Sports

Gokhan Saki in the UFC: Re-Learning the Art of Striking with the Turkish Tyson

As he prepares for his UFC 226 fight against Khalil Rountree, we look at Saki's transition from kickboxing to MMA.
July 5, 2018, 1:51pm
Susumu Nagao-USA TODAY Sports

Gokhan Saki came into the UFC touted as the "Turkish Tyson." His blistering hand speed and thudding power had already produced one of the most captivating highlight reels in kickboxing history, but it has become old hat for top kickboxers to tease a move to the small gloves and the big cage. Rico Verhoeven, Robin van Roosmalen, and Tenshin Nasukawa among many, many others have competed in MMA just enough to decide they don’t want to. Yet Saki is something remarkable: he abandoned a Glory world title and one of the best contracts in kickboxing, took two years away from competition, and completely devoted himself to learning the nuances of all-in fighting.

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At this point our knowledge of Saki’s ability in an MMA context is fairly limited. We are working with one round of footage against Henrique da Silva: a man who seemed to have been picked to welcome Saki to the UFC because he is a chinny banger from a kickboxing background. Within that round though, Saki showed an acute awareness that striking in an MMA contest is completely different to a kickboxing one. For a fan who learned about Saki by watching one of the many highlight reels on Youtube wherein he flurries eight or nine punch combinations against shelled up opponents, his performance against da Silva would have been completely alien.

The Dutch-influenced style of kickboxing places a great deal of emphasis on simply getting the gloves up high and using an "earmuffs" guard. If you have ever watched a Robin van Roosmalen fight you will have seen this idea is taken to the extreme: van Roosmalen takes punches on his guard, he flurries his hands in response and throws a low kick on the end. He is a world class kickboxer, a two division Glory champion, but his defense still relies entirely on his stationary gloves stopping the blows. It isn’t ubiquitous, there are kickboxers like Giorgio Petrosyan who have complete mastery of defensive footwork and head movement in a kickboxing context and almost never "shell up," but Petrosyan’s success is helped by being unusual in this respect.

Saki’s flurries of half a dozen punches worked in the kickboxing ring because of his opponents’ tendency to fire a few shots, cover up, then try to attack again. Saki would keep them under sustained fire and eventually found the cracks in their guard by going from high to low and doubling up with "lever punches."

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The concept of a lever punch is pretty simple, it’s a double up from low to high or high to low. You are forcing or "levering" open the opponent’s guard by making them address one issue and catching them almost immediately as they respond. While hitting left-right, left-right is more conducive to rapid fire power-hitting, it is also very predictable. Going with the same hand twice in a row or more changes up the rhythm of a combination and subverts the opponent’s expectations.

Let’s look at two of Saki’s levers in perhaps his most famous flurry: when he decked Daniel Ghita at Glory 6 in Istanbul. Twice in quick succession Saki digs to the body then immediately turns the same hand upstairs. Each left hook to the body inside of the elbow draws Ghita’s right elbow in, each hook around the flank draws it out.

Between these blistering flurries of punches, Saki will mix in hand traps, playing the parts of both Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3. A favorite Saki tactic is a cross hand trap/guard strip when his opponent has adopted that earmuffs style guard. Often combined with a slight pivot around to the right while throwing the right hand, this has been a favorite of many Dutch kickboxers from Badr Hari to Nieky Holzken. Hand traps wherein the fighter attacks the opponent’s left hand with his left (or right with his right) mean crossing the body—devoting both hands to one side of the opponent’s guard—and this makes them a little trickier to use effectively. Saki’s ability to keep his opponent’s under fire is what allows him to perform these hand traps without simply eating a right hand as he reaches across himself.

Much of Saki’s game in the big gloves was built around flurrying and overwhelming his opponents with speed. His feet make for an interesting study because he will switch from classical boxing footwork (left foot with left hand, right foot with right hand) to pursuing or marching footwork (left foot with right hand and right foot with left hand) mid combination to run opponents down and dash into his powerful low kicks.

But there were always two sides to Saki in the kickboxing ring: the hyper-aggressive swarmer, and the counter-hooker. The old boxing adage to “only be hooking when he isn’t looking” is one which has held true for over a century. A tight, fast, powerful left hook can cut down almost any other punch in flight and has delivered many of the most spectacular knockouts and knockdowns that have ever been filmed. A great jabber must have the footwork to support his jab, a great right straight must be mounted on clever set ups and draws, but a great left hooker only needs to make his man trade punches with him. When Saki isn’t working in bursts to overwhelm his opponents, he will attempt to draw them out and clip them with the left hook on the counter.

