By Jack Slack
Fedor Emelianenko’s storied career is coming to a close, and perhaps it is for the best. Watching the 230lbs Russian trade wild swings with Bigfoot Silva was a sad affair. Fedor has declined, and noticeably so, and is not utilizing the full skill set he owns anymore. It is safe to assume that on any given day, Fedor Emelianenko could knock any man in the world unconscious – such is the nature of his ungodly punching power. Unfortunately, this is not what made Fedor great. Fedor’s career was never about the chance of a knockout and it was never about his punch – he garnered only a handful of KO victories up until his meeting with Sylvia (the start of his decline into a one dimensional brawler). Fedor’s strength lay in having the best rounded game at heavyweight, and being close to the best in all disciplines, not in any one attribute.
Emelianenko came to dominance under the banner of the greatest fighting spectacle on earth – the PRIDE Fighting Championships. Having posted a phenomenal record against mixed competition in the lesser Japanese promotion RINGS, Fedor was brought in to act as a ‘gimme’ to then number 2 heavyweight Heath Herring. In his destruction of Herring, followed by his humiliation of Nogueira from the latter’s vaunted guard, Fedor showed a viciousness and science in ground and pound that has not been seen since. Following a streak of victories over legitimate threats, Fedor was finally matched against the other member of PRIDE’s heavyweight trinity – Mirko “Cro Cop” Filopovic. Fedor really turned heads by beating the Croation kickboxing monster senseless on the feet.
Fedor’s arsenal of techniques was enormous, and this may be the last chance we have to discuss them while he is in the news. So to make it easier on the brain this series will be divided into three parts – Stand up, Ground and Pound, and Grappling. In Ground and Pound we will look at the techniques that made Fedor so dangerous in even the best guards developed to date, while in Grappling we will discuss Fedor’s takedowns, trips, and submissions. In this article however, we will discuss my forte, stand up technique.
We will look in some depth at Emelianenko’s utilization of:
- Russian Hooks
- Hand Traps
- Off Balancing
- Body Work
One of the main techniques which has drawn criticism Fedor’s use of the so called “Russian Hook” which I examined here. Once you circumvent all the nonsense and origin stories, and the seemingly endless debates over etymology, this technique makes a ton of sense. By turning the fist all the way over when one throws a hook, so that the thumb is down as if one is checking the time, one can assure the punching shoulder rises to protect the chin, and lengthen the hook to an almost straight arm while still connecting with the hard, dense, knuckles rather than the brittle thumb and door knocking knuckles.
This kind of thumb down hook is an excellent offensive weapon because it has all the reach of a straight but comes in from the side on an arc. Inexperienced strikers look at these hooks and claim there are large holes to be countered through, but really the holes are very small and exist only as the fist is approaching the centreline – the fastest part of the motion – and not once it has past it. This is due to the punching shoulder being raised to the chin by the over-rotation of the fist. Notice in the punch that Fedor misses at the end of his flurry that he takes it past his centreline, and his right shoulder is elevated. If Goodridge had tried to capitalize on the missed punch he would have only been able to strike Fedor’s right shoulder or the top of his skull.
Any punch thrown from the outside of the punching arm will collide with the shoulder, and attempting to counter the Russian Hook from inside will normally result in getting clubbed with the brunt of it’s force. Of course there were occasions where Fedor got wild and his chin came up, but for the most part his technique was a great deal safer than most.
Igor Vovchanchyn made great use of these types of hooks but his speed was surpassed by Fedor, who utilized them with a fluidity and haste that is as yet unrivaled. His salvos against Cro Cop, Gary Goodridge and Ogawa while against the ropes are frighteningly swift for a heavyweight. More recently, Junior Dos Santos has been utilizing single Russian Hooks a great deal and can be seen to use them regularly in his mittwork but not in the whirling dervishes that Fedor did.
