UFC 207 – Nunes vs. Rousey Breakdown: Countering the Counter-Striker

Join us as we break down the best fights of UFC 207, from the upsets of Rousey and Cruz to Dillashaw’s beatdown of Lineker.

In the lead-up to UFC 207, the storyline was centered on Ronda Rousey.  Was her head in the right place?  How would she respond to her first career loss?  When it came out that Rousey had negotiated away her media obligations, some took this to mean she was focusing solely on training, while others questioned her mental resilience.  If one only watched the UFC’s official promos for this fight, it was easy to miss Rousey’s opponent.

Throughout it all, the champion, Amanda Nunes, was largely ignored in promotional content.  Nunes bided her time, forgoing the pre-fight press conference along with Ronda, until they met in the Octagon.  Despite all the fanfare about Rousey, despite the lack of promotion from the UFC, Nunes dismantled the most dominant champion in the division’s history inside a minute.  It was a performance that emphatically said, “I can no longer be ignored.”

UFC 207 marked a similar coming out party for Cody Garbrandt.  Many laughs were had at Garbrandt’s attempts at pre-fight trash talk and Dominick Cruz’s mockery of the challenger.  While Cruz may have run verbal circles around him in the lead-up, those roles were reversed in the fight, with Cruz ironically playing the role of an aggressor chasing the elusive out-fighter.

The Quick Work of Nunes

Rousey’s favorite clinch entry is the jab hanger.  She’ll enter with her face straight up in the air and jab in, waiting for her opponent to throw the right hand.  The right falls on her shoulder and she uses the space created to wrap her opponent’s head.

Nunes came prepared to deal with this.  During one of the first exchanges, Rousey “caught” Nunes’ right on her shoulder, but Nunes followed up with a jab, re-aligning her hips and providing a crossface to frame out of the clinch.

A second later, Nunes threw a front kick, a great strike to throw against someone looking to charge you in a straight line as it creates a barrier in front of them.  Rousey immediately tries to counter with a right hand but hesitates and loses confidence in her distancing as Nunes checks her hand.  Instead, Rousey lets her rear leg drift forward, compromising her stance and putting her off balance.  Nunes pops her a few times and pivots off, then Rousey gets hurt trying to throw her own front kick.

The finish came as a desperate Rousey grabbed onto a collar tie, but Nunes framed with both hands and hop-stepped out to a 45-degree angle.  Rousey’s momentum continued taking her forward and she couldn’t turn to face Nunes before eating a three-punch volley that she didn’t see coming.  Nunes then swarmed a wobbly Rousey for the finish.

It seems likely that this is the end of Rousey’s MMA career, and what an incredible career it was.  Over-praise from figures in the MMA community and her own actions have soured fan perception of her, but she’ll always have three years of complete domination over a division whose creation she is almost solely responsible for.  Credit also must be given to her chin.  She may not react well to getting hit, but she was still standing after getting bombed on repeatedly by the hardest hitter in the division.  If Rousey wishes to continue her MMA career, a change of camp would be a good idea.

As for Amanda Nunes, not only did she beat arguably the greatest female fighter of all time on Friday, but she managed to defend the women’s bantamweight belt, a feat the last couple champions have failed to accomplish.  The winner of Shevchenko/Pena should be next for her.

Pena presents a lot of the same problems as Rousey and consequently is vulnerable to a lot of the same solutions.  Shevchenko has already shown that she has the tools to take Nunes into deep water where she is vulnerable.  The biggest issue with Nunes has always been her cardio, but it’s difficult to tell where she’s at right now because she keeps finishing everyone in the first round.  Either way, there’s a lot of interesting matchups in the division for Nunes.

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Cody Garbrandt’s Patience

Cody Garbrandt shocked the MMA community with the best performance of his life against Bantamweight champ, Dominick Cruz.  Often the best strategy to use against a highly skilled opponent is one that mirrors their own game.  Pressure the pressure fighter, force the counter striker to lead.  That’s exactly the strategy Garbrandt employed.  The big problem that Cruz presents is one of closing distance.  How do you get close to him?  How do you line him up?

Garbrandt’s answer was to let Cruz do the work for him.  By sitting back, refusing to bite on the feints, and making Cruz lead, Garbrandt was able to force Cruz to close distance himself and expose himself to counters.

Cruz is constantly feinting, but his feints don’t resemble those of most active feinters like Frankie Edgar and Max Holloway.  Instead of showing punches, most of the time he’s feinting entries.  He’ll bump into the side a couple times just to see your reaction, then he’ll start putting together entries off of it.  Charge forward in response to his bumps and he’ll hit a backstepping counter or a reactive takedown.  Back up and he’ll press forward with shifting combos.

