In the introductory article, we classified the main types of head movement and examined the correct mechanics of each—slips are side to side movements of the head, pulls are backwards movements of the head, ducks are downwards movements of the head, and weaves are U shaped movements of the head. With that basic understanding established, it’s now time to discuss head movement in the context of MMA. This article will explain the applications of head movement in MMA, the risks, and how to mitigate those risks. In addition, each of these things is demonstrated in Ryan Wagner’s excellent companion video:
The most obvious application is the one which we’ve already analyzed: setting up counter punches. Head movement puts the fighter in good positions to attack while taking the opponent out of position to defend. Let’s look at a few examples of this in MMA, starting with some of my favorite counter punches from arguably the best boxer in the sport.
Note that this gif shows two sequences—first McGregor slipping outside the cross to land his left uppercut, then slipping outside again to land his left straight. In each case the slip loads up his left side while leaving the opponent completely off balance—notice how Buchinger is caught dragging his rear foot. McGregor is outstanding at punishing fighters who overextend and get out of position against him, and his head movement allows him to make them miss then make them pay. His control of distance and position allows him to see the strikes from Buchinger coming, because he already knows they are going to be thrown. McGregor knows Buchinger must step forward to reach him, and McGregor’s handfighting limits Buchinger’s offensive options with his lead hand. Thus, he has no trouble reacting to the predictable attacks and landing devastating counters. This sense of distance and positioning is a vital factor in the application of head movement in MMA and will be a consistent theme throughout this article. Next, let’s examine a fighter using the same fundamentals to close distance with counter punches.
Mendes approaches Meza patiently, slowly pressuring him towards the cage. Meza starts out upright and bouncing in his stance, but as Mendes gets closer he plants his feet and widens his stance. This subtle change of position as the distance is closing indicates that he’s setting his stance to punch, in an attempt to keep Mendes off him. Mendes reads this and continues to apply pressure. As soon as Meza flinches he shifts his weight to his lead side while dipping down slightly, taking his head out of the path of the punch with the exact same movement that he uses to power his overhand right. Meza’s night ends early as he moves directly into the punch. Mendes’ use of head movement while punching to close distance is one of the most applicable to MMA, especially for wrestlers as we’ll cover later. Robbie Lawler used the same concept to put away one of the men best known for control of distance in MMA:
Lawler’s head shifts from left to right as he transfers his weight into his straight left. Rory’s jab slips over his left shoulder, and Lawler’s cross shatters Rory’s nose, sending him to the floor in agony. Here, Silva leads with the same exact punch against Forrest Griffin, then transitions into one of the flashiest displays of head movement ever seen in MMA:
Griffin paws with his lead hand on a predictable rhythm: one-two-three. On three, Silva slips his head outside while throwing his left hand, but only lands a glancing blow as Griffin partially parries the punch with his right hand. Griffin immediately tries to counter with a 3-2 combination, but Silva pulls from the hook while recovering his stance and transitions into a deep slip to his left hip outside the cross. Griffin throws another off balance hook as Silva’s head pops up, but another pull has it fall short and leaves Griffin defenseless when a counter straight left from Silva comes crashing into his face. The most important aspect of this sequence is that Silva remains balanced and is always ready to change positions. He moves his head right, left, down and back, never making it an easy or predictable target and never getting stuck in one spot for long. Note also that Silva never takes his eyes off the opponent—even when he’s ducking low to his left his head is turned to see Griffin’s hips and feet, never looking at the floor. This allows him to read what’s coming next and adapt. The importance of using the eyes is demonstrated here by another one of the best boxers in MMA, Jose Aldo.
Pay close attention to the movement of Aldo’s head. He starts by simply slipping to his left, but as he’s slipping he sees that Edgar is throwing a hook that he’s moving directly into. He quickly improvises and turns his slip into a duck, barely managing to go under Edgar’s hook. He gets slightly out of position here, but uses a sharp pivot to turn into Edgar and reestablish his line of sight as he cracks Edgar on the temple with a pivoting left hook. By keeping his eyes open, Aldo was able to adapt his defense and get out of danger that he appeared to be moving into. In addition, he is able to combine his head movement with his footwork to obtain an angle that would have been impossible to pivot to without being hit otherwise. This brings us to the next application of head movement in MMA: creating escape routes.
While a fighter should typically be using head movement to set up offense, it’s impractical to counter after every single defensive movement. There’s also utility in terms of creating escape routes and angles. Watch as Holly Holm demonstrates effective use of head movement to escape a bad position, to the embarrassment of Ronda Rousey.
