A guide to UFC 205: Tate vs. Pennington

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UFC 205 is set to be the biggest fight card in a year full of big fight cards. Many are looking at Conor McGregor and Eddie Alvarez to steal the show, but that is easier said than done. The fact remains that this entire card is absolutely filled with both talented fighters and meaningful match-ups. It is the kind of card we wish we could have every weekend, but realistically can only expect once in a blue moon. In celebration of this momentous occasion, we shall be looking at every fight on the main card of this blockbuster of an event in the coming weeks. Every fight is meaningful, every one has recognizable names, and three of them are title fights.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. To start things off we shall be looking at the main card opener, a scrappy match-up that pits former champion Miesha Tate against surging contender Raquel Pennington.

An Unlikely Champion: Miesha Tate

Tate is a fighter who has had an unusual relationship with the media. When Ronda Rousey was ruling the division, people were not willing to look at the things she was doing right. She was always going to be the girl that couldn’t beat Rousey, and we didn’t seem interested in what second best was up to. When she defeated Holly Holm with a thrilling, come from behind, last minute submission, pundits started to jump on her bandwagon. The champ had now “matured” and her once ignored abilities were now inflated. The perception of Tate was intrinsically tied to how good we think everyone else was at the time.

The truth is that, like everyone else, Tate is simply a compilation of both strengths and weaknesses. To look at one without the other, is doing a disservice to her as a fighter. She has her habits, she has her tendencies, and they are in some ways more obvious than most.

The Same Old Bag Of Tricks

Watching back through Tate’s fights you start to get a feeling that the same Tate shows up every night. Whether or not she wins depends on what opponent is put in front of her. People will look at her wins over Holm and Jessica Eye and proclaim her as a talented striker. But then they will watch her crushing loss to Amanda Nunes and scratch their heads. The assumption should not be made that Nunes is a better striker than Holm. Styles are what make fights after all, and stylistically Nunes and Holm are like chalk and cheese. Holm is an impatient counter striker, while Nunes is an aggressive brawler. When you watch the fights, the only constant in them is Tate, who showed up looking the exact same in both fights, and was rewarded in one and punished in another.

Hit And Miss (Literally)

On offence Tate suffers from the same technical flaws that a lot of others in the division also suffer from, with a few pleasant surprises thrown in for good measure. She is one of the few women to posses a decent jab, especially when she dips with it.

This worked great all 5 times she used it in the fight.

Where the problems begin to arise however, is when Tate’s strategy is built around diving in with the right hand. I could count on one hand the amount of times I’ve seen Tate actually hurt an opponent with her right hand, and most of those were in her battle with Jessica Eye. She is rarely effective with it, yet that right hand is the most used weapon in her arsenal. This leads on to a slightly more overriding problem. Her boxing technique can get a little hairy at times, especially around the pocket.

But this is the women’s 135 pound class, so that is par for the course. It should also be noted that recently, Tate has become much less inclined to lunge in with her punches (shown above). However, she will still play rock em’ sock em’ when drawn into an exchange.

Apart from that dipping jab, Tate does not have what you might call a polished boxing game, but it can be effective in the right situation. Her knockdown of Eye was a rare display of set-up, as she feinted into an overhand right that caught Eye reaching and nearly shut her lights out.

The Dangers of Being a Lazy Kicker

Tate has always been a very flexible fighter. Throwing up kicks at any height is not a problem for her. However, there is so much more to being a good kicker than merely being flexible. Timing, and positioning, play a far more important role in good kickes than simply being flexible. The problem with Tate’s ability as a kicker is that she is lazy. That is not to say she is not active with her kicks. In fact, one of the opening moves you can be guaranteed to see Tate throw in almost every fight is a skipping inside low-kick.

Being a lazy kicker means that after you kick, you are slow to bring yourself back to position. In more than a few of her fights, Tate was caught on one leg with punches immediately after kicking.

She can kick, but her ideas of when to kick–and the urgency with which she recovers both her guard and her stance–make it a more dangerous game for her than her opponent.

A Porous Defense

Many people looked at Tate’s victory over Holm as a sign of defensive savvy. However, defense has always been one of the biggest things missing from Tate’s game, especially on the feet. She has shown slow improvements since running face first into Ronda Rousey’s clinches again and again. But she is far from what I would call defensively sound.

In her most recent fights, Tate has made a point of circling the cage constantly. However, it is rarely done with any intent other than to circle. She doesn’t take angles and she doesn’t circle back to take the center. Most importantly, she doesn’t pay much attention to where she is in relation to the cage.

Tate also does not have a conventional guard on the feet. She keeps her hands wide, palms out towards her opponent. This is so that she can parry blows that come down the center line. Though, Tate rarely takes advantage of any openings she creates. She does most of her punching on the lead, and in recent fights her defensive boxing has been limited to constantly looking for a left hook. Each and every one of these things served to be her undoing against Nunes.

