MMA in 10 Moves: A Technical Introduction

Patrick Wyman@@Patrick_WymanMMA Senior AnalystOctober 15, 2015

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 17:  Georges St-Pierre (top) grapples against Carlos Condit in their welterweight title bout during UFC 154 on November 17, 2012  at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

A great deal is happening at any given time in a mixed martial arts fight. Transitions between the sport's component arts—muay thai, wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, to name only three—take place in a split second. Fighters might execute dozens of different techniques in hundreds of individual moves in any given fight, and the commentators rarely have time to explain the mechanics or nuance behind each one.

This piece examines 10 of the most common techniques that one might find in an MMA fight. It's not enough to know how to strike, wrestle or grapple; any fighter who has a hope of competing in one of MMA's major promotions has to at least know the basics of every art.

Consider this a technical introduction. If you've ever wanted to know what a proper jab looks like, how a double-leg takedown works or why we see so many rear-naked chokes, this is the piece for you. I'll walk you through the individual techniques, provide pictures and helpful videos and regularly link to GIFs to illustrate the principles at play.

A fight is much more than individual moves, of course. Offensive output and pace, transitions from phase to phase, confidence, rhythm and a dozen other advanced concepts all matter. Each of those things, however, is built on the foundation of basic technical acumen.

Let's learn a few things about MMA.

1. Jab 

The jab is any striker's most useful and important tool. At its most basic, it is a straight punch with the lead hand. That description, however, falls far short of describing the full range of uses to which the jab can be put. It can be taught in a single lesson, but it takes a lifetime to master.

A jab ranges from a probing shot that is little more than an extended arm to a battering ram that can break faces through repeated application. Measuring and setting the user's preferred distance, establishing a rhythm and timing, and setting up the following shots are all potential applications.

It's the quickest strike that can be thrown and therefore has particular utility as a counter, as former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva used it against Forrest Griffin and Yushin Okami, or to disrupt the opponent's rhythm. It serves to cover the forward movement of aggressive fighters such as Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier by giving the opposition something to think about as they push their foes back.

No fighter in MMA has utilized the jab more effectively over the course of his career than Georges St-Pierre. He threw it in a variety of ways, all of them effective. His trademark move was to leap in with it from range, as he does in this GIF against Josh Koscheck or here against BJ Penn.

St-Pierre pummeled Koscheck's face with the jab.
St-Pierre pummeled Koscheck's face with the jab.AFP/Getty Images

The Koscheck fight in particular was a master class in applying the jab, as St-Pierre landed a total of 50 jabs over the 25-minute distance. These weren't pitter-patter strikes, either: He shattered his opponent's orbital bone and pummeled him from safety for all five rounds. 

UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw has become a budding master of the jab under the tutelage of Duane Ludwig. He uses it in a variety of ways, constantly probing with his lead hand, as he does here before firing a cross and head kick, and occasionally firing vicious jabs as counters or to disrupt his opponent's rhythm.

Ryan Bader kept Rashad Evans at the end of his jab all night at UFC 192. Note how Evans' outstretched arm is still short of the target.
Ryan Bader kept Rashad Evans at the end of his jab all night at UFC 192. Note how Evans' outstretched arm is still short of the target.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

If anything, the jab is even more useful than it is in boxing since fewer MMA fighters truly excel at applying it, which gives the experts a whole chunk of safe distance where their opponent has little to offer. In a sport where takedowns are a massive factor, the ability to keep your opponent outside of range to shoot is a major advantage.

Despite the lack of skilled users in MMA, the jab is the most basic tool in any striker's arsenal, and it's the most essential. 

2. Overhand

The overhand—a looping punch thrown from the rear hand that looks like a baseball pitch—isn't as common as the jab, but it's particularly characteristic of MMA as opposed to the other arts that include striking on the feet.

