Setting up strikes is a critical skill in mixed martial arts. The ability to manipulate your opponent’s guard and create openings is what separates the elite strikers from the rest. In this in-depth article, we break down the methods used by top MMA strikers to set up devastating combinations against world-class opponents.
Using Push Kicks to Control Distance
One of the keys to setting up strikes is controlling distance. By using push kicks and teeps, a fighter can keep the opponent at bay before closing the distance to unload punches and knees.
Former UFC champion Jose Aldo is a master at using push kicks to manage range. He will pepper opponents with front kicks before exploding in with punches. This forces opponents to be cautious about rushing in, allowing Aldo to land strikes on his terms.
Straight push kicks down the center are also excellent for off-balancing opponents and keeping them guessing. Throwing some fakes before driving the kick up the middle is an excellent way to open up punching combinations, as the opponent’s hands will drop to check the kick.
In addition to straight teeps, side teeps can be used to control lateral movement and keep opponents in front for combinations. Side teeps to the knee or thigh can deter circling away or set up powerful knees and kicks as the opponent is distracted by the push kick.
No matter the variation, push kicks are an indispensable tool for managing distance. From long range right up into the clinch, push kicks allow fighters to control the fight geography and set up their striking.
Switching Stances to Create New Angles
Switching stances mid-combination is an advanced way to create new striking angles. Striking from an orthodox stance then switching to southpaw mid-combo can expose openings in the opponent’s guard.
Former UFC champion Conor McGregor is one of the best at using stance switches to unsettle opponents. He will often throw a left hand from orthodox before switching southpaw and following up with lead left hands and kicks. This dynamic attack from ever-changing angles keeps opponents on the defensive.
When timed correctly, stance switches can also be used to evade counter strikes. Throwing a punch combination in one stance before switching to another stance can help a fighter safely exit the exchange.
Switching stances after finishing combinations is also an excellent tactic. If fighters get comfortable striking from one stance, opponents will key in on tendencies. Switching it up prevents patterns from emerging.
The key is to drill stance switches constantly so that they become seamless. If the change takes too long, it will slow down combinations and eliminate the element of surprise. Crisp, rapid stance switches should become second nature.
Using Blocked Strikes to Set Up Follow-Ups
Even when strikes are partially blocked by an opponent’s guard, they can be used to set up secondary attacks.
Legendary MMA pioneer Fedor Emelianenko was a master at using blocked punches to manipulate the opponent’s guard. He would often throw looping punches at the guard before chopping down with hooks to the exposed side.
Blocked strikes can push the opponent’s guard out of position, leaving openings for follow-up shots. They can also be used to pin the opponent’s gloves in place briefly, allowing quick counters in between.
So even when punches and kicks don’t land cleanly, they can still be used strategically as set ups. Just hitting the gloves is not necessarily a wasted strike.
It’s also important not to pause after blocked strikes. Keeping up the pressure prevents opponents from resetting their guard. The next strike could be the one that gets through.
Finally, mixing up the power on blocked strikes can pay dividends. Following a hard strike with a softer one to the same target often results in the second punch sneaking through as the guard weakens.
Drawing Out Reactions
In addition to blocking strikes, opponents will react to strikes thrown at them by parrying, shelling up, or attempting to counter. This presents opportunities to follow up as they are preoccupied with defense.
Israel Adesanya is arguably the best in MMA at drawing out reactions with feints and non-committal strikes. He will throw lazy jabs or flick out low kicks to elicit defensive reactions from the opponent, before firing powerful strikes as they are focused on defending.
Throwing lead leg kicks to draw the opponent’s hands down to check, or feinting level changes to prompt counter takedown defense, can expose openings upstairs as the opponent reacts. Forcing defensive reactions is an excellent way to create counter chances.
Repeated feints to the same target are also useful. If opponents routinely react to a particular feint, they will often drop their guard after seeing it multiple times, allowing it to land clean.
The key is to stay calm and reactive after feints and probes. Over-committing to follow ups may open you up to counters. Wait for clear defensive reactions before striking.
Combining Strikes to Manipulate Guard
One of the best ways to break open a guard is by combining different strikes to manipulate the opponent’s defenses.
Legendary kickboxer Ernesto Hoost was a pioneer at using punch combinations to damage opponents while they shelled up before chopping exposed legs with brutal low kicks.
Chains of strikes like jab-cross-hook force the opponent to react to each subsequent punch, keeping them under defensive pressure while screening their vision and limiting counter chances. Mixing up high and low strikes, and linear punches with arcing ones, makes it very difficult for opponents to anticipate and defend combinations.
The jab is often an excellent setup strike, as it allows fighters to probe the guard and gauge distance while minimizing risk. Jabbing into power hand strikes is an excellent way to create openings.
