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Using the Jab in MMA

Everyone knows that the jab is the most underutilized punch in MMA, right? You’ll hear every corner yell to work the jab, every commentator talk about how little it gets used and every fighter tell you how important it is. If this isn’t exactly a secret, why aren’t we seeing fighters across the board exchanging technical jabs?

First, let’s acknowledge that the level of boxing instruction in the average MMA gym is generally low. It’s extremely rare for an MMA fighter to have access to excellent boxing coaching from the beginning of their career. As a result, many fighters build their boxing on a weak foundation—which is why you’ll see bad jabs from local amateur events to UFC events. Second, it requires confidence in your defense to stand close enough to jab effectively and, as we’re about to see, many fighters lack defensively sound jabs. As an introduction to how NOT to jab, let’s take a look at one of my favorite cross counters:

Elkins gets absolutely clobbered by that perfectly timed punch. We can use this as a cautionary tale against the dangers of jabbing badly—one of the worst things you can do in a fight. Examine all the things that went wrong.

After already hurting Elkins, Mendes walks him down. Elkins circles away out of stance, and then stops suddenly. What Mendes knows is that Elkins always leads with a jab and his timing is predictable. So as soon as Elkins stops moving and moves his left hand slightly, Mendes knows he has him.

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Elkins circles in the first frame, only to stop suddenly in the second one. Notice how the position of the left hand changes and he points it directly at Mendes. Sensing this threat and the stop in motion, Mendes lowers his stance and prepares his right hand. There are two things that stand out immediately: Elkins has his weight forward and he has his legs straight. He’s in a very bad position to defend strikes, especially the overhand right. Meanwhile his opponent is in great position to attack.

In the third frame, his elbow is seen badly flared before his punch extends, another critical mistake. This makes the punch many times more visible while putting strain on the shoulder and neck that cause the chin to lift. On top of that, the hand is already higher than Mendes’ head. This, as well as Mendes head movement as his weight shifts to the lead hip, causes Elkins’ hand to cross his body with a downward trajectory. It is thus unable to obstruct the right hand.

At the conclusion of the punch, Elkins has poor posture, a tall stance, his arm way out of position, his chin in the air and his eyes off the punch. There is essentially nothing that could have gone worse for him during this jab, from start to finish. His timing is predictable, his head remains stationary and he’s in poor position to absorb the impact. This right here is what prevents the jab from being in the toolkit of most fighters. If you’re poorly schooled in how to throw it, it’s gonna get you hurt. That’s even truer against a wrestler with a big punch—also known as your average fighter–than any other type of opponent.

But seeing everything that went wrong, we can talk about how to jab right and avoid devastating counters. The first and most important thing is to have unpredictable timing. This is accomplished via feints, pawing, mixing up targets and broken rhythm. Elkins had none of that. Every time he threw the jab, he threw it to land. On top of that, he made it easy for Mendes to time by throwing it as soon as he was set every time in that short fight.

There’s not much use working so hard to incorporate a bad jab though, so here are some cues to make sure your jab is effective and threatening without compromising your defense.

1. Get low! Having a healthy bend in the knees goes a long way in creating a great jab. A subtle change of elevation gets your head out of the way, helps get your shoulder in the way, gives you leverage and loads your hips for follow up punches. Plus, a jab that comes from even slightly underneath is extremely difficult to see and deal with.

2. Keep your weight back and sink your weight into your rear foot. When your weight is back with your knees bent, your head is the furthest thing from your opponent while your lead foot, hip and hand are the closest. On top of this, your weight is set to throw your cross. This allows you to hit the opponent and measure your distance without letting your head come into range.

3. Come up on the ball of your lead foot while pushing with the back foot. A jab is a linear punch. It gets its power from the push off the back foot. However, it is important to push your weight forward without pushing your head forward. Coming up on the ball of your lead foot teaches you to feel where the weight should be. If you need to, you can take a small step (a few inches at most) of the lead foot as long as you don’t lean over it. Imagine dipping your toe into a pool to test the water. Do not move your rear foot.

4. Externally rotate your legs. As you come up on the ball of your lead foot, you also push your knees outwards and keep them apart similar to when you’re squatting. Do not let your lead foot turn inwards for this type of jab. Keep it pointed straight forward at the target.

5. Finally, shoot your fist straight to the target. Keep your shoulders relaxed and back, your chest forward, your chin down and your elbow pinned to your ribs before throwing. All of this will help ensure that you do not internally rotate at the shoulder, a major cause of elbow flaring. With good posture in mind, drive the arm straight forward like you’re stabbing the target. Don’t worry about power with the arm, if anything think about speed. Everything should be synchronized. The fist lands just as the weight drops and the heel of your lead foot comes up.