Garbrandt threw Cruz off by refusing to bite on his entry feints.  Whenever Cruz bumped in, Cody would take a short step back or to the side, enough to keep Cruz lined up and keep himself in position to defend.  Without the ability to prompt the reactions he wanted, Cruz was forced to commit to punches on the lead, which he usually tries to avoid unless he can get his opponent backing themselves out of position.

Cruz would throw non-committal jabs at Garbrandt while circling to the inside in order to get an angle on his right hand, but Garbrandt would calmly slip the jabs and pivot away.  As much talk as there’s been about “neo-footwork,” basic boxing footwork at a high level will never go out of style.

When Cruz did commit to punches on the lead, Garbrandt would counter in rapid combinations.  Cruz’s active head movement while attacking makes it nearly impossible to time him with simultaneous counters consistently, as Garbrandt’s mentor, Urijah Faber, spent a total of 50 minutes trying to do between their last two fights.

Note how Garbrandt fails to land the first shot clean in most of these sequences.  Instead, the first strike serves to convince Cruz to move his feet out of position, and the subsequent punches capitalize on that.  Both men threw down in the pocket, but Garbrandt was the one landing consistently and doing damage because he had the stronger positioning.

Although Garbrandt’s refusal to react to Cruz’s bumps allowed him to draw out the committed leads, it also allowed Cruz to have some success through delaying attacks off his bumps.  Cruz would bump in, see that Garbrandt wasn’t reacting, and press forward with punches.  The bumps allowed him to move in on Garbrandt and line him up for attacks that he wasn’t able to land on the outside.

Cruz’s creative footwork is both his greatest asset and his most exploitable tendency.  He often steps back with his lead foot when he retreats.  This allows him to pull off shifting counters on the back foot when he’s able to respond immediately, but if he doesn’t get a counter off right away it more or less locks him into moving back in a straight line.

Demetrius Johnson had success with shifting blitz combinations to track Cruz’s movement and Garbrandt was able to replicate that.  He would blitz when Cruz was squared up and off balance, leaving him with no option but to back into more punches.

Garbrandt consistently attacked with a front kick when Cruz squared himself up, presenting a wide open target across his body.  When Cruz bumped into a more side-on stance, Garbrandt would land triangle kicks with the ball of his foot from either side depending on Cruz’s stance.  Speaking of triangle kicks, do yourself a favor and watch Kizaemon Saiga’s fight against Dillin West at the Rizin card on Friday night.

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Before the fight, most thought Garbrandt would need to catch Cruz in order to win, and for good reason.  Garbrandt had never shown anywhere near the level of footwork or defensive aptitude that he demonstrated against Dominick Cruz.  This fight represents the rapid ascension of Garbrandt from prospect rushed into a title shot, to bantamweight elite, in a parallel of TJ Dillashaw’s first victory over Renan Barao.

Dillashaw’s Dominance

TJ Dillashaw put on an impressive performance against #2 ranked John Lineker.  TJ fought an intelligent fight, sticking Lineker with kicks on the outside and avoiding the pocket.  Lineker was noticeably hesitant to apply his typical pressure game, likely because of TJ’s superb reactive takedowns.

Dillashaw established his drop shift early, using it to set up headkicks in typical fashion.  For his part, Lineker didn’t seem to mind being kicked in the head at all.

Once Dillashaw had trained Lineker to expect the headkick after his drop shift, he began stepping his rear leg deep off it to hit trips.

TJ started running away with the fight once it hit the ground, battering an apathetic Lineker from top position with punches and elbows.  Lineker seemed to almost enjoy the punishment and was more concerned with throwing weak knees to TJ’s thigh from bottom half-guard than creating space to stand.

There was a brief scare near the end of the fight for TJ as Lineker countered a drop shift with a flurry of brutal body hooks.

UFC 207 gave us not only a new champion in the bantamweight division, but a clear deserving challenger for that crown in Dillashaw.  Garbrandt’s tight pivots and pocket counters contrast well with Dillashaw’s feinting and ability to move around the pocket in what is sure to be fireworks.  Garbrandt expressed interest in an immediate rematch with Cruz, but a fight with TJ is the best fight in that division right now, with a built-in story to boot after TJ’s perceived snubbing of Team Alpha Male.

We didn’t have time to get to the two Rizin cards on the weekend, but Kron Gracie vs Tatsuya Kawajiri is a fight worth watching.  Kron displayed some very solid infighting en-route to a rear-naked choke victory over the first top opponent he’s fought.

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