Taking the time to string together purposeful combinations is far more effective than flurrying with reckless abandon. Each strike should serve a tactical purpose.
Fighting Through Clashes
When top strikers collide, they will invariably end up exchanging strikes simultaneously as they fight for dominance.
Being able to press the action effectively even while taking shots requires courage, conditioning, and technique. Instead of relying on pure toughness to grit through exchanges, fighters can use smart defense and counterstriking to out-duel opponents in the pocket.
Covering up effectively, using head movement to take strikes at angles, and firing short counters during exchanges helps fighters stay safe yet dangerous during mutual striking.
Former champion Robbie Lawler was unequalled when it came to fighting through fierce exchanges. His impenetrable guard, dangerous power punching, and warrior spirit allowed him to best countless opponents during tit-for-tat striking battles.
Staying relaxed and loose, even while under fire, allows fighters to keep their form and technique intact during exchanges. Over-tensing up makes it harder to slip and roll with strikes.
It’s also vital to keep eyes open when exchanging. Striking blindly while taking fire is dangerous. Keep the eyes on the opponent to react and counter effectively.
Finally, footwork is key when mutual striking. Circling away safely or cutting angles to get out of the line of fire allows recovery time after exchanges and sets up the next attack.
Targeting Rarely-Attacked Areas
While MMA fighters routinely target common areas like the head and body, going to more seldom struck regions can yield openings.
Attacking the arms and shoulders can help lower an opponent’s guard, exposing the head. Repeated kicks to the outer thighs and calves can impair mobility, limiting footwork and takedown defense.
Body jabs and uppercuts to the solar plexus, a notoriously vulnerable area, can sap endurance and power. Rarely targeted areas like the forearms and collar bones can become “surprise” power strike points.
Combining strikes to unconventional targets along with traditional head and body attacks limits predictability and opens up new possibilities. Opponents will leave themselves more exposed if they don’t expect strikes to certain areas.
The key is not to become overly obsessed with rare targets at the expense of proven ones though. The head, liver and legs remain high-percentage striking zones for good reason.
Mastering All Ranges
To employ combinations successfully, MMA fighters need to be able to strike effectively in all ranges – long, medium and short.
At long range, push kicks, round kicks and jabs are ideal. Closing distance with jabs and entering off strikes into the clinch is key.
At mid-range, boxing skills like slipping and angled entries allow fighters to move into punching range. Side teeps can prevent circling away.
In close quarters, uppercuts, knees and short elbows do damage. Collar ties allow manipulation of the opponent’s head to open up attack angles.
Seamlessly flowing between ranges, using the appropriate techniques, prevents opponents from settling at their preferred distance. It also opens up more set up options.
No matter the range, cadence variation is critical. Mixing up the speed and timing of strike sequences makes set ups more effective. Opponents struggle to adapt to rhythmic changes.
Adapting Set-Ups Based on Reactions
The best strikers don’t just run through pre-determined strike sequences. They adapt their set ups based on the opponent’s reactions.
Noticing what openings are being created allows exploiting them rather than sticking to a rigid game plan. If an opponent reacts strongly to low kicks, more can be sprinkled in. If body shots draw the hands down, keep going upstairs.
Repeating set ups that yield success also makes sense. If the same feint keeps working, there’s no need to switch it up.
It’s also important to identify what reactions aren’t coming. If an opponent doesn’t drop their hands to check low kicks, headhunting might be preferable.
Staying observant and flexible with combinations based on real-time reactions, instead of repeating canned sequences, results in more openings being capitalized on.
Implementing Set-Ups in Training
The ability to set up strikes purposefully takes considerable training and experience against resisting opponents. It will not happen overnight, but by being thoughtful and strategic with pad work and sparring, fighters can ingrain the tactics and skills needed.
Here are some tips for working set ups in training:
- Practice strike combinations on pads for form, then use light sparring to work them against a moving, reacting opponent.
- Have coaches call out random defenses for you to respond to, such as “guard up” or “leg check”, to practice follow up techniques.
- Drill feints and non-committal strikes to get comfortable drawing out reactions.
- Use heavy bags and slip bags to practice fighting through exchanges while working defense.
- Vary sparring intensity and rules to practice different scenarios – trading shots, setting a pace, countering, etc.
- Analyze video of your sparring to see where openings are being created or missed.
- Most importantly, stay thoughtful. Do not simply throw techniques, but set them up with purpose.
At Apex MMA in Brookvale, we incorporate much of the combination striking science discussed in our classes. From beginner to advanced, our fighters learn to string strikes together tactically and create openings in guards through set ups. If you want to develop your MMA striking skills and training, we encourage you to enroll for a free 7 day trial in one of our beginner classes.