I was listening to the Lex Fridman Podcast Episode 260, where he interviewed Georges St-Pierre, John Danaher, and Gordon Ryan. Most of the talking was done by Danaher, who is one of the most cerebral coaches in MMA and submission grappling today. Lex asked the question of who would win between GSP and Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Danaher broke down their strengths and weaknesses. This blog post is the result of an epiphany I had while listening to his analysis on how I can formalize the foundation of my own analysis.
While people who know me may think that I’m knowledgeable when it comes to martial arts and combat sports, the truth is I’m still fairly low on the totem pole of “experts” in this field. There are the likes of Jack Slack, Lee Wylie, that guy who writes for Rhythm Boxing, and even Luke Thomas, who are way above me in terms of knowledge and powers of observation.
In an effort to get better at this and climb my way up there, I’ve come up with a system that will help me improve with my fight analysis. It’s like my personal commentary system that lets me have a mental checklist that I can follow to not miss important details. Of course, I shouldn’t follow it to a T, but it’s a more systematic approach at the very least.
The purpose of this system is to help me avoid getting stuck on one tiny detail while missing out on the bigger picture, which will result in making a fool out of myself. It’s a mistake I’ve committed often. I would like to stop sucking at this and start getting good enough to be able to do it professionally. Of course, this alone won’t make me better; I must also actively engage in martial arts and combat sports to continue learning and make more headway.
NOTE: This is nowhere near the final version of this idea. In fact, I’m sure this is an overcomplication and will need to be further simplified. Perhaps more knowledgeable and skilled analysts have a better system (or lack thereof), and I would like to learn about it. Otherwise, I’ll have to work on this and develop it further over time. Basically, I’m being a gigantic dork.
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My New Fight Analysis System
I’ll admit that it’s a bit stupid due to how badly I want to make an acronym out of it, just like with the commentary thing. If I can’t make a mnemonic device out of it, I won’t remember it in the spur of the moment whenever I need it.
For fight analysis, I came up with DRIFTS — Direction, Range, Initiative, Fighting Style, Targets, Space & Time.
Each one describes an aspect of how the fighter is trying to win. With the DRIFTS combined, it paints the whole picture of the fighter’s style and game plan. If you can fill in the DRIFTS of both fighters, you should be able to get the story of the fight, both in each round and its entirety.
It’s like the judging criteria that get talked about in every UFC (which includes ‘Octagon Control’), but for fight analysis. The idea seemed pretty cool when I first thought of it, but perhaps it’ll get lamer the more I think about it.
This is where the energy of the fight is going. It can indicate whether there’s a definite aggressor, if the fight is mostly moving or at a standstill, how much energy is being expended, and so on.
- Are they fighting forwards or backwards?
- Going up or down when they’re on the ground?
- Are they moving side to side, either to the inside or outside?
- Are they fighting with the same stances (closed) or opposite stances (open)?
- Are they changing stances?
- Who is pushing forwards and who is pulling backwards?
All of this is meant to determine a fighter’s ability to set the pace and direction of the fight. Some are aggressive and go straight towards the opponent, while others like to pull their opponent in to hit a counter. Some like to exchange, taking one and giving back two or more.
Are they able to project their energy efficiently towards destroying their opponent? Or absorb what they throw at them then redirect it back? Or are they just taking it all and can only give back a portion of it? Fighting requires energy, so a fight would want to be able to be efficient with the energy they use in the fight to achieve victory.
This involves the four ranges of combat:
- Long Range: Kicking
- Mid Range: Punching
- Close Range: Clinching
- Ground: Grappling
Ranges beyond that would involve long weapons and projectiles.
Different kinds of fighters prefer staying in certain ranges. A kickboxer may prefer mid to long range; a boxer specializes in mid range and may also be proficient in close range; a wrestler
Great Muay Thai fighters here can hold their own in at least three of the four ranges, and they can also train in grappling to cover the fourth range as well. This is why many Brazilians have become MMA champions as they tend to be jiu jitsu fighters who crosstrain in Muay Thai, thus covering all ranges.
Meanwhile, the American archetype is the classic combination of boxing and wrestling, which covers three of the four ranges and can defend against long range attacks by catching kicks to get takedowns. They can then supplement their freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling with jiu jitsu or catch wrestling to add submissions into their game.
Wrestling is the X-factor as it’s the one discipline that focuses on dictating at which range the fight takes place. Since America has folkstyle wrestling in its curriculum, there’s always a pool of young talent to draw from.
The Russians have something similar going on, but their approach is more holistic with sambo. Their competitions might as well be MMA, but they do have those weird uniforms consisting of a kimono top and shorts, almost like a judo player who had their pants stolen.
