We are coming to the end of 2016, and what a year it has been for Mixed Martial Arts. Of the ten titles available within the UFC, eight of them have changed hands this year! As the month of December comes to a close the UFC is gearing up for its end of year event, UFC 207: Rousey Vs Nunes. As is the case for all end of year cards, this card is stacked with talent. Ronda Rousey returns to take on current champion Amanda Nunes, and bantamweight kingpin Dominick Cruz looks to knock back the next challenger in the form of Cody Garbrandt. However the fight I wish to focus on is flying very much under the radar on this card, due to the enormous main and co-main events. To open the main card, T.J. Dillashaw takes on John Lineker to decide the next contender to the bantamweight title.
UFC 207 Fight Breakdown: T.J. Dillashaw Versus John Lineker
T.J. Dillashaw: Nobodies Clone
I am going to come clean and admit that T.J. Dillashaw is my personal favorite fighter to watch in the sport of MMA today. Despite all the comparisons to Dominick Cruz, his style is one that is completely unique to him.
The power behind Dillashaw’s style is based on one simple principle: keep your opponent guessing. His stance switches, his taking of angles, his playing with timing and his feinting are all designed to keep his opponent confused as to what is coming there way, when it is coming, and where it is even coming from. But if you had to take one part of Dillashaw’s game and hold it aloft as the thing that makes him the most effective, it would be his feints.
The Power of Feints
Dillashaw is at his best when he is reading his opponents reactions. Against Renan Barao, he patiently spent the first round throwing three feints for every strike, judging Barao’s reactions, making him miss, and looking for openings. The famous knockdown came off of two feints, to which Barao would flinch and extend his lead hand. On the third one, Dillashaw stepped in and dropped the overhand as Barao’s hand extended.
That is the beauty of the feint. It allows you to see your opponents reactions ahead of time, and you can plan accordingly. It deadens the opponents senses to your entry and forces them to either drain their energy reacting to punches that aren’t coming, or stop reacting to every shot, at which point you can step in without fear of eating a counter.
The thing about Dillashaw’s feinting is that while it is what makes him most effective, he doesn’t always do it. His worst moments have come when he steps after people without trying to create an entry for himself.
Dillashaw is praised by many for his footwork, for very good reason. His footwork is some of the best in the UFC, at any weight. Many will point to him as a copy of Dominick Cruz, but the truth is that he is more like a mirrored image. Cruz will come in on a straight line and look to dart out on an angle. Dillashaw’s application of his footwork is more offensively minded. His footwork is all about coming in on an angle and following up in an advantageous position. It is less about avoiding exchanges and more about putting himself in the best position to win the exchange.
Dillashaw rarely looks to stand directly in front of his opponent. He will constantly try to step off to his opponents sides, keeping them turning and hitting them as they try to keep up. A favorite of his is stepping to his opponents open side. This is a risky move because it places you closer to the opponents power side. If you are quick enough however, strikes can land unobstructed through the gap in their guard. It is as close as you can get to an unobstructed shot on your opponent as is possible to get in the middle of a fight.
When in the southpaw stance against orthodox fighters, he will often look to land the left straight as he steps off to his right. This takes him away from his opponents strong hand and lines his left up with his opponents face. It also places him in a position to land his right hook around his opponents lead hand.
At times he ended up behind Barao’s back during their fight because he was stepping so deeply to the side.
Dillashaw is famous for the combinations he puts together, but many of his work comes from the same punches. He does have a good uppercut which he will occasionally throw in for flavour, and his jab from both stances is fantastic, but the rear straight/lead hook occupies the majority of his work.
Dillashaw’s variations come not from altering his punching form, but his footwork. He will throw his combinations from directly in front, he will step off to the side while throwing, and he will throw, shift back, then come back in with the next punch.
The Negatives of Aggression
Dillashaw’s best attributes come from his ability to remain focused. When he uses his feints and his angles to disguise his entries and dissuade opponents from throwing counters, he can light up anyone in the division like a Christmas tree. The big issues have come from the fact that Dillashaw’s mentality can sometimes get in the way. In almost all of his fights, Dillashaw will at some point forgo his technical tools to come forward and be aggressive. His moments of adversity have come when he refuses to lay the ground work and instead decides to march in and throw.
Against Dominick Cruz, Dillashaw was determined to be the aggressor. His decision to attempt to pressure the most elusive fighter in the game saw him getting tagged as he came in. That fight however was not one sided traffic. Dillashaw did have a good deal of success throughout the fight. Those moments came when he took his foot off the pedal and stopped focusing on trying to back Cruz up.
