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MMA

From Silva to McGregor, the Distance Trap Is the Most Powerful Principle in MMA

Control of distance remains one of the few common factors we can point to in top fighters from boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai and mixed martial arts.

Jack Slack

Jack Slack

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

While watching Sean O’Malley versus Andre Soukhamthath at UFC 222 a familiar pattern became apparent: O’Malley would feint and fake, and Soukhamthath would retreat. Once Soukhamthath neared the fence and had nowhere to go, O’Malley would set himself up still well beyond standard striking range. When O’Malley attacked it was with long, flicking kicks and the odd straight punch. When Soukhamthath circled, O’Malley tried to wheel kick him or back kick him in the body. When Soukhamthath moved to attack O’Malley, he simply fell into that enormous buffer zone as O’Malley retreated to the center of the cage.

Within moments the fight took its form and it didn’t change until the wild O’Malley pranged his foot on the shelled-up Soukhamthath’s elbow. Most will recall the highlight of that fight being the counter right hand that O’Malley dropped Soukhamthath with.

But at one point in the first round, Soukhamthath had success with something you don’t see very often in MMA, and it caught O’Malley completely by surprise. Soukhamthath performed a bump into a right straight. A classical point fighting technique but also a favorite of the early kickboxer, Benny "The Jet" Urquidez. Rather that pushing out of the stance, the stance is shortened by bringing the rear foot in—placing the driving point closer to the opponent.

It is a simple technique for covering ground quickly—albeit one with plenty of downsides—and one of the more direct ways of attacking one of MMA’s most dominant strategies: the distance trap.

The Distance Trap Explained

Counter strikes are the most powerful weapons a fighter has. Amid the folkloric witchery of the knockout, one of the constant factors that cunning folk can agree on seems to be that the punch you do not see hurts you the most. There are a hundred ways to hide your blows but whenever you want to trick someone the best option is often to get them focused on themselves. When a man is in the act of swinging his own punches he is at his most vulnerable.

In boxing, many of the best counter fighters can do their work moving forward or by staying in the pocket—navigating the hailstorm of blows by slipping, catching, or shoulder rolling. But many of the great defensive counter fighters in combat sports excel in counter fighting from the end of the opponent’s reach. Watch Giorgio Petrosyan or Floyd Mayweather in their respective combat sports and they park up just beyond their opponent’s range—dictating the chances the opponent has of being in striking range with their feet.

With the focus on the tale of the tape before each fight, it is easy to get bogged down into thinking that distance and range (a product of both men’s height and reach) are one and the same, or that the de facto distance of the bout should be dictated by the jabbing range of the longer, taller man. But many fighters, particularly in MMA, choose to fight from a very exaggerated range which means both men have a lot of ground to cover to get in and strike—Lyoto Machida and Stephen Thompson stand out as very obvious examples. If you needed evidence that the man with the edge on range doesn’t automatically set the distance it would be very easy to pull up Stefan Struve and have a good laugh about his complete inability to use his height and reach—but let us focus on a positive example and consider Saenchai.

Saenchai often gives up height and reach to his opponents but fights from just an inch or two beyond the end of their reach, drawing them into overextending and leaping in to counter them with flashy kicks and the odd up-down combination. Watch Saenchai in one of his better performances and you will see longer, taller men struggle with the fact that they cannot quite reach the much smaller, shorter man, and yet when Saenchai wants to close the distance it seems almost effortless.

If two fighters exchange in mid-range, both should be moving their head and firing. That is the kind of stuff that gets boxing fans out of their seats and makes for spectacular fights, but it is also the least seen element of striking in mixed martial arts. Every slip or duck is a gamble as soon as the other man starts throwing up the odd kick or knee, or looking to hang on the back of the slipping fighter’s head. Mid-range in mixed martial arts also tends to be a transitional area as the clinch is almost always going to be a bigger part of one man’s game plan. In mixed martial arts one of the simplest and most effective methods of counter fighting has been simply allowing the other fighter to fall short.

A strike is an explosive movement and to hit hard requires a fighter to commit his body weight. For many fighters the exchange stops as soon as they fall short. The combining of footwork and punching in mixed martial arts is generally much poorer than you will see in boxing, where a fighter punches from on top of his feet and in MMA it is still pretty much the norm (except at the highest levels) for a fighter to throw his weight forward with his punches and let his feet catch up. One of the first fighters to exploit this at the top levels of mixed martial arts was Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. The one Nogueira twin who could box, ‘Little Nog’ used a flicking southpaw jab to draw out the big swings of his opponent, giving ground and returning with the left hand or catching them with the right hook as they followed.