Circumventing The Guard

While Holm likes to land almost exclusively straight punches, and gives ground every time someone comes forward, Nunes stalks, squares up and throws her right hand in two ways. She will either loop it around the guard, or lace it straight down the middle. It is simple, but it plays hell with reactive styles of defense. Tate would go to trap a right straight only to have it loop around her guard. As she brought her guard wide to catch the arcing punches, the jabs and straights would land down the middle.

During her constant circling, Tate walked herself to the fence and didn’t seem able to get off it. With no retreat available, Tate’s guard failed to hold up against the onslaught of Nunes’ power, and she was eventually badly hurt, dropped, and choked out while looking for that left hook.

Grappling Savvy

The deficiencies that Tate has on the feet are not present on the ground. It’s safe to say that Tate is one of the better grapplers in the women’s divisions. However, she does have a few quirks.

Tate rarely shoots like a conventional wrestler, with a bend at the knees and a drive towards the hips. Instead she usually bends at the waist and runs to the side. This is a risky technique since it leaves your neck open to guillotines and is more telegraphed. The advantages are that when Tate does take people down, she has more control over where her legs go. As a result, Tate often ends up past the full-guard on successful takedowns. In both the Eye and Holm fights, Tate landed takedowns almost straight into side control, then immediately fed her leg back into her opponents half-guard. This has long been a position favored by wrestlers, as it allows a greater degree of control over the opponents body.

In both instances, Tate used the elbow to the body on the far side. While it is not a show stopper, it does what Tate really wants–forces a reaction. Against Eye, it allowed her to catch a one armed guillotine and nearly end the fight. With Holm, it allowed her to isolate Holm’s arm, and leaving her open to a reign of elbows to the face from Tate. That would then force Holm into giving up her back.

Her transition game is where Tate has proven to be most dangerous. When a scramble ensues, she seems to be able to find the back from anywhere, and she will normally take half-guard as a top position to force movement, while maintaining her control. It allows her a better chance of gaining the back.

Raquel Pennington: The Eternal Underdog

Raquel “Rocky” Pennington is a great example of a fighter being more than just a record. While a record of 8-5 seems both inexperienced and a little too close to the dreaded .500 mark, Pennington has fought a who’s who of WMMA. Her resume includes names like Cat ZinganoJessica Andrade and Bethe Correia. Her most famous performance is undoubtedly her split-decision loss to Holly Holm, which single-handedly killed all the hype for the Holm/Rousey match-up fans had wanted as soon as Holm was signed. But that is the nature of Pennington’s fights–she makes them ugly.

That is not to say that Pennington is not talented or technical. She is definitely a fighter with a mind, and one of the few in the women’s divisions that doesn’t fall victim to arm flailing when in punching range. However, some of Pennington’s biggest weaknesses lie in her technique. Her greatest strength though, lies in her discipline. Her moments of success invariably come from what seems like chaos. She may not be the most exciting technician to watch, but almost every fighter on the roster (males included) could learn something from watching Raquel Pennington.

Discipline vs. Technique

One of the things that sets Pennington apart from others in her division is her discipline. While many other female strikers will simply bend at the waist and swing arm punches until someone gets tired, Pennington has an idea of how and when to box.

She doesn’t have a deep bag of striking tricks, but she has more than most at bantamweight. She is one of the most active jabbers in the division, and she will routinely mix in a lead-right-straight to keep her opponents guessing. She will throw out an inside low-kick from time to time, and on rare occasions you might see a switch front snap kick or a left hook-right-straight from her on the lead.

The left hook-right-straight is a great example how Pennington stays on top of her feet. She doesn’t over-commit to shots often and she doesn’t let her feet get away from her. Good fundamentals are rarer than you would think in MMA, and Pennington has it better than most in that division.

Pennington does not move much further than the fundamentals, when it comes to subtlety. Outside her left-hook-right-straight, she doesn’t really play with her opponents expectations to try and create openings. She will simply use a technique until it stops working, then change to something else.

Pennington’s movement aren’t very nuanced. She disregards things like feints, angles, ring-craft, and positional awareness. She moves on a straight line, and 90 percent of the time she goes forward. She has no mind for cutting the cage off or keeping herself off it. But that is not her purpose.

Substance Over Style

This is the strange duality of Pennington’s classification as a technician. She does not commit enough to the subtleties of footwork and ring-craft to avoid getting hit in return. As a result, her offence from distance rarely wins her the fight. However, she does succeed in removing herself from the trap that many other girls find themselves being drawn in to–brawling. Pennington makes fights ugly, but she rarely stands and slings combinations at her opponents while allowing them to fire back. She removes many female strikers from their area of strength, and she does that by ensuring she maintains an advantage.