The three basic initiatives of combat are:
- Leading: Attacking first to do damage or elicit a reaction
- Delayed Counters: Defending then countering
- Simultaneous Counters: Countering at the same time as an incoming attack
There’s also a fourth one, which is interception. It’s the main focus of my base school of Jeet Kune Do, which was designed by Bruce Lee to be a direct and lightning-quick way of fighting. It’s basically a simultaneous counter, initiating the counter as soon as the opponent initiates a leading attack, but you then hit him before they even start to reach you.
Karate also has these, and it gets even more granular with the little details. I’ve yet to truly understand the distinctions between ken no sen, go no sen, sen no sen, and sen sen no sen. This is something I’ll have to study more deeply.
Knowing a fighter’s initiative is important in understanding his game plan. For example, Tyron Woodley in MMA and Adrien Broner in boxing are both notorious for sitting back and waiting for opportunities to counter. The problem is that if you don’t throw enough leading attacks to establish your threats, no amount of feinting will compel your opponent to react a certain way.
There’s no payoff if there’s no setup.
The difference between a brawler and an educated striker is that the former doesn’t look for counters like the latter. A brawler may end up landing a counter, but they don’t aim for it and may even just coincidentally stumble upon it. Meanwhile, an educated striker leads not only to do damage, but also elicit reactions that can then be exploited to land counters.
Therefore, it’s important to take note of how much a fighter is leading and how much they’re landing delayed and simultaneous counters at will. Comparing the initiatives between the two fighters, as well as the other aspects of their fighting, lets you know who is setting the pace.
This is the part where I have to throw my hands up and admit that I still have no idea what I’m trying to say here. This category is so broad, it will have to be further broken down into sub-categories. Fuck it, I even called this “fighting style” because I couldn’t think of any other letter to make for a better acronym.
The first thing to look at is the fighter’s stance:
- Orthodox or southpaw
- Squared or bladed
- Hands up or down
- Weight on lead foot, rear foot, or balanced
- Shifting or stance changing
Weapons and movement patterns do vary between orthodox and southpaw, as well as how they approach their opponent in either stance. If both fighters are in similar stances, that’s a closed stance position; if they’re in opposite stances, that’s an open stance position.
Each stance position provides different lanes of attack. For instance, jabs are easier to land in the closed stance than in the open stance where the lead hands tend to block each other.
A squared stance is favored by fighters with backgrounds like Muay Thai or Kyokushin, while a bladed stance is favored by more defensive fighters with backgrounds like point karate or so on. Of course, there are many exceptions, but the properties of each form of stance do matter.
Having your hands up or down can affect how a fighter approaches the fight. Hands up the more defensively responsible thing to do, while there have been great fighters who have achieved great success with their hands down due to prodigious talent and defensive prowess.
Not enough people care about where one’s weight is placed on which foot, which affects so many things. It can dictate both how much power a fighter puts into every punch and kick, as well as how quickly they can react to their opponent’s attacks.
There’s also the subject of changing stances, either with shifting (stance change disguised with an attack) or just doing it raw. Changing stances must be done with purpose, either to make it more difficult for the opponent to find an opening or to create their own openings for attack. Changing stances for its own sake is wasted effort.
You then look at what their weapons are:
- Most often used techniques
- Attack patterns
- Layered threats
- Main finishing threats
Of course, knowing a fighter’s favorite techniques can tell you a lot about how they fight and how they approach their opponents. They’re their main tools for solving their problems.
Attack patterns include combinations that are repeated throughout the fight and stepping towards a certain direction to throw a particular attack.
Layered threats are two or more attacks that can then create a new attack, like having a big right hand and a hard leg kick that can then be turned into a leg sweep.
Main finishing threats include winning patterns that fighters tend to look for. You can see whether they’re one-dimensional or have multiple ways of winning.
You also look at how they defend against their opponent’s weapons and threats:
- Type of guard
- Method of defense
- Common reactions
- Sought-after counters
- Crisis management
Types of guard include a basic high guard, Philly shell, cross guard, long guard for framing, no guard at all with both hands down to rely completely on evasion, and so on.
Methods of defense mostly boil down to blocking, parrying, and evading. High-level pro fighters tend to not rely on just one method, but this then makes it more about what they don’t do.
Common reactions are just how a fighter tends to react to threats, whether they move their head, move completely out of the way to one direction, shell up, or just throw an attack at the same time to force a simultaneous exchange.