In the 2005 PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix (actually held at 205 pounds), Rogerio surprised the great Dan Henderson—drawing Hendo’s swings, letting him fall forward, and countering him while he was out of position. Nogueira proceeded to exploit the same flaw in Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in the next round of the tournament. A couple of years later, Nogueira’s training partner for that tournament, Anderson Silva, was able to hammer home a couple of good counters after the exact same head down swings from Henderson.

Henderson is an extreme example but the arrival of Silva in the UFC suddenly shone a light on the epidemic levels of leading with the face in MMA. As Royce Gracie demonstrated that people really didn’t have a clue what they were doing on the ground, Silva demonstrated that getting out there and throwing hands was actually an equally nuanced art.

Now remember that while what Forrest Griffin is doing in the above clip—leading with his face, overcommitting—is considered terrible boxing form, what Silva is doing is fairly taboo in boxing, too. Each time Griffin steps in, Silva gives ground on a line. They are different levels of disastrous of course: leading with your face is likely to get you knocked out, but boxers are taught to avoid lengthy straight retreats and to break the line of attack because they will quickly hit the ropes. The small square ring will ruthlessly punish lengthy retreats, the big almost-circular cage is a lot kinder on that front.

The problems come when the opponent stays on top of his feet, feints a good deal, and constantly moves to close the distance. Chris Weidman demonstrated this well against Silva, as did Michael Bisping. It might not be as exciting for the fans, but it’s annoying for the counter fighter.

But that doesn’t mean that the principle stops working when the opponent doesn’t wade in with their head down, swimming front crawl. Even world class strikers can be convinced to snatch for openings and become vulnerable when they fall just short. Floyd Mayweather Jr. was a great example of this in boxing though there is a difference in his application. For Silva, Machida, O’Malley and others, the feet are used to make the opponent fall short and an upright stance is generally more conducive to rapid retreat.

Mayweather, and other top boxers such as Roy Jones Jr., like to present a false distance to the opponent. This is done by leaning forward in the stance. The fighter’s face is hanging out ahead of him in the style that we criticized in Dan Henderson and Forrest Griffin but in this instance it is a red cape flapping in the face of a bull. A fighter’s feet and hips tell you where he really is in the ring, his head is one of the most mobile points on his body and can easily deceive. Each time Juan Manuel Marquez jabbed in on Mayweather’s seemingly open noggin, Mayweather would pull his head back and throw the right hand as Marquez’s jab fell short and dropped.

Silva, Conor McGregor, and anyone else who thrives by sliding away from their opponents in MMA must pay constant attention to re-establishing the buffer zone between themselves and the opponent with their feet. Mayweather often stood still while he was baiting this trap and in a position where his feet couldn’t move as freely if they needed to. Notice here how Mayweather moves from his typical, side-on and upright stance, to a more squared stance, on the ball of his back foot with his head presented well forward of his center of gravity as bait. The moment Canelo feints, Mayweather pulls for the counter, realizes that Canelo didn’t step in to jab legitimately, and abandons the tactic for the time being.

McGregor’s success has been largely built on convincing fighters to lunge at him, sliding back, and allowing them to fall onto his left hand.

One of the secrets to McGregor’s success and consistency compared to a few of the similar MMA counter strikers who came before him is that he goes on the offensive to make it happen. Almost every McGregor fight consists of getting in the opponent’s face, walking them to the fence, and picking at them until they lunge. Curiously enough, much of McGregor’s leading is done with long front kicks and leaning left straights and jabs—the kind where his shoulders are well forward of his hips and he has little hope of following up effectively if he lands because his feet are so far behind him. Yet they are effectively Mayweather’s presentation of false distance, with a long left straight attached. As soon as the opponent comes back, McGregor is back in his stance and six feet away again. We examined McGregor’s style extensively in the run up to the Mayweather fight:

Whatever he is doing on offense, the moment his man moves to attack, McGregor back-skips to the center of the cage and looks to land the left straight on his over-extended opponent. The brilliance of putting his man on or near the fence is that all the issues McGregor’s opponent will have with him running a mile as soon as they attack don’t exist for McGregor. The fence prevents that just as the ropes prevent that in the ring.

Defusing the Distance Trap

Dealing with a man waiting for you to overstep is a tricky business. If they retreat whenever you do anything, you’re never going to touch them. But the trap exists because one man is controlling that buffer of space vigilantly. It is something he is consciously watching out for and managing at all times and if he gets away from it those perfectly timed counters are going to be worthless. Take McGregor’s slow start against Chad Mendes: McGregor was nursing a knee injury and Mendes was faster than expected, leading to McGregor mistiming his back-steps and misjudging his distance. Once Mendes slowed down, McGregor timed the counter off the fence and the finish came immediately afterward.

