates to great effect.

The second knockdown also demonstrates Overeem’s developing insight into the boxing game.  When confronted with Ben Edwards blocking almost all his blows with his forearms, Alistair applies a simple but often overlooked technique: he simply pushes Edward’s gloves out of the way.  The subsequent right hook drops Edwards like a sack of bricks and ends the fight.

In relation to MMA, it is possible for Overeem to use his improved boxing technique and acumen to his advantage against Junior Dos Santos.  One criticism I have for JDS is his lack of defense;  when he starts throwing punches, he can forget to cover himself against counters, relying on the ferocity of his attack and handspeed to protect him.  Against someone like Overeem who has demonstrated decent head movement as well as strong counterpunching, that can be a recipe for disaster.

As you can see, Overeem clearly has demonstrated a bevy of advantages in the striking game, something that puts him above and beyond many other heavyweights.  In the next post, we’ll take a look at how his weaknesses bring him down to earth, and make it so that someone with less “pedigree” on paper could meet (and beat!) him in a striking match.

Battle of the Titans: Gracie Jiu Jitsu vs. The Lion’s Den

20 Apr

I finally had a little spare time to put together my second post, the long-promised look at a forgotten classic between a future legend of the sport and an underrated pioneer, Frank Shamrock vs. Allan Goes!

First, the fight itself:

Background:


The year was 1995, and the MMA revolution that we are so familiar with today had only just begun.  In the USA, Royce Gracie had cemented his place as a legend in the sport by dominating the first four UFCs, and had begun to spread the gospel of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to the masses.  In Japan, Rickson Gracie (Royce’s infinitely more skilled cousin) had tore through the Vale Tudo Japan tournament for the second year in a row, defeating the best Judo and Submission specialists that Japan had to offer.  In short, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was seen as the invincible art.

Still, MMA was in its infancy.  At the time, the UFC was unregulated and unskilled (with a few notable exceptions), and with PRIDE FC still two years from its debut, there was no home for mixed martial arts as we know it.  Enter the Pancrase league of Japan, the home of “proto-MMA”.

Originally founded as a venue where real (or “shoot style”) pro wrestling could be shown for the masses, it quickly grew in popularity with the Japanese.    Don’t be confused by the “pro-wrestling” moniker, the fights were as real as they could get, with matches ending by familiar techniques such as armbars, RNCs, leglocks, etc.   And for the most part, they were on the up and up….no predetermined outcomes here!   Famous fighters such as Ken and Frank Shamrock, Bas Rutten, and Vernon White got their start in this organization, years before becoming popular in the UFC.

The rule set was very different from what you might expect;   contestants were not allowed to strike at the face with a closed fist (relying on empty palms), and had to wear shinguards/kneepads for protection (with the unintended consequence of making leglocks much more devestating).  Striking on the ground was generally frowned upon by most competitors, and a fighter caught in a submission had the chance to use a “rope escape” (i.e. the fighter would touch the ring rope and the referee would separate and reset the fighters).   Not quite what we’re used to, but it allowed for very exciting fights.

The Fighters:

Frank Shamrock:

Forget the braces wearing commentator you see nowadays on Showtime, or even the broken down kickboxer that competed against Nick Diaz or Cung Le.  From 1997-2000, Frank Shamrock was known as the best mixed martial artist in the world.  He was the GSP before GSP, the Anderson Silva before Anderson Silva.  No one else in the world could combine kickboxing, wrestling and jiu jitsu, and nobody else was as dominant as he was, for as long as he was.

You may  have noticed that I said 1997 onwards he was considered the best….the Frank Shamrock in 1995 was still very much a developing fighter. Training with his (adopted) older brother’s fight team of The Lion’s Den, much of his training centered around catch wrestling, a grappling style predicated on athleticism and aggression.  Top control was heavily emphasized as well as submissions from any positions (leglocks being a noted specialty).  Unfortunately, Frank’s training methods were prehistoric; technique and conditioning was not emphasized, with most training sessions revolving around hour long grappling sessions at 100% intensity and little concern for safety.  Still, he was developing into a formidable grappler, beating Bas Rutten and Pancrase founder Minoru Suzuki en route to a 3-2 record at the time of this fight.

Allan Goes:

Although not nearly as legendary as Frank Shamrock, Allan Goes was a very skilled practicioner of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Getting his blackbelt under the legendary Carlson Gracie (along with contemporaries such as Mario Sperry and Murilo Bustamante),  he won numerous Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world championships as well as closed door Vale Tudo fights before making his “professional debut” in Pancrase against Frank Shamrock.  Despite his novice status in MMA, he was every bit an experienced and dangerous fighter, with skills honed on the street as well as in the ring.

Years later, he would help create Brazilian Top Team with founders Ricardo Liborio, Mario Sperry, and Murilo Bustamente, which in turn would create famous fighters such as Antonio Minotauro Nogueira and Ricardo Arona.

The Fight

Originally I was planning on having GIFs throughout my article to call out techniques, but due to some unexpected business I haven’t been able to finish them (not to mention I’m still learning how to make GIFS!).  Hopefully this weekend will be a little more fruitful….