Why? Two reasons. First, MMA gloves are smaller, which makes it more difficult for a default high guard—tight elbows, hands covering the sides of the face—to block it. Second, overhands are best set up with level changes, where a fighter bends his or her knees and ducks down. Level changes are much more common in MMA, which includes takedowns, than they are in boxing.

The MMA overhand was, for a long time, the target of derision from boxing purists. It's an ugly-looking strike even when executed perfectly, a windmilling swing that can land almost vertically as the user pulls his or her head off line. It stands in stark contrast to the boxing fan's adoration of a clean cross or a piercing jab.

This was always a straw man, though: Plenty of boxers throw an overhand, particularly those from Cuba or Eastern Europe, and the punch's utility is undeniable.

Yet the overhand remains more characteristic of MMA. It's the punch that former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell made his trademark, using it to knock out Alistair Overeem and Randy Couture. Former Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko threw it to unconsciousness-inducing perfection, putting Andrei Arlovski and Brett Rogers to sleep in convincing fashion.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 25:   (R-L) Junior dos Santos punches Mark Hunt in their heavyweight bout during UFC 160 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 25, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Roy Nelson has built his entire career in the UFC on the overhand, felling Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Cheick Kongo, among many others. Former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos won the title with the punch and dropped the iron-chinned Mark Hunt with a vicious overhand. The most iconic knockout in MMA history, Dan Henderson's finish of Michael Bisping, was a thunderous overhand.

No punch is more characteristic of MMA than the overhand. While symbolic of the undeniably cruder nature of MMA striking, it's prevalent in the sport for good reasons: It's a hard punch that suits the smaller gloves and broader tactical context.

3. Round Kick

The round kick is native to practically every art that includes kicking, with some variations. In MMA, most fighters learn to throw it in a fashion that is derived from muay thai, and as such it should be landed with the lower part of the shin.

The motion is straightforward: Step or pivot on the lead foot so that it's turned perpendicular to the target, thrust the hip so that it leads the kicking leg, and turn the hip over to get maximum force into the strike. A discerning observer might add a scrunching of the abdominal muscles and a chopping motion with the hand on the kicking side, but these motions aren't strictly necessary.

Machida lands a kick to the liver.
Machida lands a kick to the liver.Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike a karate-style round kick, of which we see a few in MMA from fighters such as Lyoto Machida and many of the Russian fighters now entering the UFC, the muay thai-style kick has more of a whipping than a snapping motion. It's a powerful strike that's reminiscent of getting hit with a baseball bat.

The round kick can be thrown to all three levels—low, middle and high. The low kick is the easiest to land, as it's thrown from the greatest distance and has a substantial margin for error. The middle kick is the most dangerous, since the user can easily be countered with punches. The high kick is the most difficult to land, since it's the slowest and gives the opponent plenty of time to react.

Nobody throws better low kicks in MMA than UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo. Not only is he unbelievably fast, but he sets them up beautifully with punches. His timing is incredible, and he places his shots in exactly the right spot as his opponent turns his leg. UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, another talented kicker, destroyed Nate Diaz's lead leg with repeated shots.

Former champion Anthony Pettis is a master of the body kick. He blasted Donald Cerrone's liver with a beautiful left kick and used a series of them to tenderize Benson Henderson's body in their second meeting before the armbar finish.

When a kick lands cleanly to the head in MMA, it's generally because of a clever setup or gross negligence. Pettis flashed his hands before landing one on Joe Lauzon's dome. Dillashaw used the threat of his straight left to set up this head kick on Renan Barao.

Wherever they're thrown, round kicks are an essential part of any MMA fighter's arsenal.

4. Knee From the Double-Collar Tie

The clinch is one of the fundamental phases of MMA. It's unique in that it combines pieces of different combat sports into a diverse whole in a way that range striking, wrestling and grappling don't. There's a bit of boxing's short punches, a dash of wrestling's takedowns and control and a smidgen of judo's trips and throws, but knees from the double-collar tie—colloquially known as the "muay thai clinch"—reign supreme.

