UFC 170 was a fairly bland card in terms of star power Saturday night from Las Vegas. It wasn't helped by the last-minute replacement of Rashad Evans by Patrick Cummins and the attempts to create a narrative around that mismatch. Despite the one-minute finishes in both the main and co-main events which failed to get going, one fight really saved the card for me.
The true fight of the night, and one which was a treat on all levels, was Demian Maia vs. Rory MacDonald.
Fork in the Road
Both Maia and MacDonald have been on the end of some pretty severe criticism in recent performances.
Maia was once the most feared grappler in MMA, but then he tried to round out his game and began to get involved in mediocre stand-up affairs. MacDonald, for his part, was considered the new breed: an all around killer, but his snoozefest against Jake Ellenberger turned that around over night.
MacDonald suffered exactly the same problem as his stablemate, Georges St. Pierre. His jab worked so well that once it was removed, by meeting a southpaw, he had no other weapons. Robbie Lawler beat him up and knocked him down in their match in November, and MacDonald was out of title contention and back to the drawing board.
At UFC 170, despite their fight providing a clear-cut winner, we got to see both men returning to what made them so great.
The Leg Weave/Dope Mount
Maia showed immediately that he is still the premier grappler in mixed martial arts as he quickly took down MacDonald with a single leg. MacDonald showed that tendency we have been seeing from wrestlers in recent months to use butterfly guard, because of the opportunities it can allow to scramble back up to the feet.
What Maia did so masterfully on the ground was to constantly look to remove one of MacDonald's hooks, taking away a good deal of control from MacDonald.
Once he had achieved this, Maia would look to use a hip switch to drive his knee across the middle of MacDonald's guard and achieve a leg weave position. This position is variously called a smash pass, a leg weave, dope mount or even Penn mount, after B.J. Penn who utilized it a great deal against Jens Pulver, Takanori Gomi and others.
Notice how as soon as MacDonald attempts to elevate Maia's hips (and he can only do it on one side now, making it a predictable action), Maia switches his hips and drives that knee to the mat. This crosses MacDonald's legs and flattens them. From here, Maia lands a nice knee and moves into mount.
Here's Penn achieving the same position against Pulver in their first meeting.
You can also see Penn hitting variations of the pass in several clips in this excellent piece of guard-passing collection. Being Penn, he would often chill out in the dope mount and soften his opponent with punches to the face.
Shinya Aoki also uses this pass masterfully in MMA.
It was beautiful to watch Maia show the kind of high-level jiu-jitsu we have all wanted to see from him since he began his attempts to become a more rounded fighter and forgot his BJJ roots.
MacDonald showed the incredible value of the butterfly guard in the third round, however, as he used it to create space and get back to his feet.
More Than Just the Jab
MacDonald impressed enormously by showing that he has a full arsenal of strikes, not just the same flicking jab which he stuck to against Ellenberger. MacDonald's jab, however, still found far more of a home than it should have against a southpaw.
Notice how low Maia carries his lead hand. It might not look particularly low, and if he were against a fighter in the same stance as him, it wouldn't matter much, but that lead hand is the check to the jab in a southpaw vs. orthodox (open guard) engagement.
In an "open guard" battle it is supposed to be hard to land jabs. You are supposed to get "crossed swords" and check each other's attempts at the jab. Maia's low lead hand, which he carries that way in hopes of landing his money right hook when his opponent steps in, means that MacDonald was able to thread the needle with his jab all night.
It is fairly easy to parry a straight punch across the body or downward. It is much, much harder to parry a punch outward. Think the difference between your bench press and your back hand. It's not impossible, some Thai's set up knees by parrying jabs outward by reaching over the top of the punch, but few fighters can parry a punch with their parrying hand beginning inside their shoulder and finishing outside of it.
It's just not how your body works.
If you can get a jab going effectively, even just flicking at the opponent's lead-side eye, from open guard, it can start to cause overreactions in the opponent's guard, which makes the rear hand straight easier to land. The Japanese boxer, Hozumi Hasegawa, was phenomenal at using a seemingly inconsequential southpaw jab to create a path for his left straight directly to the chin.
Even if Maia had seen the punches coming and tried to get his arm in the way or redirect MacDonald's blow, he'd have had a hard old time doing it. If his hand had been up, level with his shoulder, checking MacDonald's lead and denying it the straight path, the fight could have turned out differently.
Lawler more than demonstrated how difficult it can be to jab against a southpaw with a good defensive lead hand.
It was an absolute pleasure, however, to witness the return of MacDonald's body kicks. MacDonald has all manner of kicks along all different trajectories. He doesn't just show the same roundhouse kick with the top of the foot or shin again and again, as Maia often does. No, MacDonald with land with the shin, the top of the foot or the ball of the foot, and he will change target and angle.
And goodness did it work. By Round 2, Maia looked exhausted from some of the biting body kicks which MacDonald had thrown. Each time Maia's head came forward, up came a front snap kick at his chin, or a roundhouse kick at his head. Every time these kicks forced Maia back upright it was back to the stiff one-two, or the kicks to the body.
You will always hear me saying how undervalued body strikes are in general in MMA—particularly long kicks to the body, and especially snap kicks with the ball of the foot. Watching MacDonald when he is on his game is akin to seeing what Katsunori Kikuno (click here to read my high opinions of that guy's style) could do with a fully rounded skill set and some top-flight experience inside the UFC under his karate black belt.
Even though Maia was severely outmatched on the feet, he did show a neat counter kick which we rarely see in MMA. That is to kick the standing leg underneath an opponent's kick. The best consistent example of this counter throughout a fight is, of course, Fedor Emelianenko vs. Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic.
Whether you cared about the main and co-main event or not, Maia vs. MacDonald is worth catching up on because it provided a technical chess match and a blood-and-guts battle.