Ever since I began my Killing the King series, detailing the exploitable habits of the best fighters in the world—the UFC champions—there have been heaps of requests for a Killing the Queen: Ronda Rousey. Honestly, I've steered clear of it partly because there just doesn't seem to be anyone even close to having both the skill set and the fight smarts to pull it off in that division, and partly because I've been bored with that weight class for a long time. But now, with the announcement of Miesha Tate versus Ronda Rousey III, a tacit admission that the women's 135lbs class is pretty much cleared out, I reckon it's time we at least talked about Ronda Rousey's methods.
You know what Rousey does—she's the queen of the hip throw and the armbar. Most competitive judoka fall back on a couple of throws, tokui-waza or favorite techniques, and know all the ins and outs, set ups and follow ups, that one could imagine for those few throws. Rousey's game was built around her harai-goshi and it remains that way today. In honesty, Rousey could probably throw half of the women she fights with stuff she never went to in her judo career, she's just that much more adept in the clinch. But most of the time it's that head and arm control and straight into an attempt on a hip throw.
Of course, Rousey's brilliance is in seeming to always be one step ahead in the clinch. Obviously that comes from a lifetime of trying to catch out the best judo players in the world, and suddenly being in with folks who can't counter her attempts and against whom she can basically go all out on offence. Her inside foot sweep against the cage on Sarah Kaufmann was perfect and you'll notice it came off of several changes of direction and intention. The epitome of Kyozu Mifune's old phrase:
If he comes to you, greet him. If he leaves, send him on his way.
Now as I've said before, the best way to go about beating an 'unbeatable' champion is to not focus on countering them or looking for cheap exploits for that one shot knockout. It is to take away their bread and butter and make them work a game they aren't used to. Think Anderson Silva being forced to lead, Georges St. Pierre with no jab, Renan Barao without his right low kick, Jon Jones without his low line kicks. So rather than saying "gotta work on that takedown defense" or "get yourself a judo coach," let's work on reverse engineering the Rousey A-game, because so far no one has done that.
Can't Stop Clinchy
It's been said that women's MMA is ten years behind the men's game. The references to Rousey as the Royce Gracie of women's MMA certainly seem to support that. The lesson that most learned at UFC 1 was "wow this ground fighting is really something". The real lesson should have been that it is very, very difficult to avoid the clinch.
You miss a punch, you're in the clinch. You land a punch, you're in the clinch. You don't punch, they walk straight in and you're in the clinch. Against Gracie it was bad for the confused nobodies he was fighting, against Rousey even a veteran grappler is in bad shape when they get to the clinch with her.
So for a long time in mixed martial arts there was an attitude of "I better knock this guy out before he gets to the clinch". Wild right hands and intercepting knee attempts abounded, and they very seldom worked. And yet, that's exactly where we are in the women's bantamweight division right now. The vast majority of Rousey's opponents come out and immediately try to hit her as hard as they can with varied degrees of panicked flailing.
Here was the opening ten seconds from Miesha Tate.
I'm not even going to touch the quality of the boxing right now (I'll talk a little bit about that later when we get to Bethe Correia), the most important thing to note is that every time Tate throws the right hand, she squares up—as anyone does—and that gives Rousey the clinch with no trouble at all and nothing between her and Rousey to at least make it awkward for her.
And every time the fight got back to the feet, Tate would swing wild and end up chest-to-chest with the Olympian, just in time to get dumped on her back.
Now here's the thing. Rousey doesn't cut the ring well, she doesn't have a great deal of craft on the outside—though I do like the way she throws her left hook and turns it into a hold on the opponent. Mostly she charges directly at her opponent, throwing jabs, hoping they'll throw back. And they always do! They stop, throw a right hand, and it either misses or Rousey grits her teeth and takes it, and then it's clinch time.
Here's the exact same thing happening against Sarah Kaufmann. Kaufmann was touted as one of the best boxers in women's MMA—but here's the difference between punching and boxing: ringcraft.
