Rousey v Nunes - a tutorial on how NOT to receive strikes

It's more than a year since I wrote my analysis of Ronda Rousey's loss to Holly Holm.  My conclusion back then was as follows:
"If there's a lesson in there for Rousey it is this: in a stand up fight, simple aggression is often enough to win against an unskilled opponent.  And if you're a good grappler, it will certainly give you some good chances to close the gap and use your real skills.  But if you want to fight a good stand up fighter, you need to know enough about stand up defence." 
It would seem that in the intervening year, Rousey has done nothing - and I mean absolutely nothing - to improve this skill, as was clearly evident in Rousey's fight last night against Amanda Nunes.

Many think that the cornerstone of stand-up fighting is attacking: striking, in the form of punching and kicking. Indeed, this is very much the philosophy of some schools who tout themselves as "target focused".

But, as I have stressed over many years and in many articles, your ability to overpower an opponent who is even remotely skilled has less to do with your capacity to hit harder than it does to not be hit.

There's a good reason karate has techniques we call "uke". Although "uke" is commonly translated as "block", this is a complete misnomer. The true translation is "receipt" (coming from the Japanese verb "ukeru" which means "to receive").

I have argued over the years that uke - the techniques for receiving blows - are really the cornerstone of Eastern civilian defence arts like karate, in much the same way as body evasion/movement (particularly slipping, dodging, weaving etc.) form the cornerstone of Western stand-up arts like boxing.

In other words, martial arts mastery comes down to more than just hitting bags or breaking boards - inert objects that neither "strike back" nor try to thwart your own strikes. Whether you're talking civilian defence or sport, martial arts mastery comes down to how effectively you are able to receive your opponent's strikes. If it came down to how hard you hit things, you'd never need to move beyond hitting bags.

And by "receive" I don't mean "absorb" or "take them on the chin": I mean "receive" them in a way that ensures they never land - whether it's by pre-empting them, slipping/dodging them, deflecting them, wedging and jamming them and, yes, even blocking them. In other words, you need to be able to deal with an opponent who is resistant. Yes, you should be able to hit hard. But that is not sufficient. Nor is it the main skill. When it comes to facing an opponent, what will set you apart from a beginner is the way you cope with an opponent - not how hard you can hit something that is non-resistant.

In her fight with Amanda Nunes, Ronda Rousey showed that she had still not learned to "receive" strikes in any way other than to "block them with her face". Just watch the video below.

It's interesting to me to hear Rousey's coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, shouting "head movement!" through most of the fight. He shouts it when she's not even engaged - as if he's asking her to bob and weave for no reason - to do a little dance. Presumably he didn't mean this: he was warning her to use defensive skill against Nunes' attacks. Sadly for Edmond - and even more for Ronda - it seems he was telling her this far too late in the day: she didn't move her head at all. She didn't have any situational reflex to do so.

Before that, he can be heard urging Rousey to "make her miss". Which is exactly what the art of "defence" or "receiving" is all about: making your opponent miss. "Boards don't hit back" is, as I've said before, better restated as "Boards don't make you miss". Different fighting systems have different ways of achieving this. But again, Rousey didn't seem to have a clue as to how to make Nunes "miss". Instead, Nunes hit her mark almost every time. I'm not the first person to note that this is almost certainly because of Rousey's poor coaching at the hands of Tarverdyan.

It's important to note that "uke" is, at its most basic level, present in every art in terms of the kamae or guard. In karate it focuses on using the arms to intercept blows. In gloved fighting sports it involves keeping your arms a little higher, closer to the face and, most importantly, keeping your chin down. Rousey did none of these things. Yet this is all a fundamental of "uke" in boxing (which she was attempting to simulate). Her guard was wide open at critical points - particularly whenever she kicked. Her chin was up. She looked like a rank amateur.

By contrast, Nunes clearly showed that she knew exactly what she was doing when it came to making Rousey miss. You can see all this from the adjacent snapshots: Where Rousey threw a totally predictable jab, Nunes "received" it with skill, slipping it on the inside. She did that while simultaneously throwing an overhand right cross. If Rousey had had any plans of throwing her own right cross, this was cut off before it could even begin. This "cutting off" is another example of "uke": pre-empting or negating a blow before it even begins through clever setup.

Last of all, Tarverdyan urges the hapless Rousey to "Move, move, move!" Then he says something that reveals his and Rousey's entire (rather transparent) gameplan:
"Clinch, clinch, clinch!" 
And Rousey tries to do so - on at least three or four occasions.

Unfortunately, Nunes knows what early UFC stand-up fighters (used to competitions that did not permit grappling) had forgotten: that a large function of "uke" is to avoid the clinch.

Consider the following random application from taijiquan which is the first one to come to my mind (I've filmed dozens over the years, so please don't take these as an "authoritative" description of how to avoiding a clinch - it's just an interpretation of one traditional technique against a clinch):

Indeed, Nunes does something not too dissimilar in her defence against Rousey's clinch by pulling back and punching over the top.

By contrast, my defence above uses a straight push and raises a leg to the centreline to negate any knee attack after the clinch. Of course, knee kicks were never Rousey's intention: her whole game plan was to get her opponent into a clinch and then throw from there.

