The Slow, Steady Evolution of Ronda Rousey's Striking

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistJuly 28, 2015

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Ronda Rousey has captivated the sports world with her dominance and ferocity. That said, no fighter was born perfect.

With an Olympic bronze medal in judo and a dozen armbars to her credit (nine in professional MMA, three in amateur), Rousey's strengths are obvious. But when discussing her pound-for-pound greatness, the main area of criticism has beenand perhaps always will beher striking. 

A few days ahead of her seventh title defense at UFC 190 on Saturday, it is worth taking a look at the strides she has made in her striking.

When Rousey is in her comfort zone, she is a force of nature: predictable but almost unstoppable. She has a one-size-fits-all approach to fighting that few foes have been able to resist and none have been able to stop. It goes:

  1. Close the distance with strikes.
  2. Clinch when opponent gets in range.
  3. Takedown.
  4. Armbar.

Breaking it down that simply may seem like a stultification of Rousey, but it is not. The fact that her ability to score spectacular finishes is so thoroughly streamlined is a testament to how immensely skilled she is.

The mistake that many make when it comes to analyzing Rousey is that they look at her striking in the context of legitimate striking. Is Rousey an excellent kickboxer? Absolutely not. 

That's the wrong way of looking at Rousey's striking, though. When it comes to Rousey's striking, it is important to remember that all her punches and all her kicks are merely vessels that deliver her to a stronger position in which to ply her grappling. "Evolution," in this case, is not reinventing the wheel.

Too often, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts will decide they are power-punching knockout artists, while NCAA Division I wrestlers will try to become kickboxers. An evolved Rousey isn't an elite striker. An evolved Rousey involves finding more efficient, more effective and, above all else, safer ways to deliver her from the Point A of her starting corner to the Point B of being on top of her opponent.

The Rousey who first made a name for herself in Strikeforce Challengers only had one way of getting to the clinch: walking forward and pumping the jab. Time and again, she would hop forward while flicking her left hand and either force her opponents to the cage (or ropes) or get them to explode forward with ugly, ineffective offense.

From there? Clinch. Takedown. Armbar. 

Rousey pumped the jab, secured the clinch once Sarah D'Alelio reached the cage and went to work for the armbar.
Rousey pumped the jab, secured the clinch once Sarah D'Alelio reached the cage and went to work for the armbar.Strikeforce Challengers 18 Screenshot

Her striking wasn't pretty. It wasn't clean. But it was effective in delivering her from A to B, and that's all it needed to be. As time went on and her strength of competition rose, her striking arsenal expanded, but not in a way where she began clobbering foes with spinning head kicks. Her striking arsenal expanded in a way that better sets her up to score takedowns.

MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko wrote the figurative book for using punches to set up takedowns. The CliffsNotes version comes from Jack Slack (of Bloody Elbow, at the time), who broke down Fedor's signature combination:

To perform feats like this Fedor utilizes what is known as Punch and Clutch. It is a concept I have written about in a little detail before, but really needs further examination, especially by modern MMA fighters. Punch and Clutch is the act of leading with a power punch, then falling into the clinch with an opponent so that one is too close to be hit with a counter punch. It has been used extensively by the light hitting Floyd Mayweather to add more authority to his attacks, and was also utilized by the great Jack Johnson almost exclusively in his attempts to gain an infighting position.

Using the clinch as the punctuation mark to a combination is a brilliant maneuver in most situations, but for Rousey in particular, it is an absolute game-changer. Offensively, it puts her in prime position to throw or trip opponents. Defensively, it allows her to stifle any potentially problematic counterpunches.

Rousey's "punch and clutch" is not nearly as smooth as Fedor's, of course, but she is wisely borrowing from The Last Emperor's playbook, and it is paying dividends. This has been most obvious in the earliest stages of her recent bouts, where she follows her game plan most strictly.

Check out this sequence from her UFC 168 bout opposite Miesha Tate: 

Rousey swaps punches with Tate and then rears back and lunges forward with a right hand. From there, she grabs ahold of Tate and works for the takedown.
Rousey swaps punches with Tate and then rears back and lunges forward with a right hand. From there, she grabs ahold of Tate and works for the takedown.UFC 168 Screenshot

While it may not seem like much, the difference is profound. With this seemingly minor tweak to her approach, Rousey is far more effective at closing the distance and scoring takedowns in the center of the cage, instead of relying on the cage. Oh, and having a devastating right hand? That's its own reward.

Long story short? The 2012 model of Rousey would not have been able to put together two power strikes and a huge throw in the center of the cage, as the 2014 model did against Alexis Davis. 

So where does she go from here? That's tough to call, given how little time Rousey has actually spent in the cage (30 seconds over 12 months isn't much tape to work with).

Looking back, the biggest problem in her striking game is her nonexistent head movement. Rousey has gotten tagged in the majority of her fights, absorbing hard punches from the likes of Miesha Tate and Sara McMann. While she can usually turn an opponent's forward momentum against them by trucking through punches and tying them up in the clinch, that is an unnecessary risk that could lead to trouble.

Not to be "that guy," but go watch the first 15 seconds of Rousey vs. McMann and imagine if those punches were coming from Cris "Cyborg" Justino. That isn't to say Cyborg would beat Rousey, but Rousey clearly has developed bad habits in her striking game that are easy to overlook because her opponents have largely been soft-handed.

All in all, however, Rousey has been getting better on her feet and, more importantly, has been getting better in the proper way. She is set to face Bethe Correia at UFC 190. Here's hoping the fight goes on long enough for the champ to show off any recent improvements.

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