Holm hops back, ending up dangerously close to the cage. From here, all Rousey has to do is close distance and she will have Holm tied up with nowhere to go. Rousey tries to time Holm’s bounce with a left hook, a favorite entry of hers because even a blocked hook lets her transition into head control. However, Holm doesn’t block. She changes levels and ducks down under the hook, using a subtle weave to get her head outside Rousey’s torso. Holm jogs back to open space and reclaims the center as Rousey throws herself off her own feet. Cruz got himself out of trouble momentarily against a dangerous swarm from Cody Garbrandt in much the same fashion:
Cody slips outside a jab and hits Cruz in the ribs with a tight right hook. As Cruz tries to pull back, Cody charges forward and drives Cruz straight back to the fence. With his prey cornered, Cody sticks out his lead hand to measure and line up the kill shot. However, Cruz is crafty. He steps his left leg back and out to the side, ducking hard to that side. He manages to get under Cody’s punch, then steps his right leg through and lunges out of range where he is safe to reset. Cody, committed to his attack, is left quite literally swinging for the fences. Cruz always makes good use of his head movement as he escapes on angles, but he actually uses it best to attack on angles—not with his boxing but with his wrestling.
In wrestling, the hands and forearms are the first lines of defense. In order to attack effectively, the offensive wrestler must clear these obstacles. Typically, this would be done through handfighting. However, in MMA, the opponent will also be using his hands to punch. Every time he does, an opening is created. If you can time that opening, you can create the opportunity for effortless takedowns. Few do it as well as Cruz.
In his comeback fight against Mizugaki, Cruz hits one of the most perfect double legs I’ve ever seen. He starts by circling to his left with his jab, sticking it in Mizugaki’s face. He changes directions quickly, slipping outside Mizugaki’s jab while throwing his own, then circling away from the right hand. Mizugaki attempts to chase, squaring his feet in the process. Cruz changes directions again, launching forward with a throwaway right hand. The punch isn’t meant to land, it’s meant to draw out a counter from Mizugaki. Taking the bait, Mizugaki plants his feet and winds up another right hand. It never has a chance to land. Cruz is proactive, already ducking the predictable punch as Mizugaki commits to it. With his stance square and elbow away from his ribs, Mizugaki gives his hips to Cruz on a silver platter. At the same time Cruz ducks, his right leg sneaks forward to penetrate Mizugaki’s stance. With his feet in position and head tight to the ribs, Cruz is in perfect position to finish. He turns the corner beautifully as he drives Mizugaki towards the center of the Octagon with strong head pressure and rips his legs out from under him—easily landing in side control.
This type of proactive head movement is extremely effective for setting up takedowns, and can even be used to take down superior wrestlers.
Cormier advances forward with his right hand held high, and left hand extended slightly. Gustafsson flashes a throwaway jab at the right hand. Again, this isn’t meant to land. It’s meant to invite a counter. Cormier accepts the invitation, stepping forward with a left hook, but Gustafsson is already changing levels. He ducks under the hook and takes a small step forward, meeting Cormier’s advance. Just like Cruz previously, Gustafsson gets his head tight to the ribs with his elevation lowered and feet ready to drive. Digging in with his head for pressure, he turns the corner and drives through Cormier, sneakily using his left foot to block Cormier’s right and his right arm to elevate Cormier’s left leg for the finish. Gustafsson would probably never be able to shoot on an Olympian in a wrestling context, but by using his proactive head movement he was able to get into a great position to attack and finish. In fact, he did it twice in the same round.
He uses the same jab and duck setup in both cases, only the second time he goes under a right hand, secures a body lock and hits an outside trip. Pay attention to his use of the head in coordination with his right underhook to force Cormier’s weight onto his right foot, off-balancing him for the trip. His head movement puts him into a strong clinch position that he’d probably never get to against such a strong clincher otherwise, and he immediately moves to finish. Chris Weidman has also made good use of head movement to transition into clinch takedowns.
Weidman is keeping Maia at distance with his jab. Maia ducks his head down and steps in with a big left hand that he hopes will land as Weidman jabs, but because of his control of distance Weidman is easily able to see it coming. He ducks under the punch, transitioning smoothly into a body lock. Notice again the position of his head. With his right arm underhooking and clamped to his left arm behind Maia’s back, Weidman digs his forehead into Maia’s left cheek. This head pressure prevents Maia from turning in as Weidman steps his right leg behind Maia’s left knee. Weidman squeezes Maia’s hips in tight to him and tips him off balance over that right leg, transitioning straight to side control and completely avoiding Maia’s guard.