The double-collar tie actually comes into MMA from both wrestling and muay thai. It's a simple enough grip, with the hands placed on the crown of the opponent's head, one over the other, and the forearms tightly pinned to the sides of the opponent's jaw. You should feel the squeeze in your chest as you pinch your forearms together.

Properly executed, this gives the user full control over the opponent's movements: where the head goes, the body follows. Masters of the double-collar tie excel at taking the opponent off balance with an economy of motion, as Anderson Silva repeatedly demonstrated against Rich Franklin.

With full control over the opponent's balance, posture and position, knees follow shortly thereafter. Once again, Silva provides the clearest example of mastery from his first fight with Franklin. The Spider mixes up the placement, throwing first to the body and then using the double-collar tie to pull Franklin down into a crushing knee to the face. Wanderlei Silva did the same to Rampage Jackson.

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Knees from the double-collar tie can be effective in sequence, but they're also effective transitional strikes. Jake Ellenberger grabbed a quick hold, stepped back to give his hips room and then fired two knees to finish Jake Shields.

The double-collar tie has other applications, and knees can be used from a variety of positions, but this is a basic facet of any fighter's game. 

5. Double-Leg Takedown

The double-leg takedown is an MMA staple. In its basic form, it's easy to teach and learn, and practically every fighter has some idea of how to shoot the double whether they regularly use it or not.

The double has many variations, but in essence it consists of a level change, with the knee hitting the floor; a penetration step, where the user steps forward to get close to the opponent's hips; and then shooting the hands behind the opponent's legs and either placing a hand behind each knee or clasping them together behind the thighs.

From there, the user can finish in a number of ways. One possibility, favored by Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs and UFC light heavyweight Ryan Bader, involves placing the head in the stomach or sternum to off-balance the opponent directly backward.

Alternatively, one can place the head on the outside of the opponent's torso and use lateral head pressure to push the opponent off balance and finish the takedown, as St-Pierre does here to Dan Hardy.

In modern MMA, however, it isn't enough to simply drop down for a double-leg and shoot in open space without a setup. Practically every fighter knows how to sprawl well enough to get away. Instead, we see fighters shooting double-legs as a counter to their opponents' movement, as GSP did in the last GIF, or with punches to distract their opponents. Bantamweight champion Demetrious Johnson, one of the finest double-leg practitioners in MMA, is a master of that.

The double-leg is the most basic takedown. It works at every level, from amateur bouts held in smoke-filled bars to UFC title fights at the MGM Grand. What changes are the setups and the skill level, but no fighter goes far without knowing the double inside and out.

6. Trip

Trips are clinch takedowns. They come in two basic varieties, inside and outside, which refers to whether the user's foot is outside of the opponent's or inside. In either case, the mechanics involved are simple: The combination of pushing the upper body while taking away one of the legs necessary for balance dumps the opponent onto the floor.

The sheer number of potential variations here is difficult to overstate. They can be executed from body locks, with both arms underneath the opponent's and clasped together behind his back; double underhooks, the same position but without the hands clasped; over/under, with one arm under the opponent's and the other over; or double overhooks, when the opponent has either double underhooks.

This is easier shown than described. Here's Olympic gold medalist Adam Saitiev hitting a nasty inside trip from over/under, and UFC middleweight contender/Olympic silver medalist Yoel Romero hitting the same takedown against Derek Brunson.

The finishing stage of Cormier's outside trip on Dan Henderson.
The finishing stage of Cormier's outside trip on Dan Henderson.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

This outside trip from Cormier is impressive, to be sure, but it's still an outside trip. Here's a gassed Shogun Rua hitting an outside trip from over/under against an even more gassed Henderson in their first meeting. Yoshihiro Akiyama turned a caught kick into an outside trip against Alan Belcher.

Like double-legs, trips from the clinch are a basic part of every fighter's arsenal whether they use them or not. Every style that includes takedowns, from folkstyle wrestling to judo to sambo, has some variations on the inside and outside trip, and for good reason: They're basic and effective.

