UFC 203 is just around the corner, and the main focus is the heavyweight division. With four of the best of the big men fighting this Saturday, that should come as no surprise. However one fight that is (literally) being overshadowed by these men is Uriah Faber and Jimmie Rivera. Faber is well known as the best fighter to never win a UFC title, but Rivera is a relative unknown. That in itself is a shame, as Rivera has done more than enough to warrant attention. Rivera is currently riding an eighteen fight win streak, and he has looked impressive in every outing. He has everything you need to be a star. His style is also one of the more interesting to watch at bantamweight, a division full of unique styles.
Jimmie Rivera: The Perfect Blueprint
If you wanted to show a young fighter someone to imitate, Rivera would be a great guy to point too. While most people would imagine people should look at Jon Jones, Conor McGregor, Dominick Cruz, or Anderson Silva, the fact is a lot of what those fighters do is unique to their body type, athletic ability, and natural predispositions. Rivera is a very athletic fighter no doubt, but his style at its base is built on good fundamentals.
He moves his feet, he sets up shots, he goes to the body, he works in volume, he can wrestle, he can mix it up and he covers up. Most of what he does is stuff you hear every striking coach preaching to everyone, every day. At this stage they have almost become tropes, stereotypical coaching phrases like “keep your hands up”. They are not unique to any style. They can be done by anyone, and they will make said anyone a more effective fighter.
Working in Combinations
The thing Rivera is best known for is that he throws a lot of combinations. His style is centered around his boxing, but that is what is important. It is centered around it, not simply boxing exclusively. When he works in combination, Rivera mixes kicks in very well. On its own, Rivera is something of a lazy kicker. He doesn’t recover his legs quickly and can be pushed off balance if they are deflected.
This would be problem, but he masks that by leading or following with his hands. He will use an inside leg kick to force his opponent to check the kick or take it. Either one forces them on to one leg and leaves them stationary for Rivera to lead in with his hands. This leg-kick-to-right-hand combination is a long time favorite of Dan Henderson.
Another part of Rivera’s game that mixes well is his finishing of combinations with body kicks. When a fighter leaves an exchange, they will protect their heads. Coupled with the fact that as they leave punching range they feel they are safe, and Rivera routinely sneaks in kicks to the body that he would not land in the open.
Despite coming from a karate background with Tiger Schulman, Rivera’s boxing is some of the best in the UFC. It is not his power that impresses me however. It is his science.
The Art of The Dip
First off, Rivera knows how to move his head when he punches. Head movement is a difficult subject to discuss in MMA. Often people will comment on guys ducking jabs and say things like “his head movement has really improved”, but in truth once that fighter starts punching their head stays on the center line and they get clipped when it really matters. Stipe Miocic is a great example of a man who keeps his head firmly on the center line when he strikes, and prefers to avoid punches with his feet. This is what has led to him eating shots from Junior Dos Santos in their fight as they exchanged along the fence.
Rivera makes sure to get his head off the center line every time he counter punches, so that his opponents first punch will normally miss as his lands. Boxing is as much about not getting hit as it is about hitting others. In MMA, most people focus on the second part over the first. But both are equally important, and Rivera recognizes that. This works in tandem very well with his punch variety.
A Punch For Every Occasion
Rivera has a punch for every situation, and more importantly he knows how to adjust them. For example, he does not simply have a right hook. He has a wide right hook to the body, a tight right hook, a wide arcing palm up right hook that pairs well with his right straight. While some fighters will learn to wing an overhand right and call that a day, Rivera picks his shots. He will choose a different punch depending on how his opponent is reacting. After landing a few wide rights to Marcus Brimage’s gloves, Rivera adjusted and landed a straight right down the unprotected center.
Simple stuff, but that is the essence of combination fighting: get their guard in one position so you can target another. This is why Rivera’s wide hooks work so well with his uppercuts. One forces the guard to widen, the other comes up the middle. It’s not fancy stuff, it doesn’t stand out if you aren’t looking for it. But it is a huge staple of Rivera’s success. The other is his left hand.
Closing The Door
Rivera works with a lot of combinations, but one thing remains constant. Rivera is a huge proponent of finishing combinations with his left hook. This is referred to as ‘closing the door’. It essentially means squaring up and getting back to guard by punching rather than reeling in your right hand like a fisherman reeling in a bad cast. That might sound like common sense, but many famous strikers do just that. From Roy Nelson to Conor McGregor to Uriah Faber, a lot of high level guys simply fire their rear hand then pull it back. By finishing with the left hook, Rivera catches a lot of guys as they recover their right hands.
