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The Takedown Defense of Jose Aldo: How Striking Makes him a Better Wrestler

Jose Aldo has the best takedown defense of any striker in the sport of mixed martial arts. Boasting an insanely high 92% defense rate, he typically only goes down and stays there once he’s exhausted in the later rounds. That number is especially impressive considering the large sample size—almost all of his opponents have tried several times per round to get him off his feet. Today we’re going to take a look at the principles behind his legendary ability to keep fights standing.

Aldo’s defense starts with his intangible yet nearly impenetrable fundamentals. At all times he is carefully controlling range while fighting to maintain perfect foot position. In fighting, it is generally best to keep the lead foot trained at the opponent’s center. As discussed in my brief overview of positioning, when the lead foot is not facing the opponent they are given the opportunity to attack an angle. Aldo’s opponents are commonly working to constantly circle around him, looking for ways to get around his lead foot. He never lets them. Examine this example from the first round of his fight against notoriously tricky mover, Frankie Edgar:

Notice that no matter where Edgar goes, Aldo immediately adjusts his lead foot before adjusting. He tracks with his lead foot and adjusts with his rear. This allows him to stay relatively stationary, right in the center of the cage expending zero energy while Edgar wastes effort circling and changing directions in vain.

With this footwork, Aldo is able to always keep his opponents in his sight and lined up with his lead side which means that not only does he always have his eyes on them, he always has his jab ready to spear them. At the end of the gif, note that as soon as Edgar steps forward Aldo’s jab is in his face and his feet are pivoting to threaten an angle.

Aldo will under no circumstances let his opponents dictate distance or angles. This is as fundamental as fundamental gets—in essence he never sacrifices position. If you want to get close to him or take an angle on him, you have to work much harder than he does to prevent it. One of the most critical aspects of this type of defense (which he wasn’t always so great at) is always being ready to threaten back. Observe a deceptively significant sequence from his short fight against Chad Mendes:

Mendes feints forward with a big step and Aldo hops back to deny him range. However, he doesn’t run. He immediately comes in behind a double jab (which forces Mendes upright and back) then throws a right hand that misses as Mendes switches stances and steps past it. Neither guy got hit, but there is communication going on. Aldo is saying he won’t just be pressured back, he’s gonna back YOU up. Even when he gives ground, he’s always ready to take it back. This makes it risky for opponents to attempt rushing and overwhelming him, giving him another layer of control. Plus as was seen in the first gif against Edgar, he’s always ready to pivot.

Here, Mendes comes forward with a jab and right hook. Sensing the amount of commitment, Aldo pivots sharply to his left while lifting his forearms in position to block. As a result, Mendes misses by a mile and is left in an extremely compromised position, though Aldo is content not to capitalize because it is too early in the fight and he doesn’t have the timing yet. This is a beautiful example of angles in action. When Mendes whiffs that hook, he is left with his stance compromised, his eyes off of Aldo and his momentum completely neutralized. Aldo on the other hand is composed, looking right at him and needs to make no further adjustments. The best part is that Aldo is able to use this footwork in coordination with his underrated head movement:

Looking to punch his way off the cage, Faber leads with a cross. Sensing it, Aldo easily slips outside it, but Faber is rushing forward. In response, Aldo quickly pivots as he uses his hands to control Faber’s body and push him away. Faber tries to grab with his right arm, but Aldo has already moved past it so he is unable to punch his way into any sort of clinch. He has no option but to keep barreling forward, running halfway around the cage before spinning around and reengaging.

Now so far I’ve only been talking about striking, when this is supposed to be an article about TDD. Patience, my friends. We’re getting there. What needs to be understood is how many take downs he defends simply by not letting his opponents get into position to shoot. If you try to level change from too far away, he just hops back and changes levels with you. His opponents have to be able to pass through his range before they can shoot, unless they want to be stuffed badly or worse run into his knees and right uppercut. And his control of range combined with his control of the center of the Octagon means it’s very difficult to back him up against the cage where someone like Cain Velasquez or GSP would look to set up their shots. As a result, his opponents’ main opportunity to take him down is timing their attempts under his shots, but he has developed methods to make even this extremely difficult. Now let’s talk about how he actually goes about defending.

Aldo has a system that is absolutely brilliant. He uses the same pivot to defend takedowns that he does to defend strikes. Watch:

Aldo steps forward to attack, and Faber level changes as he does. Aldo immediately switches to defensive mode, pivoting hard on his left leg. Faber dives in looking to secure a double, but that pivot removes Aldo’s right leg from his reach. At the same time, his hips move out of Faber’s path which forces Faber to turn fully around in order to continue his shot. In the process of moving past Aldo though, he loses control of everything but an ankle. Aldo drags him across the fleer like an annoying piece of toilet paper caught on his shoe before ripping his ankle out.

This method of defending is outstanding. A shot involves maximum commitment to forward movement, so Aldo just gets out of the way. Instead of trying to force his hips into Faber and sprawl right in his path, Aldo circles away and kills Faber’s positioning on his shot. He does this to all his opponents.

He’s especially good at it when his opponents try to duck under his left hook. The finishing position of a left hook leaves the hips bladed and the left foot positioned very well to begin pivoting. Watch how easily he turns aside a very well timed double by Mendes:

As Aldo steps in to hook, Mendes shifts his weight forward and steps in under it to get in very good position to attack. However, Aldo immediately pivots and uses his left hand to push Mendes down and to his right. Just like what happened with Faber, he forces Mendes to go past him as he moves out of the line of the shot. Once he has enough space, he stuffs the head with his left hand and retracts his leg again. In both these examples, the opponent has failed to get any control of his leg. They end up falling on their hands and knees when he moves, expecting to collide with his body but instead being redirected and never establishing a grip on his far leg. They are essentially forced to shoot a single while in the middle of shooting a double, thus denying them the position needed to finish and making it very easy for Aldo to separate.