Fedor, along with Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva, has had arguably the most success using hand traps of any fighter in MMA (including Shawn “The Arms Bearer of Wing Chun” Obasi). Having a fluid boxing game and good head movement puts Fedor leagues ahead of most of the traditional martial artists who attempt hand traps in MMA. I discussed Hand Traps in great depth here.
The two main hand traps that Fedor uses are an inside hand trap and an outside hand trap, and he has used them dozens of times against top competition to land free power punches. Fedor was one of the best at landing power punches off the bat and he approached it in the following way.
- If an opponent came out with his hands too tight; such as Goodridge or Fujita, Fedor would hit them with a right hand lead straight off of the bat.
- If they held their lead hand out, in preparation to parry the famed right hand lead, Fedor would work one of his traps.
The inside hand trap consisted of bringing his lead hand across and slapping the opponent’s left, lead hand down and outward to Fedor’s right, then dipping his head to the left and throwing an enormous arcing straight through the gap. He did this numerous times to Antonio Rodrigo Nogeuira in their third meeting and it was beautiful to watch. This is a more dangerous hand trap because it is removing the defensive hand – the one which would block Fedor’s right hand – while Fedor’s head is moving toward the unchecked right hand.
The outside hand trap or Zulu is more famous because Fedor has used it to take two wins in under a minute compound time. Tim Sylvia and Zuluzinho (for whom it is named) both lacked footwork and both suffered when Fedor realised this. Throwing his right hand as if to loop an overhand but in fact using the inside of his wrist to slap the opponent’s lead glove down, Fedor then follows up with a beautiful left hook. Having removed the opponent’s jabbing hand it is impossible for them to fire a counter fast enough to hurt Fedor as he leaps in. By ensuring that his head is on where the opponent’s lead hand was, Fedor takes his head away from the opponent’s free, right hand. This makes the outside hand trap a much safer entry.
These kind of leaping hooks are often criticized by inexperienced strikers as “wild” or leaving the fighter “wide open”, but if due diligence is taken to eliminate the lead hand, there is no reason not to leap in. Notice here, against Sylvia, how Fedor moves seamlessly into his backward stepping punches (which I discussed here).
A final note on hand traps is that Fedor used them as a preventative measure as well as to to land free power punches. Take a look at the gif of the Goodridge fight and notice how often Fedor places his palms on Goodridge’s elevated forearms. It is particularly noticeable during the body shots, when he stands to Goodridge’s right side while pressing Goodridge’s elevated left forearm into his head so that he cannot fire back the left hook from his squared up stance. Fedor spent a great deal of time controlling ugly exchanges through covering of the hands and pushing of the opponent’s chest and head. This brings us on to our next topic; Muscling.
Off Balancing / Muscling
This is one of the most interesting techniques that Fedor used and one that is hard to pinpoint unless one is looking for it. In fact, this is another element of Fedor’s style which appears ugly. Fedor was famed for his right hand lead but it very rarely landed cleanly, except against particularly slow opponents such as Nogueira and Fujita. When it was defended, however, Fedor would collide with his opponent’s raised forearms, then pressing their guard, pushed the opponent backward.
This act of off balancing mid-combination proved an excellent technique for landing heavy strikes on a defensive opponent. Against Goodridge, Fedor led with a right hand lead to left hook, collided with Goodridge’s guard, then shoved Goodridge backward, causing Gary to concede a step back and to allow his hands to move from his chin as he naturally attempted to maintain his balance. This is how Fedor landed the second left hook which did the real damage in this fight. Take a look in the slow-mo replay at 3:50.
Against Fujita, Emelianenko – still stunned from Fujita’s Hail Mary punch – forced Fujita to cover against the ropes, before shoving him back on to them. Fedor’s pushing of Fujita forced the latter to forget where his guard should be, leave an opening for the enormous kick that followed. Fedor immediately pushes Fujita again before landing his left hook.These small, constant pushes force openings in even the tightest of defensive shells as the human body is forced to use it’s arms to correct violent changes in balance. Stephen Quadros said it best when he remarked “we didn’t even know Fedor could kick”. This gif is kind of unclear, but in the live footage it is very clear that Fedor was muscling Fujita around in landing these strikes.