In the meantime, a couple quick thoughts:

  • What is instantly apparent is the sharp contrast in styles between Shamrock and Goes.  Goes is methodical in his approach to every position, slowly securing proper position before attacking with a submission…in other words, textbook Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Within the first minute you see evidence of this: Goes locks down Frank Shamrock in his guard, keeping his posture broken down and preventing Frank from striking him (Goes had NO idea striking was more or less not allowed on the ground), and only going for a kimura after his position was secure.
  • Contrast Goes’ methodical strategy to the aggressive and athletic approach of Frank.  Rather than rely on technical superiority or leverage, Frank relies on pure athleticism to get out of bad positions (note how he reverses Goes kimura by basically exploding his hips to first roll away from Goes, and then back toward him to convince the more strategic Allan that the submission was unlikely to be finished.).  Furthermore, Frank demonstrates a complete willingness to sacrifice position for submission.  During two separate occasions, Frank sits back from inside Allan’s guard to attempt heel hooks, risking Allan escaping and then being in a dominant position.  This singleminded drive toward submissions is anathema to the stereotypical BJJ mantra of “position before submission”, emphasizing the importance of controlling your opponent above all else.
  • Both approaches toward grappling bore fruit in this match:  one of Shamrock’s numerous heel hooks (around the 6:00 mark) ended up breaking Allan’s ankle and forcing him to utilize a rope escape, while Goes’ methodical approach toward grappling allowed him to secure back mount and an easy rear naked choke (5:00 mark).  However, the real turning point is seen at the end of the match:  Frank Shamrock’s lack of physical conditioning and overly athletic grappling style ended up gassing him out, and Allan was only seconds away from securing a second RNC at the end of the match

Aftermath:


After a brutal and hard fought grappling match, Goes and Shamrock fought to a well deserved draw, as both grappling styles were highly comparable, despite what many modern day BJJ revisionists may have you believe.

Catch Wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu would continue to face one another in MMA numerous times in the future, with notable victories on both sides (Rickson Gracie putting Pancrase founder Masakatsu Funaki to sleep, and Kazushi Sakuraba beating four Gracies (2 by technical submission no less!) come to mind).  Nowadays, Catch Wrestling is a forgotten art next to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, with Josh Barnett the only notable practictioner among the MMA elite.  BJJ of course, has become a vital part of any fighter’s arsenal.

As for the fighters themselves….

Allan Goes would go on to have mixed success in his own MMA career, largely making his impact on MMA through his establishment of Brazilian Top Team, and starting the careers of MMA legends like the Nogueiras.  He is still involved in the world of fighting, owning a chain of BJJ schools and occasionally making an appearance in fighter corners (most recently, in BJ Penn’s corner vs. Nick Diaz).

Frank Shamrock, as previously mentioned, would go on to become the greatest mixed martial artist of the early era.  Dominant victories over Jeremy Horn (MMA veteran of well over 200 fights), Kevin Jackson (Olympic Medalist), Enson Inoue (Heavyweight BJJ black belt) and Igor Zinoviev (first person to beat a BJJ black belt in MMA) would cement his legacy, and his TKO of Tito Ortiz (a man who outweighed him by over 20 pounds) could only be seen as the cherry on top.  Unfortuantely, at the peak of his powers, he retired (citing the lack of competition available) and we were robbed of seeing him fight against another great fighter of that time, Kazushi Sakuraba.  Nowadays Frank is a commentator for Showtime, after retiring from the sport following two brutal beatings by both Cung Le and Nick Diaz.

Hope you enjoyed the short trip through the history books!  Come by (hopefully soon) for the next installment, where I take a look at the evolution of Alistair Overeem’s striking (with GIFs I promise), and how he might stack up against Junior Dos Santos.

Greetings and Introductions!

15 Apr

Hello reading public, allow me to introduce myself!

My name is Jeff, and I’ve been a lifelong martial artist, starting off in Kung Fu and TaeKwonDo, graduating to Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu/Judo since college, and having dabbled in Sambo, Kali, and Collegiate Wrestling in the meantime.  I’ve always had a strong interest in the subject, but my life has taken me down a different path.  My day job strongly frowns upon bruises, broken bones and black eyes (personal experience), so I’ve found that I must express my interests in a different way.  Ergo, this blog!

Goals of the blog:


Having done martial arts for a large portion of my life, I feel I have a somewhat educated opinion on the techniques, history and evolution of martial arts in the modern world, especially in the phenomena of mixed martial arts (or “UFC” as some may call it).  My blog is meant to be a repository for the various insights, thoughts, and commentary on fights (historic or recent, important or minor), with a strong bias toward technique and fight strategy.  Furthermore, the focus will be primarily on combat sports  of all kinds (no boxing prejudice here!).  I find that traditional martial arts has long since grown stagnant and unrealistic, and no longer representative of the art of fighting, as it were.  From time to time I’ll likely editorialize (it’s my blog damn it!) and comment on recent martial arts news, but it’ll likely be few and far between.

Still, at the same time I recognize I’m but one opinion among many, and through the wonders of the Internet I’m sure there’ll be plenty of you out there who might disagree with me.  So the second purpose of this blog is to open up some friendly discussion over the various topics I’ll be covering.  Any thoughts are appreciated, although civil courtesy would be nice.

Without further ado, my first (actual) substantive post will be up shortly, and will cover a (probably) long forgotten fight in the Japanese Pancrase leagues, dating back to 1995.  Probably the FIRST encounter between the Lion’s Den catch wrestling elite (Frank Shamrock) and a Carlson Gracie BJJ blackbelt (Allan Goes).