While mixed martial arts is a sport cherished by many, the sport’s inherent motif of violence has, had, and will continue to make it a contentious, problematic activity for many. The societal acceptance and global fanbases of MMA are growing at unprecedented rates, but watching two men or women do battle in a fenced enclosure on a canvas often spattered with blood will likely always be too much for some to stomach.
Even within the MMA sphere, there still exist several legal techniques that many fans, promoters, and practitioners deem too damaging to be permitted, despite their higher tolerance for on-screen brutality. Take the 12-6 elbow, strikes to the back of the head, or knees to a grounded opponent, all techniques which were banned by one or more promotions worldwide.
Arguably the most controversial amongst these techniques to have remained legal is the infamous oblique kick, otherwise known as the knee stomp, or stomp kick. This brutal, often hard to watch strike is essentially a push kick delivered directly above the knee of a fighter’s opponent.
It is extremely effective in keeping advancing opponents at bay, and nastily hyperextending their leg – sometimes badly enough to cause a dreaded MCL or ACL tear – which can have profound impacts on a fighter’s career and longevity. Of course, submissions such as kneebars and other joint locks are designed to inflict a similar injury, but they afford fighters an opportunity to tap out before any serious damage is done, ideally.
The kick’s exact origin is ambiguous (it’s used in many forms of martial arts all across the world, such as French Savate and Japanese Kenpō), but controversy most popularly abounded during Jon Jones’ initial tear through the light heavyweight division nearly ten years ago.
The current 205-pound champion was amongst the first mixed martial artists to effectively implement the technique into his game, using it both to pressure opponents and repel those pressuring him. Exploiting his lengthy leg reach, it posed major tactical and physical hazards to his adversaries – diminishing their footwork and their control of range, as well chipping away at their knees’ stability, one well-timed strike at a time.
Jones’ effective use of the kick gave rise to initial questionings of its fairness and morality. Various fighters and figures within the sport spoke out against it, including some of Jones’ opposition, most notably fan-favorite bruiser Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (pictured above – right).
Speaking to ESPN in 2013, Jackson said of the move, “It should be called the illegal kick. It should be banned, and it shows a lot about the fighter’s character that he would throw it. How would he like it if somebody threw it at him and stopped him working for a year? I thought it was an illegal move.”
Six years later, the oblique kick is a larger part of the sport than ever, becoming a staple of the distance-establishing striking lexicon.
The strike’s notable recent victims include middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, who required ACL surgery on his left knee following his first clash against Yoel Romero at UFC 213; and Stephen Thompson, who was given an MCL tear courtesy of Darren Till’s kicks in their Liverpool headliner.
Following the bout, Thompson told BJPenn.com, “I honestly think that strike should be made illegal. It could end somebody’s career. It was like he had intentions of ripping everything out in my knee. That’s how I felt, anyway. Like, this dude is really trying to injure me in here. I think it’s an ugly strike and that it should be made illegal.”
UFC bantamweight Aljamain Sterling took to Twitter to air his grievances with the strike, calling oblique kicks “(expletive)-ed up” and alleging that they are “reconstructing knees, one fight at a time.”
— Aljamain Sterling (@FunkMaster_UFC) March 13, 2019
Should oblique kicks remain legal?
It’s not too surprising that fighters like Jackson and Thompson, who most likely harbor some degree of bias as a result of their own oblique kick-influenced losses, have denounced the use of the strikes, but its critics are aplenty amongst MMA’s other athletes, fans, coaches and figureheads alike. Exactly why is it that so many are opposed to the legality of the technique?
Naturally, there’s more than one answer to the question. There are various factors which have caused the kick’s unpopularity, but Stephen Thompson’s quote encapsulates the shared sentiment of its critics fairly well; many believe the kick to be a dirty move, thrown not only with tactical intentions but to inflict debilitating and long-lasting damage to the opposition.
This perspective gives way to some interesting questions regarding MMA’s philosophy – isn’t the entire point of a fight to hurt your opponent? Perhaps the objective is to defeat them while inflicting as little permanent harm to them and their careers as possible – that would seem to be the notion Thompson, Jackson, and some other critics of oblique kicks are suggesting.
While an intriguing and desirable proposal, it seems hardly rational or realistic. Half of Thompson’s fourteen wins in MMA have come by way of knockout – yet he makes a point of Till “trying to injure” him in their bout. Did he not injure the seven opponents he devastated with a barrage of punches and kicks to the head – three of whom he separated from their consciousnesses?
Too often do we forget that every strike to the head landed in this sport causes some degree of long-term damage, instead directing our focus towards injuries that manifest themselves more obviously and immediately. Symptoms of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain condition associated with repeated blows to the head) usually do not become apparent until years, or even decades, after trauma occurs, and an athlete has hopefully long since retired.
The injuries Thompson gave his opponents may not have been as immediately evident as that which he sustained against Till, but they could prove far more impactful down the line. To say fighters ought to avoid trying to injure each other while pursuing knockouts himself is to dismiss the most significant injury, brain trauma, as an issue of secondary importance.
