I never get tired of watching Holly Holm beat the bejeezus out of Ronda Rousey- and now the UFC has finally made the full video from UFC193 available for us to view:
I can't be the only one that notices just how much Holly Holm looks like Ivan Drago there...
That there was Holly Holm, CroCop Emeritus Professor of Headkicks at Beatdown University, demonstrating precisely how big the gap is between a skilled, extremely experienced, patient, methodical, careful, well-prepared, and exceptionally fit striker- and a bull-rushing brawler with no real foundation in the striking arts.
There are many things I enjoy watching in that fight. I have seen it many times since that epic victory; the Head Kick Heard Round the World was merely the crescendo that capped a symphony of destruction. But the fight is more than just great entertainment (and a terrific source of schadenfreude- as I have said repeatedly in the past, I am NOT a fan of Ronda Rousey). It also provides many useful lessons that people who enjoy sparring and boxing can take to heart.
I don't really watch MMA for the entertainment value. I actually watch MMA fights in order to try to understand the art and the science behind fighting a little bit better. I like to box and kick-box; I started my training in stand-up striking and I continue to train in the striking arts every chance that I get.
I do not claim to be any good at it, but I would like to think that my skills have improved significantly over the few years that I have been training.
Yet there are always gaps and weaknesses in my skills. And MMA fights give me great ideas for addressing them, or for trying something new and interesting.
The first time I saw Chris Weidman really fight was in video replays of that fight where he defeated Anderson Silva. A lot of people wrote that off as a fluke- but repeated viewings of that video made me realise that there was nothing even remotely "lucky" about Mr. Weidman's victory. He won because of his uniquely powerful style of pressure-fighting.
When I saw Chris Weidman outfight Lyoto Machida at the UFC175, I realised that Mr. Weidman's style turned out to be extremely effective. The way Chris Weidman controls space and time during a fight is something to behold. Though a wrestler by background and pretty much nobody's idea of a truly fearsome striker, he can defend against hard strikes pretty well- and because of those defensive skills, he knows how to keep the pressure on by constantly moving forward, carefully and tactically. In doing so, he tends to rapidly establish dominance over his opponents and thereby controls both the pace and the tempo of his fights.
That was true until he ran into a far better striker who also happened to be a phenomenal grappler, in the form of Luke Rockhold, at UFC194. And even then, the first two rounds were very closely fought; only when Chris Weidman threw that stupid wheel kick in the third round did his fortunes drastically worsen.
The lesson I learned from him is that constantly pushing an opponent backward is actually pretty effective a lot of the time- provided you don't just rush in like an idiot and get pummeled while you're closing the pocket.
That was the key lesson that I didn't learn, and my teachers noticed this pretty quickly and constantly pointed it out to me. The problem was, I didn't know how to adapt and adjust my footwork, head movement, and approach to compensate for this shortcoming.
Then I saw Holly Holm simply take apart Ronda Rousey, and that is when I realised how to change my style, by learning from her. So I did.
I concentrated more on staying out of range and moving around my sparring partners, making sure to stay moving and elusive and only coming in to take advantage of a mistake. I haven't come anywhere close to perfecting this yet; I routinely find myself getting tagged and punched by guys my size or bigger (and there aren't too many of those) even when I'm moving and circling. But, with a few exceptions, I tend to give at least as good as I get.
Also thanks to Holly Holm, I learned to actually use the clinch in boxing and kickboxing to my advantage. The clinch is something that tends to scare the living shit out of novices the first time they get into one, because they have no idea what to do- but in reality, it can be a very useful place to launch highly effective attacks at a very short range. The clinch in classic boxing isn't used to rest; it is used to push the other guy around, and to land short, hard shots to the solar plexus, the floating ribs, the kidneys, the head- and the liver. (Liver shots are very hard to land- but if you land one correctly, that's the end of the fight.)
The last, and most important, lesson that I learned from Holly Holm undoubtedly was the need to be patient, elusive, and "natural" in terms of striking. This is a very, very hard lesson to learn, and I'm still trying to figure it out.
When a lot of guys start out with boxing, kickboxing, and muay thai, they tend to be quite predictable when they throw their strikes. Either they will "load up" their punches- by moving the fist back and then forward, instead of straight out- or they will stiffen and tense just before they strike. A skilled and experienced striker knows how to watch for this, and can use that signal to "time" the strike perfectly and land a counterstrike of his own.
