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Bull or Matador? The Return of John Makdessi

John “The Bull” Makdessi is one of the most interesting strikers in the UFC. Coming from a diverse martial arts background including taekwondo, Shotokan karate and kickboxing (where he amassed an undefeated 22-0 record), Makdessi has been competing since the age of 6. The 29 year old Canadian has spent the past 7 years competing in MMA, where he currently trains at Tristar Gym under head coach Firas Zahabi. 12-3 (8 (T)KOs) as an MMA fighter, Makdessi makes his return to the Octagon this Saturday at UFC 186, over 14 months after his relatively controversial decision loss to Alan Patrick. Makdessi is a unique, entertaining fighter who should just be coming into his own as a mixed martial artist.

The first thing you need to know about Makdessi is distance. His awareness and control of distance are key to his success. Often operating as the shorter fighter, Makdessi is a master at hovering just at the end of his opponents range—constantly flirting with the edge of danger. As he stands there, he bounces subtly in and out to skew the opponent’s perception of range. He will often trick opponents into shadowboxing:

Against Watson, Makdessi feints in and out. Watson, attempting to time Makdessi, half throws several punches only to realize Makdessi isn’t actually anywhere near him. Makdessi is always baiting his opponents in this manner; attempting to goad them into opening up so that he can counter. He will also use this deceptive movement to set up his own offense.

This is a brilliant display of manipulating distance to control timing. Observe the rhythm he sets with those bounces: in-out, in-out, in-out. Each time he changes levels slightly, this is a beat. Suddenly, he changes the rhythm: it goes in-out, in-out, in-IN! Initially, he moves out after each beat. On the last one, he explodes forward on the half beat. His opponent, lulled into the rhythm and preparing to time it, fails to react to the sudden change in speeds and has his head snapped back by a stiff jab.

That’s the second thing you need to know about Makdessi: he has a fantastic jab. Even as the shorter man, he consistently snaps his opponent’s heads back. Makdessi’s excellent distancing and jab have a lot to do with his positioning. You’ll often see him move into this position specifically:

Note the slight tilt of his upper body. With his weight on his back foot, Makdessi’s head is moved back—rather than over his front foot where many MMA fighters keep it. This creates a natural angle of his shoulders in two directions; an upward one by lifting the lead and dipping the rear, and a linear one by pointing the lead forward and pulling the rear back. His jab hand, slightly lowered, is lined up with his lead foot (out of frame) and lead shoulder, and pointed directly at his target. From this position, all he needs to do to jab with authority is lower his level slightly and take a small step. In no small part due to this excellent positioning, Makdessi is able to use his jab defensively better than anyone else in the sport.

In his UFC debut, Makdessi uses a triple jab into a check hook to pepper Audinwood as he defends. Notice the subtle change of angles: Makdessi makes a small pivot to his left every time he jabs, allowing him to maintain his range while avoiding Audinwood’s assault and preventing Audinwood from getting a hold of him. After establishing distance and moving off the cage, he changes levels and jabs Audinwood to the chest to disrupt his forward movement. Those jabs aren’t just an annoyance either, Makdessi routinely hurts people with them

As Audinwood attempts to charge off the cage, he gets speared by a piston of a jab from Makdessi. Again, the timing of Makdessi is on full display. He feints forward, inviting the charge, then pulls back and times his counter jab. As mentioned before, his positioning is beautiful—head pulled back and offline to the right, stance lowered, feet ready to move to a small angle. Most impressively, Makdessi is able to throw his jab solidly enough to put Audinwood on his ass, and still double up on it. His jab truly is a fearsome weapon. Every man he fights finds his rhythm disrupted by it, though few to the same extent as Sam Stout.

Almost every time Stout stepped forward he ate a jab. Observe the consistent pivoting by Makdessi, and note that even when his head comes forward on the jab, he is still able to pull it back fast enough to move out of range while pivoting past Stout’s 1-2.

