Although mixed martial arts has evolved into an entirely different sport than its predecessor of Vale Tudo, the original question of who would win a fight between a striker and a grappler remains present, even if it is in slightly varying forms.
While decades of competition have shown that athletes from all manners of grappling and striking arts can best their counterparts, the question is now focused more towards the specific strategies and weapons an athlete pulls from their style, rather than the styles they represent.
“Does a striker need to keep moving to avoid the takedown, or can they remain stationary behind their kicks?”
“Can a wrestler shoot with their head on the outside to avoid a knee, or does that make the takedown too weak?”
Questions like these are all variations of the original “striker vs grappler” inquiry that led to the creation of mixed martial arts, yet like the sport itself, they have evolved lightyears beyond their original forms.
We will see another matchup of this classic dichotomy at UFC Uruguay: Shevchenko vs. Carmouche as the vicious striking of the women’s flyweight champion Valentina “Bullet” Shevchenko is pitted against the feared wrestling of Liz “Girl-Rilla” Carmouche.
While Valentina Schevchenko is by no means inadequate on the floor, as her clearest path to retaining her belt requires her to stay on her feet and use her superior striking, she is going to have to stifle the takedowns and rack up damage to maximize her chances of victory.
Linear Strikes: The Best Defense is a Good Offense
The typical strategy a striker uses to avoid the takedowns of a superior wrestler is to remain in motion with lateral movement, never allowing the grappler to shoot in. As she comes from a Muay Thai background, Valentina Shevchenko is notoriously stationary in her striking, preferring to stand and trade instead of constantly moving. If she is not going to prevent Carmouche’s takedowns with movement, her best recourse for staying on her feet would be to utilize her powerful linear strikes, specifically front kicks, straight punches, and a powerful spinning back kick.
A linear strike is any strike in which the attacker’s limb is delivered in a straight line from their body to their opponent’s, such as a cross or a front kick. Linear strikes are perfect for countering wrestlers because they are simultaneously offensive and defensive: while a rotational strike—such as a hook or a round kick— can cause damage, as the direction of force is coming from the side, they do nothing to stop the forward pressure of an opponent who is looking to shoot. On the other hand, as a linear strike goes in a straight line from one fighter to the other, it will be in the direct path of the wrestler’s shot, jamming them up and creating the risk that they shoot right into the strike, multiplying its force.
Conor McGregor has made excellent use of linear strikes against wrestlers throughout his career. Here we see him employ a back kick, two front kicks, and a cross against Chad Mendes, a fighter who is known for his wrestling pedigree. As these strikes are all going in a straight line from McGregor to Mendes, Mendes would have to undertake substantial risk and shoot directly into them if he wanted to take McGregor down.
The strikes we see McGregor utilize above are the same ones that Valentina Shevchenko has shown a fondness for. The most common linear strikes in all of the combat sports are the jab and the cross, used more often in conjunction than independently.
Here Shevchenko uses a jab-cross combo to halt the forward pressure of Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Straight punches are fantastic for stopping forward pressure but are somewhat less effective at stopping a double or single leg shot because they can be ducked under. Kicks are a much better option for countering shots, as they originate from the floor and travel upwards, placing them in the exact space that a fighter would need to occupy to attempt a takedown. Valentina Shevchenko would be wise to employ linear kicks early and often to dissuade Carmouche from dropping her head low to shoot in on the champion’s legs.
Such a strike would be one of the many variations of front kicks we have seen Shevchenko use; whether they be the snap kick we see from traditional martial arts or a stomp kick as we see here, front kicks would be a fantastic weapon to simultaneously scare Carmouche away from shooting, and halt her inevitable forward pressure.
Perhaps her best weapon to deter Carmouche’s inevitable pressure will be Shevchenko’s spinning back kick. Contrary to what we may infer from the monicker of “spinning,” the spinning back kick is, in fact, a linear strike, as the force of the kick travels along a straight path from the attacker to the victim; the spin is merely a mechanism for generating a higher degree of linear force: it does not land from a rotational angle like a spinning hook kick or a spinning back fist.
Often disregarded as a high-risk low-reward attack, the spinning back kick is typically uncommon in high-level MMA. Valentina Shevchenko is one of the few fighters who we can tell has put ample time into practicing the strike, as we can see from her delivery of it in this clip below. Notice how her front foot doesn’t pivot until just before the strike is thrown; turning the foot too early is a common mistake that telegraphs the spin.
For a perfect example of how the spinning back kick can be used to counter wrestling, we turn to Uriah Hall’s knockout of Gegard Mousasi. After being taken down and dominated for the entirety of the first round, Hall was expecting Mousasi to attempt to replicate his first-round success with another takedown; a powerful spinning back kick caught Mousasi during his level change, knocking him to the mat and allowing Hall to swarm him for the finish.
As the possessor of one of the finest spinning back kicks in the UFC, Valentina Shevchenko is the most likely mechanism for replicating this legendary knockout in a women’s bout, and it is entirely possible that we see Liz Carmouche play the role of the defeated Gegard Mousasi.
A Few Missing Pieces
Valentina Shevchenko’s current arsenal of linear strikes will go a long way to counter the wrestling of Liz Carmouche, but they should not be viewed as a be-all-end-all. The absence of the uppercut and the knee from “Bullet’s” repertoire will force her to use the riskier front and back kicks. The uppercut and the knee are two of the most effective strikes for countering a wrestling shot as they are thrown in an upward direction, placing them directly in the path of a shooting fighter’s skull.
While the arsenal of strikes we have seen the women’s flyweight champion utilize so far will likely be effective, the missing pieces of the two optimal linear strikes, coupled with Shevchenko’s notoriously stationary striking style, will likely create opportunities for Liz Carmouche to take down the champion.
As “The Bullet” Flies
Although we have seen it before, the classic dichotomy of a grappler vs a striker continues to provide intriguing matchups, even after decades of MMA competition. As the sport has evolved into its modern form, different grappling and striking strategies alike have kept the fanbase intrigued with different iterations of this persistent question.
As Valentina Shevchenko looks to defend her title against Liz Carmouche in the main event of the UFC’s maiden voyage into Uruguay, we will be looking to see if the particular set of linear strikes she has utilized in her career so far will be sufficient to keep her on her feet where she can remain an effective striker.
Or perhaps we will learn that the cardinal rule of lateral movement in order to avoid the takedown should never be broken, and the champion’s aversion to nomadism will result in the “Gir-Rilla” placing her on the canvas where she can be damaged. That would open up a whole other Pandora’s Box of questions, as Shevchenko is a competent grappler herself. For those who are perpetually intrigued by the ceaselessly-evolving questions and answers of MMA, this is a bout that shouldn’t be missed.