Body work (the act of hitting the midsection) is severely underused in mixed martial arts. That much is no secret. In fact, I'm one of the people who appreciate body work so much that I consider it underused in many pure boxing matches as well.
The value of attacking the opponent's body can not be overstated. Whether it be a pistonlike jab to the solar plexus, sharp hooks and uppercuts in close, or knees and kicks: Attacking the body breaks men.
The problem with the majority of striking contests in MMA is that both fighters will head hunt with the occasional low kick. That's great, but it is essentially saying, "Let's both throw punches and see who gets tired first." The beauty of body work is that it snatches the breath from a fighter's lungs, the strength from his arms, and it can crumble the desire to fight in even the toughest of men.
Today, rather than looking at the best single body shots, I wanted to look at some of the best instances of fighters going consistently to the body. So no Melvin Guillard or Anderson Silva here, but read on anyway.
Everyone and their mother is doing roadwork. Pounding their feet on the asphalt in order to have the gas to go the three or five rounds. Nobody is running a couple of miles while getting punched and kneed in the gut.
The true beauty of body work is that if you start early (i.e., while you can still avoid getting hit in the head too much), by the time it gets to the third round, you don't even need to worry about stuff coming back. Nowhere was that more obvious than in our first example.
Fabio Maldonado vs Gian Villante
This fight took place Sunday night, so it's still fresh in many of our readers' minds. What really stood out in the contest (as with any Maldonado fight) was how terrible Maldonado's defense is. He walks into punches constantly out in the open. The thing is that every time he gets close, he sinks in two or three good, well-targeted body shots.
By the second round Villante was sucking air, and by the third Villante could barely defend himself. It's almost surreal to watch a fighter tire so quickly and drop their hands even though they know they will be punched in the face for it. If you hadn't seen it or felt it before, you would hardly believe the toll that effective body work can take.
Maldonado's horrible defense didn't even matter in the third round because Villante was exhausted, hurting and in survival mode. So Round 3 became Maldonado walking down his man with tasty five- or six-punch combinations and the less experienced fans in the audience wondering where on earth that came from.
Maldonado's hands and head could be from two completely different fighters...— Jack Slack (@JackSlackMMA) March 24, 2014
It was always there, he just turned his opponent from a willing combatant into a sheepish punching bag.
Katsunori Kikuno vs. Eddie Alvarez
This time, an example of the role that body kicks can play. Traditionally, kicking the body has left you the most exposed for a takedown. Throwing a traditional round kick to the body will, more often than not, connect with an arm.
What Katsunori Kikuno does so well is throw peculiar snap kicks with the ball of the foot. Sometimes they come out straight, other times they look straight and come around. The most important point is that they sneak inside of, or around, elbows.
Nowhere was Kikuno's powerful body work more obvious than against Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez is, to my mind, one of the best strikers in the lightweight division. He's known for his exceptionally powerful and fluid hands. Yet he struggled for much of the fight to get close enough to Kikuno. Each time Alvarez stepped in to punch, the ball of Kikuno's foot was slamming into his hip or stomach or chest.
Alvarez took the fight to the ground and showed that his game was (as most of us knew) much better all around than Kikuno's. But that one technique, because of its unusual execution and relatively uncommon targets (in MMA at least), caused Alvarez a whole heap of trouble that more rounded fighters couldn't.
Nick Diaz vs. B.J. Penn
B.J. Penn has a hell of a chin. We've known this for years. What only a few had picked up on was the fact that Penn struggles to take a body shot. It was shown for the first time in his second bout with Matt Hughes, where Hughes kicked the body, then targeted it with elbows from inside the guard. Penn gassed out and Hughes picked up the stoppage, but it was glossed over with the idea that Penn somehow injured himself in transition to Hughes' back.
It was exploited again by Georges St-Pierre, who tattooed the Hawaiian with jabs to the body and had him dropping his hands and eating punches to the face by Round 3. Each time St. Pierre landed in guard, he focused many of his strikes on Penn's midsection as well. But fans overlooked that. They wanted to blame Penn's gas tank or put it all down to St-Pierre's exhausting wrestling game.
What finally drove the point home was when Penn met Nick Diaz. Diaz is very hittable, Penn has some of the best head movement in the game. So the early going looked like Penn could get the better of the Stockton native. Yet as the rounds wore on, Penn's punches to the head had achieved little, and Diaz's well-placed, half-power body shots had exhausted Penn.
When fighters get tired against the Diaz brothers, they are in a bad spot. The Diaz brothers want their opponent on the fence, but when both fighters are fresh the Diaz's lack the ringcraft to get that done. As soon as their opponents start getting tired, the fight moves to the fence and it's all one-way traffic from there.
No one had ever beaten Penn so savagely, and it was all the result of Diaz's volume-based body punching.
Alistair Overeem vs. Travis Browne
Alistair Overeem had always liked knees. There was a time when throwing knee strikes was about all he could do. Watch back to his Pride bouts and he opens nearly every fight with a running knee or a flying knee. What he didn't really show appreciation of until later in his career was the attrition effect that knee strikes can have if you take them a little lower.
When you're constantly looking for the stepping knee or jumping knee to the head in hopes of a highlight-reel knockout, you're exerting a lot of energy on what is really quite a low percentage technique. If you throw it when it's not expected, you've got a good chance, but if it's all you do and you become known for that, you're going to have trouble getting it to stick.
Then Overeem made Paul Buentello tap to knee strikes. Throughout the fight, Overeem had been straining to land high knees in the clinch, yet as he caught Buentello in a scramble with a couple of knees to the midsection, all the fight left Buentello.
Since then, Overeem has had some of the finest body work I have ever seen in MMA. Against Travis Browne, Overeem used body punches to get into the clinch along the fence, then worked his man over with knees to the legs and body.
What that fight really illustrated (aside from Overeem's capacity to throw away any fight) is that the important point isn't always to hit the body hard, but if you hit consistently, you will eventually catch the opponent in an off-moment. When he is breathing in, or focusing on something else like pummeling an arm in, or raising his hands to protect his head.
And that's it. You only need to catch them unaware to send even the toughest guys out there into the fetal position. Browne showed incredible grit to get back into the fight, and even went on to win it, but the effect of just a few good knees and one sneaking through unguarded was obvious to all.