Notice also how when Fedor comes in behind his right lead, his right shoulder and slip to the left protect him from Fujita’s left hook.
Fedor not only had (and still has) brilliant power in his hands, but also mixed up his targets well. Aside from Takanori Gomi, Junior Dos Santos, and Nick Diaz, almost no-one in MMA uses body punches effectively. Indeed, even in kickboxing it is rare to see an effective body puncher – and this showed when Mirko Cro Cop’s world class kickboxing experience failed to prepare him for fighting Fedor. Throughout the fight Fedor backed Cro Cop up, knowing that Cro Cop could not kick while backpeddling. Further to this, Fedor chopped away at Cro Cop’s torso with body shots. Mirko commented after the fight on how surprised he was that he found himself getting tired despite his frightening commitment to cardio training.
Emelianenko rarely threw successive shots to the body, instead mixing them into effective combinations, ending with punishing hooks to the head. Here is a sample of one of the dozens of such combos that Fedor threw at Cro Cop in their legendary meeting. Notice the right straight to the body followed by a left uppercut with stuns Mirko and a left hook which catches him as he tries to exit.
Here is Fedor taking advantage of a very discouraged and tired Mirko Cro Cop at the start of the second round. Here he is able to pounce on Cro Cop and throw repeated body shots with impunity against the ropes.
One of Emelianenko’s most successful techniques in his third meeting with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was his counter jab. While Nogeueira’s only effective stand up technique throughout his career has been his own jab, he had nothing on Fedor in terms of power and accuracy. Notice how, whenever Fedor jabs, he bends at the waist, dips his head to his right side and raises his left shoulder. Sometimes he dips so deeply that his punching thumb is pointing at the floor, and sometimes slips shallowly. In his book, which is well worth purchasing, Fedor describes this counter jab as an “overhand jab” due to the deep dip leaving his punching shoulder as the highest point on his body.
Here is a shallow dip against Nogueira – notice how Fedor gets a lot of power by carrying his hand low, then stepping his weight into the jab. Despite starting with little bend in his elbow he is able to jack Nogueira’s head back – Nogueira, in turn, fails to have the same effect on Fedor when he connects his right hand as Fedor retreats. This gif also illustrates The Last Emperor’s ability to roll with punches – note how he ducks his head when he is hit to take the jolt out of Nogueira’s punch.
Skip to 20:12 of Fedor’s rematch with Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in PRIDE to see a deeper dipping jab and Fedor’s jolting power at work. Buckling Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, a man who it took Bas Rutten half an hour to even hurt, with a single shot to the eye is an impressive feat, and the departure of his power jab is one of the saddest factors of Fedor’s decline.
Fedor’s kicks are particularly interesting because they remained, throughout his career, massively underutilized. Never afraid to be taken down, and with the best clinch work in the heavyweight division, it always seemed strange that Fedor, a powerful kicker, never utilized this weapon to it’s fullest potential. Fedor has trained with Ernesto Hoost, the king of the low kick, since his PRIDE days, making it even stranger when noting the lack of kicks he throws.
Unlike Hoost, however, Emelianenko does not turn his hip through when he kicks. Instead, Fedor (and Aleks, who expands upon this in a seminar which you can download online through various dodgy sites) choose to kick with a pushing forward of the hips and a snapping at the knee. Fedor has even stated that he likes to connect with the inside of the shin on occasion, a particularly odd querk.
One cannot argue with results, however. Fedor’s kicks were fast enough to avoid being caught by more than competent wrestlers Kazayuki Fujita and Jeff Monson, and powerful enough to wind Fujita en route to a submission seconds later, and to break Monson’s leg as early as the first round of their three round affair. Notice in this picutre how Fedor’s shin digs in to Monson’s leg while his hips push forward and upward rather than turn over. His rear knee is still almost facing Monson, which means he is not pivoting fully on the standing leg either. This style of kick proved far more effective to defend from takedowns.