As good as Makdessi’s jab is, that alone doesn’t win fights. It certainly sets up the things that do, though. You can’t just walk through Makdessi’s jab. You have to respect it. Once you’re respecting it, he starts working off it. With an extensive background in kicking arts, Makdessi has a very comprehensive kicking game that is built perfectly around his jab. In addition to keeping opponents at the correct distance and letting him dictate the pace, his jab flows with his kicking techniques. One of the simplest examples is the low kicks with his lead leg that he uses in every fight.

Makdessi throws several quick kicks with his lead leg, mixing it up to the leg and body. He then kicks low and steps into a jab. Each attack blends together, backing Forte up and keeping him hesitant. Pay attention to the hop step Makdessi uses to throw his kicks—his weight shifts subtly to his front foot as he back foot slides up, then he drops his weight onto his back foot as his lead leg comes up into the kick. It’s a fluid, shuffling motion. It can be used as a way to move into range without the kick, as well as to move forward while kicking. The following gif shows Makdessi hop-stepping forward, then adding a side kick to the end of the movement:

Makdessi uses a small hop-step forward. When Audinwood tries to circle away, Makdessi pivots on his rear foot—his lead foot steps first to track Audinwood, then his rear foot adjusts. Realigned, Makdessi hop steps again, this time bringing his knee up then kicking Audinwood in the gut and knocking him against the cage. Interestingly, in addition to using the same footwork, the initial movement of the side kick can look deceptively similar to the round kicks coming from the same side shown in the previous gif. You can also see Makdessi slightly extending his lead hand before throwing the kick, always keeping his jab on the opponent’s mind. With the opponent worrying about his jab and side kick, Makdessi gets creative.

Makdessi flashes a jab against Stout in an attempt to disguise his side kick to the body, but Stout is savvy and parries the kick with his lead hand. Makdessi immediately capitalizes on the dropped hand reaction by throwing a hook kick to the head. You very rarely see this type of kick in MMA, but Makdessi throws them regularly and sets them up intelligently. He does the same for his spinning back kick.

Makdessi pivots to his right, causing Forte to step his lead foot and make an adjustment. Just as Forte finishes adjusting, Makdessi feints his jab. As Forte reacts to the feint, Makdessi is stepping his lead foot. He sneaks it slightly forward and turns it in, leaving it in position for him to spin. Forte pulls back slightly in response to the threat of the jab, which actually moves him into range of the spin. He eats a hard heel to the liver.

He isn’t just limited to setting up kicks with his jab. He’s recently gotten better at using his jab to set up his hands as well.

He also doesn’t only rely on his jab as a set up.

Stepping forward to throw a spinning backfist with the lead hand is a risky proposition, to say the least. It requires the fighter to step their rear foot all the way forward and turn it in. During that step, their feet will square, they will move on a straight line into the opponent’s range and they will be unable to change directions or abandon the movement quickly. To mitigate the risk, Makdessi throws multiple kicks with his right leg. Watson reacts by giving space when Makdessi kicks, moving towards his own rear leg (back and to Makdessi’s right). So when Makdessi picks his rear foot up and steps it forward, the obvious step looks like a kick to Watson. He responds by moving back and towards his rear side just like he had before, which puts him directly in the path of a brutal spinning backfist that will be played on Makdessi’s highlight reel for the rest of his career.

Interestingly enough, Makdessi will use the same right kicks to set up an axe kick with his right leg. You can see it in this gif, which highlights many of the techniques covered:

Makdessi’s style really makes for some incredible moments. What doesn’t get translated very well though is the slow buildup of his fights. Makdessi is a thinker. In fact, he has a tendency to overthink. He’s patient and is very careful about his openings. He almost never commits unless he feels that he is in control. Unfortunately, this means that he’ll go entire rounds doing almost nothing but jab. It’s not uncommon for him to throw no more than 2-3 right hands in a round. Which is a shame, because he has a great right hand.