That counterstrike is not always devastating- but it sure as hell can be, especially if it was totally unexpected. As my teachers keep saying, the punches that hurt the most, the ones that knock you the hell out, are the ones that you never saw coming.
To compensate for this, unskilled strikers tend to simply charge in, and they get impatient when they realise that their strikes aren't landing. They always forget that, on average, only about one in three strikes will ever actually land.
Think about that for a moment. If you're in a striking contest, in a real fight, two thirds of everything you throw is going to miss. Therefore, it makes little sense to attempt to over-commit to any one strike; it makes even less sense to attempt to throw everything into just one or two punches in the hope that they'll end the fight. Statistically, those punches and kicks won't even hit the target- indeed, if you throw a really hard kick or punch against a skilled and experienced fighter, he will likely either dodge the strike completely, or block it with a very hard bone-on-bone impact- and that will be the last strike you throw with that particular limb.
Instead, as Holly Holm showed in her championship fight, it is far better to use exploratory strikes, to use a large number of different low-impact strikes from different angles to overwhelm an opponent, and to patiently seek openings as and when they come. What Holly Holm did to wear down Ronda Rousey was a truly masterful (mistressful?) display of tactical finesse, striking skill, and footwork. The head kick that ended Ms. Rousey's reign was simply the spectacularly violent cherry on top of a very well-crafted blizzard-cone of badass striking.
The key lesson there was to avoid throwing strikes just for the sake of throwing strikes. Instead, throw strikes that feel natural, overwhelm an opponent through a high volume of low-power strikes that distract him; and, when given the opportunity, accelerate and explode into a truly powerful strike that actually lands and causes damage.
Eventually, of course, every striker- good or bad- runs into someone better. The other night, I found myself sparring against the Grandmaster of our Federation. Now, this man is a full head shorter than me and about twenty years older- but he is unbelievably strong, extremely fit, and he loves to fight. (Actually, to paraphrase his own words, he doesn't exactly like to fight, per se; he likes to find ways to hurt people. And he is extremely good at it.)
This man gets kind of carried away if he's having fun in a sparring contest, to the point where he loses track of time completely. And when he explodes into a strike- which he absolutely will, given even the merest hint of an opportunity- it's like watching a great white shark burst through an ice pack to shred a sea lion.
Which is all fine and dandy to watch on a nature program on TV- but rather less so when YOU'RE the sea lion.
So, inevitably, I found myself getting pummeled for a good thirty-five minutes straight by a man with something like 40 years of experience in boxing. No breaks, no water, no rest. That was... interesting, to say the least.
I surprised myself by being able to stay on my feet and breathing easily until about the last five minutes- even though he was hitting me pretty hard. (By his reckoning, of course, he was going easy on me- and I knew it. But getting punched hard in the face is not fun, no matter how lightly someone is doing it.) My head was certainly sore as hell afterwards, and he absolutely nailed me with a shot to my liver that damn near dropped me towards the end, but I survived to tell the tale.
... Well, y'know, relatively speaking.
During the course of that sparring match, I got in a few good hits, to be sure- but for every decent hit that I managed, he nailed me with about ten. That kind of exchange rate will get you killed in a real fight, no question about that. And in the process of getting my ass kicked, I discovered that I still have a lot of work to do on some fundamental issues like timing, movement, and head position.
One of the most important lessons I learned, for instance, is that, no matter what, you have to keep moving. Stand still in a sparring match or a fight, and you know what happens? You turn into a target.
Which, of course, is precisely what happened to Honda whenever Holly Holm stopped moving in front of her, and she stopped in response.
Ultimately, the biggest lesson that I've learned from martial arts, whether it be from watching true greats like Holly Holm, Chris Weidman, T. J. Dillashaw, and others, or from training myself, is that you simply cannot give up.
The reason why Holly Holm won is because she believed in herself and her abilities when almost nobody outside of her own team did. She came into that fight a truly massive underdog- but in hindsight, her victory was actually not that surprising. She was the far better rounded fighter; she was much less emotional about the idea of facing a great champion; and she was vastly better prepared by a team of truly great coaches and mentors.
I do not consider myself to be a martial artist. I do not believe that I have any natural talent whatsoever for martial arts. Everything I can do, everything I have learned, is a product of nothing more than very hard work. A good work ethic, coupled with great coaching, can produce a decent set of skills. Combine those two things with real talent, and you get true martial artists, like our instructors at my Federation.
But if you just want to learn how to fight and how to defend yourself- in other words, how to hurt other people so they stop hurting you- then hard work and determination will take you a very long way.