Best of the Best: B. J. Penn and the Counter Jab

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Best of the Best: B. J. Penn and the Counter Jab

The Best of the Best series is my commitment to examining in detail the fighters who best demonstrate one facet of the fight game. Some of these will be wider concepts, such as my first piece in the series on Anderson Silva's Muay Thai clinch work, and some will focus on a single technique such as the second piece in this series, Ross Pearson and the Inside Slip.

Today I will be focusing on the counter jab and will centre on certainly its most notable exponent in MMA, B. J. Penn. 

Penn was always known to have sharp hands and good head movement but something which fans will notice in a review of his fight footage is that where the young Penn surprised opponents with a cracking left hook (fighting in a more squared stance), as time went on, Penn began to understand the benefits of turning more side on and focusing on jabs and right-handed power punches.

Penn's re-evaluation of his boxing game massively improved his landing percentage and made him one of the most accurate strikers in MMA, where before he was simply a power puncher who lacked polish.

While Penn's focus on improving his boxing game ultimately led to him losing a step in his legendary grappling and developing traditional boxing traits which proved counter-intuitive to kickboxing, it is worth studying just how he landed his jab so often.

The Jab and Its Uses

The jab is an interesting topic because almost everyone (commentators and casual fans) seems to have the same sort of knowledge of it. Every fight fan can tell you that the jab is the quickest strike (being the nearest hand to the opponent) and that it is therefore the hardest to see coming.

Commentators, pundits, writers and fans will throw out sound bites such as "work the jab" but few can actually tell you why some jabbers are effective and some aren't. 

The jab as an offensive weapon is actually pretty stunted. It doesn't matter that the jab is short and straight, we live in 2013 and the jab is not going to surprise anyone. The majority of fighters who have excelled with the jab as a straight forward attack off of the bat, such as Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis or Semmy Schilt, have had enormous physical advantages in height, length or speed. Even then, most of them work to set up the jabs which they actually land.

The true art of using the jab is in drawing a counter from the opponent which in turn can be countered, or using the jab as a straight counter punch. To see the first in action, I recommend watching my video of Roberto Duran, who uses a jab with the intention of ducking under his opponent's retaliation.

B.J. Penn was masterful at the second: using the jab as his go-to counter punch. While Penn still used the left hook and right straight counters later in his career, his counter jab provided the quickest, safest response from any position when big power was not necessary.

To see the first instance of Penn really committing to the counter jab and realising its effectiveness, one should watch his first fight with Georges St. Pierre. St. Pierre even at that time was a world-class talent and one of MMA's better strikers, but Penn was able to fluster Georges and hurt him with the counter jab repeatedly.

Penn's counter jab connects as St. Pierre's glides over Penn's shoulder.

Now the words counter and jab make casual fans think about back pedaling and moving around the ring like Muhammad Ali, but the dipping counter jab which Penn likes to use is a remarkably aggressive tactic favoured by pressure fighters and offensive counter punchers. Fighters as diverse as Mike Tyson and Joe Louis used the dipping jab as an offensive counter, showing its amazing utility. 

Tyson using a dipping counter jab to the body to close the distance.

Penn would walk down St. Pierre with great haste, flustering the younger, bigger man to throw strikes to keep Penn off of him, then Penn would dip to the right and fire his own jab. Anyone who has seen a young Mike Tyson's fights, he had a similar opening gambit, but would swarm on an opponent and angle off after closing the distance.

Here is an illustration of the technique from J. C. Thomas' books.

Combined with a drop step with the front foot, decent power can be delivered in such a short punch and it is doubly effective because by forcing the opponent to step in, a collision is created (something I talk about constantly as the goal of striking). 

Penn snaps Joe Stevenson with a hard counter jab.

If an opponent doesn't have the experience to check the counter jab with his right hand or slip it and use the closed distance to rough up the offensive counter puncher, he will keep being driven back on the point of his aggressor's jab, but never be in position to do anything effective of his own. This was the story of the Penn-St. Pierre bout for the early going.

Unfortunately, such an aggressive approach is extremely taxing and Penn rapidly tired. In his later bouts at lightweight, Penn sat back a lot more and let his opponents come to him, but his counter jab had almost equal effect, showing just how useful this technique is to almost every type of fighter.

Here Penn parries with his right hand as he counter jabs.

It is pretty much common knowledge that the legendary Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is one of the easier fighters to hit in MMA. Despite this, Nogueira delivered his pair of really impressive stand-up performances (half a decade apart) with the dipping jab.

Flat-nosed brawler Sergei Kharitonov seemed absolutely thrown by this technique, and Nogueira used it to put Brendan Schaub away in front of his home crowd.

Just how effective is the dipping counter jab? Well, Muhammad Ali was thoroughly confused against Ken Norton in their first meeting as Norton countered almost every jab Ali threw. If a technique can make Muhammad Ali hesitant to jab, it's a solid counter.

Penn had success with the same technique against Sean Sherk and Joe Stevenson, but even when he went through a period of fighting mainly southpaws (Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, Nick Diaz), he still had success in using a stiff jab to break his opponent's combinations.

In a sport where fighters are concerned with landing the big punches, it is important that we notice that often the shortest ones have the greatest effect and easiest time getting through. This, more than any other facet of his standing game, was B.J. Penn's genius.

Pick up Jack's ebooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.

Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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