Fedor also found great success with a strategy I, as a less flexible striker, have come to adore. Against Mirko Cro Cop, the greatest high kicker in MMA history, Fedor simply waited for Cro Cop to kick and hacked at his standing leg each time. By extending the arm on the kicking side, it is possible to block the opponent’s kick with the upper arm and shoulder as you undercut their motion. The buckling of a weighted leg hurts, and often throws the opponent against the ropes or on to his back. Notice also, how Cro Cop’s kick begins by rotating his whole body, where Fedor’s kick is almost a straight line from the floor and forward more than round. A more linear than circular kick explains Fedor’s getting his counter in before Cro Cop’s lead, and demonstrates a degree of science to the Emperor’s strange kicking as he stays on balance and relatively uncommitted to the attack throughout.
Flashes of Brilliance
I consider Fedor’s fall from grace around 2007 against Tim Sylvia when he began swinging rather than setting up his brilliant takedowns and using fear of them to open up his boxing game. It is a sign of how brilliant Fedor is as a fighter that he proceeded to beat 3 more top 10 heavyweights while doing nothing but “swinging”.
Against Andre Arlovski the cracks were beginning to show, Arlovksi seemed to be picking Fedor apart before he attempted a flashy jumping knee against the ropes which Fedor pounced on, having seem him use it against Ben Rothwell in his last fight. The most amazing part of this fight with Arlovski, however, is Fedor’s defense. So subtle that it actually seemed as though he was getting hit. After the fight some fans made gifs of Arlovski’s effective offense against Fedor, only to realise that there was none!
Notice, in Arlovski’s best moment of offense, he actually fails to land a clean shot on Fedor, who sloppily parries the first shot, then misses his parry of the right straight but takes it on his shoulder instead (combining it with his signature back-step). It then glances his head but has negligible impact. Fedor looked flustered, and was slowing down for sure, but the best boxer in the division at the time couldn’t land a clean blow on him.
The sad part of writing this series is that it might be the last chance I get to examine Fedor’s stand up technique with the attention and publicity that it deserves. I have tried my utmost to include a great many of The Last Emperor’s unique techniques but I have still failed to cover in any detail his brilliant footwork, on display as he walked down Cro Cop, or his bizarre, seemingly suicidal and yet effective use of a rear hand parry to counter against the Croation’s terrific left straight, and I’ve barely touched on Emelianenko’s excellent head movement.
Then there is his stoicism and attitude to MMA; he behaves as a gentleman and says very little except how he considers this equal to any other sport, then throws punches as if he is trying to kill his opponent. When Fedor was wobbled by Cro Cop, PRIDE FC showed the slow-motion replay between rounds and it is possible to see that while stunned by the scariest striker at heavyweight Fedor showed the briefest glimpse of emotion, before returning to his stoic demeanor while getting punched in the face.
The efficacy of Fedor’s striking game, at it’s best, was due to it’s being enormously varied. He would throw slick punching combinations and counter combinations, punctuated by kicks, knees and clinch work which all worked to set up more punches. From around 2007 – 2008 it is possible to see the decay of Fedor’s game down to the wild swinging that foolish critics often asserted he had always relied on.
What epitomizes Fedor, to me, was his use of intelligence to land hard, functional strikes, while strikers with more attractive and “polished” technique proved ineffectual against him. Fedor Emelianenko truly symbolizes to me what scientific striking is; a matter of using one’s bag of tricks to confuse the opponent and walk him on to one’s punches. Smoke and mirrors, nothing more, but an art form nonetheless.
The striking techniques of Fedor Emelianenko along with 19 other world class strikers are broken down through demonstrative photography and instruction in Jack Slack’s book Advanced Striking: Tactics of Boxing, Kickboxing and MMA Masters which is available now.
Jack Slack’s blogs at Fights Gone By which is full of useful and free striking techniques and concepts.