Throughout the history of boxing you will read of various fighters coming along, moving around a lot and astonishing everyone who either fought or watched them. It is written about Corbett and about Cribb and about Mendoza, and all the way back to Jack Broughton and James Figg. He moves, what a revelation! If you have read enough about the pre-film era of boxing you might well be convinced that only one athlete in a generation moved his feet.
With the bout between Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw on our doorstep I want to examine the nature of footwork in general and ask questions about the so called 'neo-footwork' both employ, then later in the week we will look at the specifics of the match up. With our examination of shifting earlier in the week that will make a grand total of three articles about this single fight—it should be no secret by now that this is one of my most anticipated fights in a long time.
A Brief History of Dance
In the days of the London prize ring, pugilism was a contest of power and durability more than of speed and endurance. The lead hand was used to 'bar' the right handed swings of the opponent. This is what we would term a leverage guard, where the raised straight arm and shoulder obstruct the path of the opponent's swing. Then right handed swings of ones own were thrown back. Taking a step back from a punch was considered cowardly, though men like Daniel Mendoza quickly realized the value of simply not being in range of the opponent. But in such long and grueling bouts which continued until one man could not, or until the police broke the bout up, there was little use for labor intensive footwork.
Footwork in the bareknuckle phase emphasized the ability to stay on balance because blows were guaranteed to be connecting on the arms and body if not the head. This core idea hasn't changed much through history. What Bruce Lee called small, phasic, bent knee movements. The idea being that the feet are a platform on which all of the defense—the upper body—rests and that movement should be reserved for when it is necessary. The feet move to advance or retreat out of necessity. Joe Louis, for instance, was built from the feet up and was taught to be in his stance at all times.
This minimalistic attitude to movement is epitomized by Miyamoto Musashi in The Book of Five Rings. The legendary Japanese duelist was well known for his breaking with tradition in the use of both the long sword and short sword simultaneously. Breaking with tradition again, Musashi gives very little advice on the movement of the feet where many schools of swordsmanship will have sliding steps, leaping steps, and all manner of others which are systematically taught. Musashi believed that the feet serve only to ferry the combatant to his opponent and away from him when necessary. He believed only in the importance of the "yin-yang" technique of footwork meaning that when one foot moves, the other must move in turn to return the fighter to his stance. And this is the constant in most martial arts and boxing gyms to the day—any time the feet are moved, they must be returned to the stance as quickly as possible.
The first purpose of movement was defensive. That coward's instinct to move away from a blow when it is thrown is in fact the foundation of good boxing. Of course, rather than taking the extra few running steps out of the door, the skilled boxer only backs up as much as he needs to. Who wants to get hit in the face after all? But as boxing entered the gloved era, with fixed round lengths and no wrestling to speak of, active footwork became a good deal more useful. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the success of Gentleman Jim Corbett. John L. Sullivan was the man who transitioned the heavyweight title to gloved matches full time, but had come up under bareknuckle rules. Corbett, however, had never fought a bareknuckle bout in his life. He had come up in the sport of boxing with gloves and rounds, and he developed a style suited to this. Corbett realized that through constant movement, rather than reactionary evasions, he could make himself a far more difficult man to hit. Corbett was so obsessed with movement and the science of boxing that Gene Tunney (who idolized Corbett) recalled the old heavyweight champion showing diagrams that he had put together over the course of his boxing career for many of his patterns and movements. Against John L. Sullivan, who was used to men obliging him in a brawl and who was more than capable of 'licking any son of a bitch in the house', this carried Corbett into the later rounds, where Sullivan's conditioning failed him and where Corbett was able to lay the champion out. Gene Tunney, similarly, reinvented the wheel when he demonstrated the art of circling out against Jack Dempsey.
The act of cutting angles is not only effective in evading engagements, it can be used to prevent the landing of further punches once engaged. To see a textbook example of this check out Miguel Cotto's recent career against larger middleweights. Whenever they throw the right hand, he'll pivot off to a new angle and break their combination, forcing them to turn and face in order to continue throwing.
And Lorenz Larkin was able to do a similar thing to make most of Albert Tumenov's offense ineffectual.
If you have a few minutes, watch Cassius Clay versus Sonny Liston and observe Clay's work angling off from Liston in the early rounds.
Of course, the next step is the offensive application of active footwork and lateral movement. This is pretty much the bread and butter of the outfighting game nowadays. A fight is a struggle to find moments of control in a battle of wills and one of the very few ways that a fighter can actually gain some degree of control over his opponent is to step off line and force the opponent to turn. To steal a brief explanation from Finding the Art:
Anyone who lets an opponent simply circle around to a dominant angle and strike from there with no set up is obviously not going to make it very far in the ring, but the act of circling forces the opponent to turn. He cannot give up angles for free, it's human instinct to face your opponent. This not only keeps the turning fighter on edge and numbs his reactions to strikes at times, but also removes the power in his strikes for the instant that he is pivoting.
Figure 2. demonstrates the pivot to recover position as an opponent circles to the fighter's right. Figure 3 shows the pivot to counter an opponent's movement to the fighters left.
The master of this was the great Willie Pep. Pep is listed near the top of almost every boxing pundit's greatest of all time list. In fact many would call him a near perfect technician. Many of the same also manage to ignore that Pep was nowhere near the technical norm, in fact the vast majority of his success came from switching stances and leaving stance for extended periods. Pep's favorite strategy was to leave his stance and side skip to his left, turning his opponent before he bounded back in off of his left foot into a southpaw stance and connected a left straight to the face or uppercut to the body depending on distance.
