When being attacked along the fence, you are not only being pummeled by your opponent, the cage itself is attacking you.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
Nothing in traditional martial arts can prepare a fighter for the environment of the cage. It changes everything. It alters every movement, it alters every technique. The assumption every martial move makes is: the practitioner of the technique will be automatically supplied with the room to execute the technique. The cage eliminates this notion, and many who throw ill-conceived ideas at the television when watching mixed martial arts (MMA), do not take this new factor into account. It is not a minor detail, it is the paradigm shifting reality of professional mixed martial arts. Imagine a tiger telling a shark how to fight, it would be absurd because the fighting environment changes everything.
Now, nearly every MMA gym has a cage and they specifically train for this aspect of the fight. But, since most of have never had access to a cage, we may not understand what a cage actually means in combat.
When former UFC champion Rashad Evans faced Glover Teixeira, he was knocked out within two-minutes of the very first round. A typically mobile and fast fighter, when Evans backed up against the cage, his angular stance was forced into a square stance by the edges of the cage. His heels were literally pressing against the fence. His natural mobility and speed were stifled, his ability to generate power diminished, and the heavy-handed Glover Teixeira caught Rashad Evans with a bone-crushing left-hook as the former champion was looking to punch and exit.
Rashad Evans has only been knocked out twice in his career, the previous occasion was when he lost his UFC light-heavyweight title to Lyoto Machida. This was the first time we saw this same pattern for Evans, walking back up against the cage, squaring up, and trying to punch his way out, only to be knocked out by Machida. You cannot bend over, you cannot slip, you cannot parry, you cannot evade, or trap, or apply the majority of martial arts techniques. The cage forces you to stand up straight, like being pin-rolled against a baking board. (Though Anderson Silva has been effective against the cage, but he is the exception, not the rule.)
If Glover Teixeira had studied this fight, he would plan to walk Evans down until he was against the cage. Though this is hardly a plan because this is what Teixeira does in every fight. This doesn't mean Evans was destined for a knock out, he could have covered up, clinched, or even shot for a takedown. Or better yet, he could have made sure to avoid the cage. But even in fights Evans has won or lost by decision, he has had a habit of being passive, backing up, and trying to return fire when pressed against the fence and out of position, rather than being defensive.
Against Thiago Silva, again, Evans was hurt along the fence, but managed to survive and gut-out a decision victory. What Evans had was speed, and when in trouble, he was able to use it to get himself out of the way. Though Glover Teixeira doesn't have the speed of Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans no longer has the speed of his prime, which was the recipe for a perfect storm. The cage has no compassion, it doesn't forgive any weaknesses or bad habits. Especially when speed is no longer there to compensate. (Then a fighter must make sure to eliminate any bad habits.)
There Are Multiple Opponents in the Cage
The cage makes it a multiple opponent scenario; there is the guy in front of you, and the cage behind you, both looking to incapacitate you. The same can be said of the ground, if taken down, there is the guy on top of you and the ground behind you. You become sandwiched. Then once you step into the cage, even without looking, you must be aware of where the cage is from you at all times. Because the cage can even sneak up on veterans of fighting and surprise attack them.
[It is important to note then, that even martial arts purely for self-defense should prepare their students for fighting on the ground and against a wall, or in very tight spots and situations. Because outside of the cage without a referee, it's life or death. Then as a student looking for self-defense training, look for schools that prepare students for all scenarios. Otherwise, it's not really self-defense. You aren't really prepared for anything.]
The name of the game is speed, power, and movement, and once you nullify these elements in your opponent, then all that remains is your speed, power, and movement. It doesn't necessarily win the fight; it gives you a greater advantage to win the fight. Just like your buddy holding your opponent doesn't mean you will win, but it sure does help. The tricky thing about the cage, however, is it has no allies. Like any tool, whoever is wielding it at the time is its ally.
Former UFC middleweight champion Dave Menne was hurt by Phil Baroni, he stumbled against the cage, looking to be held up. And held up he was, by the cage and Baroni's fists. Once the referee stepped in, Baroni stopped punching and Menne collapsed to the floor.
Like being punched on the ground, being punched against the fence is much more dangerous to the brain than being punched out in the open.
Former UFC heavyweight and light-heavyweight champion Randy Couture used the cage as a key element in his strategic offense. He roughed up younger and faster fighters by pinning them against the cage. His greatest MMA craft was against former champion Vitor Belfort, where Couture not only utilized the cage but also the ground to wedge Belfort against the Octagon seams and bloody him up to a pulp. Rather than fighting Belfort's physical attributes, Couture, who is 14-years the senior of Belfort, used his intellect to eliminate Belfort's youth factor. How did Couture make Belfort's superior boxing and jiu-jitsu a non-issue? The cage.
Ring to Cage
A number of fighters who were used to fighting in the ring had a difficult time transitioning to the cage. Many kickboxers and boxers, along with learning MMA, had the added element of getting used to a cage, which not only changed their footwork, but also their offense and defense.
Antônio Rogério Nogueira, a former Pride standout (a Japanese organization that used a ring), was expected to become a contender for the UFC light-heavyweight title. When he fought Anthony Johnson, on paper, it looked as though Nogueira would be the higher-caliber striker. Johnson had power, but Nogueira was known for his crisp boxing, having been on the Brazilian national boxing team and representing his country in a number of games, medaling in several of them. Yet against the cage, everything changes. Johnson bullied Nogueira into the fence, and though Nogueira covered up, not having an ability to move and deflect Johnson's power, it was only a matter of time until he was knocked out. Johnson is not known to pace himself, he is looking to end it quickly.
Takedowns are also easier along the fence, which adds another dimensional threat: if you cover up, you get taken down; you block the takedown, you get punched in the face.
However, fighters have become adept at blocking takedowns against the fence, and even using the fence to get back to their feet. (A technique made famous by former UFC champion Chuck Liddell.)
Modern MMA fighters have developed skills to deal with the cage (and the ground). That first required an understanding of the cage and it meant giving it the proper respect it deserves. It changes everything about fighting, just as fighting in water would change everything about fighting. The cage is unforgiving with minor errors, like backing up and forgetting how close you are to it. The cage is unforgiving to small minds who do not properly prepare for cage-fighting. When being attacked along the fence, you are not only being pummeled by your opponent, the cage itself is attacking you. And it gets angry when you forget about it.