7. Sprawl 

We've looked at two different types of takedowns, double-legs and trips, but what about the skills necessary to avoid being taken down? That's where the handy sprawl, the basic counter to a double-leg and sometimes a single-leg, comes into play.

There are multiple variations, but essentially a sprawl involves dropping one's hips back out of range of the opponent's hands as he reaches forward to complete the takedown. As the opponent attempts to drive forward to reach the hips, the hips pull back out of reach and the sprawler drives his or her weight down to prevent the forward drive.

The additional piece to a sprawl involves digging for one or two underhooks as the opponent shoots in. The hips drop back, and the hands dig under the opponent's armpits, pushing him or her back. Both hands might go under, or one might have one under and the other on the opponent's shoulder or head pushing downward.

The sprawl is an essential tool. An entire type of fighters—"sprawl-and-brawlers"—derive their name from the technique. Liddell, Wanderlei Silva and Mirko Filipovic were its pioneers, and it remains viable today. If one prefers to fight on the feet in MMA, there's simply no way around the sprawl.

Let's take a look at some of its elite practitioners. UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk has a devastating sprawl, and former titleholder Carla Esparza repeatedly came up empty as she shot in. Welterweight champion Robbie Lawler is even more effective: He sprawls beautifully here against Rory MacDonald early and follows it with a knee; later in the fight he hit the hardest sprawl I've ever seen.

Jedrzejczyk sprawls against Esparza.
Jedrzejczyk sprawls against Esparza.Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

What separates new-school sprawlers such as Jedrzejczyk and Lawler from Liddell and Silva is that they hurt their opponents when they shoot. It's not just that they stuff the takedowns; instead, they stuff the takedowns and land a few elbows or knees to show the opponent that shooting wasn't a good idea in the first place.

MMA has room for pure strikers, and it's the humble sprawl that allows them to keep the fight standing.

8. Guard Pass

A guard pass is simply a way for the fighter on top to get past the legs of the fighter on the bottom in order to reach a dominant position on the ground. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of variations on the guard pass, most of which are only truly applicable in high-level sport grappling in or out of the gi, but it remains a basic tool in every fighter's arsenal.

Guard passing isn't as big a piece of most fighters' games as it was in the past. The basic sequence of positional advances—full guard to half guard to side control to mount and potentially to the back—has less utility in MMA than in grappling.

Side control offers almost nothing in MMA to all but the most elite grapplers; without the friction a gi provides, it's difficult to hold an opponent there, and it's hard to posture to get real force behind ground strikes. The mount is useful, to be sure, but the real prize is either half guard or the back.

In half guard, as opposed to side control or the mount, it's difficult for the opponent to stand back up or reverse positions. The fighter on top can keep his or her weight down for control but can also posture to land vicious ground strikes. From the back, the threat of the submission is constant, and it's easy to maintain control for minutes at a time.

Maia passed MacDonald's guard repeatedly in the first round.
Maia passed MacDonald's guard repeatedly in the first round.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

With all of that said, the guard pass is still an essential skill, but only the truly elite make regular use of them. Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza is one of the two or three best grapplers in MMA, and he has an array of creative passes: Note how he presses his feet against the cage to work past Chris Camozzi's guard here. Demian Maia hits effortless passes even against elite defenders such as MacDonald.

St-Pierre attempts to pass Nick Diaz's guard.
St-Pierre attempts to pass Nick Diaz's guard.Jonathan Ferrey/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

St-Pierre was a great guard-passer in his prime but mostly used it to work to half guard to strike. UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, a world-class grappler with a complete game, passes smoothly. He dominated Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira with a frenetic series of passes that never let the veteran get comfortable and effortlessly sliced through Travis Browne's guard.

At the lowest levels of MMA, where the basic knowledge of grappling is limited, guard passing is exceptionally useful. At the highest levels, it becomes useful again. In the middle, where everyone is more or less competent, it loses much of its effectiveness, but it's still a fundamental part of the sport.


