Letters: Kicks in MMA

Kicks in MMA

28 August 2004

Q. What is your honest opinion of the use of kicks in MMA ? I would be pleased to receive an answer as I have a divided opinion myself. –Mark Woodard

A.Naturally, there’s a high risk factor in using kicks in MMA, particularly in the standup position. Also, because of the diversity of those kicks which are deemed legal and illegal depending on the competition (e.g., UFC vs. Pride), many fighters are confused as to what kicks they should train. However, I still believe that kicks are an important component in anyone’s arsenal, and for some fighters they have been decisive tools in determining victory. Kicks have proven effective for fighters like Bas Rutten, Marcos Ruas, Pedro Rizzo, Maurice Smith, Chuck Lidell, Tim Sylvia, and Yves Edwards, to name a few. So, as a trainer, you need to be able to teach kicks in the event that you have a potential Bas Rutten in your gym; otherwise he will never realise his full potential.

That doesn’t mean that anyone can pull off effective kicks in competition. I see three reasons why a person couldn’t kick well (apart from the defenses of his opponent):

1) his physical attributes/tactical-dynamic knowledge of the kick won’t allow him to

2) his confidence in using kicks in the ring is low

3) sheer stubborness–despite the evidence, he doesn’t believe kicks can work.

All fighters need to be fully conversant with kicks, even if they’re not going to use them, because they have to defend against them. So they have to train by practicing against effective kickers–the implication of that is, everybody in your gym has got to be able to kick, or they won’t be providing a realistic example for their training partners. Equally, for those who wish to make kicking a major weapon, it’s crucial to practice against effective grapplers so as to learn the possible counters they will come up against. The essential result of all that is that, although you might choose your best weapons to use in the ring, you have to practice all of them in the gymnasium.

Particularly, the coach, like the fighter, has to be aware of those kicks that have proven to be effective within current MMA competitions (low round kicks, stomps, kicks from the ground, etc.). He must also know how to teach them from the point of view of their dynamics, the situations which they are most likely to be used in, and within the individual attributes of his fighters and the envisaged opponent(s).

Usually the reference points for kicks come out of Muay Thai or kickboxing. Fighters and trainers tend to try to use that model for kicking and apply it to MMA without modifying it. This is where they go wrong, and that’s why people tend to look down on kicks–because they’ve mainly seen unsuccessful usage of them. But kicks can be modified, tactically and dynamically, for MMA. For example, in the standup, your alignment, stance, and positioning mustn’t compromise your ability to shoot for a single or double leg (inside or outside), punch, tie up, clinch, and defend against all of the above–and particularly, you must be able to sprawl. If you’re too upright, there’s too much delay on the sprawl and you’ll get caught. You want to be in a position where you can not only kick or punch, but sprawl immediately, as well as use knees against incoming single and double leg shoots.

The other thing with kicks is that people don’t know how to put a finish on the kick, and so the general conception is that it’s a bad tradeoff to just put a welt on the guy’s leg when you might end up with a broken nose, or be taken to the ground and pounded in return. If you’re going to be an effective kicker, your kick has to be destructive. And it has to be set up with the hands or timed precisely for the moment when he’s least prepared for it.

If your kick is perceived as dangerous, you can keep him in the standup. He won’t want to come in. You’ll keep him in the zone you want to fight him in. If you kick his lead/post leg effectively, he won’t be able to shoot off it. And of course, kicks can be used to set up other moves such as finishes.

One of the problems with kicking, though, is that there is a tendency to put your own lead leg into his strike or red zone, and so it becomes vitally important to know how to avoid that and angle your body so that none of your target area comes within his immediate range as you’re kicking. You can’t eliminate the counter, but you can limit the possibilities of what he can do to you. Set ups with the hands, as well as timing, are of course essential. You don’t just kick because you feel like it.

One of the things you have to be wary of when using kicks, particularly against grapplers, is them setting you up by using their lead/post leg as a target. And rather than kicking the leg, in this case, you should, for example, strike towards the head to preoccupy their attention, and then kick to the leg, when they’re not ready to counter you.

People tend to put too much into the kick, and it compromises everything else they have to do. It takes them too long to kick and too long to recover, and they usually kick with just the leg alone. Learning how to use the body as a dynamic whole is not only the key to kicking, but the key to all movement. And it’s that fundamental way of using the body that allows you to kick, punch, sprawl, and takedown, in a natural and repetitive way: rapidly, randomly, and in broken time.

About repetition: if you can’t continuously repeat a technique, with power, or flow from one technique to another without losing rhythm, timing, position, tactics, etc., there’s something wrong. You’re not using your natural body processes specific to what you need to do. You need to use your whole body to culminate in this explosive release of one part, i.e. the kick, rather than kick with your leg in isolation. When you’re using the whole body in this way, you can easily make the transition to other moves. One move feeds another move, as when running. The body remains interconnected and continuously loads, releases and reloads in a natural way. There’s an old expression: power comes out, it doesn’t go in.

When it comes to any kind of strikes, kicks included, my personal approach has always been to try to take my opponent apart by a cumulative effort, not to go for the big finishing shot. If the knockout comes (and often enough it does), then great–but I’m always set to miss or fail, and go again. In my view, better to use rapid automic fire than to put everything into one cannonball and risk getting knocked out myself.

One of the best ways of training kicks, apart from the heavy bag, is on the pads. Not only will you achieve leg conditioning and anaerobic fitness specific to the fight, but you can practice with full power and speed against a live target who can check off any mistakes you’re making (e.g., if you kick to the pad in a way that’s wrong, the padman can simulate a takedown on you). However, with regards to padwork, you might as well practice on a bag unless your padman is able to realistically represent your opponent. All too many padmen stand there signalling in shots as if they’re directing a jumbo jet. Remember: the pads are not the target, the man is! You don’t look at the pads, you look at the man. And for this, you will need an experienced padman–i.e., fighter. He’s got to know what he’s doing.

By the way, the pads are also excellent for training this repetitive, natural movement that I’m talking about. See how many power kicks you can do within a set time period. Say you can do five in five seconds. Now try to do six, then seven, and so on, without losing form or power. You will train the body to naturally adjust and raise the work rate, as well as simulate the kind of cardio performance you will need in the ring. You’re not actually going to repeat the kick in the ring in the same way, but you will have learnt the process of doing a single kick more effectively, and it will be easier to now make a transition to another move because you’ve taught the system to reload in rapid succession.

There are several important aspects of the round kick that are difficult to translate into words, but I’ll try. Most people, when they kick the low round, stand with one foot almost directly ahead of the other, which means not only do they present that lead leg as a target to be kicked in return or shot with a single or double leg, but it forces them to perform a full rotation in order to reach the target. It also takes them out of line to be able to shoot back in return between their opponent’s legs (if they’re fighting an orthodox fighter) or outside of his legs (if the”re fighting a southpaw).

The stance you need to use instead is a combination of what I call staggered and square. Staggered meaning you could perform a penetrative step from it to either strike or shoot, and square meaning you could move laterally or sprawl. Because you don’t know which one you’re going to do, you stand in a combination of the two. The position now of the left foot, because the stance is slightly shorter and wider, allows you to kick at an angle. You only need to make a quarter or half turn to get the target. Angulation in fighting is everything. It’s the little angles that work, and not the big.

With regard to the alignment of the body, you’re always looking for a shoulder-knee relationship, which puts your joints at optimal angles, with hips slightly back and naval pulled to your spine, chest in, upper back round, shoulders slightly shrugged to prevent the snap-down, hands up, elbows in, and head able to move from side to side. It almost looks like you’re about to pounce on your opponent. The shoulder-knee relationship is critical, as opposed to a shoulder-hip relationship, which places the body in a far too upright position. The shoulder to knee position allows you to see all of your opponent without looking at any one part of him, whereas more upright positions only allow you to see the upper part of the opponent and you lose sight of the lower incoming attacks as well as targets. That’s why when you look at old fighters from the 30s who could both box and wrestle, and served their apprenticeships in the boxing and wrestling booths, their stances are more crouched, or C-shaped, and with a cross guard (i.e., protecting the lead leg). The shoulder to knee relationship also allows you to drop rapidly, changing level with the momentum of your body going forward, to make a shoot.

Stance and position are consequences of what you need to do, and to do an effective kick with a measure of safety, you need to be coming out of a tactical and biomechanically efficient stance. Important to the performance of any technique is where you place your head, and for example if you’re in a left staggered stance and you’re going to kick with the right leg, the head has to either be transferred across or already positioned over the left leg. It is through and about the major axes of the hip and the spine that forces are transmitted and accelerated from the feet to the hands and vice versa. This alignment and connection to the ground and gravity is critical when punching and kicking, as is your alignment with relation to your opponent. All too often, these major axes are perceived as one vertical static axis, like a doorpost about which you slam a door; but in truth the axes should be alive and dynamic, folding and unfolding, twisting and untwisting, through planes that are more diagonal than vertical. The axis can also be suddenly and explosively shifted, as if you’ve been startled, to gain additional finishing power.

One of the problems when doing the round kick is that the lead foot is either planted and held static and the kicker attempts to perform a rotation about it which compromises the hip and the spine (as in karate), or else he screws the foot into the ground as he makes the rotation, which, by friction, effectively brakes the kick. The better alternative would be to either place the foot into the finishing position prior to performing the kick thus forming an axis about which to kick (and remember, the stance I’m using has already put me most of the way there, so it’s not a big movement), or else, suddenly and violently, shifting the axis into the finishing position using an almost imperceptible jump.

Another thing, from the dynamic point of view, is that in the same way you wouldn’t run with your hands in your pockets, you have to use your hands, elbows and shoulders to transfer momentum of the upper body into the ‘free’ kicking leg. Because the withdrawal reflex is the fastest thing you can probably do with your hands, the hands help to initiate that explosive transference of generated forces from the upper torso into the lower body and into the kicking leg. But again, this movement isn’t huge. The hands must remain tactically aligned to the opponent while you are kicking.

With regards to initiating the movement of the body as a whole, you need to use your head. The head is a major initiator of movement. It tells the body where to go: up, down, forward, back, twist left, twist right, etc. and the rate at which to move. All too often martial artists move as if trying to balance their head on top of their bodies, rather than using the head in all the ways that it can be used: as a major target, a major weapon, a way to feint or draw, a determinator of the angulation and level of your shots, and a major intiator of movement. For example, in the round kick, the head has to be used energetically to set off the sequential or simultaneous releases of forces through the body and into the target. You’d need to see the videos to understand how I do this.

Not only do you have to have external timing to your opponent, but internal timing with regards to kinesthetically sensing these internally generated forces that are developing the kick, and the explosive follow-through forces that finish it. With regards to the follow-through, all too many people try to go too far and the kick ends up decelerating, or they end up out of position. At the end of a long kick, just as at the end of a short punch, you’ve got to feel that your body is a nail gun driving a nail into your opponent. What you have to feel is that you’re actually trying to violently compress the muscle against the bone of your opponent”s leg. The kick must accelerate at the end.

And like any explosive release of force, a gun etc., you have to make an equally explosive sound. Not the scream of karate, it’s just the sound of effort, more like a Thai fighter; i.e., more like a guttural bark, produced by the naval being pulled upward towards the spine, which also has a stabilizing effect for that moment of execution and impact. The sound is concentrated into the duration of the effort: short for strikes with the hands, longer for knees and kicks. The sound reflects the physical effort as well as the emotional intent to destroy the target. And you must be able to repeat it.

I suppose the thing is that, as you can see from what I’ve written, no matter what question anybody might ask, the answer has got to be holistic. There is no such thing as a discussion of kicks in isolation. In any of my replies, I’m going to be limited by words and the interpretation of them. But the videos capture completely everything I’ve said in this reply, and more.

As fighters and trainers, what we always have to remember is that the purpose of NHB/MMA/submission fighting is to take the opponent out, with strikes on the feet, ground & pound, locks, or chokes–or to cause him such injuries and lead him into such a state of exhaustion that either he can’t continue with the fight, or the ref intervenes. All this, without suffering the same fate ourselves. As a NHB fighter, you always must prepare in training for the worst possible scenario, and in the fight be constantly working at changing the situation to your favour. And when an opportunity created by you or inadvertently given to you by your opponent occurs, even momentarily, you have to be able to pounce upon it, wherever and whenever it may occur. For example, sometimes if your opponent whether by your efforts or his lack of focus opens up his head, it might be better to kick him in the head with a round kick than to overreach with a right hand. Remember how Pete Williams, not a great kicker, took out Mark Coleman, a ground & pound specialist, when he dropped his guard.

Naturally, as fighters we always have to play the percentages and hopefully fight the fight according to our game plan, not his. If you want to fight in your area of expertise and not his, the more you know about your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses relative to your own, the better your game plan will be. For example, as a standup fighter against a grappler, the more you practice about how he might make his entries and takedowns, the more you’ll be able to neutralize those efforts and even use his own moves against him. And if he was to succeed in taking you to the ground, the more you know what he might do next, the better you’ll be able to neutralize it, escape the situation, and get back to the feet or even reverse the situation and ground & pound, lock, or choke him rather than the other way around. Knowing your enemy is more than just about knowing his name or what he had for breakfast.

In the multidimensional sport of MMA, the more offensive, defensive and counteroffensive skills you practice in the open and closed standup position and on the ground in the various possible positions, the more effective you’re going to be. You can’t afford to neglect anything, particularly in the gym. Preparation is everything.