When Mayweather fought McGregor, his primary concern seemed to be maintaining appropriate range and tiring McGregor out. Each time McGregor created a buffer of space, Mayweather stepped in and McGregor had to either re-establish that space or punch to keep Mayweather off him. The first five rounds of that fight was essentially McGregor moving, Mayweather stepping on his toes, and McGregor moving again. It led to McGregor throwing a ton of punches to little effect, and getting hit more and more as his feet stopped moving to punch.

Fighters using exaggerated distance to have the opponent falling into counters in MMA tend to be surprisingly hittable in the aftermath. McGregor has been hammered by opponents he has countered plenty of times—fortunately most of them run themselves onto the damage first. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira landed dozens of hard counters on the bum-rushing Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in their PRIDE bout, but ended up on the worse end of many exchanges as Rua gritted his teeth and kept running forward, swinging. Because these counter fighters are so rarely getting out the side door after they place their perfect counterpunch, they become a sitting duck for follow ups.

Surprisingly absent from the Mayweather-McGregor fight was any semblance of ring cutting. Mayweather seemed content with allowing McGregor to angle out constantly, though Mayweather is not a corner-them-on-the-ropes type of fighter and the more McGregor does the quicker his inevitable stamina drop-off comes. The ring or the cage is the number one means to preventing these sort of fade away counters because the fighter performing them needs space behind them—and not just a little, a decent amount. As soon as the fence is in the space they would normally have to retreat to in order for strikes to fall short, that outside counter fighting game ceases to work. For a very passive counter fighter trying to draw rushes through inactivity (think Lyoto Machida) this is a problem, but other fighters have found a way around this by going on the offensive and getting the opponent on the back foot. This brings us back to Andre Soukhamthath’s moments against Sean O’Malley.

Soukhamthath actually used a bursting step/bump—bringing the rear foot up underneath the center of gravity before driving off it—a few times in that bout. If the issue is distance, these point karate style bursts—sacrificing stance and base to rapidly cover more distance—are a means of brute-forcing the issue. A fighter is supposed to be faster going forward than he is going backward and these back-foot-first bursts are designed to test that. In point style karate competition the arms race on rapid advance and retreat often turns the actual event into a foot race. For a laugh, here’s a top Japanese competition coach demonstrating the value of his crab stance (completely side on) over the usual fighting stance by having kids run backward and forward as fast as possible.

Of course, the issue of bringing the back foot up underneath you so that you can advance further is that you are out of stance if the opponent doesn’t decide to retreat that time and tries to take your head off. But the main problem Soukhamthath was having was that O’Malley already had the distance and knew that Soukhamthath was coming because he wasn’t feinting and he was placed along the fence, the onus was already on him to do something about it. Then there was the fact that he had 20 feet of octagon to retreat through before he even needed to consider breaking the line of attack.

When Silva came from PRIDE to the UFC, he noticeably made use of the full space the Octagon afforded but which he hadn’t had in the ring. Lots of circling, lots of backtracking, lots of pulling people into straight line charges. Some fighters sharpened up and realized that feinting and cage position made a huge difference, and even the most dimwitted of fighters isn’t getting into the middleweight top ten running forward with their chin on a platter. The strategy of the Notorious Conor McGregor and Sean "McGregor-lite" O’Malley takes what Silva did and immediately addresses the main sticking points through ring positioning alone.

It is very hard trying to convince an opponent with feints while your back foot is against the fence—you’re the guy in trouble, he’s the one deciding when you’re even close enough to hit each other. Moreover, attacking off the fence is almost always your least useful response to being placed there. But if a fighter focuses on circling off he stands the chance of simply getting front kicked and wheel kicked until he does fight back. Where Silva and Machida posed the question of “How are you going to hit me if I keep retreating?” the McGregor method asks “What are you going to do to get off/stay off this fence?”

Mixed martial arts is generally more in the business of linear movement than it is in lateral or vertical movement. The reasons that excessive straight retreat is a taboo in boxing still exist in MMA, but they are obscured by the enormous cage and the exaggerated distance that kicks bring to a contest. Obviously there is great value in using straight retreat to draw opponents into over-extension, and the new aggressive strategy which McGregor and others use to hide this somewhat passive counter fighting tactic is making enormous differences.

Whether the MMA world suddenly gets smart to the dangers of straight retreat or not, control of distance remains one of the few common factors we can point to in top fighters from boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and mixed martial arts. The standard of technical striking is improving constantly at the highest levels of the MMA game, but it is hard to see a day when coaches are screaming about the dangers of lengthy retreats in MMA gyms as often as they are in boxing gyms.

Jack wrote the hit biography Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor and podcasts at The Fight Primer .