There was nothing to stop any of Rousey's opponents from circling away from her. Rousey didn't methodically work them towards the fence, cutting off the cage and taking away space each time, all while staying down behind her guard. No, Rousey rushed them on a straight line. Boxing 101: step off line and circle away from the edge of the ring.
And if you do get close to the corner, you fake to go one way and you change directions. Really basic, but game changing stuff.
Need yet another example? Alexis Davis. Each time Rousey stepped in, Davis pumped her hands wildly. No movement, no feeling out, no feinting, just trying to hit early and hard. The clinch would have come just as easily anyway, but Davis' stand-and-bang stylings also got her hit with a huge punch before she was clinched and thrown on her head.
But it has to be tempting, Rousey gets hit clean in the face every single time she rushes to the clinch. Every fight she eats a right hand or two. The temptation has to be like that against the Diaz brothers: the chin isn't going to hold out forever. But equally, no one should be building their strategy around the hope of a surprise knockout.
The first thing to note is that Rousey moves in fast. She basically sprints to the clinch, pumping her arms and driving in on a straight line the whole way. Side step a few of those and flat out refuse to engage and she'll have two choices—keep wasting energy, or fight more conservatively. In the moments against Miesha Tate in which she hung out on the feet, without the urgency to clinch, Rousey took punches and looked pretty vulnerable. A more conservative Rousey is a much more appealing target. Add to that the thought that Rousey has never been dragged into a championship length bout and certainly doesn't fight like she plans to be.
But no one has even tried to do that. It's been all about throwing the power hand as quickly as possible. From amateur fights to the pros; McMann, Tate, Kaufmann—the names and the ranks have changed but at no point has anyone done anything different. Liz Carmouche looked, for a minute, like she might circle out, but stopped to throw her right hand and was immediately tied up.
I will say it right now, unless someone pulls off that fluke knockout as Rousey steps in, no-one is going to stop her from tying them up without moving their feet, holding off on their power hand, and circling away.
Tools and Tricks to Hinder the Tie Up
I mentioned that it's damn hard to stop the clinch altogether, but the clincher's task is made a lot easier by his or her opponent trying to hit with force. Keeping the clincher on the end of a stiff jab (which can be achieved more easily by feinting often) is the classical means to hold off a clinch—but often effective, if not as damaging, is simply stiff arming the face or chest.
Willie Pep and Lennox Lewis both used a tactic known as 'heeling' in boxing, driving the palm of the hand into the opponent's face and pushing their head back. Pep used it to keep the brawling infighter, Sandy Saddler off of him, Lewis used it to keep hurt fighters from cuddling up to him. You will see Jon Jones perform exactly the same thing combined with a circle out, but I'll forgive you if you missed the purpose because most focus on the eye poking he performs during this manoeuvre.
Similarly in sumo, where 300lbs giants drive straight in and look to get dominant clinching position, many fighters have had terrific success by driving the head back by use of the web of the hand against the throat—known as nodawa.
No matter the art, we all know the expression "where the head goes, the body must follow". You can't tie someone up if your head is behind your center of gravity, and you can't get your arms around someone and start to throw them if you're locked arm's length away from them. Jon Jones does this well, Joe Soto effectively denied Joe Warren the clinch through stiff arming, both Lyoto Machida and his younger brother constantly look to drive the opponent off of them by the chin. Of course, all of that is attempting to cure a problem which only footwork and distancing can really prevent.
Cheap Tricks and Post Clinch Desperation
I fail to understand why so many of Rousey's opponents have spent their time winging the right hand when they have had so, so little success knocking opponents before her. Right hands punches are tricky and mechanically complex. Timing them on a rushing opponent is even more difficult. Much, much easier is that classic trick to stop a wrestler—driving a large chunk of bone into the path of their face.
Rory MacDonald's favorite counter left elbow would work a treat as Rousey stepped in and would actually do some damage. What's more, where a punch folds after the connection, an elbow can kept in front of the face. Ironically, Floyd Mayweather of all people has spent a career punishing opponents for trying to tie him up by letting them walk onto the point of his lead elbow. There aren't a lot of women with one punch hitting power, but anyone can learn to stick their elbow out as someone runs forwards onto it and cause some harm.
