Here’s a basic question: how is striking in MMA changing and where is it headed? The answers aren’t entirely obvious, but watching UFC lightweight Anthony Pettis bounce off of the cage makes one wonder if this is a gimmick or the beginning of a full-fledged change in the way people strike in MMA. Noticing how effective it is, I’m trending toward the latter.
Duke Roufus, the trainer to Pettis and many other elite MMA fighters, believes Pettis’ cage use is one component of MMA’s striking evolution. Sure, the cage is becoming a weapon of sorts, but the level of striking in MMA is improving, particularly on the defensive end.
Where it’s headed, though, is a matter of projection. To help me understand its present and potential future, I spoke with Roufus about how his star pupils are pushing the envelope of what’s possible, what they want to achieve and what we can reasonably expect to change in the coming years. Roufus also discusses Pettis’ impending featherweight title bout against champion Jose Aldo and forecasts how their contrasting striking styles will match up when their August bout takes place.
Partial transcription and full audio below:
Let me start with that victory (against Donald Cerrone). Generally speaking, did that go as planned?
Oh yeah, definitely. All the techniques are premeditated. Everything we planned to do in training except for one. Anthony of course had to put his “Showtime” spin on it and he did his off-the-cage knee, which is beautiful.
Were liver kicks part of it specifically? To what extent was the way it ended a natural consequence of the way Anthony strikes versus “we see a real vulnerability there with him keeping his hands in a particular way?
Anthony has really worked on his Muay Thai and Thai-style kicking. Wherever he connects, it’s gonna do damage whether it’s the head of Joe Lauzon or it’s gonna be a leg kick, a body kick. He’s getting very proficient. He and I both grew up in taekwondo so my transformation from taekwondo to karate to kickboxing to Muay Thai has really helped him bridge the gap from taekwondo to Muay Thai and how to really use the dexterity of his technique. Now he’s a really powerful kicker as well as a flashy kicker too.
For folks that don’t have that experience, when we see in MMA a guy with the taekwondo background, he throws the side kick or spinning kick where a Muay Thai kicker is some guy who faces you at 12 o’clock and drills you with his shin to the leg, body or head. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah, that’s kinda accurate, but at the same time, Anthony is so used to using his feet since he was five years old that it’s effortless for him to pick up his legs and power kick people. His muscles are trained to move quicker and faster than someone who’s only been doing it 5, 6, 7 or even 10 years. He’s been doing it for 20 years of his life already and that’s a huge advantage in the kicking game. He can pick up his legs so quick, that’s why his kicks are so hard to defend.
The time from forward to target is very small and that’s why he’s so successful with his kicks. I’ve been able to help him bridge the gap between Thai boxing and Muay Thai and taekwondo and that’s been the fun part of it. Taking some of the cool moves like the cartwheel kick he did is taking from traditional Muay Thai. There’s a famous Muay Thai fighter in Thailand that uses that kick often so those are the types of things going on. These types of things are just a blast to do.
To what extent is the athleticism a part of it. You mentioned when he kicks somebody, it’s the speed. Could someone who’s not as quick as Anthony do what he does, or is this something that he really brings to life because he has the particular athletic skillset?
Oh definitely he’s a way superior athlete as well so that’s why it works well for him. That’s the best thing he’s got going for him now is his athleticism too.
Let’s talk about some of the stranger kicks he does. You mentioned the cartwheel kick he did against Cerrone as well as plenty of other kicks. I’m gonna ask you plain out and gimme the best answer you can. Why aren’t some of the techniques that Anthony does more ubiquitous?
Well we saw Jose Aldo do the superman punch that Alan Belcher and Anthony have done in fights too. I think you’re gonna see, I saw online that Overeem was playing around with the Showtime knee and dos Santos was playing around with the Showtime kick. I saw online that Paul Sass was playing around with a triangle off the cage. I think you’re gonna see more people doing it. Let’s face it, people are going to see what Anthony’s doing and say, “Wow, Anthony’s getting some shine, I want a piece of that.”
What happens too after a while is everybody is getting better at striking so you can’t just throw a round kick, you have to cross it. Everyone’s understanding the basics of striking so once in a while you need a trick play to mess everyone up a little bit.
How would you describe Anthony’s footwork, what about it is unique? Footwork for a really good striker is almost like a fingerprint. Dominick Cruz has his own type of footwork and Jose Aldo has his own type of footwork. How would you characterize the footwork of Anthony Pettis?
He’s almost like a panther who pounces on his prey. One, he’s a great athlete. My father was my first coach and I’m meticulous on footwork. Footwork is everything in mixed martial arts whether you want to avoid takedowns or create takedown opportunities, if you want to create shots or not get hit, you’ve got to be able to move your feet.
Mobility is the key to fighting in my humble opinion and Anthony is very meticulous on that. He understands and it comes from years of doing martial arts tournaments. He understands how to hit and not get hit. That’s what style I brought to me from my kickboxing and Muay Thai career, the ability to hit and not get hit. I didn’t sustain a lot of damage when I fought when I used that particular style. I was aggressive, but at the same time, when it came time for me to not be hit, I was gone, and that’s what Anthony is awesome at. He comes in aggressively, steps at different angles and he’s very good at putting himself in a position where he can hit you but you can’t hit him.