As with any technique, the risks have to be considered along with the rewards. While head movement can put the fighter into excellent offensive positions, it can also put them in the path of certain strikes. While most will argue that head kicks and knees are the primary risks, it’s important to note that head movement can be countered with punches. One of the most famous knockouts in MMA history is also one of the clearest examples of this:
Weidman squares up with Silva, raising his right hand and turning out the palm while lowering and slightly extending his left arm. Silva jabs at the right palm, as Weidman expects him to, so Weidman times a side stepping left hook that cracks Silva in the mouth. Hurt, but pretending not to be, Silva combines a pivot left and a pull to narrowly escape a vicious 3-2. However, Weidman is closer than expected and stepping his right foot through, cutting off Silva’s escape to that side. Silva changes directions, but Weidman forces him to react to a backhand. This comes off the left-right rhythm Silva is expecting and gets him leaning even further back with his eyes closed. By the time Silva sees the final left hook coming, he’s leaning completely past his own feet and is unable to change positions. Weidman’s hook lands clean and the longest championship reign in UFC history comes to a dramatic close. Silva’s pulls have been one of his greatest defensive tools throughout his career, but when thrown off by unusual timing and caught at the wrong distance, they left him vulnerable to a brutal knockout from a much slower fighter.
Here we see another example of head movement being punished. Torres starts just outside of range with his shoulders squared. A twist of his hips and torso before the arm extends telegraphs his jab, making it an easy read for Michael McDonald who easily slips outside it. Attempting to take his head offline, Torres leans to his right with poor posture as he jabs. While this gets his head out of the path of most simultaneous punches, it puts his head directly in the path of McDonald’s counter uppercut. He ducks into an uppercut, left straight combination that hurts him enough to make him turn away and take his eyes completely off McDonald. He shells up as he attempts to turn into McDonald with his head still ducked, making it an easy target for another brutal uppercut that splits his guard and puts him down. From the telegraphed jab to the hunched posture, Torres’ poor positioning throughout this exchange leaves him vulnerable and unable to react correctly or adapt when things go wrong. Against a puncher like McDonald, that means going to sleep.
The most obvious risk of using head movement is slipping into a head kick. This is especially true because the preferred slip to the outside sets the fighter up perfectly for a kick from the same side.
Circling to his right, Brown leads with a body jab against Cerrone, dipping his head down to the right as he throws. His distance is off, and the body jab slides off to the side of Cerrone’s body as Cerrone takes a small step away and shifts his weight back—making his lead leg light. Brown stays hunched over, so Cerrone flashes a feint jab as he quickly performs a switch step, loading up his left leg. The jab causes Brown to duck down further and look away, so he never has time to react to the switch kick that nearly ends his life. It lands flush and puts him out cold. Brown’s poor posture and loss of line of sight leave him helpless to react, while his poor choice of jabbing to the body while circling towards Cerrone’s left leg put him right in the danger zone of one of Cerrone’s best weapons.
A little more difficult to time and set up, knees are still another big risk for a fighter moving their head, especially one using ducks. Any type of level change leaves the fighter in danger of upward strikes, none more devastating than knees.
With his back near the cage, Latifi bounces around a bit before looking to angle off to his left. Bader, who starts off pressing him back slowly, stutter steps with a feinted jab before taking a long step forward with his lead leg to load up the rear knee. His sudden explosive movement forward causes Latifi to panic. He decides to head butt Bader right in the knee. The stepping in knee is a brilliant move by Bader in this situation. When a fighter is near the cage, they know they’re in danger of being cornered. They lose the ability to control distance and can be taken out of stance. As a result, the fighter will usually try to find a way to escape and alleviate the pressure. Because they can’t go back, they either have to circle out to a side or come straight forward—usually with a level change or a shot. A fighter is always going to default to what they’re most comfortable with under intense pressure, so knowing Latifi’s habits a duck into a takedown was the most likely response to Bader’s sudden burst of activity. Knowing this, Bader was able to make him react and exploit his reaction to send him back flopping to the canvas.
Now that we’ve seen both the risks and the applications of utilizing different types of head movement in MMA, it’s time to discuss how to minimize the risks in order to maximize the rewards. There have been common themes throughout each case we’ve studied—when a fighter was using head movement effectively, he was staying in good positions, keeping his eyes on the opponent, maintaining awareness of range and adapting based on changes in the opponent’s relative distance and position. When a fighter was using it ineffectively, he was putting himself out of position, taking his eyes off the opponent and making decisions that didn’t make a lot of sense based on the distance and position they were at. From these common themes we can establish basic guidelines that will allow a fighter to implement head movement safely and effectively into their MMA game.
The first and most basic guideline is to stay in position. In part one, we established that “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”. This means no hunching or turning the head away how Brown and Torres did, no leaning outside the feet like Silva did, and generally no excessive movement. When you maintain balance and line of sight while moving your head, you will be able to react appropriately to different threats and opportunities. Otherwise, instead of creating opportunities for yourself you will create them for your opponent.
Building off that point, it is vital that the fighter is always ready to change positions. Getting stuck in one head slot makes the head a predictable target, which translates to an easy to hit target. The ability to transition fluidly from any one type of head movement into another is an absolute necessity.
