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If styles make fights, what makes styles? A Break Down Of Style Characteristics in Fighting Part I

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By Paulie “Gloves” Gavoni Co-Authored by Francisco Gomez, M.S.

If you listen closely during the next fight, you will commonly hear commentators, coaches, and even fans spiritedly blurt out maxims like “he’s gotta keep his hands up” as one fighter vigorously defends a barrage of strikes from another. In fact, in many gyms you will hear coaches monotonously chanting the same lecture almost maniacal in a frenzied attempt to keep their fighters from getting hit. While this intuitively seems correct (i.e. keeping hands up equals getting hit less) there are a variety of gyms in which you will hear the opposite as coaches harangue “relax your shoulders, don’t keep your lead hand so high”. So who is correct? Well, they both are…sometimes. Clear as mud, right? Consider this…if Mike Tyson had mimicked a style like Muhammad Ali’s, or had Ali done the same with Tyson, would each have reached the pinnacle of their chosen sport? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this one out!

For the purpose of this article, styles can be considered a combination of high frequency behaviors that fighters apply under specific combat conditions.

“Styles are made up of a complex interplay between genetics, physiological characteristics, historical factors, and contact with environmental factors.”

Given critical elements like height and reach, for example, fighters and coaches might be best served to consider these characteristics and predispositions when “fitting” the fighter with an effective style as opposed to employing a “one style fits all” philosophy. Although coaching has a lot to do with core skill-sets, specific styles may develop inadvertently as fighters come in contact with naturally occurring reinforced and punisher while training and sparring. For example, something tells us that nobody went out and told Ali, “keep your hands down!” In fact, if you listen closely to the corner in some of his fights, you can hear exactly the opposite as his coaches urged “keep your hands up” while Ali danced effortlessly around his opponents effectively flicking his jab. It is likely that early in Ali’s training he came into contact with reinforcement very quickly using his relaxed jab as he had an incredible reach advantage over his opponents; not only did he land more, but he likely received much less punishment than his counterparts that were fighting with a high guard that contrasted Ali’s lowered lead hand.

What we can see from this illustration is that some things work for some fighters much better than others when fighting some opponents. It’s not uncommon to hear fighters say things like “I hate sparring tall guys”, or “those short compact fighters give me a hard time”. One could argue that they might learn to “love” sparring these same fighters if they were able to successfully develop a competitive strategy that falls within the parameters of the style (or styles) they’re most adapted to. If coaches consider the style of their fighter relative to their opponent, they may be able to more effectively build a coaching plan that will capitalize on strengths and expedite the learning of skills that fall within the fighter’s physical propensities.

When analyzing styles, we propose a classification system made up of 3 styles: short-range, mid-range, and long-range styles. Many fighters do not fight using a style that fits cleanly into this classification system as they transition fluidly through elements of each style within a fight as conditions require; however we would suggest that fluent practitioners of a specific style within the classification system likely follow the 80-20 rules…80% of the time they use their “go to stylistic skills”, and 20% of the time they utilize elements of the other two classifications. To illustrate, let’s look at champions that will serve as standards in boxing and MMA as a model of the proposed style classifications:
Short-range style:
o Boxing=Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier
o MMA=Johnny Hendricks, Quinton Jackson
Mid-range style:
o Boxing=Julio Ceasar Chavez, Felix Trinidad
o MMA=Donald Cerrone, BJ Penn
Long-range style:
o Vladimir Klitchko, Tommy Hearns
o Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida

Style adjustments for fighters to that of their opponent’s can be the difference between winning and losing. To illustrate the point, consider the fight between Nate Diaz and Donald Cerrone. On paper, Donald Cerrone appears to be the more advanced striker given his superior kickboxing and muay thai background punctuated by a 13-0 amateur record, and 28-0-1 professional record; however, Nate Diaz, widely known as a BJJ practitioner, actually out struck Cerrone landing 82% of his 314 punches, compared with Cerrone’s 33% connect rate from 200 attempts. The difference, we would argue, can not only be found in Diaz’s effective use of his reported 3 inch reach advantage, but also by Cerrone’s failure to adjust his style to compensate for Diaz’s reach. And why would he given his past success? He is an amazing striker! But consider how this fight would have differed if Cerrone had used more head movement (characteristic of short-range styles) to slip inside of Diaz’s reach to allude strikes, while firing off his own arsenal. If you can find the fight, watch it. You will probably note Diaz peppering Cerrone with long punches, and Cerrone just missing his counters. What might have been the outcome if Cerrone had, for this fight, modified elements of his defense and striking based on the characteristics of his opponent?

Styles are very dynamic and made up of many key elements including posture, body angle, hand positioning, footwork, punch out-put, and trunk rotation. While there is no one style that is better than another-each has its own strengths and weaknesses it is critical that the fighter’s style be identified. The amount of effort the fighter invests in learning a skill plays a significant role in the successful adoption of a technique. In behavioral science, we call this response cost. The higher the response cost is, the more punishing the learning becomes and therefore the less likely it is that the skill will be adopted successfully. However, the closer the skill being taught is to the fighter’s preferred style, the more reinforcing the new skills will be and hence the more successful the coaching program will be.

While this article is intended to get the reader to theorize styles through the proposed classification system, stay tuned for our next article that will focus on a detailed break-down of specific characteristics linked to each style. Assessing fighters and opponents through this conceptual lens is essential when differentiating training regiments for fighters, or strategically preparing for specific opponents.

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Paulie Gavoni
A boxer since 1992 and a trainer in MMA since 2002, Paulie "Gloves” Gavoni is sought out by both up-and-coming and elite MMA fighters seeking top-level instruction in striking and the mental game. Paulie works with fighters to systematically improve their body mechanics while tailoring a striking style that fits their needs. These range from a relaxed yet lethal counter-punching style (e.g. Anderson Silva) to a highly aggressive and powerful peek-a-boo style (e.g. Mike Tyson) suited for MMA that he has appropriately titled “Controlled Chaos". A former cognitive behavior therapist and behavior analyst, Paulie uses his background in applied behavior analysis to develop and hone fighters physically and mentally. For more information on Paulie, please visit his website at www.pauliegloves.com.