The Best of the Best series is my attempt to look at fighters who best demonstrate one technique or concept of the martial arts/combat sports game. So far these have varied from well-known fighters who provide easy traffic, such as Anderson Silva and B. J. Penn, to less well-known and underappreciated fighters, such as Ross Pearson.
We have examined the Muay Thai clinch philosophy, the crafty inside slip and the simple but underutilized counter jab. Today we are going to look a little at the knee strike, something which is still noticeably under used in mixed martial arts competition for a variety of reasons.
It is no secret that the knee caps are dense and an easy surface to do great damage with, and of course ineffectual knees while stalling out in the clinch are a dime a dozen in all MMA promotions. What is rare is a truly effective stepping knee. This is where the gigantic Dutchman Alistair Overeem excels.
Alistair Overeem is always a divisive figure, partly due to his suspicious rapid weight gain, partly due to his being caught with a greatly elevated testosterone level, and partly due to his penchant for throwing away winning streaks through arrogance in the ring.
Overeem's loss to the massively overmatched Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva is a perfect example of how Overeem alienates fans. Alistair mugged and toyed with the ambling giant before running out of steam and ducking onto a hard punch which began a series of punches that slumped the Dutchman along the fence.
What Overeem does deserve enormous respect for is his commitment to massively improving his striking game.
Almost exclusively interested in knee strikes with random stepping punches and trick shots thrown in, Overeem never showed much aptitude for punching until his impressive starching of an underprepared Badr Hari on short notice. Since K-1 amended their already squeamish rules regarding clinch striking to take away Overeem's tremendous knees while holding the head, Overeem had to learn to box and added a cracking cross counter to his game; but that discussion is for another time.
Overeem has always enjoyed utilizing his knee strikes, and this is evidenced in his fights as a lanky 20-year-old taking on some of the best fighters in the world in PRIDE. Overeem was often wild, jumping in behind wild knee strikes from range and getting hit in the process.
Indeed, Overeem did much of his best work throughout his career in the clinch and on the ground. Overeem's knee strikes along the fence quickly ruined Paul Buentello and his knee strikes on the ground made short work of Sergei Kharitonov in their first meeting.
Watching Overeem vs. Kharitonov I—or even the brief knees to the ribs from side control in his bout with Brett Rogers in Strikeforce—certainly makes me miss the days of legal knees to the head on the ground.
What we are really here to appreciate, though, are Overeem's wonderful knees in striking exchanges.
The most notable examples are his stepping knees against Brock Lesnar. Stepping knees are rarely thrown in MMA because they are perceived as easy to grab. It would seem that a fighter who is mainly known as a kickboxer should not be giving his leg so freely to an elite wrestler, but Overeem's method was very sound.
Every time Overeem moved in, he would stretch his hands to smother Lesnar's. Lesnar couldn't resist handfighting, and it was in this time which Overeem would step forward and land his left knee.
This technique worked splendidly throughout the bout and led to the beautiful body kick which Overeem used to drop the gigantic American.
Overeem's knockout of Kazuyuki Fujita was performed with an almost identical technique, stepping in with his right leg but faking a right hand instead of hand fighting with Fujita. As Fujita ducked away from Overeem, he met Overeem's knee and fell to the floor unconscious for a good few minutes.
Overeem will also fake his right hand and step in to directly grab his opponent behind the neck in a single or double-collar tie (one or two-handed clinch). Overeem performs this routinely, as he did against Fabricio Werdum, Fujita and most famously Ewerton Teixeira.
A final interesting method which Overeem uses which one doesn't see used in MMA all that often is to throw a knee strike and a punch from the same side as he places his striking leg down behind him. The wonderful thing about this technique is that if the knee connects, it will lift the opponent's head into the follow-up punch, and if the opponent attempts to grab the knee strike, he will expose his jaw to the punch.
Overeem knocked down Badr Hari in their first bout with this technique. Overeem's one-time stable mate Errol Zimmerman also utilizes this technique frequently in kickboxing (2:52 below).
The most important point to note in Overeem's successful use of knees is that Overeem always strikes with the right surface—the point of his knee—against a vulnerable surface. Aiming is so much more important in knee striking than power—watching any of Anderson Silva's wonderful work in the clinch will confirm this. It is far worse to be hit with a light knee strike to the floating rib, bone on bone, than it is to have a thigh muscle thud against your side as the opponent strains to put power on his blows.
Pick up Jack's ebooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.