Pillow Hands: The 10 Weakest Punchers in MMA
If there is any curse in the world of combative sport, it’s that of being a fighter who cannot deliver force with any kind of note, especially via punches.
Much like trying to carry water with a hole in the bottom of the bucket, scoring punches that do little to no damage—no matter how cleanly they land—is a hard obstacle to overcome; such fighters can still score points, but once their opponent realizes they have nothing to fear from those fists, the fight can turn quickly.
After all, these men and women are in the hurt business, where it is far better to give than receive; if you have nothing to give, then you are going to receive, usually until your cup runneth over.
But there is also an unfounded stigma around such fighters; the notion is if a fighter has “pillow hands” or is “feather fisted,” they can never acquire the power to do serious damage if God hasn’t seen fit to give it to them at birth.
While some fighters can indeed train to confound said notion, it still takes a great deal in order to compete with the Fedor Emelianenkos, Benson Hendersons and Johnny Hendrickses of the game—men who can deliver devastating force so casually it almost seems unfair.
No one enters the fight game and achieves anything considerable without being of the mind that they are good enough and have the necessary desire to take such considerations as “fair” and “unfair” and render them moot.
Fighters have always been a breed apart from the rest of us, which is why we watch them ply their trade; as fans, ours are vicarious joys.
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There is something about Michael Bisping that reminds me of some of the classic boxers of old; men like Maxie Rosenbloom and Nicolino Locche who used their fists to score points with such proficiency that no one really noticed those men weren’t knocking their opponents flat.
Bisping makes up for that thanks to powerful knees and kicks, but no one is really worried about Bisping knocking them out in a fist fight.
Still, it is important to note that Bisping is developing his style of fisticuffs. He’s also becoming highly accurate with his punches and then slipping out of countering range, and that is very wise when you think about it.
Developing his skill set so he can deliver real power to his punches will no doubt come next, but until then, Bisping is a fighter who is going to be viewed as wielding a foil instead of a broadsword.
Oftentimes criticized as a boring fighter, Ben Askren is another excellent wrestler who hasn’t really developed his hands to match his grappling ability.
It looks like Askren is getting to the point where his ground-and-pound does more damage, but on his feet, while his punches may be catching fighters and knocking them off balance, he’s not hurting them in the manner every fighter hopes for.
As a relative newcomer to the striking aspects of combative sport, Askren still has the time and the resources to becoming a much better puncher, but only if he’s dedicated to becoming well rounded and dangerous in all areas.
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Much like Ben Askren, Jon Fitch is a wrestling-based fighter who is good enough with takedowns to ground most fighters he faces and then grind on them for the duration of the bout.
This may be the real culprit in his lack of punching power; is he so enamored with his style and the success it has given him that he simply has no desire to become a power puncher?
Yes, it seems ludicrous to even pose that question; after all, what fighter doesn’t want to be known and feared for their punching power?
Still, one cannot help but wonder, as Fitch has been fighting on the biggest stage for a very long time and has never really done any true damage with his fists while engaging anyone on the feet.
As a fighter who has subsisted on his grappling skills and heart for almost his entire career, it should really surprise no one that Kazushi Sakuraba hasn’t developed any true punching prowess.
He rocked an already ragged and over-the-hill Ken Shamrock, but aside from that, Sakuraba throws little in the way of punches toward his opponents, and that’s the way it’s been for a very long time.
Some men develop a unique style that grows around their weaknesses, and that is exactly what Sakuraba has done.
Now that he’s long in the tooth and looking retirement dead in the eye, it is probably far too late for him to change this.
And would he be the Sakuraba we have known and loved if he did?
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When the combative gods gave skills to fighters, they made sure Demian Maia got more than his fair share in the grappling department and utterly none in the punching realm.
That isn’t to say that Maia can’t turn the ship around, but for some men, such as Matt Hughes, while grappling comes easy and is a joy, striking is a labor done out of necessity and nothing more.