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While Saki will lead with leaping left hooks and use the weapon on the offensive, almost all of his best connections come when the opponent is opening up. He can encourage this in many ways but we will touch on a couple of the methods he uses most frequently. The right straight to the body is a terrific weapon in its own right but many fighters don’t go to it because they feel very exposed to a return from the opponent. If your objective is to counter that return, however, the right straight to the body doubles as both a legitimate winding strike and a bait. There are also a lot of ways that the opponent can be made to miss if he responds with the predictable right hand to the head: the drawing fighter can slip to the elbow side, drop below the punch, or lean back to the inside and "cross" the right hand with his left hook over the top. In the below instance Saki actually gets grazed on the chin by Anderson Silva’s right hand, but gets the trade he wanted to initiate and hooks for the knockout.

Another common Saki method is to lead with a naked kick which encourages the opponent to step in and return fire. Most top level kickers will use their arms within their kicks. The two most common methods are for the kicking side arm to be thrown back in the opposite direction to the kick—providing a counter balance and allowing the fighter to really throw himself into the kick—or to have the kicking side arm extended toward the opponent as a buffer. Saki does neither of these things, instead keeping his hands up in his boxing guard throughout the kick. This is because he intends to throw the counter hook as soon as his opponent seems to be returning.

Coming to the cage, there are a number of important differences which many kickboxers who dabble with the four ounce gloves do not account for. Every fighter in MMA, no matter how bad the rest of their striking is, quickly learns that covering up as a defense is just not an effective option. There is not much opportunity to tee off in five and six strike combinations in tit-for-tat exchanges against the guard. Furthermore, squaring up to throw two handed combinations also exposes the fighter to takedown attempts far more than pot-shotting at range might.

In his first Octagon appearance, Saki played the part of the matador far more than he used to in the ring. Drawing da Silva forward, Saki repeatedly switch to a southpaw stance to land heavy high kicks against da Silva’s guard. When da Silva’s right hand was high and rigid, in crept the left straight to put him on his rump. The classic southpaw double attack, applied off the back foot.

This set the tone for the fight. Saki drew da Silva forward and sought to hook over the top or inside of his attacks. Switching from orthodox to southpaw and back again, Saki looked to land single shots and displayed none of the multi-punch combinations-into-low-kicks that many fans would expect to see when a world champion, Dutch-trained kickboxer enters the cage.

Gokhan Saki’s wrestling looked solid, even if it was against a less than stellar wrestler, and he even hit a nice foot trip to get off the fence. This is something we noted when discussing Tai Tuivasa and his mentor, Mark Hunt. For a man who wants to avoid being taken down, going on the attack with trips in the clinch can often surprise opponents into giving enough space to break away. But there is plenty to Saki that could lead him into trouble against better, smarter strikers and wrestlers.

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However you look at it though, Saki is a power puncher and in order to do that he needs to set his feet and square his hips. The hips obviously square during rear hand punches and square in preparation for lead hand hooks. This meant that even da Silva could time his level changes to snatch up up Saki’s hips and come up on underhooks. This happened on his straight shots too, but Saki’s tendency to draw straight punches and attempt to hook over them makes him a little more susceptible to this because his elbows aren’t tight to his body or occupying the space between him and his opponent as he throws.

The need to set his feet also gives Saki difficulty against good counter low kickers. Rico Verhoeven slammed in a low kick each time Saki stepped in and was able to buckle the Turkish banger’s stance on several occasions.

Where this gets interesting is that the rules of Glory kickboxing (Saki’s long time home) prohibit thrusting kicks into and above the knee joint. In mixed martial arts these have become an important part of the game, and these kicks work best in jamming aggressive punchers before they get into range. A thrusting kick into the knee, thigh or crease of the hip forces the victim’s hips back and breaks their punching position. Making Saki pursue and using oblique kicks or low line side kicks to keep him off balance and set up other strikes might work wonders.

Furthermore, as pleasantly surprising as Saki’s wrestling proved, his discomfort striking in the clinch was somewhat strange. Saki won Muay Thai titles back in the early 2000s but seemed completely perplexed by da Silva simply pressing through his swings and trying to grab a double collar tie. That is, of course, another disadvantage of being in love with hooks and overhands: after they connect on the guard or skull of the opponent, the opponent may step up inside of them. As Saki began to slow, da Silva was able to turn over a couple of elbows that had Saki in survival mode along the fence. Fortunately that left hook saved Saki as da Silva stepped back to swing his hands rather than push his advantage in the long clinch.

There is clearly a lot more to transitioning from kickboxing to MMA than the “six months of sprawl training” that fans used to joke about. Even after learning to stop a takedown, there is so much more to adapting a kickboxer’s striking so that he does not present easy opportunities at his hips and at clinches. Saki’s more mobile, cautious outside striking against Henrique da Silva was very encouraging. There was enough of what we know Saki for in there, while it was also clear that he has recognized the need to adapt. The most dangerous thing any world class striker can do in MMA is buy into the striking advantage that he will carry into any MMA fight in the mind of fans on paper alone.

Jack wrote the hit biography Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor and hosts the Fights Gone By Podcast.