Pep's genius was that he abandoned stance for long portions of the contest. He would be in stance if he felt his opponent was close enough to attack, but at any point he could draw his lead leg back underneath him and start skipping to the side in either direction. And this is where we get into the matters of stance and of that new fangled buzz term, 'neo-footwork'. To make it clear where I am on that term, I hate it. I just used it to steal your clicks and leave you feeling cold and violated now that I intend to refuse to indulge you in its use again.
When you get down to it neither Cruz nor Dillashaw nor Johnson invented it, though ultimately their commitment to the use of constant foot movement and abandonment of a static stance in MMA has made them vastly better fighters and the period of experimentation that we are in will likely result in far more apt switch hitters coming along in future. In mixed martial arts, the act of presenting no static stance to the opponent is even more valuable because the lead leg is no longer a nicely presented target to kick at or pick up. From Silva to Jones to McGregor, the best fighters have always realized the value of attacking the nearest target. For much of Dillashaw and Cruz's fights, they don't present that leg, or they will do the hokey pokey, putting that lead foot in, out and shaking it all about until their opponent swings and misses.
Here, Dillashaw walks backwards, hiding his intentions to switch step into the Balmoral special.
And this is half the beauty of switch hitting. Yes, it's super dangerous to get hit while changing stance or with your feet level (and I will moan about that later in this article) but the point is to not get hit while you're doing it. You can hide the stance changes in constant motion or in small walking steps—here Dillashaw steps ever so briefly into an orthodox stance before slowly stepping back into a southpaw one. For a classically trained fighter like Barao, this is a whole new world to deal with:
Or in lateral motion as in the Pep Step above, and here in Dominick Cruz's pivoting uppercut to his right, stepping through to an orthodox stance before changing direction with an orthodox right straight, carrying him back through the other way into a southpaw stance. Essentially the reverse of that Pep step.
Jersey Joe Walcott's beautiful side steps from stance to stance are another excellent example of seamlessly switching stances without being close enough to be knocked on your rump. And the so called 'switch forty-five' is a classic of tournament karate, here shown by young Kyoji Horiguchi:
Hell, if you know your opponent is going to move, you can just step forwards. Like Demetrious Johnson did here to land his favorite shifting right hand as John Dodson circled into it.
In the Steps of Pep
When examining the methods used by Cruz, Dillashaw and Johnson it is fascinating to note how many of them are visible in Pep and how often Pep changes stances in utilizing them.
Here Dominick Cruz demonstrates that same principle of circling off of the line of attack to force the opponent to turn. Mizugaki pivots, follows, and is far from ready to defend himself when Cruz stops and drops the right straight into level change, The Emelianenko Special.
And here T.J. Dillashaw demonstrates an attack from the same angle as Pep's favourite left straight, but rather than circling out onto it, he uses a faked overhand to jump out and switch into southpaw stance, before coming in on that forty-five degree angle between Barao's legs.
And here he performs the same to the opposite side with less success and a stumble:
Willie Pep also perfectly embodied the act of moving to an angle after the initial engagement. This is something you see far, far too little of in MMA. The idea being that you are not always going to be able to catch an opponent out on your first couple of strikes, and especially if attack him head on, but if you hop offline immediately as he is defending himself you will be able to line up another shot from a tighter, more dominant angle.
And here's Cruz utilizing the same principle on a couple of occasions:
The problem is that if you shackle yourself to a solid, always-braced-for-impact stance as many are taught to, you can never actually make these movements. Pep knew this, but many in the boxing press did not even realize that he was doing it. So the textbook boxing of Pep, while textbook in principle, was not very typical at all.
In summary there are three ways that movement, particularly lateral movement, may be used in a fight:
⁃The first is to defuse the power of the opponent—to keep him turning, to prevent him from setting his feet, to break off his combinations, and to deny him a target for his strikes, rushes or shots.
⁃The second is to numb an opponent to offence by turning him repeatedly, building up the anticipation of further movement, and making him follow onto attacks.
⁃The third is to create angles and offensive opportunities.
The first two options are relatively safe, it is when the lateral movement becomes an offensive weapon that things become dangerous. To move laterally quickly enough to utilize it mid-engagement and to full effect, one must be able to leave the stance and move quickly. Unfortunately the more a fighter moves his feet, the less time he spends in a stance and this is doubly dangerous if he is moving his feet all over the place in range of his opponent.
T.J. Dillashaw, Dominick Cruz, and Demetrious Johnson have all been caught with punches or takedowns while both of their feet are underneath them or midway through a deep step rather than in a solid, braced stance. There is no pretending that these didn't happen and we must recognize that a method is just that—the way someone chooses to go about something. Nothing about this hyperactive movement or any other fighting method is perfect and while it denies the opponent some openings, and creates others for the fighter doing the moving this is still a sport where the best laid plans gang aft agley.
Getting clipped with your feet out of stance almost guarantees a knockdown, and sometimes—in the case of T.J. Dillashaw's loss to John Dodson, you won't be able to get back to stance quickly enough to recover.
It is an exciting time to be an MMA fan with so much experimentation and implementation of unfamiliar tactics happening. You can slap all the names you want on them, but there's nothing new under the sun and everything in this business is a continuation or a rediscovery of something done before—from the berimbolo to the shift. Applaud those who innovate, study those who came before, and get excited for Dominick Cruz versus T.J. Dillashaw which we will look at the specifics of here at Fightland on Wednesday.