An educated fighter would look for counters, while a pure brawler would just keep attacking without thinking about counters. For instance, someone is considered “literate” if they at least have a check hook that they throw against an opponent who just darts in.
Crisis management is how they survive when they’re put in a compromising position. Lesser fighters tend to waste a lot of energy trying to survive, while more experienced fighters are able to pace themselves and still intelligently defend under fire.
This is separate from the previous pillar as this has more to do with the game plan. It can be particular to a specific opponent, whether they have a prior injury or a known weakness that the fighter decides to attack and exploit throughout the fight.
The most obvious is a target body part, which seeks to compromise the opponent’s ability to fight and endure. If it’s a leg, that hampers their kicks and mobility. If it’s the body, that saps their stamina over time as they find it harder to breathe. If it’s just the head, that’s just headhunting and it’s not much of a game plan, but some opponents just need to be shut off quickly.
But it’s not just about targeting one spot for the entire fight. A smart fighter will target one part in order to open up another part. You can throw high, then suddenly hit low; you can focus on the body, then suddenly throw one to the head. It’s one of the most basic, yet most effective tactics in fighting because there’s no such thing as an absolute defense.
Another target is skill deficiency. If an opponent is bad at dealing with kicks, you kick them until they say uncle. If they’re not very good at grappling, you take them to the ground and make them drown on dry land. You take them where they’re most uncomfortable and make sure they can’t escape. Perhaps this is more appropriate for the range pillar, but there’s more to this.
Let’s say they have a tendency to move their head a certain way, especially when reacting to certain types of attacks. You can then force them to do that head movement and have them move their head towards your shin. This is what Jon Jones did to Daniel Cormier in their rematch, wherein DC’s tendency to dip right was exploited with a well-placed head kick.
This is pillar is for determining if the fighter’s actions make sense — if their every action contributes to achieving victory. An intelligent fighter will take advantage of every opportunity and exploit every weakness; an unthinking fighter just tries to force their way through like a battering ram and hope their opponent gets overwhelmed with their sheer brute force.
Space & Time
Whenever you see an explanation of judging criteria in boxing or mixed martial arts, you see something like ringmanship or “Octagon Control” — some vague term referring to a fighter’s ability to control space. Most people who are neither experienced fighters nor hardcore fight nerds, so they may not understand what this is about.
The first aspect is positioning. Some fighters tend to stay at the center of the ring, while others tend to have their back towards the ropes or fence. Some fighters stay relatively still, while others like to circle around in order to hit and run. Where you get to be in the fighting space dictates what you can do and what you can force your opponent into.
Most want to stay off the ropes or fence whenever possible, while some feel at home being pressed up against it and effectively fight like they’re in a phone booth. There are a few who can force their opponents against it easily with efficient movement, as if their opponents are magnets who quickly stick to the very borders of the fighting space.
Being able to dictate the pace and where the fight takes place is everything, even more than precise technique. Even the most inefficient and technically unsound fighter can still win against a skilled and prepared opponent if they have the drive, physical ability, and gas tank to consistently and reliably take the fight where they want it.
Then there’s what I like to call duration of effectiveness. Whenever possible, fighters want to be a legitimate threat at all times, but that’s physically difficult due to limits in stamina. Some fighters just count on being able to get a good hit in and call it a night early. Of course, such a way of fighting isn’t ideal as once they’ve punched themselves out, they’re easy pickings.
While a good fighter should be able to go the distance, their level of threat in each round wouldn’t be the same. In some rounds, they’re either pacing themselves or trying to catch their breath; in other rounds, they can come alive and go crazy. Being able to pick your moments is a skill that comes with experience in the ring or cage.
The energy in the first round certainly isn’t the same as the final round — good fights heat up and bad fights either cool down or never get warm in the first place. Fighters have to become masters of space and time within that 15 to 30 minutes of action. It can certainly feel like forever and the ring or cage can feel so big and so small at the same time.
I’m still fairly unsure of myself with this, but I like where it’s going. Perhaps I can come up with a system that lets me reliably understand a fight in retrospect. Perhaps with some practice, it’ll even make me better at analyzing a fight in real time. On the flip side, this may make me enjoy watching fights less due to minding analysis more than just watching it recreationally.
Then again, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve watched fights with other people. Combat sports have been a lonely pursuit for me, all nineteen years of it so far. I’ve never been a “Just Bleed” guy and watching fights critically for my martial arts education is what I find joy in.
I’m a nerd, so I always feel a need to be able to systematically make sense of everything I consume, including combat sports. Therefore, I don’t think this will take too much of my fun out of it. If I’m able to refine and simplify this further, it may even enhance my experience.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have in the comment section below.
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