Clinch Awareness

The biggest secret to Pennington’s success is her discipline in finding the clinch. Whenever an opponent catches her flat-footed, instead of swinging back, Pennington will duck in to a clinch and immediately begin looking for an underhook. This is a well established way of breaking the opponents offence in striking. You need only watch Floyd Maywether duck in to a clinch on every opponent who tries to rough him up, to see how effective it can be at removing an opponents initiative. Extended clinching in boxing is illegal under the current rules, which is why it is seen as a dirty tactic. Yet in MMA, clinching is perfectly legal, and once you are there you have to work.

Once she establishes an underhook to help prevent a level change, Pennington will go to work with knees. Using underhooks to prevent wrestlers from shooting in the clinch is a favorite of former muay thai champion Germaine De Randamie. Like de Randamie, Pennington will sometimes look for a full double collar tie, especially if her back is to the fence. But for the most part, she will secure her right underhook and go to work.

It is from here, rather than the open, that Pennington is so effective, and a key to it is her activity. She will dutifully throw knees, get her head under her opponents, and look to make space to land elbows. So many fighters are content to lean on an opponent in the clinch, with occasional bursts of activity. Pennington, on the other hand, works to make the clinch as uncomfortable as possible for her opponent. Once her opponent begins to try and disengage, Pennington plays her trump card. Enter the right hand on the break.

Fighting In The Grey Areas

While many people will see a broken clinch as a victory for the opponent, Pennington sees it as an opportunity. Almost every time she exits a clinch, Pennington will look to land a right hand on the break.

It sounds strange, but so many fighters treat the exit from the clinch as a safe zone. Many who come up through striking disciplines learn to clinch until the ref says break, then they can simply break. However, if the ref doesn’t call it, there is nothing to stop a fighter from launching a strike as soon as they feel the space opening up. It may not be pretty. It may not be technical. But it is unquestionable that Pennington has had tremendous success by being sure to throw on the break whenever possible.

Tate is also an advocate of hitting on the break, but she either strikes or grapples from the clinch. She will come in swinging or come in shooting. This is at odds with Pennington, for whom clinching is simply a way of initiating a break.

Issues With Control

While she is good at working from the clinch, one part where Pennington fails to pay attention is control. Because the end game is to get her opponent to exit the clinch, Pennington doesn’t force the kind of control required to keep someone pinned to the fence. She will routinely get spun around to the fence while working, and then will have to work back to being in control.

This more than anything adds to the perception of her fights beings brawls. With so many momentum shifts the easy scoring criteria of cage control can be rendered useless as Pennington is happier to create space and cause her opponents to expend energy, than force her opponent to stay strung-out against the fence. Zingano managed to hold Pennington against the fence for the vast majority of their bout. This was because Pennington was happy to exchange knees and wait for her chance to try and turn. She did this instead of focusing on escaping a position where she was dropping points. Being so aware of the dangers of the break make Pennington very reluctant to break away on her opponents terms.

On the ground Pennington is more than passable. She is very adept at getting chokes and she rarely concedes positions for long periods. She prefers instead to initiate a scramble in order to attempt to work back up to her feet. While it is great to see her commitment to work, this has lead to some dangerous choices. Against Andrade she gave up her back to get out of from the bottom of a closed-guard. It would be unwise to offer this kind of choice to Tate, given her ability as a scrambler.

Final Thoughts

This fight is going to be decided by the clinch. While Pennington will constantly be looking for it, it is a dangerous game to play with a wrestler like Tate. To win this fight, Pennington is going to have to control either the distance or the clinch. While she is very good at working from both, control is the area where she has always been lacking. If Pennington can maintain a standing clinch, she might be able to exploit Tate’s lax guard and ring awareness. However, if Tate can exploit Pennington’s lack of control, she could turn a clinch into a takedown. The ground is unquestionably where her advantage would lie.

On the feet Pennington is the crisper of the two, and the more technical. Though, that technicians mindset is strengthened by her use of the clinch. If she cannot rely on that it would be interesting to see how she deals with Tate’s wild, powerful, punches.

UFC 205 is quickly creeping up on us. With this fight kicking off the main card, it is safe to say that there is so much more fun to be had in this event. Tate and Pennington is an important fight for the division. It is bound to be an interesting clash of styles. But it is far from the cherry topping on this MMA Sunday. Come back soon for the next installment of the series featuring Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Kelvin Gastelum.

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Beginning martial arts at a young age, Dave has been studying in either Taekwon-do, Kickboxing or Boxing since before he was a teen. Formerly a writer for lasttimeout.com, he has been obsessed with MMA since the late 2000's, and has been using his fight breakdowns as a way of improving his analytical ability and writing prowess with the goal of providing information to others while furthering his own understanding of the wonderful world of Mixed Martial Arts.

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