Mix 'n' Match: Pairing Three Flawed Fighters with Perfect Coaches

No fighter or coach is perfect, but sometimes the two mesh in ways previously unimagineable. We take a look at three great talents with obvious flaws and assign them to coaches and camps who might be best suited to turning them around.
November 23, 2015, 5:15pm
Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC

Something Missing: Three Camp Changes that Could Make All the Difference

Coach of the year awards are important, but misleading. It is vital that we recognize the successes of the men who are providing the thought as in the best cases the fighter is often just the instrument through which the work of an entire team flows. But equally coach of the year promotes a faddish way of thinking. A few years ago it was fashionable when a boxer lost to say "he should go to Wales and find Enzo Calzaghe". A couple of years later it was "get that man over to Freddie Roach". These men had been training fighters for donkey's years before, and continued to do so for years afterwards. For a year they were considered the answer to all the boxing world's problems, and afterwards another coach became more fashionable.

The truth is that coaches, as much as fighters, have their methods and work better with some fighters than others. Each coach works best with a certain style, and the chemistry between a fighter and a coach on a human level will work to amplify or muffle the effects of what is being taught and trained too. Not everyone can make the best out of every fighter that comes to them, just as you can be told something a hundred times by one person and then once by another and it will finally make sense.

There are so many factors at work but when a coach and a fighter just mesh it leads to tremendous results. From Freddie Roach and Manny Pacquiao, to Cus D'amato and Mike Tyson, to Holly Holm and Mike Winkeljohn, to T.J. Dillashaw and Duane Ludwig—there might not be someone for everyone, but some pairings can produce unreal results.

Of course, there are a thousand reasons why many don't find their Cus D'amato. Asking a fighter to move across the country, or even to another continent to train is big. They are athletes, but they are people first and each has a partner, a family, even children. But when we remove the constraints of the real world, we can have fun with hypothetical pairings which prove far more stimulating than the usual fantasy fight match ups. So today we'll look at a handful of fighters who either have a glaring hole in their game, or have fallen just short of true greatness and how a change in camps or coaches might benefit them.

Ronda Rousey

Rousey's weakness is no secret; she has zero ringcraft. When Holly Holm broke the line of Rousey's attack, Rousey ran straight past the challenger and was forced to turn around and sprint back in the opposite direction. The clinch is the aim of Rousey's game, and even when she's rushing in with no craft to speak of, she can get the clinch a good amount of the time. If she could gain even some ability in cutting the cage and forcing herself to the clinch with patience and frequency, life would be a great deal easier for her.

One of the finest cage cutters in the game is Chris Weidman, and going to train with him and his striking coach, Ray Longo might well allow Rousey the surroundings necessary to pick up some ringcraft. Watching Weidman's performance against Lyoto Machida is a textbook in measured but constant offensive ringcraft:

Meanwhile his bouts with Anderson Silva show more than anything the importance of being defensively savvy while moving forwards. For too many fighters moving forwards is all about offence and that moving backwards is strictly for defence, when the truly elite realize that it is the opposite way around. Weidman's staying on balance and always in position to reverse direction or slip a blow is the kind of thing Rousey needs to shore up her game. It isn't just Weidman either, Al Iaquinta shows many of the subtleties of good boxing in his performances and is another charge of Ray Longo and Matt Serra.

Alternatively, Rafael Cordeiro produces tremendously aggressive fighters—Rafael Dos Anjos being a great example as he cut the cage against Anthony Pettis and never allowed the former lightweight champion space to get his kicks off. We know that Rousey doesn't train kicks and some of this is to do with her knees being knackered after a life of competitive judo, but round kicks against the guard are invaluable to a ring cutter in MMA because even when they land against the guard, they hold the opponent in place momentarily and land the kicker in perfect position to follow with a flurry of punches or a clinch. Matt Brown has demonstrated that time after time.

Of course, since we're deep into the realm of hypotheticals, let's talk about training partners. A mediocre talent in a stable of monsters can often surprise just due to having to deal with said monsters day-to-day. As Rousey is one of the few in MMA who is actually making enough money to build a training camp around herself as the top boxers do, it would be interesting to see her enlist the help of better, more suited training partners.

For instance, as ringcraft was the problem, Eddie Alvarez has shown himself more than capable of circling away and performing the savvy changes of direction along the fence. He's got a good amount of weight on Rousey, but I'm sure he'd be happy to do a few rounds of ring or cage circling a day while Rousey tries to cut him off or tie him up.

If money isn't an issue, a less savvy ring circler is Demetrious Johnson, but he's Rousey's size and as fast as anyone in the game. And while she is making a good amount of money on sponsorships, I can't imagine the great amateur boxer, Katie Taylor would be opposed to making a few thousand dollars to dodge Rousey's clumsy charges and tighten her up a little.