Nunes planned for that. So she (rightly) assumed that the clinch was a setup to a throw, not a striking counter and simply pulled away (her bum back, as per my application) and punched over the top. Good uke.

Either way, she didn't let herself get tied down. She didn't fall into the trap many boxers and competition stand-up fighters used to do (and often still do) of thinking that the clinch is a relatively safe space: where you are in too close for punches (particularly gloved ones) to have effect.

Modern sports fighter strategy teaches us that the clinch is potentially disastrous for the stand-up fighter - especially one who is reluctant to go down to the ground. It may surprise you, but none of this is "news" in traditional civilian defence arts. In my research I've noted that the "knowledge of the ancients" has long taught that being tied down in a defence environment (as opposed to a one-on-one sporting contest) is disastrous: you face the possibility of weapons, multiple attackers, rocky uneven terrain... Let's just say that there's a reason why civilian defence arts gravitate towards stand-up fighting rather than grappling as a base art: you don't want to be tied up with one opponent on the ground. Where traditional civilian defence arts engage in grappling, they do so with a view to minimising any prolonged engagement with one opponent and maximising opportunities for escape.

And none of this negates the concept of having good grappling skills. In a sport like MMA, they are essential. In civilian defence, they are still highly pertinent. After all, knowing what to do if you get taken down to the ground (and knowing how to fall before that) are really important because there's a good chance this will happen to you.

The corollary to this is that if you want to fight in MMA - or defend yourself in a civilian context - and expect to do so against an opponent who is remotely skilled in striking, you need to learn stand-up skills.

In particular, you need to learn the art of defence - specifically "uke" or how to "receive" attacks.

Depending on the focus of your art, this could be ducking, slipping or weaving, or it could be parrying, deflecting or wedging/trapping. Or, Heaven forbid, actually blocking or checking.

Which is why I have railed so heavily over the years about the trend in arts like karate to interpret all uke as "strikes, throws, locks, holds... anything but uke". Sometimes an uke is just an uke. Indeed, I'd say this is true most of the time.

Because what we can see from the Rousey vs. Nunes fight is just how badly a fighter fares when they have no real stand-up defence skills: they become the proverbial punching bag/board that many "target focused" martial artists hope for. They become the totally unskilled stand-up fighter of the kind Rousey could formerly overpower using little more than sheer athleticism and naked aggression.

On the latter point, we need to be clear: Rousey was defeated in under a minute, but there is a world of difference between her loss and, say, McGregor vs. Aldo, where Aldo was knocked out in 13 seconds. That wasn't a systematic annihilation of a human punching bag, but rather one fighter timing a blow to land against a highly skilled opponent.

By contrast, Rousey was just a target. She had no way of thwarting Nune's attacks. She had no way of "receiving" them intelligently. Where Aldo took a gamble and opened up a gap that McGregor exploited, Rousey was all gaps, all the time. Her destruction was inevitable.

Rousey didn't lose to Nunes because the latter was faster, stronger, younger, had better reaction time, was taller or had longer reach. She lost because her stand-up fighting skill was, as I pointed out in my previous article, not very good.

She didn't have the basics in 2015...

And she didn't have them at the end of 2016. 

She could throw "funny punches" - and that's about it. I know these are attacks only, but they speak volumes about her general stand-up fighting skill set - offensive as well as defensive. She moved - and still moves - like a rank beginner in stand-up fighting. 

I've heard Nunes has a black belt in BJJ, but I really don't know how she moves on the floor. Even if she isn't exactly in her element there, she's certainly not ignored grappling to the extent Rousey has has ignored stand-up. 

But it wouldn't have mattered anyway: they never got close to the floor. MMA is increasingly showing that while you might get away with a poor ground game (I'm not recommending this by any stretch!), a professional stand-up game is a pre-requisite for the octagon. Rousey didn't have this prerequisite for all these years - a fact obfuscated by the relatively poor quality of her opponents.

Ronda Rousey is arguably one of the greatest grappling/throwing fighters the world has ever seen. But her refusal - or rather her coach's refusal - to accept that the stand-up game requires significant skill (not just a bit of "head movement" and a few "jabs" leading to a clinch) was her undoing. 

Rousey assumed that while her judo required years of dedicated basic training, stand-up skills came down to nothing more than athleticism and aggression: a lot of gym work, bag punching and wonky shadow boxing. This was a massive miscalculation of the kind you expect from a lay person - not a professional fighter. It certainly isn't a mindset shared by either MMA stand-up fighters or serious practitioners of the traditional stand-up martial arts - never mind those who are both (as the video below shows). As to her coach... the less said, the better. If Rousey is to be critiqued for anything, let it not be her loyalty to him, which is, at the very least, admirable in that it shows her loyalty to friends (even if it also shows a significant degree of cognitive dissonance).

In the end, mine might be a brutal assessment. But it matches its brutal finish of the Rousey vs. Nunes fight and, I assume, Rousey's career in MMA. I have to call it as I see it. I wish Ronda Rousey all the best in the future. I think she is a star performer. She was let down in this performance.

Copyright © 2017 Dejan Djurdjevic


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