MMA is a young sport. The UFC’s first event occurred just 26 years ago, and as mentioned above, CTE symptoms can take decades to surface – we have yet to properly see the eventual impact of fighting through multi-round wars and brutal knockouts with four-ounce gloves, unpadded knees, and slicing elbows.
If the damage we’ve seen in boxing is any sort of indication of what may be to come for some MMA athletes, then it’s safe to say a knee injury pales in comparison – even one that may require surgery and keep a fighter out for a year.
Given the choice between being a fighter with a limp, or a fighter who can’t remember his or her own name, which would you choose?
Retired referee and now Bellator broadcaster John McCarthy, a widely respected figure in MMA (particularly regarding its rules) articulated this point clearly on Twitter, in response to Sterling’s above tweet:
Everything in MMA is dangerous let’s not kid ourselves that it’s not. But 2 have people wanting 2 protect a fighters knee from a kick, but they are completely satisfied watching a fighter get knocked unconscious & somehow think the kick is what’s bad?Common sense is what’s needed https://t.co/gtcrXUqv1u
— Big John McCarthy (@JohnMcCarthyMMA) March 14, 2019
That’s not to say we can use comparisons to CTE as a means of justifying all techniques not involving strikes to the head. There exist several others that would cause devastating injuries if permitted, such as eye gouging, which can, and has, caused blindness when used intentionally.
However, there are more factors than the safety of fighters which determine the ruleset of MMA; rules also exist to make fights more technical and entertaining for fans to watch.
Hair pulls or flesh pinches aren’t exactly deadly compared to many legal techniques, but they require no skill to execute, making bouts look less like a chess match between two combat experts, and more like a wild melee at your local bar. While oblique kicks don’t quite give the same impression to onlookers, many critics argue they should be banned for the lack of skill they require, claiming the strike detracts from the technicality of fights.
Let’s briefly turn back the clock to 1988, back when an undefeated heavyweight, Rick Roufus, reigned as a dominant kickboxing champion. In November of that year, Roufus went up against a Muay Thai fighter from Thailand named Changpuek Kiatsongrit, who had never fought above 150 pounds before. Many thought the result was a foregone conclusion.
However, one rule had been changed for this particular bout – while Muay Thai knees, elbows and clinches would be still be forbidden, kicks to the leg would be permitted, a change from the full contact ruleset Roufus was used to. Having been dominated by the larger man in the opening round, Kiatsongrit bounced back in the second and unleashed a non-stop barrage of leg kicks until Roufus could no longer stand, resulting in a fourth-round stoppage. You can see the legendary bout here:
At the 10:40 timestamp of the video, Roufus’ brother, Jeff “Duke” Roufus (one of modern MMA’s most respected striking coaches and the owner of the popular gym, Roufusport) discredits Kiatsongrit, criticizing his use of leg kicks, citing the danger they present to an opponent’s body and claiming they require no talent to perform.
Thirty years later, Duke’s opinion seems to have shifted drastically. Now coaching his stable of fighters in both traditional kickboxing and Muay Thai, today he teaches what he once publicly proclaimed a dirty and untechnical skillset. Just recently, one of his star pupils, Anthony Pettis, made an incredible debut at welterweight, peppering the aforementioned Thompson with both regular leg kicks and oblique kicks, setting up a brutal superman punch knockout in the second round.
The moral here is that it can be easy to dismiss an effective technique when you find it troubling to counter. There are extremely few recorded serious injuries caused by oblique kicks – that isn’t because they aren’t dangerous, but because so few have been able to successfully utilize the strikes in a fight.
Just like kicks to the thigh or calf, oblique kicks require a tremendous amount of skill and timing to use effectively. Despite the widespread criticism of the strikes, they are still trained repetitiously in many different martial arts as aforementioned. If they can cause such devastation to opponents while requiring such little technique, why don’t more fighters use them?
As a move that can’t adjust direction once thrown, it’s also fairly easy to dodge, and several counters exist (such as low kicking the standing leg of an opponent throwing it). Taking a sideways Karate stance such as Thompson’s will inevitably make you more vulnerable to leg kicks, just like taking a square Muay Thai stance will make you more susceptible to punches. Being more vulnerable to leg kicks, and more likely to sustain a serious injury from an oblique kick, is simply the risk you take to make yourself more elusive for other strikes.
Often, the reason many MMA fighters fail to avoid the technique is a lack of anticipation due to its relative rarity, as opposed to just a few counters existing.
As do all techniques used in combat, oblique kicks do pose risks to MMA athletes, but it may be time to reconsider the reputation they have garnered. Had it not been for one of the greatest (and most derided) fighters of all time, Jon Jones, using it so effectively, perhaps that reputation wouldn’t exist at all.
Ultimately, the UFC and other global MMA organizations are businesses, and the moment they feel the kick poses a threat to their athletes’ activity or longevity, and thus their profits, they’ll prohibit it – big names being on long layoffs isn’t exactly financially fruitful. Until then, it seems the kick, along with its controversy and detractors, are very much here to stay.