Stefan Struve

Stefan Struve is an infuriating fighter to watch. A few years ago when he started submitting the UFC's heavyweights from his back we all sat up and said "a top notch guard to go with the reach? This kid is going to be something!" Unfortunately, the reach was damn near worthless as Struve stepped in on every man he ever fought, gave up his reach advantage and ate punches which often knocked him out.

For years it was a case of "if Struve can just learn to use that reach", every single time Struve struck, it would be stepping in to swing like he was two feet shorter than he actually is. The sole successful striking technique in Struve's arsenal is a long lead right uppercut, which left him completely exposed to a return, but worked just often enough to convince Struve that he was getting better at this striking lark. Stipe Miocic of all people fell victim to this uppercut after making Struve look like a punching bag for a round and a half.

We were always wondering, what if Struve left 'Dirty' Bob Schreiber for a while and actually invested some time in his kickboxing with the wealth of world-class heavyweight kickboxers in the Netherlands. The dream was, of course, to send Struve up to Semmy Schilt. Schilt is another seven foot tall Dutchman who surprised a few guys with triangles off his back in Pancrase, then made the move back to kickboxing and became the most accomplished heavyweight kickboxer of all time. Building off a tremendous jab and the front leg snap kick to the midsection, Schilt is the go to example of reach used correctly in kickboxing.

Interestingly enough, Struve was actually looking for the step up front snap kick of his countryman in his bout against Jared Rosholt, and his jab looked a little more thoughtful than when he just threw it out because he thought he was supposed to, but it still left a good deal to be desired.

Of course, there are plenty of men who could improve his ability to utilize his reach who aren't Semmy Schilt. Get him over to Jackson / Winkeljohn, where he'd have to work with other legitimate heavyweights and light heavyweights, and teach him to utilize low line side kicks and oblique kicks. No jab necessary—Jon Jones hasn't shown a decent one his entire career but he still maintains the distance and punishes his opponents masterfully. Jones' use of the arms and hands to cross face and push opponents away are something that Struve could very much learn from if he never finds his jab to be the weapon we all want it to be.

And if we're going deep off the end with hypotheticals, send Struve to see B.J. Penn. A weird one as Penn is known so well for fighting up in weight, not as the biggest man. But Penn's was entirely built around a dipping counter jab, and while he was incredible at lightweight, he never really outstruck a guy with a significant reach on him spare a young and inexperienced Georges St. Pierre. Penn might have been a smaller guy, but he used every inch of his reach the best he could as a lightweight.

Uriah Hall

Hall has been a frustrating fighter to watch since his days on The Ultimate Fighter. A man who seems to have all the raw talent in the world but none of the craft or savvy. Hall's tendency to back himself onto the fence and then circle away with his hands low and his chin high ran him onto the left hook of Chris Weidman back in 2010, and the same problem reared its head against Kelvin Gastelum in 2013.

It seems as though Hall, as a kicker, excels when he is allowed to work on the lead and not placed under pressure which so clearly upsets him. But equally in the moments when he had momentum on his side against Robert Whitaker, he seemed uncertain of how to stand Whitaker still for his strikes.

The problem is that Hall is awesome when men stand still and eat his jabs and kicks:

But seems confused by men who don't want to stand still and eat his power.

Furthermore, much of Hall's best work seems to come off of his left side. I have no idea if Hall is left handed, but the majority of his punches are jabs and left hooks, and his go to kicks are round kicks off of the lead leg. When he throws right handed strikes or kicks, they often look slower and lack the snap of his left handed strikes. Robert Whitaker circled to Hall's right for most of the fight and went unpunished for much of it. What's more, even Hall's back kicks and wheel kicks, performed with his right leg, come from his left side. Making circling to Hall's right even more of a one size fits all method.

In a dream world, I would love to see Hall sent to Freddie Roach. Sure, Roach won't teach him to throw his right round kicks more often, but he would instil in Hall the importance of two sided hitting power. If seventy percent of your offensive techniques come from one side of your body, moving in the other direction makes beating you a lot easier, or at least makes it more difficult for you to do what you do well. Readers will remember that Roach took a one handed Manny Pacquiao and spent months drilling the lead hook into him. Recently he also reinvigorated a clubbing Miguel Cotto into one who used his right hand to set up his left, and his left to set up his right.

What's more, Roach would put his foot down on that unnecessary motion. The coming in with a left hand and then circling way out to the left where Hall can't possibly follow up.

The footwork of Roach's boxers has always been sharper and more conservative. There is not leaping in and away, there is movement to the left or right while maintaining the distance necessary to hit. And that, more than anything, is what Hall needs—to stay in position to hit and recognize when he can. His leaping in and out, and spinning out of control after he throws leave him missing many of the opportunities to put together moments of real success in fights where now he landing just one or two strikes.

We've had some fun with three fighters who fought on the UFC 193 card, but I'll put together a few more articles like this one in the future because aside from "who would win a fight between x and y", dream coach and fighter match ups are by far the most popular question I receive day to day.