Prime Striking In A Developing Combat Sport
The UFC is the premier mixed martial arts juggernaut today, though skill-wise its fighters haven’t always been the best in the world.
Throughout the years, the promotion has managed to expose and weed out ineffective martial arts of all sorts. Today, the four main remaining forms of hand-to-hand combat that have passed the test of time are jiu jitsu, wrestling, boxing, and Muay Thai, with stylistic outliers (e.g. karate specialists) sprinkled in for variety.
MMA is still relatively new and as a Muay Thai fanatic, I sometimes find it painful to watch the rudimentary striking of some UFC fighters. With that being said, there are a few fighters who I love to watch compete because of their striking prowess – elite-level strikers who blend their striking skills well with the other tools needed to compete successfully in MMA.
#1: Edson Barboza
Hailing from Brazil, Edson Barboza came into the UFC with a professional Muay Thai record of 25-3.
Among his many accolades, he is the first fighter in UFC history to KO an opponent with a wheel kick. He is also the owner of three leg kick KOs, one of which was in the UFC. According to UFC commentator Joe Rogan, Edson Barboza is the best kicker in the UFC, and I cannot disagree. He holds speed and power in both legs, and has a variety of kicks in his tool box.
Barboza also knows that the one of the best ways to setup kicks is with punches. He often uses the classic jab + cross + hook combination to surprise his opponents with the right low kick. Barboza knows how to put his strikes together, which makes him an exciting fighter to watch. To me, he is the fighter who best exemplifies Muay Thai in the UFC.
Finest Moment In The Octagon:
Here we have perhaps the strongest candidate for Edson Barboza’s finest performance ever. In a fight he was losing to the game Beneil Dariush, Barboza delivered a stunning flying knee KO after picking up on Dariush’s tendency to punch and immediately shoot for a lazy takedown.
#2: Alistair Overeem
The Dutch kickboxing monster Alistair Overeem joined the UFC in 2011. Prior to that, Alistair was a well-decorated kickboxer, holding win over fighters like Badr Hari, Remy Bonjasky, and Tyrone Spong. In 2010, Alistair captured the K-1 Grand Prix by defeating Peter Aerts.
Overeem’s striking style is pure Dutch. He favors heavy combinations, mixing punches, knees, and bone-breaking leg kicks. What makes Overeem one of the top strikers in the UFC is his clinch game. Alistair is one of the few UFC fighters who knows how to hold a tight plum clinch and utilize the knees to soften and break his opponents. In addition to the clinch, Overeem often confuses his adversaries by switching from orthodox stance to southpaw.
Finest Moment In The Octagon:
It’s debatable, because Overeem has had many stellar performances in the UFC: his savage beat down of then-champ Brock Lesnar; his devastating knee KO defeat of Mark Hunt; and his dismantling of former champion Junior dos Santos are all fine examples.
But perhaps his most aesthetic victory came over Andrei Arlovski, who was prey to all eight of Overeem’s predatory limbs and eventually fell victim to a gorgeous crane kick + left hook finish.
#3: Steven Thompson
Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is a former professional kickboxer who is currently ranked #1 in the UFC’s welterweight division.
Thompson remained undefeated through 37 amateur and 20 professional kickboxing matches, earning 28 wins by knockout. Many fans, fighters, and commentators consider Stephen Thompson to be one of the most accomplished strikers in the UFC.
Wonderboy holds wins over notable fighters like former titleholder Johnny Hendricks, Rory MacDonald, and current middleweight interim champion, Robert Whittaker. What separates him from the rest of the division is his speed, kicks, and ability to close the distance.
Stephen Thompson is one of the only fighters who has embraced his traditional martial art roots. He effectively uses spinning attacks and sidekicks in an MMA setting. Moreover, Wonderboy is a great counter puncher who tends to stand sideways, which makes him harder to hit.
Finest Moment In The Octagon:
Spoiler alert: it’s definitely not Woodley-Wonderboy II.
It has to be his utter dismantling of Johny Hendricks. For context, Hendricks, the division’s former champ, was starting down the path to a shot at getting his title back. Coming off a dominant victory against Matt Brown, Hendricks was a -280 against the formidable challenger and karate savant… which makes what went down so much more shocking. Like a cobra with a mouse, Thompson toyed with Hendricks for three minutes before striking with venomous accuracy.
The UFC and MMA in general are still in their embryonic stages. The sport is constantly evolving and every year, fighters and trainers come out with new techniques and training methods that are pushing the needle forward.
Aside from the three aforementioned, other noteworthy strikers include: Cris Cyborg, Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, and Demetrious Johnson. These fighters are creative and not afraid to take chances, using traditional weapons like the Muay Thai clinch, sidekicks, front kicks, and some good old-fashioned counters to demolish opponents.
- Pierre started his journey in martial arts after witnessing Bruce Lee on the silver screen. He began training Tae Kwon Do, earning a brown belt by his 18th birthday. He took up Muay Thai in 2000, training under Kru Nestor Marte in New York City. Pierre eventually moved to South Florida and trained at American Top Team under Christian Toleque and the late Howard Davis Jr. Pierre finally made the leap to Bangkok in 2007, having about a dozen fights. Today, Pierre Smith teaches Muay Thai and strength and conditioning out of his home gym. He also has a podcast called Catching Wreck which is available on Soundcloud, iTunes and Google Play. Pierre can be reached at www.catchingwreck.com.