Notice that every movement is precise and controlled. Rigondeux’s defense here is not improvised, it’s systematic. He is always balanced, his posture is always good and his line of sight is never broken. His positioning is perfect at all times, no matter how many strikes he’s evading, and he’s always ready to flow from one head slot into another. This is the ideal to strive for.
Second, the fighter must account for relative range and position when deciding which type of movement to use, or whether head movement is appropriate at all for a given situation. We saw McGregor handfight and keep his opponent far away so that the change of distance with an outside step told him that it was time to slip. We saw Mendes pressure his opponent and read the change of stance in order to time an overhand right. We also saw Brown trying to slip while standing directly in Cerrone’s kicking range and circling towards his favorite kick, and Latifi ducking into a knee despite Bader beginning his attack from well outside the range of his longest strikes. The best defensive fighters let their defense be informed by where the opponent is, because this tells them what attacks are available at any moment—which can be combined with knowledge of the opponent’s habits and preferences to determine the choices they will make often before they even make them.
Aldo is one of the best in MMA at adapting his defense to the situation. Here we see him defend two head kicks from Edgar. The first time, he is circling towards the kick at long range. When Edgar takes a deep step of his lead leg with the foot turned out, the right kick is easy for Aldo to read because it’s the only strike that has the potential to land clean when he’s circling that direction at that distance. He easily pulls from it as he pivots away. On the second one, they exchange a bit in the pocket and Aldo begins stepping away to reset at long range. From this range, a pull would be a bad choice. He’s too close and would run out of room in his stance the same way Silva did. As a result, he keeps his left hand up as he circles out and keeps his eyes open. When Edgar takes that same step again, Aldo knows another high kick will be coming. This time, he defends with a wing block and parries the leg down. His defense is a combination of reactivity and proactivity, always leaving him prepared to deal with the most likely threats.
An important derivative of this concept is that the fighter can manipulate his positioning and distance to draw out strikes from the opponent. If, for example, you know the opponent is trying to time a head kick when you slip, you can show them a slip to trigger their kick. Make them throw it when you want them to, not when they want to.
Here we see two head kick attempts from Dillashaw. On the first, he feints and almost gets Cruz to slip right into his shin. Cruz barely manages to pull back and still catches TJ’s foot on his face. Seconds later, Cruz hop steps in and subtly slips his head to his right, baiting the same kick then easily pulling away. This would have been a good opportunity for him to counter, especially with a left kick as he pulled that leg back, but Cruz doesn’t pull the trigger in this case. However, Rashad Evans knocked out Chuck Liddell using this concept.
Chuck has Evans backed up against the cage. As discussed previously, he knows Rashad will have to do something to escape. Rashad sets his feet and feints a jab, then shoots one out at Chuck with his stance wide and level lower. By all appearances he’s going to try to jab to keep Chuck off him, and based on the level change and range he probably wants to time a punch from Liddell that he can duck under and shoot. You can see Chuck prepare an uppercut for that exact situation. He keeps his weight back and crouches slightly, standing with his right hand lowered and the elbow drawn back. Everything about his body language says uppercut, which would be the perfect counter to Rashad’s jab and level change. However, Rashad doesn’t jab and level change. He flashes a jab then slips left with a huge overhand right. Instead of punishing Rashad’s duck, Liddell’s uppercut makes his chin the perfect target for Rashad’s overhand and “The Iceman” gets put on ice. With his awareness of the position both men were in and the distance they were at, Evans was able to draw out the punch he wanted and capitalize on the opening perfectly—it’s never a good idea to trade an uppercut for an overhand.
Finally, head movement must be integrated into a full defensive system. It’s an excellent tool, but it is only one tool. In order to be applied without excessive risk, it must be combined fluidly with footwork, blocks, parries and all other defensive tools. Perhaps the best demonstration of this I’ve ever seen was Cody Garbrandt’s clowning of Dominic Cruz.
Here, Cody combines every type of head movement with his other methods of defense. He slips, ducks, weaves, pulls, pivots, blocks and parries—even taking time to style on Cruz and taunt him throughout. He doesn’t fall into any predictable patterns and adapts his defense as the threats change. He uses his feet to control the distance and the angles and his eyes to read Cruz. That’s why despite ducking and weaving, he doesn’t get caught by the head kick Cruz tries to set up—he counters it. To be able to do what he does, your defense must be versatile, varied and adaptable. You must be aware of what options you have from every position and range, what options the opponent has, and what your best defenses are in each case. You must be careful not to put yourself in positions that you can’t recover from quickly and can’t flow into other positions from. You must combine proactivity with reactivity and always be aware of when you’re being set up. If you can follow these fundamental guidelines, you will be able to implement head movement very effectively into your MMA game.