Uriah Faber: An Old Dog With Old Tricks
Faber meanwhile has always been a fantastic fighter, but technically has never been anything interesting. Writing about Faber is not very fun as an analyst because he so rarely deviates from his gameplan: dashing in behind his right hand and flinging it every time his opponent flinches at him. At 135 pounds, it is not easy to generate knockout power, you really need to commit your body-weight to shots. Without the footwork to set up his shots, Faber simply swings his right hand every time his opponent steps in.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Faber seriously commits to every one of his strikes, which is very taxing on your cardio. But Faber continues to throw these punches well in to the fifth round, with the same venom he did at the start. In many cases he swings so hard his back leg even kicks out behind him.
Not technical by any means, but if you want to get your weight behind a punch, that’s one way to do it.
Faber will also commit to running behind his face and swinging the right hand. Again, not technical by any means, but effective. Faber has even caught the famously elusive Dominick Cruz by simply running at him when Cruz thought he was safely out of range.
The Right Tool In The Wrong Hands
In his fight with Frankie Edgar, Faber showed off a left hook that had been missing for his entire career. However, the idea behind it was the same as his right hand. In fact it was so similar that it may not have had any positive impact on the fight at all. Every time Edgar twitched, Faber would wing the left hook and turn himself around trying to knock Edgar out. Unlike Rivera’s door closing hook, Faber would put himself out of position with his left, and was never in a position after it to follow up. He exposed his lead leg to kicks and because the left hook is shorter than an overhand right, he would only catch an opponent who was rushing in as wildly as he does.
Grappling: Not Just For Grappling
While he may be limited as a striker, as a grappler Faber is outstanding. His ability to win scrambles is almost second to none, and his back control and chokes are still a force to be reckoned with. It also serves as one of the only set ups Faber has: the level change into uppercut. Since the days of Kevin Randleman and Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ Filipovic back in Pride, wrestlers have been catching strikers clean by faking a takedown and throwing a strike as their opponents hands come down.
His scrambles are a key part of his game, namely his ability to find his opponents back from almost any position. This is obviously a result of years of grinding with top level grapplers at Team Alpha Male. These instinctive reactions serve Faber better than any amount of coaching.
Fighting Father Time
This is what has made Faber so successful throughout his career: his ability to react quickly. Whether it is his speed in throwing his right hand, his ability to cover distance, or his reactions in the scramble, speed has always been the staple of Faber’s game. However ‘The California Kid’ is closing in on 38 years old, and that speed is starting to leave him. Where as once his dashes and reaction counters made his second fight with Cruz an entertaining back-and-forth, the third fight left little doubt that he is starting to slow down. Unlike Mark Hunt, who has developed a craftiness in his old age, Faber is more akin to Vitor Belfort: still playing the young mans game, relying on physical attributes that are starting to leave him.
Paths To Victory
Faber may be the betting underdog here, but he is the pundits favorite. People know Urijah Faber. They know his list of accomplishments and they know how good he is. People don’t know Jimmie Rivera. But they should. Perhaps after this fight, they will.
Rivera’s dipping counters and check hook would an excellent counter to Faber’s mad charges. His left hook to close the door could well catch Faber recovering his right hand. Faber’s left hook and history with checking low kicks would provide a perfect opening for Rivera’s leg kick-right-hand combinations. While a proficient wrestler, Rivera would want to keep this fight as far away from the mat as possible. Denis Bermudez finished Rivera by taking his back and simply pounding him out. While he is bigger, Bermudez is not nearly as dangerous on someones back as Faber.
From Faber I would like to see kicks. Rivera’s style of two handed punching leaves him very square, which opens his body to front kicks. You can’t move in on someone if they have their knee between you and them, so straight kicks would be preferable to round kicks. However as Faber has never been much of a kicker, drawing and avoiding one of Rivera’s lazy kicks and dashing in with a right hand in to the clinch and then a takedown attempt as Rivera tries to recover or swing back is his best shot.
Faber is probably the best fighter to not hold UFC gold. Whats more he earned that success by way of his own physical ability more so than any technical proficiency on the feet. Rivera may not be the athlete Faber was, but as a technician he is a much more intriguing fighter to watch. What’s more he has grown over time. His kicks, footwork and ability to mix up his combinations have matured as he has gotten older. This makes me excited to see where his ceiling for improvement is. While Faber is very much a live underdog here, if you choose to watch this fight, don’t watch it to “see what Faber’s got left in the tank”. Watch it for the young gun who may finally be getting his chance to shine, even if nobody knows it.