Home Science Education Rory MacDonald: Deterring a Dangerous Grappler

Rory MacDonald: Deterring a Dangerous Grappler

Technique Breakdown of Rory MacDonald vs. Demian Maia at UFC 170

Photo via Bleacherreport.com

Every time I try to study Rory MacDonald, it takes extra effort. Rory is well-rounded, high-volume, and Tristar is known for its meticulous planning. Most of the time, he sticks to a tailor-made game plan, and it’s full of subtleties.

There are just so many options under Rory’s arsenal — he’s adaptable. And unlike many fighters, he’s capable of effective strikes in most ranges, with a diverse amount of variations. Nonetheless, his best weapons are in the long-range, with a) straight-punches b) kicks off the rear-leg.

Now this might sound simple — he throws straight punches and kicks from the right-leg, but it’s how Rory makes subtle changes and the adjustments made for his opponent.

The Key: Shutting Down Demian Maia’s Takedowns

In this bout, Rory’s fighting against a dangerous southpaw grappler; striking against a dangerous grappler is quite a different range and requires many changes. Add on the pressure to be aggressive and exciting (due to the heat he’s received from his last two fights), and a specific formula will be needed, even if the bout is still emphasizing on the best weapons.

There’s changes in general stance, frequency of each strike, angle of delivery, the way it’s setup, etc. But before we get to Rory’s striking in this bout, let’s look at the more “defensive wrestling” oriented aspect of the fight.

Stance and Posture

Modified low-stance and forward-head posture
Wrestling posture

How does one prevent takedowns (from a dangerous grappler), refrain from getting struck, and strike the opponent at the same time? The key is to find a balance of a built-in defensive wrestling stance (forfeiting some degrees of striking defence and offence) but still enough to be effective.

Just like striking, the key to wrestling well defensively is positioning and posture. The footwork, head, hands/arms, and hips are the 4 lines of defence. 

The first line of defence is footwork — but provided that Rory wanted to put on an aggressive performance and have plenty of engagement, he’s not going to “Anderson Silva Demian Maia” so to speak.

Given that back-pedalling and circling out is not a preferred option, there are 3 more major lines of defence, all reinforcing each other.

1) The Arm and Hands: are the closest barrier to the opponent — the hands, forearm, and elbow can all control the posture of the opponent.  By staying lower, Rory ensures that his hands are more available for an underhook (creating some distance), or able to control posture (pushing off/pushing head) if there’s a level change.

An important factor is controlling the head of the opponent — “control the head and the body will follow” is an adage for general grappling and clinching.

Head and Shoulder Control

Another important additional benefit from keeping the hands head-posture lower is that the elbows are closer to the hips to block off any waist/hip entry. If the opponent gets past the hands, the forearm and elbow can still shove away the opponent.

2) Head: By keeping the head forward, Rory ensures that his hips are kept back, which is built-in defence as opposed to standing straighter. Relative to standing taller, this stance is much more viable to effective sprawl on the opponent — using the hips for power and dropping the weight down. It’s easier react and land on the upperback of the opponent during the sprawl, even though the head is more prone to being struck (distance decrease between punch and head).

*The head forward can also be used to block off entry, though it’s tougher in MMA. 

3) Sprawl: The last line-of-defence is the hips: create space and push down.

Just more examples, not purely sprawling.


Defensive wrestling is just one aspect of fighting a grappler. After all, one simply cannot win a fight by just being defensive — in shutting down Maia, Rory can strike more freely. But it goes the other way as well — many of Rory’s strikes are designed to shutdown Maia’s takedown attempts.

 Arm & High Kicks


High-kicks are versatile — kicking to the arm practically forces both arms to block. In pure striking, this stalls the punches and make them more predictable. In a southpaw vs. orthodox matchup, the left hand will become telegraphed and the right will be stalled.

But in MMA, it forces the hands to go higher (to block) so that if one drops hands and changes level for a takedown, it is also telegraphed and predictable. It’s easy to tell that Rory was going to do this because he changed his stance to being taller, but being on target with the kick makes it more inconsequential.

Front-Kick Deterrence

The front-kick, like the knee and uppercut, can deter level-change. Every time it’s thrown to someone whose head is forward, it forces them to either move back or stand straighter. Either results in a greater distance, which is essentially what the striker prefers against a grappler.

If Maia shoots in during an front-kick to the body, there’s a chance of him crashing into the shin, which actually happened.

Straight Punches

Straight punches straighten out the opponent’s posture.

Generally, it’s quite difficult to jab southpaws. But Maia rarely protected his centerline or used the lead hand as a barrier (and instead chooses to block — didn’t work — or duck for takedown). As a consequence, he got hit most of the time, and being consistently hit with a jab meant a) more distance between the two (harder to initiate takedowns) b) even more likely to be hit by a cross.

There were times where Maia would put the lead-hand in the line-of-fire as a barrier, but Rory would do simple setups like jab-jab (a disguise to establish lead-foot outside of Maia’s lead foot for dominant positioning) and then cross/right-hook. This is “punching into the dominant rear-hand.

Eventually, the more tired Maia became the more comfortable Rory was with letting his punches go and stand taller.


Though this breakdown covers many aspects of what Rory did, there were many more subtle strategies to deter Maia’s overall game, and Maia definitely had moments in the fight. But after Rory weathered the storm in the first round, it was generally his show. Maia ended up getting only 2 of 22 takedowns, passing Rory only once (1st round).

From there on out Maia was being kept at a distance and getting sprawled on. Rounds 2 and 3 showed that Rory had 2.5-3 times the output of Maia, and it was truly fascinating to watch.

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