When it comes to orthodox vs southpaw (also known as open guard) matchups, fighters, fans and analysts tend to simultaneously oversimplify and overcomplicate the matter. On one hand, there is a tendency to get lost in how different fighting a southpaw is—suddenly the power shots are coming from the opposite side, the distance is a little longer, and different targets are more or less available. On the other hand, the advice given to deal with these differences always boils down to just stepping the lead foot outside to achieve “lead foot dominance”, as if it’s that simple. In essence, we tend to oversimplify the strategy and overcomplicate the tactics involved in orthodox vs southpaw matchups. In this article, we’re going to dig deeper into southpaw vs orthodox strategy, while in the companion video /u/csardonic1 will be breaking down the tactics.
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For the uninitiated, the difference between tactics and strategy is that tactics are about the details, while strategy is about the big picture. Tactics are the individual battles that make up your overall war effort, or strategy. They are the methods you use to implement your strategy. This distinction is important to make because the two are so often confused when discussing open guard fights. For example, conventional wisdom has it that the goal when fighting a southpaw is to step the lead foot to the outside, lining up the rear side power hand while moving away from the opponent’s power side. While a perfectly valid tactic, it’s just that—one single tactic. Yet it is a tactic that regularly gets passed off as strategy, often to the detriment of those who treat it as such. Perhaps even more grievous is the misconception that the jab should be abandoned in open guard matchups. The misconception stems from the fact that the mirrored nature of the stances in a southpaw vs orthodox matchup causes each fighters’ lead foot to line up directly with the opponent’s, thus lining the lead hands up and obstructing the path for the jab from a neutral position. However, to abandon the jab as a strategic tool because of the slight tactical differences in actually landing it only serves to limit the fighter’s ability to measure distance, gather information and control the fight. As we discuss open guard matchups, it’s important to keep the difference between tactics and strategy in mind in order to avoid such misconceptions.
At this point, the pertinent question is: if tactics are the methods to implement strategy, then what should the strategy be against a southpaw? The answer to that is the exact same as the answer to the question: what should the strategy be against an orthodox fighter? It depends. Think of the massive variety in styles across all orthodox fighters. You wouldn’t fight Anthony Johnson the same way you’d fight Ryan Bader, or Jose Aldo the same way you’d fight Chad Mendes. Nobody goes around asking how to fight an orthodox opponent because there are so many different types of orthodox opponents. However, the same variation in southpaw fighters gets ignored. Southpaws can be counter fighters, pressure fighters, boxers or brawlers. They can throw with volume or be pot-shotters. They can be tall or short, fast or slow, strong or weak. They can be strikers or grapplers. They can even be switch hitters. Strategy is all about maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses. It’s about matching your skill set up to the opponent’s and figuring out where you have the advantages. As such, orthodox vs southpaw strategy varies with the skill sets and styles of both men.
When planning your strategy to fight a southpaw, it’s important to not limit your tactics. For example, a core element of strategy is critical distance—the range at which a fighter maximizes his opportunities for offense while minimizing his defensive risks. Many orthodox fighters will let the southpaw dictate the distance because they aren’t comfortable using their tools to close or maintain distance against a southpaw. For example, Robbie Lawler was consistently able to step inside with his punches against Rory MacDonald, who normally makes it nearly impossible for his opponents to get close enough to hit him. Rory was out jabbed by Lawler and eventually broken down.
As the two men handfight, MacDonald extends his arm too far and drops it upon retraction. Lawler times a sharp jab over his lowered arm, snapping his head back. Rory was attempting to lure Lawler into a set rhythm of pawing then break it with a longer push from his left arm to disguise the right straight, but he didn’t expect Lawler to have even better timing and snipe him with a jab before the right hand ever came. Lawler then pulls back out of range, avoiding any significant damage from MacDonald’s combination. This happens in almost every Rory MacDonald fight—only he’s usually the one controlling distance with his jab. After feeling him out in the first round, Lawler started coming in behind his jab to land some powerful shots.
In the above gif, Lawler uses his jab in coordination with his footwork to light MacDonald up. First, he steps outside MacDonald’s lead foot, allowing him to jab outside the lead arm. In the next sequence, he initiates with a lead hook over MacDonald’s shoulder that falls short, but gets Rory circling away from it. Lawler then steps in to cut him off while coming in behind a nice jab, putting him in position to blast MacDonald with his left straight. Finally, Lawler steps to the outside again and lands another 1-2 (watch Rory feel his nose at the end of the gif). Lawler was able to consistently close distance on MacDonald by timing his jab and working angles in both directions. He used his jab strategically to measure distance, blind MacDonald and set him up for other strikes. Lawler’s use of a strategic jab in coordination with his angles allowed him to break MacDonald down over the course of the fight.
Angles and jabs aren’t only useful for closing distance in open guard matchups. Holly Holm demonstrated their use in maintaining distance to the embarrassment of then undefeated champion Ronda Rousey.
Notice the misdirection and angle changes in coordination with the threat from her lead hand. Holm starts off with her back near the cage, and escapes by pivoting out to her right while pumping her jab in Rousey’s face. Rousey follows her across the Octagon, walking into a left straight before Holm changes directions and cuts back to her left. Rousey gives chase again, and Holm changes directions slightly while threatening her jab. When Rousey commits to coming forward, she speeds up her movement to the right and pivots out with a long check hook, escaping again to the other side of the Octagon. Holm used effective movement to both sides in order to keep Rousey at long range and walk her into devastating strikes. The knockout was setup by a perfectly timed left straight.
Holm circles back and to her left, away from Rousey. As usual, Rousey gives chase. However, the angle Holm retreats at means that in order for Rousey to catch her, Rousey has to step both forward and to the left—directly into the path of Holm’s power hand. Holm plants her feet just as Rousey is getting ready to punch with her rear hand, smashing her in the jaw with a left straight that drops her. Holm immediately moves in behind Rousey’s back as Rousey gets up, using her hands to guide Rousey into one of the cleanest head kick knockouts in MMA history. The kick is timed exactly as Rousey turns into Holm’s shin, brutally removing her from her consciousness. Holm’s use of angles allowed her to walk Rousey into well-timed strikes and control distance in a dominant display of successful strategy.
Timing can also be used to find angles and control distance. Chris Weidman, despite being notoriously slow, uses his incredible timing regardless of the stance of the opponent.
Weidman works his jab, measuring distance and watching for Maia’s reactions while putting him on the back foot. Instead of chasing as Maia circles away, he calmly sidesteps to cut Maia off. Maia attempts to use the same principle as Holm to walk Weidman into his overhand left, but Weidman has a significantly better sense of timing. He ducks under the punch and secures a body lock, as Maia’s rear leg drags forward in an effort to recover balance from the miss. Weidman sneaks his right knee behind Maia’s left leg and pulls his hips in tight as Maia reaches for a whizzer, and Weidman falls over that right leg while driving with his head to toss the BJJ ace to the mat. Weidman’s measured footwork and impeccable timing allowed him to quickly close distance and move into an advantageous position where he scored an easy clinch takedown. He essentially took an angle all the way to the outside of Maia’s rear foot by timing his slip.
In each of these examples, the winning fighter did not use a strategy based on the stance of their opponent. They used a strategy based on the strengths and weakness of their opponents. The fighters who normally maintain distance maintained distance, and the fighters who normally close distance closed it. The fighters worked angles to both sides, and the fighters controlled pace and rhythm. The secret to winning a southpaw vs orthodox matchup is that there is no secret. There are only fundamentals, and the fighter who controls distance, timing and positioning will win the fight regardless of which foot they have out in front.