Head movement is a somewhat controversial topic in MMA. You’re equally likely to hear criticism of a fighter for failing to move their head as you are to hear the idea of head movement be dismissed because of threats like head kicks, knees and takedowns. Some argue that it’s too risky, other’s that it’s a vital skill. While it is true that excessive head movement carries extra risk in MMA compared to a sport like boxing, there are many benefits to be gained from its proper application. In today’s article, we’re going to examine the distinct types of head movement and the correct mechanics behind them. In the future, we’re going to use this background information to discuss their application in MMA, the risks, and how to mitigate those risks.
Before getting into the types of head movement, it’s important to understand some fundamental positioning guidelines. No matter how much a fighter’s head is moving, he should always be maintaining balance and line of sight with the opponent. The fighter should maintain good posture and keep his head inside his stance. In order to do this, he will need to make proper use of his lower body—specifically his hips. Head movement is actually trunk movement, and trunk movement originates in the hips. Strong, mobile hips are the foundation of good head movement. When the hips are weak and stiff or inflexible, you’ll see fighters compensate by bending their backs instead, which results in them looking at the floor and leaving big openings. Proper head movement involves using small, controlled and balanced movements at the hips to evade strikes while keeping the eyes on the opponent and the stance intact. A final note—while head movement is generally considered defensive, the end goal should always be to establish better positions to attack from.
With an understanding of the general principles behind head movement, it’s time to delve into the specifics.
Slips are side to side movements of the head caused by shifting weight from foot to foot, rotating the torso and bending slightly at the hips. Slips are generally used to evade straight punches, and can be performed to the inside or outside.
Here, we see perhaps the sexiest counter punch ever thrown. Jersey Joe saunters towards his opponent, tempting him to make a move. As soon as Charles attacks, Joe flexes at his lead hip while bringing his right shoulder towards his left knee. The jab of Charles “slips” over Joe’s right shoulder (hence the name) but even more significant than the evasion, observe the position Joe moves into. His weight is shifted onto his lead leg with his lead shoulder and arm pulled back and his elevation lowered for leverage. His posture is strong with his back straight and eyes directly on the opponent. He’s at the right range and the left side of his body is coiled like a spring. From that excellent offensive position, Jersey Joe destroys Charles with a picture-perfect shovel hook off the inside slip.
Another one of my favorite counter punches, Joe Louis murders Al Ettore with a right hand from hell. Louis comes forward and paws with his lead hand, serving to both measure distance and put a little pressure on Ettore—who responds by shooting out a jab. Louis flexes at his rear hip, dipping down slightly to that side while taking a simultaneous step with his lead foot. Again, take note of the perfect distance and position he ends up in. His right side is loaded like a cannon and because his head has only moved the exact amount it needed to, that cannon is ready to fire. Ettore eats a bomb of a right hand, thrown with perfect weight transfer, rotation, leverage and follow through. In response, he performs a sweet 180 faceplant.
While these examples show both inside and outside slips, both are delayed counters. One of the important benefits of slipping is that unlike other types of head movement, the movement is nearly identical to throwing a punch. As a result, it is also possible to use slips to throw simultaneous counters.
Marquez times Pacquiao’s double jab, slipping outside his lead arm while throwing his right hand at the same time. The weight shift that moves his head during the slip also powers his punch, allowing Marquez to combine attack and defense in one fluid motion. The result is a devastating knockout that looked like it actually killed Pacquiao for a few minutes. Simultaneous counters can be extremely effective because they hit while the opponent is opening up and often moving into the punch, thus slipping should be practiced to attack with both delayed and simultaneous counters from both inside and outside slips.