This looks to be the case for Maia, although he’s so far ahead in the world of submissions and grappling in general that he can probably afford to spend the majority of his training camps working on his fists.
The power may be there, hiding somewhere, but he has to be willing to work hard to find it.
Until he does, he’s going to remain on lists like this for quite a while.
There was a time, believe it or not, when Matt Lindland was falling in love with the striking game, polishing his skills with John Hackleman of The Pit and looking forward to knocking people out.
Since that time, he’s been flatly knocked out himself on many occasions, proving that sometimes desire is not enough to carry you to the top of the mountain, even if said mountain is in your own backyard.
Lindland is one of those fighters who found his niche—wrestling—very early in life and could never seem to take that world and integrate it with power punching with any real success.
Whenever Lindland has thrown punches, they seem to be nothing more than a distraction that allows him to close ranks for a clinch. We’ve seen it time and time again, and it has never changed through out his career.
Considering that he has trained so much with Chael Sonnen, it comes as no surprise that he’d rather take the fight to the mat and overwhelm opponents with the kind of punches that may not do damage but look bad enough to see the fight called.
Lindland has been out of action for a little while, so all of this may be moot, but if he decided to fall in love with the cruel mistress of boxing, he needs to make sure that this time she loves him back, or he’s going to be showing up empty-handed to his next fight.
Much like Demian Maia, Thales Leites is a fighter who conducts his business on the ground and thrives there.
When he’s on his feet, he’s basically a fish out of water, throwing punches like a blind man who swings just in case he hits something, and even those shots are lacking any real conviction.
Leites will probably always be a man who focuses on submissions and grappling, strapping on the gloves and hitting the pads as an afterthought and nothing more.
Men like Leites have confounded expectations before, but when you watch him strike, it looks as if he’s content to play tag during a game of full-tackle football, and if that is going to remain the case, he’ll never have the kind of punching power that demands respect from his opponents.
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It’s puzzling that a man who trains with Nick and Nate Diaz hasn’t developed any kind of true power in his punches, but that is precisely the case with Jake Shields.
He’s a true stand out when it comes to grappling, and he’s tougher than many give him credit for; anyone who can survive the kind of pounding he took during the first round of his fight with Dan Henderson is a man among men, to be sure.
But when Shields throws punches, he seems to be holding something back. Until he is able to really commit to his fists, he’s always going to be one of those men who are going to score points without doing any real damage.
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He may talk the game of a nuclear-fisted destroyer of men and their careers, but when push comes to shove, Chael Sonnen is a fantastic wrestler and true grinder, but he’s not going to be scoring any one-punch knockouts anytime in the near future.
Sonnen often makes reference to his greatest accomplishment of date—nearly defeating Anderson Silva in their first meeting at UFC 117—as if he had rendered the champ a bloody and bruised mess, unrecognizable save for the belt around his waist.
According to FightMetric.com, Sonnen landed a total of 320 strikes on Silva, which would have one to believe that Sonnen dominated the fight, which he did.
But after 320 total strikes, Silva looked as if he’d been in nothing worse than a pillow fight; when you consider that Sonnen was putting his all into many of those punches, it’s clear that while his fists can score points, they won't be scoring him any knockouts.
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As the last entry to this list, Ronaldo Souza is a man who looks like he’s turning things around when it comes to delivering force on the ends of his knuckles.
At Strikeforce: Rousey vs. Kaufman, Souza scored his first knockout in over 21 fights, via punches against Derek Brunson.
Well known for being a submission ace, Souza has long been thought of as a terror on the ground and a man that used any moments of advantage on the feet to get the fight to the mat.
Unlike some men on this list, Souza seems to have found a way to sit on his punches; now the question becomes one of consistency.
Can he continue to deliver the same force with his punches that he did against Brunson?
Only time will tell, but some success is better than none at all, especially for the rank and file who believe that true power can be mined in the fields of technique alone, when needed.