There was enough interesting stuff going on this weekend to keep the seasoned MMA fan on his toes. Demetrious Johnson was almost submitted in the first round and then taken through twenty-five hard, weird, exciting minutes by the bizarre Tim Elliot, cementing the idea that the UFC was too quick to cut Elliott and has no idea how to run its flyweight division. Jake Ellenberger lost a fight by getting his toes trapped in the fence. Henry Cejudo stunned Joseph Benavidez on the feet despite being thought the more one-dimensional man. And Gerald Harris (another man who was cut from the UFC prematurely in spite of an obvious abundance of talent) returned from a near three year retirement to fight an opponent who came in fifty pounds over weight. Harris picked him up along the fence, got his forearm in front of the chunky man's face, and slammed him on the back of his head to pick up another slam knockout identical to his famous victory over David Branch in the UFC in 2010.
The most controversial fight of the weekend though turned out to be Ryan Hall versus Gray Maynard. We all saw the same bout but somehow for some it was the most enjoyable bout of the night and for others it was abhorrent and demonstrated the shortcomings of the rule set of MMA. To this writer's mind the bout stood out because firstly it was something new: as recently as a couple of years ago the 'wrestler/boxer' base was considered to have a fighter covered in every area and suitably well rounded, Hall demonstrated that those are only two areas of the game and opted to fight in two completely different areas. Maynard refused to engage in one of those (Hall's guard) and failed to get through the other (kicking range). But the second reason that I rate this fight so highly is that I have never been forced to re-evaluate the understood truths of MMA while howling with laughter.
We mentioned a while back the interesting tricks that Ryan Hall had picked up on the feet in working with Stephen 'Wonderboy' Thompson and his father. Against Artem Lobov there were some hints of effectiveness with the side kick setting up the Bill Wallace style slapping round kick to the head. The three kicks out of the same chamber principle—the side kick, hook kick and round kick all look alike as they come up and if the opponent is reaching for one, he has a decent chance of eating another.
The improvement in Hall's movement and the dexterity of his kicking game in the short time since that bout was certainly impressive. One of the wonderful things about this side on style of kicking is that it can make life very difficult for a man who wants to walk through the kicks. Throw a hard round kick at someone and they can take it on the arms or body and run in on you—taking one to rush to the inside. The thing about the side on stance and all the kicks coming from a similar chamber is that the kicker's knee is often in the path that the opponent wants to step in on. This is where the defensive side kick or 'D-side' really shines.
The story of the fight was Hall throwing in the side kick—or a step up front snap kick with the lead leg, something you don't see that much in an open guard—and Maynard reaching down to parry or catch it. Can't walk through the side kick, you have to let it fall short or knock it off line but the latter is normally done with the hands and that, in turn, opens the parrying fighter up to attacks upstairs. The hook kick was Hall's weapon of choice.
A front snap kick, a hook kick, and a back hand. You knew this gif would make the cut.
With his new found love of the lead leg front snap kick it might be interesting to see Hall break out the Glaube Feitosa tape and begin working on that lead leg Brazilian kick. Though one of the principles of Taekwondo and other traditional kicking martial arts is always to kick to the 'open side', the side to which the opponent's belly button points if he's a little side on. This principle is built on the same idea that makes a southpaw counter puncher so dangerous—the opponent's lead shoulder and back aren't protecting him when you are striking into the open side. Hall's hook kick strikes on the open side against an orthodox opponent, where the Brazilian / question mark kick would still have to come over the opponent's shoulder which can get in the way.
Yes, that's the seven foot tall Semmy Schilt getting kicked in the head, from above.
Now the hook kick is something that I have had to re-evaluate over the years, having always considered it a high risk, moderate reward technique. Stephen Thompson and Justin Scoggins will use it occasionally, and Shawn Jordan got away with it mainly by being a 250lbs man throwing a hook kick—no one is going to be prepared for that, but the fact is that a missed hook kick can be bad news. The kick has to cross in front of the opponent to land as it is, if he steps in while the kick is being thrown he can catch the leg on his shoulder or go straight to the kicker's back. And that did happen in this bout on a couple of occasions when Hall went for the hook kick or had a side kick knocked across. Except Hall is famous for his leg entanglements and leg lock game in MMA and as soon as Maynard moved towards Hall's back, he seemed to remember this and want nothing to do with it.
And this is the problem that Maynard found throughout the fight, and is the crux of whether you enjoyed this bout or not. The difference between 'flopping' and attacking. We have all seen a fight where the grappler will prove hopeless in getting his opponent to the mat, get exhausted and beaten up on the feet, and then repeatedly flop to guard and hope his opponent is stupid enough to jump on him. The difference is that Hall wasn't simply flopping to avoid the stand up, he was winning the stand up. When his man moved close enough he rolled to attack a leg. That is the difference: if a fighter eats a counter punch and stops leading, that is on the fighter who is now afraid to step in. A good indication of who is struggling in a bout is who is appealing to the other guy's masculinity. Accusing the guy of running? You're probably not very good at cutting the ring. Begging the guy to jump in your guard? Chances are you're not having much luck taking him down. And so on.
And the wonderful thing about leg entanglements is that they are quite often there in some of the weakest standing positions. You can see this with Tony Ferguson as much as with Ryan Hall. We used to laugh at Bas Rutten's commentary because whenever a fight moved to the clinch even momentarily he would explain that one fighter should roll for a kneebar. Except now MMA has come full circle and rolling for a leg is entirely appropriate from lots of bad positions. For example as Hall attempted to circle out, and Maynard attempted a shifting right hook or two to cut the ring. This was good technique on Mayard's part and against someone less inclined to just barrel roll for a leg, possibly a turning point in the fight. Except Hall could step across himself (Manny Newton style), begin to run, and if he still couldn't get off the fence he could either roll, or fall back and invert to catch a leg.
A more cautious or orthodox approach here would likely have seen Hall trapped against the fence – one area of the fight where Maynard could actually get himself back into the contest with his pure wrestling and his punching power in close, or at least build up a lead on the cards with control. Yes, the genius here was that whenever Hall was in trouble positionally on the feet, he still had plenty of space to drop underneath his opponent and Maynard would refuse to follow him.
A similar strategy was employed on Sunday night by the harvest mouse against the owl on the Planet Earth 2: Grasslands card. Firas Zahabi has been unavailable for comment regarding the mouse's rumored training at Tristar.
A final lovely wrinkle from the grappler was a couple of uses of the switch forty-five. A classic karate method of switching stances in motion, where the change of positions will be hidden from the opponent's sight. Here's Kyoji Horiguchi—one of those flyweights you may remember from every undercard, and yet one of the most exciting karateka in MMA history—demonstrating the look on its own. Most often you will see karateka bounce around the mat and change from one side to the other like this, blitzing in with their hands when they sense a lull.
Hall did something new from it, using it to set up his upside down shot/Imanari roll.
It was gorgeous and caught Maynard completely off guard, but it was also one of the first attempts Hall had made inside of the lead leg. One of the subtleties of Hall's choice of shot for the most part is that it takes his head outside of the opponent's lead leg, making it unlikely that he'll hit a knee. Imanari himself suffered a brutal knee to the head while diving after Joachim Hansen's legs and in turn began to be more careful to take his head to the outside of the lead leg and away from the opponent's waiting rear leg.
By the end of the bout Hall was also looking for upkicks as he dived for the Imanari roll.
Every time it seems that the book has been written on MMA and we know what to expect, someone comes along and shows a new interaction between two aspects of the game. It is completely understandable that someone might find this fight frustrating, certainly Gray Maynard, but it was weird, and new, and encouraging. What's more this is a dangerous, dirty, cruel sport a lot of the time: sometimes it's nice to be impressed while being reminded of just how wonderfully silly it can all be.