A pull is a quick movement of the head backwards in the stance. It looks like leaning backwards, but the key to a good pull is to never let the head go beyond the back foot. Often, it will need to be accompanied by a subtle step back of the rear foot in order to keep the head within the stance. Pulls rely on creating enough distance that the opponent’s attack falls short, while keeping the feet close enough to the opponent to counter attack quickly. Observe the man who made the move famous:
Mayweather leans his head forward with his hands down, baiting an attack. Because his head is forward in his stance, he has plenty of room to move it backwards without compromising his positioning and balance. He gives his opponent a false sense of distance, so when a jab comes away he is easily able to rock back out of range then spring forward with a hard right hand. The beauty of pulls is that they lure the opponent in then use their momentum against them. Many people believe that pulls are exclusively for fighters with outstanding reflexes and speed. Pulls are definitely favored by faster fighters, but anyone who understands distance can make use of them. Here’s Mike McCallum showing a slick pull counter during his dominating performance over Michael Watson, a world champion 10 years his junior.
The setup for this one is extremely subtle. Watch McCallum’s head closely. Just before Watson jabs McCallum shifts his head very slightly towards his lead foot. His lean is less exaggerated than that of the younger, faster Mayweather. It’s just enough to suggest his head as a target, but not so much that he won’t have time to react. Watson bites on the false opening, McCallum’s head shoots back, and McCallum’s right hand cracks Watson as he tries to circle out. McCallum is sure to slide his back foot slightly behind him to maintain balance and give him a “spring” to push forward into his counter.
Because pulls rely on distance, they can be used to avoid any strike to the head, even kicks:
But that’s going to come up again in part 2. For now, let’s stick to boxing.
These types of head movement involve going underneath an opponent’s attacks. Ducks, also known as dips and bobs, involve a level change straight down. The fighter simply flexes at both the hips and knees to drop their elevation, lowering their head straight down from wherever it may be at the time. Weaves, also known as rolls, are U shaped movements of the head where it goes down on one side, shifts over to the other side, then returns to normal height on the new side. Ducks and weaves are primarily used to avoid hooks, especially in exchanges in the pocket.
Here we see an excellent weave from the current #1 ranked P4P boxer, Roman “El Chocolatito” Gonzalez. With his opponent ducking in a bad position, Gonzalez flurries with uppercuts. The uppercuts miss, but the purpose of them is to stand Salado up. Salado does come up with an uppercut of his own, preparing a left hook with an angle change behind it. Gonzalez expertly dips his head down on his left side then rolls his head in a U shape under the hook. As his weight shifts to his back foot, he pivots to take away Salado’s attempt at an angle—leaving him perfectly aligned to pop Salado straight in the mouth.
One of the most common times you’ll see a weave is after a big right hand. It works as a form of proactive defense and allows the fighter to return to stance safely.
Canelo Alvarez will still roll under the remnants of punches being thrown by men he just hit so hard they might as well have been shot. He illustrates how important it is to have head movement deeply ingrained in a fighter in order to enable them to transition fluidly between offense and defense at any time. Ducks and weaves are slightly easier to implement after punching than slipping or pulling because instead of suddenly changing directions, they can simply flow into the move by slightly redirecting the momentum from their punch, as Canelo is seen doing. They also work very well to smother an aggressive opponent. McCallum made great use of ducks and weaves to neutralize one of the scariest right hands in the history of boxing.
Julian Jackson feints with his lead hand, shuffling forward and setting his feet to launch a big right hand. McCallum uses a pull in response to the feint and prepares to counter with his left hand, but realizes Jackson’s left was only meant to catch his eye. McCallum transitions instantly into a tight weave, going under the right hand while throwing his right uppercut low. He comes up on the right side of Jackson’s body with his head tight to Jackson’s ribs. From here Jackson cannot continue his assault, and McCallum has good leverage to turn him and push off. But that’s not the real reason I used this gif. The wrestlers reading this should be able to figure out what I’m getting at, but we’ll get there in part 2.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER:
So now we’ve gone over the basic types of head movement. In order to have a complete defensive system, a fighter must not only be adept at the different types, he must also be able to combine these moves with other forms of defense including footwork, parrying, framing and blocking. The more options a fighter has defensively, the more difficult it will be to feint him out of position or run him into traps. We’ll delve deeper into this when we discuss mitigating the risks of head movement in MMA, but for now we’ll end with this compilation of versatile defensive movement from Canelo’ fight against Cotto: