Invisible MMA: The Stuff We Don't See

MMA is a free market for empty-handed combat; fewer restrictions means strategies must compete against one another to prove they work in the marketplace.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the subtleties are called "invisible jiu-jitsu." It's the unseen force that holds the whole thing together. You see someone pinning another person down and it may not make sense why the person on the bottom can't simply push the top person off and get back up. Yet if you were in the same position against someone qualified, you wouldn't be able to do it. Why? The variables are invisible to you. In capitalism, the same principle exists, the "invisible hand." Why is green paper worth anything? Tomorrow we could all decide it's worthless because it's not really based on anything — but we won't. That's part of the invisible hand. It's not magic or really invisible at all, it's just too complex to simplify into any one element. Small details are invisible unless you have a microscope. Knowledge is our microscope.

  • Why can't we just make the world a safe place by arresting all the bad people?
  • All we have to do to clean up the planet is recycle and become vegetarians.
  • If everyone were nice to each other, nothing bad would ever happen.
  • To be rich, all you have to do is invent something.

Don't Be That Guy

It's the simplicity of children; for adults, its the view of amateurs. Having trained for twenty years or more, doesn't mean we can't be fooled by new complex systems. The people with the least amount of training in an area will have the most opinions. "It's so easy to beat that. These fighters are so stupid. Why don't they do this?" My eleven-year-old nephew asks the same questions as my forty-year-old friends when watching MMA (mixed martial arts). Why can't they do what looks so obvious to you? Because it's not that simple. Imagine watching NASCAR and the guy next to you keeps saying of your driver, "He just needs to go faster." There's volatility he isn't accounting for.

The less we know, the less we thinks there is to know. The more alien something looks, the more we think we have it figured out. We'll give business advice to billionaires and tax advice to tax attorneys. "I've had McDonald's, making classic French cuisine can't be any different", "Hey man, I've been in a fight, I could teach those UFC guys a thing or two."

Educate Yourself

MMA is a free market for empty-handed combat; fewer restrictions means strategies must compete against one another to prove they work in the marketplace. This is MMA's invisible hand. For you to compete, you must first understand the market. Let's say you do karate; you can defend a sidekick because you know what it looks like before they throw it. You recognize the signals. Much of competitive fighting is about the looks and getting used to different looks and giving your opponent looks they aren't used to. World class sprinters recognize the sound of the start pistol before everyone else and elite baseball hitters begin their swing before seeing the ball. That's what makes them world class; by the time you notice, it'll be obvious to everyone, including the people at home, at which point, it's too late. The counter-attack you've been talking about? The opportunity will have passed. We form these opinions after the fact. Knowing what to do, like knowing what stock to buy, isn't the same as knowing when to buy it. (That's assuming you figured out the right stock in the first place.) And even with access to hindsight, we repeat the same mistakes all the time.

People spend their lives learning different looks for their art and what's fascinating is, they don't often realize they do it. We aren't psychic, we're anticipating. We don't think that far ahead; the opponent's movements are predictable to us. (Also, because we train with the same people.) The point of practice and sparring isn't only to refine technique and make us tougher; so much of it is figuring out when to do our technique. Learning all the moves in chess does not make us good at chess. Knowing when to do these moves, that's what makes us good. It's about refining perception, thinking fast, and seeing the signal from the noise.

If you constantly disregard the possibilities of other methods and tools, then you become short-sighted and may in fact lose the advantage of your own strength. That is why the warrior must learn the techniques of other schools...
— Miyamoto Musashi

If one does not recognize it for their own art, why would one recognize it for MMA? This ignorance is why masters warn of the ego, why we take off our shoes, why there is such an emphasis on respect. Because this arrogant view is insulting to those who have trained. How many subtleties can one pick up with zero hours of training? (You've trained your art or been in street fights, but that's still not MMA — just as volleyball is not the same as water polo.) Then opinions are formed without substance. Yet, many so-called "masters" are guilty of this. They should know better, they really should.

Clever people teach that no one can beat them because of their superior technique. They belittle others who have different methods. They try to bully others into following their Way. ... They do not understand the true Way of the warrior.
— Miyamoto Musashi

More often than not, we win, not because our technique was divergent from the other person's, it's that we had a head start. (First and second place both knew to run, first place knew to run a split second before second place did.) We have refined our perceptions to take the lead. Understanding is limited if all one knows is the handful of MMA fights they've watched. It assumes, like many do, that they are a genius. They can beat the market (or the world) because they are special and they know something others don't. (Buy low, sell high, bada-bing, bada-boom.) People with this illusion of superiority lose money every day in the stock market. And when they try MMA firsthand, they are always in a for an awakening. But awakening is the spiritual quest of martial arts, that's the good stuff, that's what you want. Why blind oneself with ignorance? That's not what a martial art is about. At least it shouldn't be. It should be a free trading of ideas and kaizen (continuous improvement).

In The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi explains that one should not only train their hands but also their eyes. One needs to see beyond technique but to the underlying strategy. He writes:

When I watch men from other schools and listen to them talking about their theories, I can tell they haven’t the slightest idea what my strategy is about. They prefer to act out their techniques and think they accomplish things without proper practice. These men are fools.

The Threat of the Takedown

Wrestlers who have defended thousands of takedowns still get taken down. It's hard to stop, even if you know what you're looking for. Takedowns aren't based on damage, they are transitional. What we have learned is, controlling the transitions (or to use the market analogy: the flow of money) is where the advantage is gained. Think of the brain, it's not an advantage like fangs or a multi-chambered stomach, but it's what brings all systems together.

What makes MMA so unique, so fluid, and so complicated are the takedowns. You have the striking arts and the ground arts, but MMA married them and forced them to evolve together — to answer questions from different toolboxes. The ability to fluidly change from one facet of the game to another, that is the trickiest thing to deal with. A takedown doesn't have to be successful, it's the threat of them that changes the strategies. One may think they have answers for them but that doesn't mean they can see it coming before it comes. Can you tell from the angle of their hips? Their footwork? The combos they throw? Yes, once they are shooting, yeah, there is the takedown. But can you see it before everyone else can? Can you tell the difference between how a shot looks and a punch looks? (Or for that matter, a single-leg, ankle pick, trip, duck-under, high crotch, or any of the other variations? They won't all be double-leg takedowns.) All the attacks come from an athletic stance, the same stance used by every other sport. What attack is coming is not so obvious until it connects. That perception is what makes a fighter elite. That split-second decision making is the difference and you will not have that without a lot of experience. And even then...

World-class kickboxer Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipović was knocked out by wrestler and huge underdog, Kevin Randleman. Everyone was baffled, people at the time thought Randleman must have dramatically improved his boxing or Cro Cop underestimated him. What actually happened was, Randleman dipped down to load up on a Mike Tyson style left-hook. Cro Crop perceived the dip as a level change for a takedown and bent his knees and lowered his hands to sprawl and defend. With Cro Cop's defenses down and his weight set, Randleman connected with the shot followed by more shots on the ground until Cro Cop was separated from consciousness. I don't think this was what Randleman was planning but that's the reaction Cro Cop gave him. Cro Cop respected Kevin Randleman's wrestling that much.

In this fight, champion kickboxer Joe Schilling (the heavy favorite) took on Hisaki Kato. Before the fight, Schilling made several statements to the press that he would knock Kato out. That bravado followed Schilling into the ring until Kato put him to sleep. The fans believed it was Schilling's pride that got the better of him. Up until the knockout, Schilling was doing quite well. Kato, an unorthodox fighter took a step that looked like a shot, then jumped high as Schilling prepared for a nonexistent takedown. In the picture above, you can see how awkward the punch was, yet it did the job and put Schilling out. (Dominick Cruz pioneered this type of footwork, where an opponent couldn't tell a takedown from a punch or a kick, and in the case of Kato, a superman punch.)

It was the threat of the takedowns that changed the complexion of these fights. Many fighters thought all they needed for MMA was a good sprawl and learning to dig underhooks. (Many still believe this.) Though that's a start, that by itself is not enough.

If your plan isn't to counter but to hit them before they take you down, this can happen. (Georges St-Pierre was not the best striker or grappler, but he was the best at combining the two on a dime. This is why he is considered one of the best ever.)

Overpower a takedown with an all-out assault? Then this might happen. Aggressive offense to can blind you to the takedown.

Groundfighters Need Takedowns

Jiu-jitsu fighters had the reverse problem. When they lacked the ability to take the fight to the ground, they were beaten up on the feet. Once they developed their wrestling is when they began to find more success. (And when they seriously improved their striking.) The goal of every MMA fighter, however, is still to be well-rounded. You can't strike well if you're afraid to be taken down. You can't be good at takedowns if you're afraid to strike.

The MMA Overhand

Can you tell if Chuck Liddell is throwing a punch or taking a wrestling shot? It's extremely difficult to tell the difference. And often it is both a punch and a takedown. In boxing, this is called the cross-counter, which is a counter against an opponent's attack, typically a jab. In MMA, the overhand is used to disguise a takedown. But since it's so effective in misleading an opponent and it generates so much power, it is one of the most common ways to knock an opponent out. A win-win, knock out or takedown. You block the punch, you get taken down; you block the takedown, you get punched. For a while, the MMA overhand was all anyone threw because it seemed unstoppable — that is until the market corrected itself.

Counters Against Takedowns Done Right

Other than the sprawl, strikers have tried to taunt their way into a kickboxing match. Asking, demanding, daring, and pleading with their opponents to stand and trade. (Sometimes it's a bit awkward.) This is less a tactic and more a sign of desperation and lack of confidence in stopping takedowns. It's not very effective in the upper echelon but it still doesn't stop fighters from trying. (After all, if you want to kickbox, why fight MMA?)

When martial artists trained as professional fighters and gained enough experience, they were able to incorporate the moves traditionalists were used to. The previous assumption was: "No one must know these techniques. It's why no one does them." It wasn't that, it's that fighters are just now getting knowledgeable enough in MMA to incorporate these techniques. (Remember, most fighters transitioned to MMA from a more traditional background. They know the moves.) When it was tried before, it normally failed. The market lets you know right away when something's a bad idea. (Only now are there opportunities to start with MMA from the onset of training. Prior to that, no one was an "MMA fighter," they became an MMA fighter.)

Just because you can do a kick doesn't mean you can do a kick in professional MMA. You can swing a bat, Ted Williams can swing a bat, but that doesn't mean you can hit as well as him. It's about seeing a ball that isn't there yet, and that second sense takes tens of thousands of hours of practice.


Rather than only sprawling, kicks to the head are used to stand the opponent up. It's thrown preemptively to stop the level change.

If they stand up straight and back away (or lean back), it eliminates the immediacy of takedowns.

If they stand up without defending the kick, this happens.

If they insist on the level change and still take the shot, this happens.

High-kicks became much more successful when fighters began to use it for varied purposes, besides just trying to kick their opponent's head off. When it's thrown with a single intent (looking for a head-kick knock out), it's easily telegraphed and wrestlers will use the kick to take their opponents down. (Or the kicker falls backwards due to the pressure.)

Straight Punch on the Exit

Not every fighter shoots for takedowns, some get their takedowns from the clinch. Rather than shooting for the legs, fighters will tie up the upper body. Here, Ronda Rousey is reaching for Holly Holm to clinch. Reporters after the fight were confused as to why Rousey never tried to take Holm down. Rousey did try, and every time she did, she was met with a straight punch. However, the counter isn't the punch, the counter is the lateral exit. Holm is throwing the straight on the evasion, to punish Rousey and make her second-guess herself.


Rather than power and speed, some fighters rely on accuracy. Wrestlers swarm fighters to make them cover up so they can shoot for their legs. Rather than panic, strikers familiar with this strategy keep their eyes peeled stand their ground, waiting to deliver an intercepting fist (reverse punch).

When karate champion Stephen Thompson defeated former world champion Johny Hendricks, Joe Rogan said of Thompson, "He's learning how to fight MMA." Meaning, we all knew he was talented, now he's figuring out how to use the things he did in karate, in MMA.

Occasionally, fighters will try to defend a takedown with a well-timed flying knee. When it connects, it's devastating, but it's a tool with a high risk for takedowns since it eliminates distance. Good strikers use it sparingly. But when the opportunity presents itself, rather than backing away, it may make more sense to intercept for a collision. As fighters watch more tape and prepare their plans, the moves of their opponents become more predictable. And if you know what's coming, timing is easier.

Intelligent fighters know what their opponents will do and make it hard for their opponents to know what they will do. Athleticism and toughness is obviously of value in a fight, what is still undervalued by many is intelligence. (Which makes sense, only intelligent fighters would value intelligence.)

Front Kick

Randy Couture is another fighter who likes takedowns from the clinch. Couture enters with his hands up in a shield, which allows Lyoto Machida to counter through the center of the defense with a jumping front kick. (Breaking Couture's teeth, knocking him out, and retiring him from MMA.) In kickboxing or karate, you won't often see fighters bending over or rushing in with their head covered. Since MMA allows for takedowns, these events will occur and the front kick now has a lot more relevance. This maneuver can also be done from distance, away from the proximity for takedowns.


Unlike boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, or jiu-jitsu, many traditional arts stand at a further distance. From this vantage point, you can see everything that's coming. Traditional arts also strike with different tips of their limbs: they jump, spin, switch stances, and step in-and-out. They also stand sideways to reach further with their lead leg and arm. MMA tends to be more about hitting with fists, knees, elbows, or shins, and standing more square (mostly for the sprawl). This creates power but also more intimacy. This moves the striker within range for the grappler to take hold.

The art of distancing has played the biggest role in preventing takedowns and avoiding strikes (like the overhand-takedown combination). A sea change in defensive fighting. In simple terms, the fighter is too far away to grab or hit.

Certainly it is advantageous to have the edge in distance or speed, but without proper understanding of strategy these so-called advantages become weapons that can be used against you.
— Miyamoto Musashi

Understanding the MMA market is sometimes called "fight IQ" and it is only now being appreciated. It is the ability to see the strategy of an opponent and then adapt to it. Fight IQ looks for patterns and then exploits them. (Much like good investment strategies.)

Sidekicks, Push Kicks, and Oblique Kicks

Long range weapons. If the opponent steps in too close, rather than stepping backward, one can shove their opponent away. Going backward often runs fighters into the cage. This stifles a lot of their movement, which makes them easier to hit and/ or takedown. Kicks, like the sidekick and push kick create new options for distancing, and also knocks the wind out of opponents.

From a more sideways stance, the sidekick works like the jab. It's quick and creates distance.

In a square stance, the push kick is available. The stance from which it's thrown makes it not only an accurate kick, but also hard to read.

A favorite of Bruce Lee, the oblique kick

A favorite of Bruce Lee, the oblique kick

The oblique kick (chasse bas in savate), which is a side or push kick directly to the leg, not only stops the opponent dead in their tracks, but the risk of permanent leg injury discourages the receiver of the kick from trying to walk their opponent down.

Size of the Environment

The UFC Octagon is 30-feet across and 6-feet high. 750 square feet in total floor size. That's a lot of room and it must be factored into strategy. It's not like training in a martial art school where you'll run into your teammates or into the wall. It's also not like a ring, which is much smaller, with narrow corners. When fighters were able to wrap their minds around this, they began to utilize all of the space. They don't need to be in a phone booth with a wrestler.

Straight-line, linear fighting works at a school or in a ring (where you are limited by space), but its uses are more limited in a massive, circular environment. (However, fighters with karate backgrounds have been able to use it defensively as a step-in karate blitz. But immediately they circle out.)

Miyamoto Musashi said, "One must examine their environment." Strategies must change to fit the environment. Techniques from a traditional art can be sound, but the strategy for them must change to meet the rigors of MMA.

You must constantly move around the fighting area and make sure to befuddle the ‘gang’ by constantly moving into them and keeping them to one side. You must ... not permit them to surround you.
— Miyamoto Musashi

Circling and Footwork: Defense

The freedom of the cage allows for circling as a defensive measure, even against takedowns. Rather than mechanical defenses, where you're countering after the fact, things such as footwork prevents the fighter from stepping into quicksand.

If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.
— Seneca

Footwork prevents the crisis and will always play a vital role in a fight. Whether it's a takedown or a strike, like the overhand, it's much easier if the opponent is stationary. In the past, that's what strikers did, stood their ground and tried to knock their opponents out. This left themselves open for strikes and takedowns. When they became a moving target, it prevented a lot of the dangerous scenarios from occurring. (Along with varying up their own attacks with takedowns.)

There is a case to be made for minimal movement, many of these ideas go way back to the days of weapons. But the mix of strikes with takedowns changes everything. This is not to say there is a one-size-fits-all answer, MMA is always changing. But even less mobile fighters in MMA move a great deal in relative comparison to other combat sports, if nothing else due to the size of the cage and the movements of their opponents. Put any animal in open terrain and they move more.

Circling and Footwork: Offense

Angling and footwork, often seen in traditional Western boxing, are becoming the answers for MMA's bum-rush attacks. Wrestling and takedowns are used defensively as much as it is used offensively. If taking too much punishment, one shoots for a takedown. But if the opponent is striking while never being in the same place twice, the takedown is no longer present.

Pivot and Side-Steps

Much of the evolution is found in the feet and found in movement. We're animals built to walk; we can be rather good at it. Since we fight on the ground, it is how we step and move on the ground that wins us the fight. Rather than standing still and waiting to be taken down, Holm counters Rousey by avoiding the takedown scenarios. (Sprawl and brawl is not a good idea if the goal is to avoid any wrestling). We have 360 degrees of movement options, we don't have to only go front-to-back or side-to-side: we can pivot, we can side-step, we can even pivot-step. In the above scenario, Rousey fell to her knees and ran into the cage, reaching for a Holm, who was no longer there.


MMA has 5-minute rounds, the longest in all of combat sports. Some martial sports have matches that can last up to 10-minutes, but that is the duration of the whole match. MMA has three to five rounds (up to 25-minutes plus 4-minutes for corner instructions). That is a lifetime of difference in a fight. More time to think, to move, to be coached, to adjust, to tire, to take damage — more time for everything. The distance and the duration is what makes all the difference between a sprint and a marathon. MMA x volatility x time x space = anything can happen. Beside the skill and the know-how, most people will never be in the requisite shape for MMA. When tired, technique and strategy go out the window.

Live Audience

If you ever make it to the UFC, you will have to do everything you have talked about, in front of millions of people watching live across the world, and also the thousands in attendance. This includes opening yourself up to criticism from every armchair quarterback (who thinks they can do it better than you). The biggest fear for most people is still public performance. People who talk about doing it better than professional MMA fighters never seem to factor in their own performance anxiety. As if they would be as cool as a cucumber, used to the limelight. Not only during the fight, but also the lead up. (One must also deal with the thoughts of permanent public humiliation.) Perhaps they have a Kardashian level love of the camera and exhibitionism. Or perhaps they never thought this through to its natural conclusions.


MMA is not just striking with takedown defense or takedowns with striking defense. It is the fluid blending of stand-up fighting and ground fighting. One must round out their game. When the takedown defense fails, it's a good idea to know how to fight on the ground. When the striking game doesn't work, it's a good idea to be able to take the fight to the ground. That is MMA's beauty. That is what makes it so unique and complex and so damn hard to predict. Fighting without missing a beat no matter where it goes. This could only happen when ideas from the world combine — a globalized free-trade system.

When cars arrived, some people still believed that horses would beat cars in any race. It's not that they didn't know about horse, they just knew little about cars, or their possibilities. They overestimated their knowledge to their detriment.

Final Thoughts

To attain the Way of strategy as a warrior you must study fully other martial arts and not deviate even a little from the Way of the warrior.
— Miyamoto Musashi

We may think we have an answer to a takedown, but we're not just doing it against a takedown, we're doing against someone who knows how to wrestle, kickbox, and grapple. (Who has answers to our answers.) That's a different animal all together and something many of us have little experience with. It's like assuming how to stop a housecat from jumping on you is the same as stopping a mountain lion.

We criticize after the fact, because now we know what they were going to do. We strategize against them, but if this were a real prize-fight, our opponents too will study us and strategize against us. They are not mindless bots who shoot predictably so we can knee them in the face. (Which is in fact the most common thing people say should happen, yes, that plan is not so secret.) We will think, "I am going to do all this stuff to my opponent." But they too are thinking the same thing. We forget, whatever we can do, the opponent can also do.

The problems MMA poses are dynamic, not static. You may think you have a solution if all other variables remain the same (e.g., a weaker fighter can beat a stronger fighter if they are more skilled), but that is where you are wrong. The variables are always changing (e.g., a weaker fighter can only beat a stronger fighter if the stronger fighter never improves their skills). If you don't factor in any other variables, whether they be static or dynamic, then this is wishful thinking and not strategy.

Fighting is a metaphor for natural selection; it's two adaptive animals competing to out adapt each other. The biggest logic fallacy people make is to assume the opponent is incapable of thinking or adapting. Whenever I hear someone say, "I will do this to my opponent and they won't be able to stop it." I respond with, "Well why can't they stop it? Is it because you think they have an IQ of zero?" A person who cannot strategize against a thinking opponent is the weaker fighter.

MMA is fluid and evolving, more so than any other art. How it looks now is different from how it looked last year and will look next year. It's about forward-thinking and having vision that's ahead of the curve.

Always take the broader view of the entire situation both when you are in a fight and when you are not. Do not concentrate on details. Keep only one thing in mind: that the thing is to beat the enemy.
— Miyamoto Musashi

We can do amazing things, if we know what we are looking for. That's not a fixed thing, that's a fluid thing. Why is it when we see something new and interesting, we automatically hate it? Why not approach it with childlike curiosity? Here is this mysterious thing I do not understand; rather than coming up with answers, why not ask questions first? Figure it out, understand it. Rather than looking to counter everything that is new and strange to you, it might be best to round out your game and learn these moves yourself. A wrestler who can strike and submit, a striker who can wrestle and submit, a submission artist who can wrestle and strike — that is MMA. It's martial arts in context to the demands of its environment.

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