Even when they get the leg though, he still isn’t finished.

Very similarly to the above example, Florian ducks a hook and gets in on the hips. Again, Aldo pivots hard. Kenny loses the rear leg, and intelligently shifts his focus to the lead one. However Aldo is a step ahead of him, and is using his right forearm to push Florian’s head away. Creating space with the head also helps him fight Florian’s grips, because he can’t get close enough to secure the leg. As a result, Aldo is easily able to limp leg out, pointing his knee towards the floor and kicking the leg out. Florian, again, is quick to adapt so he lets the leg go and tries to catch Aldo in the transition with a reaching left hand that barely misses.

Let’s review this a little. When people shoot on him, they are typically timing a double. He pivots to deny them that double by getting his rear leg out of reach and moving his hips offline, sending their momentum in the wrong direction. If they manage to hold onto his lead leg, he is already defending by stuffing their head, fighting their grips and looking to force it back to the floor as soon as possible. This strategy is still just as applicable against singles though, because he is still looking to fight the head as soon as the opponent gets close no matter what. Either way, they end up with no control of his leg, their hips too far away and fighting a battle that Aldo almost definitely has more experience winning than them.

It isn’t foolproof, but the worst news for his opponents is he’s just as hard to hold down as he is to get down.

Here, Florian does an excellent job timing a double as Aldo begins throwing his right straight. Now a lot of people say you shouldn’t shoot a double in orthodox vs southpaw because of the distance between the hips, but the truth is you can shoot just fine as long as you time it when their hips are square. Throwing a cross, as it so happens, forces a fighter to square their hips which means Florian is actually able to get his left hand behind Aldo’s right knee. With that in place, he is able to turn the corner and take Aldo down…for about half a second. Let’s look a little closer at this one:

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In the first frame, Florian is pretty deep on his shot. He has control of both legs and his head is tight to Aldo’s ribs. With his hips back, he follows Aldo’s pivot and pulls his legs out from under him. But look at Aldo’s right hand. As soon as he realizes he’s going down, he’s looking to post on his right hand. At the same time, Aldo is turning his own body as he falls. You can’t see it in the stills so watch the gif. By the time he hits the mat, he has rotated his entire body so that he lands on his right leg and hip. Examine his position in frame 3. Instead of being flat on his back or ass, he is up on his side with his entire upper body out from under Kenny. His hands are both working hard, with the left one stuffing Florian’s head and the right one posting to keep him upright. Florian’s control on the legs is tenuous at this point, which means Aldo is able to lift his hips and retract his bottom (right) leg. However, Florian is savvy enough to snag that leg and use it as control to follow Aldo up, eventually running him into the cage.

The genius here is that Aldo never concedes that take down. He never decides to lock in his guard or hunt for a submission, he tirelessly works to get back to his feet from the moment he’s taken off them. You’ll never see him get flattened out when he’s still fresh. He’s always landing on a hip or his hands and knees, constantly ready to stand up. You can see that demonstrated even more in the sequence following that one:

Again, there’s no point where Aldo lets himself get controlled. He lands on his knees from the first attempt, then stands up out of the front headlock. Florian shoots a double and Aldo hand fights to keep his right leg safe, so Florian switches to a single. He tries to run the pipe, but Aldo stuffs his head with the left hand as always and kicks his right knee out, managing to land on it and pull his left leg free to stand up before Kenny pushes him back against the fence.

Even facing multiple chained attacks from a bigger, stronger fighter Aldo is able to stay standing or spring back up immediately. Eventually Florian gets his back, he breaks the grips and escapes. Aldo can also adapt to chained attempts to hold him down.

Aldo comes in with the knee, Mendes catches the kneeing leg with both hands, but then reaches his right arm around to Aldo’s left hip and turns him towards that kneeing leg to finish the knee tap (a very smart adjustment to counter Aldo’s usual pivot). Even as Aldo goes down, he turns to his left. His left elbow posts on the mat as his right arm reaches over to stuff Mendes’ head, and he lifts his hips off the mat. He wanted to use the same escape he did against Florian, just on the other side. Mendes quickly adjusts his head to put it on Aldo’s other side and attempt to drive him down flat, but Aldo takes advantage of his elevated hips to turn violently onto his right side as he whizzers with his left arm. He is now able to post with his right hand on the mat, get his right knee onto the mat, then stand with that leg as his left knee goes on the mat, then finally stand up fully.

And as Chad Mendes also knows, Aldo has great ability to pop back up when you have his back, and to grab the cage so you can’t throw him (shut up, you’d grab it too). Plus he’s an expert at separating the hands then spinning out, and will knee your head into the third row if he feels like it.

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(Notice how he keeps control of the right hand until he hits the knee so Mendes is basically hopeless to defend)

Final thoughts

Jose Aldo is an amazing striker who has proven to be maybe the best defensive wrestler in the sport. We often talk about wrestlers whose skills make them better strikers, but we rarely acknowledge the great strikers whose skills make them better wrestlers. Aldo’s take down defense is built on solid grappling theory and simultaneously rooted in fundamentally excellent striking. His elegantly simple footwork and threat-based control of range keep his opponents off him. His outstanding control of his weight and balance means he is never caught overcommitting and is always ready to quickly transition into defense. This means his opponents are almost never able to take very good shots on him, so he is always able to preemptively sabotage their positioning and effortlessly slip away.

His opponents miss 100% of the shots they don’t take…and 92% of the ones they do.

Published inAnalysis