But how would you say that with Jose Aldo? He’s a great striker, but he doesn’t seem to move nearly as much. Why is that?
Yeah, he likes to stalk and attack. I would say if I had to characterize his style, and I did a lot of research on Jose Aldo from when Erik Koch was gonna fight him. I know he’s trained with K-1 MAX fighter Andy Souwer so he’s got definitely what we call the Dutch kickboxing influence to his style. They’re more tendency towards trades because I trained with Dutch dudes. He’s more of a stalking style that you see in K-1 fighting or Dutch kickboxing.
And that means what, a little more on the balls of your feet, a little more moving forward and a little more emphasis on power?
Yes, definitely. That style likes to throw hard punch combos followed by hard low kicks followed by hard punches again. You’ll see his jumping knee and things like that. He’s a hell of a fighter too. I love watching Aldo fight. That being said, I love watching Cerrone fight, but I love watching my guys beat those guys.
If you had to mold and create such that one exists, the perfect striker in MMA. Would he be primarily a kicker or primarily a puncher?
I think that kicking’s cool, but if you don‘t have any weapons to set it up, it’s a very, very manic style. It’s like only living and dying as a basketball player that can only dunk the basketball or do lay-ups or only shoot three-pointers. It’s like any other sport, you’ve got to be well-rounded with your attacks. The more attacks you can display, like play action in football. Am I doing a draw, am I pulling back, is it a sweep? The more options you have, it creates more openings.
Everyone talks about the liver kick, but if you look at Anthony, he started out right handed punching the right hand side and did a little switch-step on a punch and he ended up catching Donald when he switched to the left and he didn’t even realize it. He did some punches and followed it up with a side kick followed up with a step-knee on the cage, almost threw the elbow, had a few punches and a body punch and then a kick. Even in that short fight he had some small, a little diversity of all his strikes if that makes sense.
Striking is certainly evolving, jiu-jitsu is evolving in MMA, wrestling is evolving, but if we can just focus on striking, we’re starting to see not just guys getting better, like Daniel Cormier throwing combinations, but certainly the best practices are being disseminated, but in terms of evolution and adaptation, in your mind, where is it headed?
It’s not even near its ceiling yet. Everyone in the sport is getting better at everything and it’ scrazy. Non-wrestlers are getting good at wrestling like GSP, jiu-jitsu has always been great and now I think striking, a lot of people realize striking makes you money. The fans, the general fan gets excited about striking.
But I mean in terms of changes. You guys are doing the off the wall stuff, but it’s not that you’re just doing that although that’s certainly a key component. You saw guard play being the initial jiu-jitsu component in MMA and now it’s more about back control or mounting or guard passing to the side. Demian Maia is a perfect example of that. In striking, what are some key things that guys are more leaning on now than they used to?
A lot of things, the evolution, everyone is getting better at defense more than anything. They need to get better and if your defense is good, you can be as aggressive as you want. I think a lot of people too have to understand that MMA striking is different than K-1 striking or Muay Thai kickboxing. It’s a completely different fight when you put MMA gloves on when you have to deal with the takedowns and all these other moves that are a completely different fight. A lot of people don’t necessarily train MMA.
A lot of people don’t realize I’m a kickboxing coach, but we rarely train kickboxing alone. We train our kickboxing from an MMA position and that’s why our guys are so good at it because they’re at a threat to be taken down constantly so they don’t just do kickboxing alone. That’s like for our beginner students at our academy. We do kickboxing constantly in an MMA format and we do a lot of MMA sparring. Everything, if you’re rolling, you’re used to getting hit at the same time. If you’re standing up striking, you’re used to get wrestled at the same time. It’s a very important thing to integrate and that’s something I’ve really tried to focus on over the years in MMA.
If Pettis went to do any sort of standard kickboxing with Thai rules, how do you think he would fare?
He got invited to do a K-1 match in ’09, but we were busy with the WEC and with my history with K-1, when I’d taken fighters, they were a bit iffy on paying the fighters so that’s why we didn’t put Anthony in the K-1.
Do any of your guys get relatively major invites like that?
Sergio Pettis, Anthony’s brother, has fought a Muay Thai bout already. He fought Muay Thai at age 17. I am getting back into the striking realm and I’m helping out with Glory and I’m getting kids interested in doing it again. It’s a great outlet and I see an opening for kickboxing. I don’t think it’s ever going to be as big as MMA, but with that, it’s a great opening to share the market. I think it’ll have a place and a lot of MMA fans will watch kickboxing.
So if someone asked me what is the talent disparity between the world’s best boxer in terms of striking, at least boxing striking and the world’s best MMA fighter in terms of their boxing striking, I would tell you it’s pretty significant. There’s nobody in MMA that can do what Floyd Mayweather does, not even close I would say.
No, but here’s another thing. I actually had Anthony, one of his friends was just signed by Mayweather and he fought Saturday night in Vegas and we do do a lot of cross-training with higher level guys. That’s how I got them good with it. I let Anthony train with pro boxers and a lot of the stuff you see them do, the cross training, we’re doing that, too.
