Footwork in MMA is about as important a fundamental skill as it gets. In most striking sports an occasional footwork error will be punished with a few extra strikes coming your way but in MMA one slight lapse of concentration in footwork might lead to a clinch or a take down that sees you being dominated for the rest of the round. Because of this we are increasingly seeing more and more really great footwork and movement being deployed in MMA. This particularly comes from fighters that want to keep the fight on the feet as they spend a lot of time and effort perfecting their distancing so that they have the best chance of defending take downs. Conversely I see quite a few fighters that don’t fear the ground (because they are highly skilled wrestlers or grapplers) who have neglected this part of their game because they are the ones that either don’t mind if the fight goes to the floor or desperately want the fight to go to the floor.
Footwork and movement puts you in the right place at the right time and more often than not this means the right distance. Being at the right distance is the single biggest tactical advantage you can have, and being at the wrong distance means that you are likely to fail at most things that you attempt. Jake Ellenberger fought at the right distance throughout almost the entire fight with Diego Sanchez, Diego spent almost the whole fight at the wrong distance.
I believe at least a part of the reason for this possibly comes from Diego’s attitude towards movement. He strikes me as someone who equates moving forward to ‘winning’ and moving backwards to ‘losing’. This is a very common mindset for fighters to have if they have never really taken the time to think in depth about tactics and more importantly how having a diverse range of tactics means you’ll need to consider more than one way of moving. I made a similar point about Nick Diaz when he lost to Carlos Condit, he didn’t have a range of different styles and tactics that he could switch to when his core, default tactic came up short.
Coming forward continuously is not always the best tactic, in fact I’ll be more controversial and say that it’s rarely the best tactic. Against someone who goes back like a rabbit caught in headlights it will give fantastic results, but against someone who doesn’t panic and understands how to keep the correct distance it will often come up short. At its worst, a tactic that employs continual forward motion is predictable, exhausting and easy to counter attack. Because great counter striking while retreating is still a relatively rare commodity in MMA it may seem as if it’s a tactic that is only right for a few gifted fighters like Anderson Silva when he knocked out Forrest Griffin but I believe it should be a fundamental part of any MMA practitioners game and should be practised whether you feel it suits you or not. I also believe that fighters like Jake Ellenberger and Carlos Condit are helping to demonstrate the effectiveness of such tactics, especially on opponents that move forward fairly predictably. I predict you’ll see a lot more fighters becoming effective at striking while moving backwards and counterattacking aggressive fighters over the next couple of years. Ultimately though it’s about being at the right distance as often as possible regardless of whether this means moving forwards or backwards.
The most important lesson to take from all of this is that you have to have diversity in your movements, tactics and game plan. It’s very common for fighters to pigeon hole themselves quite early in their careers and convince themselves that they have one particular style that suits them. This is particularly prevalent in aggressive fighters as they get a reputation for going forward and being relentless in their attack and they like to live up to that reputation. Again I believe Diego Sanchez has such an issue. It would be very hard for him to change his style now without hearing those kinds of criticisms like ‘he’s not like the old Diego’. But change is Sanchez’s only hope of getting back to the top, if you’ve only got one style and it gets found out you can be sure others will find the same holes.
Of course having just one style that you love and use over and over again becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. You only love one style so you only practise one style so you only get good at one style and none of the others seem to ‘suit’ you (remember by style I don’t mean ju-jitsu or Muay Thai, I mean the manner in which you fight).
So in modern MMA you need a diverse range of tactics, game plans and styles that you can employ and you need to start practising them as soon as you can and don’t let yourself get pigeon holed. If the place where you train is not encouraging you to do so from a very early stage then you might be heading down a path that is hard to turn back on.