Especially when he uses it as a counter:

In one of my favorite MMA knockouts ever, Makdessi takes a picture perfect inside angle to counter a big right hand by Forte. Forte takes a big step offline as he jabs, attempting to distract Makdessi as he moves into position for the overhand. However, he squares his feet slightly in the process, leaving the opening for Makdessi to exploit. Makdessi makes a tight pivot, taking him just outside the back of the right hand, and leaving him still in range to fire back his own short right straight. His angle is so extreme that the punch hits Forte on the side of the head, causing him to faceplant before Makdessi puts the nail in the coffin with some powerful follow-up punches.

Unfortunately, it usually takes him until the third round to start throwing that punch. He gets progressively more dangerous as the fight goes on and as he gets more comfortable—as he thinks less and does more. His fight against Cruickshank illustrates the phenomena perfectly—he doubled his significant strikes landed while increasing his accuracy each round. Makdessi landed more significant strikes in the third round than he threw in the first (47 compared to 41). In the first round he mostly threw jabs, but by the end of the last round he was doing this:

Makdessi has lost 3 times in the UFC. Once was a submission loss to Dennis Hallman, the first loss of his career where he was simply overpowered by a much bigger, stronger and more experienced grappler. Besides that, his other two losses have both come to opponents who never let him build that momentum. Both Anthony Njokuani and Alan Patrick were able to make Makdessi think the entire fight, which allowed them to take decisions over him (though Patrick’s win was controversial as most major MMA media outlets scored it for Makdessi or declared it a draw).

Njokuani did an amazing job preventing Makdessi from settling. He throws a left high kick then right low kick to start, then sticks his long jab in Makdessi’s face to prevent him from stepping forward. Then he begins circling towards Makdessi’s right. Makdessi likes to pivot left, as has been demonstrated previously, so moving preemptively away from that side makes it difficult for Makdessi to set up his offense. As he circles that way, he constantly walks Makdessi into traps—threatening with his left kick, left straight and right jab. Makdessi follows him, offering little in return as he tries to calculate his approach.

That’s what most of the fight looked like. And to his credit, coach Firas Zahabi gave outstanding advice throughout the fight. After the first round, he said “He’s circling to your right. Throw the overhand right. When he circles to your left, throw the spinning back kick 100%. He’s moving away from you. When he throws a kick, counter him every time. Don’t let him kick and get away with nothing”. These instructions were intended to get Makdessi to cut Njokuani off and stop being picked apart at range. Unfortunately, Makdessi failed to execute these instructions. Zahabi then told him “Don’t be too careful. Don’t calculate too much. Throw. You’re being too cautious”. This advice gets at the heart of the fighter. He realized that it wasn’t a technical deficiency, it was a mental one. Makdessi needed to relax and just “throw”. His failure to cost him the fight.

His loss to Alan Patrick looked surprisingly similar.

He moves to the same angle and uses the same left hand. Meanwhile Makdessi struggles to cut him off and constantly allows him space to move. He does this not because he is incapable of cutting Patrick off, but because he is uncomfortable. And when he’s uncomfortable, he overthinks.

Now it’s also worth mentioning that Makdessi has had a significant size disadvantage in all of his losses. He’s a small lightweight, but doesn’t have any plans to move down. He has a style that is easier to apply against opponents of a similar stature, or shorter. This has a lot to do with why significantly larger fighters like Njokuani and Patrick were able to make him think so much. Despite these weaknesses, he is a highly skilled fighter who still has a ton of potential.

John Makdessi starts off fights as a Matador. He moves in tight circles around his opponents—breaking their rhythm, countering their attacks and taking control of the pace. Once he has them figured out, he turns into The Bull. He ramps up his output and batters them with kicks from all angles. If allowed to get comfortable, he builds his momentum until he seems nearly unstoppable by the end of the fight. He’s one of the most entertaining strikers in MMA once he gets going, and I personally can’t wait for his return to the Octagon.

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