Even if you have Anthony training with high level guys and Freddie Roach has told me that Georges St. Pierre could train with high level guys when he spars his boxing. What is the difference in talent levels between MMA’s best kickboxers and kickboxing’s best kickboxers? How far apart are they?
Somewhat far just because they do it full time, but then there’s guys like Anthony and other guys who can cross train over in another sport and do good. Especially if they did it as their full time job. When I say Anthony could be good at it, I mean if Anthony chose to do that 110 percent, he’d be just as good a level in the sport as he wanted to be, but he doesn’t. Obviously mixed martial arts is his passion and he’s got a great contract with the UFC.
The big thing, our country as a whole is weak in kickboxing because no one trains it here as much as they do in other countries. In Thailand, it’s twice a day six times a week. Holland, it’s at least 5-6 days a week of training hardcore. It’s like anything else. That’s almost comparative to, why are we so much better in the Midwest at wrestling compared to everyone else in the country? Here, wrestling is almost a religion. My wife’s hometown is like the movie Vision Quest. Grappling is huge where my wife grew up. We’re not even one of the bigger wrestling states. Think Iowa and Minnesota, they’re even crazier. It’s a culture about how big it’s gonna be.
Getting back to Aldo, tell me why you’re confident, why do you believe that Anthony Pettis, and if you to make the case in terms of striking, what is it about Anthony Pettis’ striking that makes him a good match-up for Aldo?
He’s fast, he’s strong and has a little bit more reach than Jose and Anthony is stronger in the later rounds than Jose Aldo.
Do you think it’s a fair criticism to say he fades?
He just starts to coast. You can tell that he’s a very explosive guy and he’s gonna struggle later in the fight. Is he very dangerous? Yeah. Is he very technical and aggressive? Yeah. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best so Anthony is a big stakes player. He loves big stakes fights and these are the fights that bring the best out of him and motivates him . I love seeing him motivated. He just reinvents himself every fight. The nice thing is Anthony doesn’t’ cut a lot of weight. The last three fights he didn’t even go to the sauna so he’s very meticulous with diet and nutritious so we’re gonna take advantage of the fight taking place in the summer. It’s a little bit harder in the winter than in the summer. In the summer, it’s very humid and hot and it makes it easier to make ’45 for him.
I don’t want you to give away your whole gameplan, but if you could give me one thing, what is one sort of technical flaw that you think could be taken advantage of against Aldo?
I’m not gonna say it’s a flaw, but the one thing is the low kicks. The leg kicks are going to be a non-issue. Leg kicks are a cool thing until someone knows how to block it. When you know how to block it, he’s the one that gets hurt, Aldo, not Anthony. That’s the one thing that has given a lot of people trouble and that’s the one thing Anthony prepared for real well with Cerrone and that was a non-issue there, too. Those leg kicks he launched, you saw Anthony block it and strike back right away. You did not see him throw a leg kick anymore.
That’s the thing about MMA. Guys suck at blocking leg kicks. They’re so worried about takedowns that they sometimes forget the leg kicks and when you know that someone likes to throw them a lot, you’re ready for them. In other sports, they’re not as common because people know how to defend them. That’s the one thing I’ll say will definitely affect Aldo’s game. The kicking will be out. I believe Anthony’s faster than him so the hands and other weapons, Anthony won’t be in front of him for his knees and I can just say what Aldo is not going to do to him.
I want to go to somebody else in your stable and that’s Ben Askren. One thing we noticed was there seemed to be a little bit more steam on his punches. It’s one thing to take a guy like Anthony Pettis who’s a better fast twitch athlete than Ben Askren is and someone who has a striking background compared to a guy who almost is the opposite of Anthony Pettis in that regard. Reasonably speaking, what is the ceiling in terms of the striker you can turn Ben Askren into?
Man, he’s gonna be kind of like Michael Chandler up in your grill. A guy like him or Cain Velasquez, if they’re so good at wrestling, if they’re striking isn’t working, they can shoot and that’s the key for wrestlers. Ben is getting a lot more steam on his punches and the next stage we wanted to work on with Ben was his ground and pound striking and that’s a whole ‘nother area of mixed martial arts people don’t understand.
You use a different muscle group to strike on the ground than you do standing and we trained a lot of that. Belcher used it against [Rousimar] Palhares and Jason MacDonald. Ground striking is a whole other level of the game that you have to focus on, too, and Ben, on his feet he’s looking better and better. He’s got Koch, Pettis, Belcher, little Pettis, all the other good strikers in my camp constantly striking at him. His defense is very solid and that’s the reason he’s able to take so many good fighters down easily like strikers like [Douglas] Lima and [Karl] Amoussou. He has a very good defensive base and a hard thing for a lot of wrestlers is their muscles aren’t set up for punching. They’re set up for pulling and pushing and they’re triceps aren’t built. Striking is more about snapping and wrestling is more pushing and dragging so you have to train whole new muscles and that’s why we’re getting loose with our strength and conditioning coach developing the muscles that will help Ben athletically punch better.
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