Dillashaw actually has very good timing on his straight counters. When he waits for people to initiate an exchange, he is very good at catching them coming in. He simply doesn’t do it very often because he is so often acting as the elusive aggressor. In his most recent fight with Raphael Assuncao, he had good success catching Assuncao with straight punches as he stepped in.
Kicking With Urgency
Dillashaw has also had an issue with kicking. It’s not that he’s a bad kicker, he simply seems to get caught on one leg more than he should. Again it is when he is marching forward looking to land shots that this tends to happen.
At the end of the day Dillashaw is a man who you can safely say has some of the best talents in the division. His feints and footwork are joys to watch. However the purpose of those things is to allow Dillashaw to more effectively pursue, rather than avoid, his opponent. He is at heart an aggressive fighter. He will always get hit at some point in his fights. Usually it’s when he feels the need to come forward and land something significant, even if he isn’t setting it up. He is much more effective when he sticks to his gameplan and can fight on the defensive very well. These points will be very important against his next opponent, John Lineker.
When John Lineker faced off against John Dodson in a five round main event, there was a feeling that a new contender could emerge to the bantamweight throne. Both guys presented some interesting questions, and how they dealt with it would tell us a lot about whoever won. The fight was incredibly close, and when he emerged from the contest as the victor, Lineker had certainly provided answers.
He had not however, provided the answers we, or he, would have wanted. John Lineker’s career has been his ability to cut the cage on men and drag them into firefights. His chin and power are so undeniable that even at bantamweight he is exchanging with bigger men and folding them like deck chairs.
Against Dodson, Lineker would flurry, and Dodson would throw back, then skip out to the side. This clearly frustrated Lineker.
A Two Punch System
The majority of the Dodson fight was Lineker cutting the cage with his feet, but committing to punches the same way again and again. Lineker’s game has always revolved around two punches: the right hook to the body and the left hook to the head. Lineker will throw his right hand to the body every fight, dozens of times a round. Hardly anyone in the sport commits to this punch more than Lineker. While he has had spectacular results, the value of this punch is in the reactions it elicits. Linker uses his right hand to catch people as they circle out to his right side. This forces his opponent to either adjust their guard to deal with the right hook or to keep taking it. As they begin to bite on it he uses that to set up his left hook upstairs.
The Brawling Mentality
The reason Lineker has succeeded so far has been that he is so good at forcing brawls and winning them. His ability to step across the cage is better than you would normally see, and he uses wide arcing strikes to herd his guys along the fence until they throw back, at which point he steps in. Dodson refused to be pressured into brawling. What he showed is that Lineker’s cage cutting is more show than skill. For almost the entire fight, Dodson walked out to his right almost exclusively.
The thing about good ring cutting is that it needs to be constant. It is very rare that a guy will give up and sit himself on the fence because you won’t let him off. Lineker has looked good pressuring guys who feel panicked into throwing back at him. He is not a technically minded pressure fighter. He was drawn in to chasing Dodson at times, and he never attempted anything outside of alternating left and right hooks and looking to brawl.
Lineker has a decent jab, and he kicks hard. However these things are rarely important to his gameplan. What makes up the nuts and bolts of his style is alternating his right and left hands on the lead. His flurries are obviously powerful. However, they come in a very predictable way.
Lineker is similarly predictable in his counters. Despite having a thunderous left hand, he will almost always respond to attacks by ducking his head and slinging a right hand.
John Lineker is a frustratingly limited fighter from a technical stand point. He is also constantly dangerous. His refusal to develop a rounded boxing game or learn how to properly set up shots is infuriating. However he has the tools to make himself a threat in every exchange of the fight. At only 26, he still has time to learn. He has not shown the desire to learn, but he is still winning fights, so it is hard to argue with the effectiveness of his style against current competition.
This winner of this fight is undoubtedly the number one contender in the bantamweight division. Dillashaw is currently hovering around a 2-1 favorite to win this fight, for very good reason. His ability to build off of feints and exploit reactions are the perfect kryptonite for a guy who throws the same hand every time someone steps in on him. Lineker has had trouble dealing with people who don’t stand in front of him. However he is all too willing to exchange with people no matter how disadvantageous it is for him.
The key thing in this fight is that Dillashaw’s style is not about avoiding exchanges entirely. It is about making the exchanges favour him. Lineker is happy to exchange with anyone, at any time. In the open, Dillashaw has the tools to make Lineker look daft. However at some point, he will want to step in for the kill, and when the does, Lineker will be waiting for him.
If Dillashaw can win this fight without committing to the exchanges, or even better on the back foot, he will have taken a step towards dealing with some of the issues with needing to pressure that cost him the title against Cruz. As a matchup this fight promises a good performance, but the true value of this fight lies in the fact that it will tell us a lot about the direction the Bantamweight division will head in 2017.