Dominick Reyes: A Lonely Prospect in UFC’s Desolate Light Heavyweight Division

Reyes's victories tend to come quickly and emphatically, in part thanks to his use of the southpaw double attack, a combination that made Mirko "Cro Cop" the scariest striker in MMA for a very long time.

by Jack Slack
May 16 2018, 6:44pm

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The UFC’s light heavyweight division has been in a desperate state for a while now. Daniel Cormier is the champion because the man who has beaten him twice, Jon Jones, cannot pass a drug test. The consensus number three man, Alexander Gustafsson, fights once every three years and either fights someone of no importance or loses a close decision in a title fight. Volkan Oezdemir, Jimi Manuwa, Ilir Latifi, Ovince Saint Preux, and Jan Blachowicz are around but they aren’t considered much of a threat to the belt. Glover Teixeira and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua have both had their best days and are now simply hanging around because the rest of the division is so lacking in young talent. What the 205-pound division is craving for is some fresh meat.

Dominick Reyes started out in American football. He was exactly the kind of athlete that the MMA press spend their days wistfully longing for, while begrudging the NFL for stealing such athletes away through the promise of more money for just a little more brain damage. Fortunately, Reyes’s athleticism fell just short of getting him drafted after the NFL combine and after some time training at his brother’s MMA gym, Reyes found himself a new home in combat sports. His victories as an amateur and as a professional outside of the UFC tended to come quickly and emphatically, but the level of opposition was poor. Before Reyes hit the UFC his opponents had a combined record of 18-13. Yet when put in against decent light heavyweights Joachim Christensen (14-5) and Jeremy Kimball (15-6), Reyes continued his winning ways, finishing both in the first round.

There is only so much footage available of Reyes because he keeps being scheduled to fight fifteen minutes and refuses to fight for even two but if you want the low down on his ability here it is: the southpaw double attack. Reyes’s boxing isn’t great past the first punch and his kicking is not very varied, but the southpaw double attack continues to be the great game breaker in kickboxing and MMA. As a refresher, here it is in action:

Notice that Reyes clips his man with a counter left, moments later his opponent reaches across himself with his right hand to parry another expected left straight, only to eat a kick to the dome. The southpaw double attack is simply this: the left straight and the left round kick. They play off each other perfectly. When the left straight starts to bother a fighter he will either reach for it, as above, or try to slip it—often by ducking or taking his head to the elbow side. In boxing, once your head is past the elbow side, the attacking fighter has to punch all the way across himself with his free hand. In sports that allow kicking, you’re leaning out the window and into a shin bone.

The above clip is of Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic knocking down Mark Hunt. If you need a reason to care about Reyes, Cro Cop is it. The best southpaw double attack above middleweight belonged to Cro Cop and it (combined with a nice counter left straight from the open side angle) was pretty much all he needed to be the scariest striker in MMA for a very long time. Just like Reyes, Cro Cop didn’t work well in combinations and his right hand was almost an afterthought, but he had the most important part of that southpaw double attack: speed. Wicked, beguiling speed combined with heavyweight power. The southpaw double attack doesn’t work unless you can snap out that left straight quick enough to sneak it through and with enough authority that the opponent must do something.

Really the southpaw double attack is a triple attack, or a quadruple attack, or whatever number of targets you can find with those two strikes. At its heart it comes down to the opponent’s rear hand. If that hand comes in to block or he brings his head out to the side, he is about to eat the left high kick. If his right forearm stays high and braced for the left high kick the left straight can sneak down the center. If at any point that right elbow leaves his side—which it could do in dealing with either the high kick or the straight punch—the body kick is right there. As we wrote in The Great Cro Cop Mystery, “Standing still in front of Cro Cop was to be looking at a firing squad and not knowing whose bullet was going to kill you.”

For that reason when Fedor Emelianenko met Cro Cop in his prime, Emelianenko opted for the "belt and braces" approach: every time he thought Cro Cop was going to kick he picked his right leg up high to form a full barrier down his right side, sometimes even parrying or slipping a punch while on one leg. Emelianenko fought the standing portions of that fight on a knife edge, and kept Cro Cop on the back foot the entire time to prevent kicking and in order to encourage the left straight as a predictable response which he could counter.

The tell for the southpaw left straight and round kick both come at the shoulders and hips. When the trunk starts to square up, one or the other is coming. The quicker a fighter can make both pieces of the double attack, the less telegraph his opponent gets, the more they are playing a guessing game on defense. This is an area of fighting where raw athleticism absolutely matters. Cro Cop’s hands, feet, and reactions slowed and one night he just wasn’t a top tier fighter any more. His recent resurgence has warmed the hearts of die-hard Cro Cop fans, but there’s no pretending that he is the force that he once was because that speed is just not going to come back.

To say that the southpaw double attack is bolstered considerably by athleticism is not to detract from the fighting science at play though. Dominick Reyes and Cro Cop both know exactly what they are doing. Both pump the shoulder and hip feints to draw reactions, both vary their target on the round kick. Reyes’s first victory in the octagon came using just those two weapons in tandem. On the final knockdown Reyes pumped his hip to draw a reaction, Christensen’s forearms shot up and Reyes slotted the left straight down the center.

This weekend Reyes meets Jared Cannonier, a paradoxical fighter who boxed up Glover Teixeira on the feet but who works a full time job out in Alaska, training with no other UFC level competitors, and who just wheezed through a three round loss to Jan Blachowicz. A granite chinned banger, Cannonier seems like a good man to answer some of our questions about Reyes; how will “The Devastator” react if his opponent cannot be simply devastated? Unfortunately, Cannonier’s gas tank has often furrowed fans’ brows—he can look nothing like the same fighter in the third round. As a young talent who has yet to face adversity in the cage, it could be good for Reyes to be forced into deep water with a man who isn’t quite as threatening there. If Reyes can keep to his part of the deal and win at least that glimmer of hope, this division’s future can sputter on, a firefly in a dark, desolate wasteland.

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