9. Rear-Naked Choke

As guard passing has become less and less important, getting to the back and hitting the rear-naked choke has become much more so. MMA in 2015 includes many more opportunities to reach the back, since the increased emphasis on getting up when taken down briefly creates an opening for savvy fighters to exploit. 

Thirty-four of the 71 submissions in the UFC this year have been rear-naked chokes, and that proportion is unlikely to move downward. 

Sharp fighters have worked extensively on moving straight to the back in transitions, skipping the entire grueling process of moving from guard to half guard to side control to mount and then, just maybe, reaching the back. If the opponent tries to get up, why not just let him or her go instead of trying to hold them down, and then try to transition to the back?

The result is a more frenetic, quicker-paced MMA ground game that has increasingly diverged from sport grappling. MMA-adapted grappling includes wrestling and BJJ in equal measure, and the combination of the two has created interesting opportunities for adaptation and integration.

The result is that back-takes have become a more important piece of the game. Barao hit an exceptionally slick one as a rocked Brad Pickett attempted to get back to his feet. Barao's teammate Eduardo Dantas moved directly from defending a single-leg to the back in one of the smoothest transitions you'll ever see. Maia gets behind his opponent on the feet and then reaches the back in transition.

The rear-naked choke is simple in application, with the forearm pressed across the opponent's throat, one hand across the opposite bicep and the other hand pressing the opponent's head forward. There are multiple variations based on grip and body position.

Maia is a master of the rear-naked choke. Here he is hitting one against Neil Magny from a body triangle, using a forceful punch to break Magny's defense and get his arm under the chin. Against Rick Story, Maia hit a slick neck-crank instead.

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 18:  Luke Rockhold and Lyoto Machida of Brazil grapple in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Prudential Center on April 18, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Image
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Even at the highest levels of MMA, the rear-naked choke is common: Cormier used one to defeat Anthony Johnson in a UFC title fight earlier this year. Glover Teixeira ended Ovince Saint Preux's night from the back, and Luke Rockhold finished Machida with the submission.

The rear-naked choke is a basic part of every fighter's arsenal, and increasingly so as the sport continues to evolve even as submissions as a whole become a less common method of finishing a fight.

10. Ground Striking

Aside from Combat Sambo, MMA is the only combat sport to include striking on the ground. It's one of the major things that separate it from its cousins in the world of pure grappling or pure striking.

Over time, generations of fighters have turned ground-and-pound into an art form of the highest level, with all of the technical nuance of striking on the feet. The best practitioners throw body-head combinations with mechanics that share some common points with standing striking but are distinct in others.

Ground striking differs depending on the position. The most common strikes are punches and elbows, while knees are a possibility when the opponent is turtled. From top position, the key to generating force is posture. It's difficult to get any power behind one's shots when chest-to-chest, unless your name is Brock Lesnar.

Fedor Emelianenko was the master of posture. Note here how he brings his torso up to create space in which he can torque his entire bodyweight into this combination against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Chael Sonnen, too, had excellent posture, as you can see in this GIF from his first fight against Silva.

St-Pierre badly bloodied Condit with elbows.
St-Pierre badly bloodied Condit with elbows.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Elbows offer another dimension. St-Pierre was a master of elbows from inside the guard, as he showed with a sharp one that opened up Carlos Condit's face. Sambo master Khabib Nurmagomedov finished off a hurt Thiago Tavares with a stream of elbows from half guard.

Nobody, however, is more vicious than former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who literally broke Brandon Vera's face with a cracking left elbow from inside the guard.

A rarely seen but highly effective ground-striking technique consists of knees to the body of a grounded opponent. St-Pierre used these to brutal effect in his second fight with Matt Serra and did it again to Nick Diaz.

Ground strikes are part of MMA from the lowest to the highest level. Elite fighters train it the same way they do any other part of their game, and in the hands and elbows of the masters, they turn into an art form in their own right.

Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report. He can be found on Twitter.


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