Photo from The Sun.
MMA striking can often look very different than boxing or kickboxing striking, and it can even differ quite a bit from what you might see in traditional martial arts. I’ll hear fans talk of a lack of precision or conventional boxing form in the punching, a perceived lack of conditioning by the fighters in later rounds, or that is hard to tell what is going on when ground striking is employed. Here are 3 major factors that contribute to these perceptions.
Unconventional, awkward or unfamiliar positions
First is the positions of the athletes. By its very nature, mma forces athletes into positions that are not seen anywhere else in sport. Fighters have learned to change conventional striking movements to adapt to being in less than ideal positions. Fighters also have learned to adapt their striking to overcome the solid defenses of their opponents. A great example is the mount position for ground and pound striking. Short elbows and hammer strikes might not look as impressive as a head kick, but they are extremely effective from that position. When it comes to punching, strikers often have to use a more curving or looping arc on punches to get around the arms of the defender. Combine that having to hold on to a bucking defender with your legs, and you can get some awkward looking strikes. The same goes for striking from the clinch position, off of the back, or in scrambles. Fighters have to take the openings they are given , often throwing strikes when they’re not as ready as they might like.
MMA takes a tremendous amount of energy, using the whole body at high levels of output for long periods of time. When you consider how long one play in football takes (about 5–10 seconds) versus one round of fighting (5 minutes), you can get some idea of how much more energy it takes to fight. Of course a lot depends on the pace of a particular fight, how much time is spent striking, clinching, or ground fighting, but there is no rest for 5 minutes straight. At no time can the fighter relax, let their guard down, or cease to be 100% engaged in what they’re doing. I’m sure there are many other good examples, but watch any fight with Diego Sanchez, Leonard Garcia, or Nick and Nate Diaz to see an example of fast paced fights. Mma fighters do as much as they can to avoid gassing even under these strenuous conditions, often training to fight twice as many rounds or more than they have to, and bringing in fresh people to spar every round to simulate the stress and fatigue of a cage fight. Fatigue will still show up in striking technique, and it is an extremely well conditioned athlete that can look just as technically sharp in the later rounds as they were in the beginning of the fight. Watch both of Frankie Edgar’s last 2 fights to see a guy who did not lose his technical skill even after 25 minutes of fast paced fighting. This is extremely rare. More often that not, fans will see the effects of fatigue show up in striking form. Punches get loopier and the retractions get lazier. Kicks and strikes get slower in general and make it easier for the fighter get taken down.
In flight adjustments
This happens in any sport, but is very relevant to mma. Every athlete has a preference towards good form when executing a movement, but very often form takes a back seat to function. I call them “in-flight adjustments”. Say you just threw a punch at an opponent who is in motion. Maybe the movement is away from you, or ducking under, or to the side. You have a choice to make; either adjust to it and keep throwing the strike with a modified angle, or bail on the idea and move on to the next option. When this happens, the form can be less than desirable, but a connection even with less than perfect form can still get the job done. Look at Matt Serra’s tko of George St. Pierre to see a good example of an in-flight adjustment. Serra threw a right hook, and although GSP was able to weave under it, he still got caught as Serra shortened up the hook even more and caught him while his head was down.
There is also the anti-in-flight adjustment, which is “I’m committed to throwing this shot and I’m not gonna let anything stop me”. A great example is Patrick Cote’s knockout of Kendall Grove. Cote moved in close during an exchange and lined up a nasty right hook. Grove leaned out a little and nailed Cote with a knee to the body, but undeterred, Cote took the punishment in the ribs and let the hook fly anyway. The knee probably took a little out of the punch and it didn’t look pretty, but it was enough to knock out Grove and Cote could worry about his ribs when the after party ended next morning.
So there you have it, potential mma fans and practitioners, now you can more fully appreciate what is going on in the cage as compared to other sports or even other combat sports like boxing or kickboxing. What mma does is bring out many of the most realistic aspects of unarmed combat, and it has many applications to armed combat. We should always train to be in ideal positions using the ideal techniques, but so often when things change, or get difficult, whatever works is more important than style or technique.