Dong Hyun Kim of South Korea (L) fights Colby Covington of United States (R) in the Welterweight Bout

Just as we can deduce from his employment of one of the most abrasive personalities in professional sports, Colby Covington’s style of fighting shows us that he has no interest in getting fans to like him.

Appropriately described as “wall-and-stall” or “lay-and-pray,” Covington certainly isn’t the first to employ the slow, grinding, (and arguably boring) strategy of holding the opponent against the fence or cage for the entirety of the bout to win a decision victory.

However, just because UFC fans and stakeholders crave dynamic action like vampires crave blood, this doesn’t mean that Colby Covington’s approach to combat is any less effective or calculated than those we see showcased on the highlight reel. In fact, Covington’s strategy of obtaining, maintaining, and utilizing the underhook is an incredibly systematized style of fighting that should not be disparaged.

Many fans are hoping Robbie Lawler can give them a Colby Covington loss, silencing his infamous loquaciousness with a highlight-worthy knockout. But for such a desire to be manifested, Lawler is going to have to have an answer for this particularly grueling strategy that has frustrated some of the best names in the welterweight division. 

Under (hook) appreciated

While the contortion of limbs that appears when two fighters clinch may seem to be a random result of both participants grasping their foe any way they can, the battle for dominant arm placement in the clinch is one of the most strategic and deliberate proceedings in the sport.

When in the clinch, a fighter will look to achieve dominant control by establishing what is known as an underhook. The underhook is a position where their arm is underneath their opponent’s, so their shoulder fits right into the armpit of their adversary. Once a fighter has achieved an underhook, their opponent will typically respond by wrapping their arm around the underhook; this is called an overhook and is substantially less effective in MMA than its counterpart.

The underhook grants a fighter a multitude of advantages, such as the ability to change levels and attack lower body takedowns. Because possessing an underhook means a fighter is quite literally “under” their opponent’s arm, they can drop for double and single legs relatively unhindered, and then return to the upper body clinch if the attack is defended. We see Colby Covington do this here:

Along with the ability to change levels, because the underhook grants its user significant control over their opponent’s shoulder (and therefore the rest of the body), its principal use in modern MMA is for pinning a fighter up against the cage and holding them there.

This is Colby Covington’s primary use of the underhook, as it allows him to keep his opponents against the fence as he works for a takedown as he saps both their energy and the clock. This wall-and-stall style of fighting is neither fan-friendly nor worthy of the highlight reel, but it is undeniably effective.

While we can sympathize with Covington’s frustrated opponents who feel they are simply being stalled-out, the way in which Covington uses the underhook to earn decision victories by pinning or taking down his opponents is an intricate — and legitimate — way to win in mixed martial arts.

The Entries

As with any other martial arts technique, a fighter’s attacks from a position are irrelevant if they are unable to achieve the position in the first place, making the entries into a position just as important as the finishes.

As his strategy requires obtaining the underhook to control his opponents, Colby Covington employs striking techniques that are focused on entering into the underhook. His principal method and the one that is substantially more effective is to achieve the underhook off of a counter.

By standing in front of his opponent and throwing strikes, Covington entices his foe to return with punches of their own. When they do, he seizes upon the open space created by their punch, driving his arm under the armpit and into an underhook.

If his opponent isn’t taking the bait and punching back wildly, Covington will look to get his underhook by employing the “crash” method, a modern implementation of the same tactic of clinching the Gracies used in the early days of No Holds Barred. As the name implies, Covington will cover his head and crash his shoulder into his opponent. Once within range, Covington will pommel his hand into the underhook.

Although it is still an effective method of getting to the underhook, the crash method is riskier than the counter method, as the opponent’s hands have yet to commit to a strike, meaning they can be fired at Covington as he charges in.

With over 20 wins by knockout, Robbie Lawler needs only the slightest opportunity to land his hands to render a foe unconscious. Such an opportunity is available if Covington uses the crash method, making it a massive risk.

The Attacks

Even if he is looking to take his opponent down and not just pin them against the cage, Covington will establish the underhook and then work for a takedown, as opposed to shooting in from open space. Takedowns from the underhook have a notable advantage over standard, “naked” shots as the attacker can use the underhook to return to an upper-body clinch if the takedown is stuffed.

A takedown attempt from open space doesn’t have this luxury, resulting in a much higher penalty for failure. By achieving the underhook first, Covington can pin his opponent against the cage, attempt a takedown, and immediately return to the underhook (and therefore the pin) if the takedown is unsuccessful.

One of the most common takedowns from the underhook, in both MMA and pure wrestling competition, is the knee tap. Once a fighter has obtained the underhook, they can execute the knee tap by quite literally running into their opponent as their non-underhooking hand reaches down and “taps” their opponent’s far knee, driving them over and to the mat. Covington makes extensive use of the knee pick from the open spaces of the Octagon, where even a failed ankle pick is fruitful. Either the takedown is successful in getting his opponent to the mat, as seen below:

Or, the opponent is able to remain on their feet, but they have now been run up against the fence. These “failed” knee taps result in Covington pinning his opponent against the cage with the underhook, just where he wants to be.

Regardless of whether the opponent ends up pinned against the cage or the fence, the knee tap allows Covington to pin them, so it is a virtual win-win for him. As previously mentioned, the underhook allows Covington to change his levels largely at-will, making the standard wrestling takedowns of single legs and double legs low-risk options ripe for the taking.

Notice in the clip above, Rafael dos Anjos is able to return to his feet after Covington’s double leg, but the underhook allows Covington to sneak under Dos Anjos’s arm and end up behind him.

Known as a “go behind,” this is another benefit of attacking from the underhook: as a fighter will typically use their arms to defend against a takedown—usually by posting them on the mat or on the fence—Covington is then able to use his underhook to quite literally “go behind” his opponent and establish the coveted rear body lock.

From here, he can attack with mat returns, look to take the back, or quite simply continue to grind them out and earn a win via judge’s decision.

A Rock and a Hard Place

There are two places a fighter can be pinned during a fight: against the fence, or on the floor. As long as his opponent is pinned and unable to hurt him, Colby Covington is impartial to which surface he uses as his mechanism of immobilization.

The underhook is the perfect tool for such a strategy: it allows Covington to run his opponent to the fence, keep them there, and look for a takedown; if the takedown is unsuccessful, he can simply return to the cage pin without taking damage or providing an opportunity to escape.

Such a strategy (especially when coupled with Covington’s antics outside the cage) won’t earn Colby Covington a plethora of fans, but it has allowed him to steadily climb the welterweight rankings and into a bout against one of the most notable names in the welterweight division, “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler.

If Covington can grind out the distinguished Robbie Lawler, it is going to be difficult for the UFC matchmakers to keep Colby Covington from a shot at the title for much longer.

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