It’s important to note that this is only a description of some cues designed to teach a basic jab. There are many types of jabs with slightly different functions, and the mechanics change slightly depending on what you want to do after your jab. For example, you would let the weight come farther forward if your intention was to throw a power jab. However, jabbing as described above results in a difficult to see, difficult to counter and sufficiently powerful yet uncommitted punch.

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This is the clearest example I could find in an MMA context. You can see the tilt of the shoulders, how far away he is able to keep his head, the good posture, the tucked chin and the good position of his rear hand. This also keeps him in position to move, continue his attack or defend. Understanding some key elements of a good jab, let’s talk about the many uses of one.

The most basic use of establishing a jab is giving a credible threat to your opponent. He has to know that if he just steps forward carelessly, he’s gonna get speared by that jab. No one is better at this in MMA than John Makdessi:

Makdessi hits literally everyone he fights with this and it really messes people up. He stops their offense in its tracks. Having a stiff defensive jab is one of the most important things to develop early. So much of what you see in MMA is guys rushing in straight lines, and that’s the answer. Having a jab like that immediately puts the fight on a higher level of technique and strategy, because without it the opponent has much more freedom to stop thinking and brawl. This same type of defensive jab is possessed by almost every fighter at Tristar, and it is enough to keep their fighters from being overwhelmed by aggressive fighters. In coordination with tight pivots and small steps, Makdessi is able to stay out of danger while punishing his opponents.

That’s only the most primitive use of a jab though, and once you have shown the ability to snap the opponent’s head back with it they will begin to react to even weak jabs.

Notice how Miller keeps his base low, his knees pointed outwards and his lead arm threatening from below. His jab has already been landing enough to make Sicillia worry, so just probing it out there is enough to stop him in his tracks—it doesn’t even need to land. As a result, Sicillia pauses and tries to counter from out of his range, but directly in the path of a right hand from Miller that knocks him back. A reach advantage isn’t required to benefit from this technique, though that’s where it is usually seen.

The jab isn’t only used to keep a fighter away. It is also well suited to pressure an opponent back. Examine Jon Jones as he demonstrates a surprising bit of smart boxing:

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Notice again the bend in his knees, the fact that his head stays back and his jab is uncommitted but punishing enough to drive Evans back. This allows Jones to maintain the range he wants, move Evans where he wants him and keep the punch he wants to throw loaded. As a result, Jones cracks him with a right hand as Evans is on his heels.

This is far from Jones’ A game however. A man who is much more adept at using this type of jab is Cain Velasquez.

Coming in with level changes and taking his head offline, he is easily able to force dos Santos against the cage where he can move into a clinch and rough him up or land heavy shots as dos Santos tries to escape with poor footwork. Notice that Cain doesn’t land his best punches until he backs Junior all the way to the cage. The jab only really serves to back the opponent up and get him out of position. As soon as Junior loses his foot position, Velasquez is not afraid to eat a weak jab to enter the clinch or return a harder punch. While admittedly very ugly, Cain’s jab allows him to come forward with relative safely and simultaneously loads his punches while putting him in position to enter the clinch.

A little more famous is GSP’s orbital bone breaking jab. He constantly uses it to back opponents against the fence where he can shoot when they have no room to retreat. This example in his fight against Fitch nicely demonstrates the effects a good jab can have on the position and stance of an opponent.

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With his back against the cage, Fitch is already worried about GSP’s jab. When his hand drops, Fitch reacts by reaching his hands out desperately. GSP throws a real jab, and notice the position it leaves both fighters in. Since his jab comes from underneath, it keeps Fitch very upright in his stance. With his legs straight, GSP’s hips are already significantly lower than his in the second frame. This means that when GSP initiates his level change, he is easily able to get under Fitch’s counter jab and closes the distance to his hips unobstructed. GSP was a master of using his jab to control the pace and range of a fight, guiding his opponents against the cage or drawing them in so that he could blast them off their feet. I’m going to reiterate that it’s vital how his jab comes from underneath and from a low stance. This is why you didn’t see him getting destroyed by cross counters and part of the reason why his opponents could do so little about it. By level changing with his jabs, he was then able to feint a jab, level change and shoot against an opponent who would get out of position to stuff his shots. Against an opponent who is standing still the jab can be used to blind them and hold them in place as you move into position to land the right hand. Scott Jorgensen found this out to the hard way:

This sequence nicely illustrates how to use the jab to set up your right hand, as well as how to use broken rhythm and feinting to be more successful. Wineland, who had been landing good jabs all night, flashes one as he steps to his left. Jorgensen swats at the feint without moving his feet, and Wineland swats a quick hook around the extended hands. Moving his feet into position and drawing Jorgensen’s eye with the 1-3, Wineland’s straight right has a clear path and lands clean. It is important to notice that Wineland’s movement towards his left—disguised by the jab—allows him to clear Jorgensen’s lead shoulder and deliver a perfectly straight and clean punch.

