Whether it was the spectacular kicks of Bruce Lee, the brute combat of Jason Bourne, or the wacky fights of Jackie Chan, many in the MMA ecosystem — from fighters to fans, from coaches to media members — can trace their initial interest in the sport back to the displays of martial arts they saw on the silver screen. While the early days of the UFC shattered the illusion that many of the supposedly deadly fighting styles seen in the movies were actually effective, one could argue that nowadays the pendulum has swung too far backward: all too often realistic techniques that are uncommon or flashy are written off as being ineffective in a true fight, simply due to their unconventional nature.
To remedy this misconception, in this series we will be exploring some of the more elaborate striking and grappling techniques in order to showcase their effectiveness in a combative situation.
Our first technique, the front snap kick, has produced some of the sport’s most iconic knockouts, yet is still besmirched as too ornate to be employed effectively by the average fighter. As we will see, this is a misconception that is depriving many athletes of a powerful weapon.
Skepticism of the front snap kick is largely because it is a “chambered kick,” which means the kick is thrown with a bent knee and the shin is snapped into the opponent. As the majority of MMA striking is derived from Muay Thai, which largely employs straight-leg kicks where the leg is swung into the opponent like a baseball bat, fighters have long viewed chambered kicks as suboptimal.
While straight-leg kicks are a superior technique for the majority of round kicks as they generate more force, there are instances where the bent-leg mechanic of the chambered kicks is superior concerning both speed and force. The front snap kick is one of these occasions.
While snapping kicks to the “hard targets” of the body (such as the shoulder or shin) are ill-advised, the “soft targets” of the gut and chin are ripe for the front snap kick. Not only do powerful body strikes deplete an opponent’s cardio, but when thrown to the gut, the kick can double an opponent over, leaving them open to a follow-up uppercut or knee.
UFC welterweight Uriah Hall practices such a sequence below; notice how his leg is brought up with a bend in the knee, then snapped out into the target.
When aiming for the head, the toes should be curled back so the ball of the foot is the point of impact. If it lands on the underside of the jawbone, it is more than sufficient to render the victim unconscious.
No knockout illustrates the front snap kick’s potential better than the one that removed it from obscurity: when Anderson Silva landed a perfect front snap kick on Vitor Belfort in February of 2011, the kick’s potential as a legitimate weapon immediately gained credence.
A mere two months later, karate specialist Lyoto Machida used a jumping variation of the front snap kick to knock out the former light heavyweight champion Randy Couture. In just a matter of months, the front snap kick had led to two spectacular knockouts at the pinnacle of mixed martial arts competition, making it near impossible to doubt its capability.
Years later, Machida would use a standard front snap kick to knock Vitor Belfort out cold; those who doubt the front snap kick’s effectiveness should inquire with Mr. Belfort’s neurologist.
A Wrestler’s Kryptonite
Not only is the front snap kick a great weapon to damage an opponent, but it offers several auxiliary effects as well. Auxiliary effects — the “secondary” problems a technique creates for an opponent alongside the primary effect of damage — are what separate the extraordinary techniques from the average ones. For example, the jab’s primary effect is its ability to damage, while its auxiliary effect is that it forces the opponent to move their head, rendering them susceptible to a follow-up attack.
The front snap kick’s auxiliary uses are extremely effective against wrestlers: a fitting complement, as wrestlers have proved to be problematic for strikers (especially those hailing from a traditional martial arts background) since the early days of the UFC.
As the front snap kick lands just under the chin, the hunched-over stance frequently utilized by wrestlers in MMA, where the head is low and in front of the hips, makes the wrestler extremely vulnerable to the strike. By repeatedly throwing front snap kicks, a striker can force a wrestler to stand upright or risk being knocked out; an upright stance will greatly increase the distance between a wrestler and his opponent’s legs, allowing the striker more time to sprawl and defend the takedown.
Not only does the front snap kick force a wrestler to alter their stance, thereby decreasing the effectiveness of their takedowns, but it is also a lateral strike: this means that in the process of the kick, the leg is always between the fighters, while with a round kick the leg travels outside before making impact.
Lateral strikes severely hinder takedown attempts, as any double or single leg shot will place the fighter directly in the path of the kick: a significant risk. For more on how lateral strikes are an effective deterrent against takedowns, take a look at our breakdown of Valentina Shevchenko.
The Question Mark Kick
Just as the jab opens an opponent up for crosses and hooks, the front snap kick forces the opponent’s defenses to shift, rendering them vulnerable to further attacks. Fearful they may join Mr. Couture and Mr. Belfort on the highlight reel of front snap kick knockouts, many fighters will move their hands from the high up position near their temples to the front of their chin. While this will allow kicks up the middle to be easily parried, their temples are now exposed to the question mark kick; a strike as lethal as it is elaborate.
Aptly named, the question mark kick is thrown in the shape of a “?.” The knee is brought straight up the middle before the hip is rolled over, causing the foot to travel up to the opponent’s head in a circular motion.
Because they are both chambered kicks, the beginning of the front snap kick and the question mark kick appear identical to the opponent: as the bent knee is raised, a fighter will bring their hands to the front of their face in an attempt to block what they assume is a front snap kick coming up the middle. But, when the kicker rolls their hip over and lands the question mark kick from an angle, the hands in front of the face are out of position are unable to defend adequately.
Notice how as Lyoto Machida starts to bring his chambered knee up (which is the start of both the front snap kick and the question mark kick) Tito Ortiz brings his right hand in front of his face to defend what he perceives as a front kick. Machida’s question mark kick lands clean.
A Minute to Learn, Not that Long to Master
Whether it is thrown with an intent to damage or to force an open to alter their defenses, the front snap kick can be a simple, highly effective tool in the arsenal of any fighter: despite its association with Karate and Tae Kwon Do, one doesn’t need years of experience in the acrobatic maneuvers of traditional martial arts to implement the front snap kick effectively.
Just this past weekend at UFC Moscow, Magomed Ankalaev, a Russian fighter with a background in Greco-Roman Wrestling, used the front snap kick to score a knockout victory over Dalcha Lungiambula.
Hailing from a geographical and technical background that has historically emphasized the techniques of wrestling while discounting the techniques of traditional martial arts, Magomed Ankalaev’s beautiful front snap kick knockout perfectly illustrates that every fighter can, and should be using the kick frequently.
Up next in our series, we will be examining one of the most esoteric submissions in MMA, the Sulolev Stretch.