Perhaps more notably, and another from the Jon Jones playbook, is the oblique kick. Rousey doesn't often grab legs, but I don't think I've seen anyone catch an oblique kick or other low-line straight kick in the UFC or anywhere else yet.
These linear kicks to the knee joint or below are the striker's best friend against grapplers, and most fans were so caught up with Jon Jones' wrestling success in the later rounds versus Daniel Cormier that they missed Cormier walking through dozens of kicks to the lead knee in order to get to the clinch. Additionally, while the side kick to the lead knee is a bit trickier, the oblique kick is a really, really easy technique to perform with power and speed. Rousey has never had to check a low kick in her life, and stands in a wide boxing stance. The oblique kick should give her fits.
Side stepping and snapping out non-commital jabs and oblique kicks seems to be the best idea against Rousey who has never been difficult to hit and whom I sincerely doubt has the gas tank to bull rush for three rounds, let alone five. And that's all a Rousey opponent really needs, for the bull rushes to stop.
A final note worth making, and I think I've mentioned this before, is that what makes Rousey so special is that she throws right into position to begin attacking. This is one of the key principles that her mother, AnnMaria De Mars lays out in her excellent book. Rousey never, ever has to pass the guard because she throws right into kesa-gatame. But the few times her opponents have scrambled back to it (Tate who recovered her footing or attacked with upkicks, Carmouche—who only got passed when she committed to a heel hook attempt), Rousey has looked noticeably less effective. Kazushi Sakuraba always had similar trouble when Brazilian Jiu Jitsu representatives realized that if they wrestled him he'd submit them, but if they laid down and kicked at him, he had no idea how to pass guard.
One has to think that knowing Rousey wants to throw into a dominant position and not have to deal with the legs, if a fighter feels the clinch is unavoidable they might be better off jumping to full guard (or as close as possible) and going to the kind of grip fighting and biting elbows from the bottom which Conor McGregor used to frustrate and tire Chad Mendes. Of course, "pull guard on Ronda Rousey" is not top of the list of things you want to do in a fight with her, but it's definitely above "let Rousey have side control and be winded on the way down".
Really it all comes down to avoiding the clinch for as long as possible by circling off as Rousey comes in on a straight line. And using long, non-committal strikes to punish Rousey's bull rushes, or intercepting elbows to hurt and deter Rousey. This can already be seen frequently in men's MMA: it's sound, proven strategy against a rushing opponent, whether he wants the infight, a brawl, a shot, or the clinch. Realistically though, anyone who doesn't either 1) bumrush straight into the clinch with Rousey or 2) concede the clinch while swinging desperately for a knockout in the first minute is already way ahead of the game. Then when the clinch does inevitably come, making sure it isn't the be all and end all of the fight. But let's face it, even avoiding one or two of Rousey's charges would be considered a good performance.
Is Bethe Correia the one to pull it off? Almost definitely not. She's 3-0 in the UFC (arguably 2-1 if you think Kedzie outperformed her, as I do), a ten-to-one underdog, and her UFC opponents have a combined UFC record of 1-7. She doesn't have one punch finishing power—largely because she leans way forward at the waist and punches like she's paddling a kayak—and the active footwork she would need to avoid Rousey's linear charges has so far not shown itself.
The sad thing is that Rousey is so skillful, but still so limited, and yet every one of her fights has looked exactly the same as her opponents pump 1-2s at her until they end up on their backs. We are being prevented from seeing Rousey establish a completely rounded, brilliant skill set (or at least displaying it) because her opponents have done nothing but try to take her head off in the opening seconds.
This fight will probably be no different, and there's almost nothing on the rest of the card to demand your attention. My only two hopes are that Correia has suddenly evolved into a masterful ring general, and that UFC 190 doesn't turn off all the casual fans who will be returning after the perfect card that was UFC 189.