Expanding on the broken rhythm, a fighter who knows how to mix up their timing is extremely difficult to deal with. Johnny Hendricks got a lesson in jabbing from Robbie Lawler in their first fight.

Watch how Lawler paralyzes Hendricks with crisp straight shots thrown using unpredictable timing. He lands a jab, which Hendricks expects to be followed by a straight left. Raising his guard in anticipation, Hendricks looks confused when nothing comes immediately after. Lawler pauses, then shoots out another jab between the guard. Instead of immediately following with a straight left, Lawler pauses again, drops his lead hand and just stands there for half a beat. As Hendricks continues to anticipate, Lawler throws the straight left and connects clean. After stumbling back, Hendricks resets and watches. This time, Lawler throws a standard jab, cross combination that catches him clean again. But notice that he doesn’t jab as he steps in like most fighters, he steps in THEN jabs. It’s difficult to see at first, but Lawler’s control of range, rhythm and timing allow him to land 5 flush shots in a row. When Hendricks expects a 1-2, Lawler throws a 1. When Hendricks anticipates that the next combination will definitely be a 1-2, Lawler’s rhythm goes 1 AND 2. Finally, when Hendricks is really confused, Lawler takes half a beat to step then throws that 1-2 with regular timing. That entire fight is a lesson in using the jab.

While every example so far has shown using the jab to land the rear hand or get a takedown, one of the best uses of a jab is actually to set up the lead hook. And one of the best examples of that in MMA was Dan Hardy’s knockout of Duane Ludwig.

There is some extreme subtlety going on in these feints here. This actually would have been unlikely to work on a lesser striker because of how minimal Hardy’s movements are. Many people simply wouldn’t have picked up on it. Watch Hardy’s left arm extremely closely at the beginning of the gif, specifically his elbow. You’ll see it extend slightly before pulling back as the right hand comes forward. While it looks like a right hand feint, it’s really a jab feint and the right hand extending is to catch a potential simultaneous jab from Ludwig. Notice that Ludwig also moves his own right hand forward, attempting a standard parry and counter jab. However, this gives Hardy an opening to land the left hook as he stutter steps to the left. A clearer example of this is used by Frank Mir in his fight against Bigfoot Silva.

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A jab from Mir draws out the rear hand of Bigfoot. With that rear hand over-extended, the side of Bigfoot’s face is completely exposed. All Mir has to do is quickly turn his arm over to floor Bigfoot with a punch that he doesn’t see coming. All of this becomes even more effective when a fighter mixes body jabs in. Enjoy Gustafsson giving Jones a boxing lesson on going high and low with the jab to create effective offense:

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Gustafsson first jabs to the body to open up a jab to the head, both of which hit Jones. Later in the fight, he feints a jab to the body and comes upstairs with a solid right straight. Finally, he feints to the body and uses that level change to generate power with a hop step and crack Jones with a surprising left hook. Gustafsson is able to use his jab to open up punches with both hands at different targets throughout the fight. On top of that, he is constantly pawing and feinting with his jab. He demonstrates how to keep it unpredictable, how to use it to set up offense and to hide punches. Let’s examine another sequence from that fight.

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Gustafsson starts by changing levels, which suggests either a body jab or a right hand to Jones and causes him to cover up. Instead, Gustafsson leaps in with a left hook that comes around the guard and does no damage. Instead of backing out, Gustafsson uses the position of his lead arm to pull Jones’ head down, break his posture and attempt to land an uppercut. Jones avoids it barely by blocking as he pivots out. Unwilling to waste his initiative, Gustafsson stiff arms Jones, measuring his range and preventing him from seeing the right straight that splits his guard.

Here, he shows great versatility with his lead arm. It adapts from a strike to two different forms of control seamlessly, keeping Jones blind and out of position. There is no one in MMA who has truly mastered the art of an active lead hand, but Gustafsson is about as close as it comes and his fight with Jones in particular should be studied closely.

Long as this is, this has only been a very basic overview of the jab and what it can do. When used properly, a jab can measure distance, control distance, close distance or create distance. It can control timing and pace. It works to set up all other punches (plus kicks, knees, elbows and take downs) by blinding opponents, forcing them to react, drawing counters, frustrating, intimidating and beating them up. The lead arm can also be used to shove, pull and control different parts of the body. Jabs can target many things including the eyes, the chin, the gloves, the shoulders, the chest and the solar plexus. As MMA continues to evolve, it is my hope that we’ll be seeing more fighters USING jabs instead of just THROWING them.

Published inAnalysisTechnique/Training

One Comment

  1. Reg Reg

    Wow. Really insightful stuff (especially the part about weight transfer). I came to your page via a Sherdog thread. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

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