I’ve spent some time singing the praises of underrated fighters, trying to shine light on their talents and entertainment value. But nobody is perfect, it turns out I had been sleeping on one of the best technicians in the sport for years. After John Makdessi put on an absolute clinic vs. Ross Pearson in the summer of 2018, I was wide awake.
Canada’s Makdessi gets some love for his traditional martial arts stylings. Chiefly, spinning “stuff” and lead leg kicking techniques. You haven’t seen a Makdessi fight if you haven’t heard commentator Joe Rogan predicting a spin or gushing over the benefits of snapping off round kicks with no step or wind-up. Those were certainly the qualities I knew Makdessi for.
But we’re not here to talk about any of that. Since his UFC debut in 2010, John Makdessi has been putting together some of the best boxing performances in MMA. His use of the lead hand, trap-setting and continuing adaptations are highlighted below.
The Boxing of John Makdessi
I’ve picked out a few fights that capture a decent chunk of the work Makdessi does with his hands. The latter two performances take place under the tutelage of Duke Roufus of Roufusport, the earlier with Tristar Gym in Canada.
While Tristar fighters have been known for their defense and jabbing ability, it’s obvious Makdessi has been working a long time on specific boxing training independently. While already an incredible kicker, Makdessi’s move to Roufusport has seen him develop a new blend between his hands and feet.
Let’s take a look at each performance and admire Makdessi’s handiwork.
vs. Sam Stout (2012)
In his era, Sam Stout was considered one of the better boxers in the UFC. The brass loved him for his willingness to throw down and go to war with anyone, but he has shown flashes of slickness. His counter hook KO on Yves Edwards was as impressive as it was disturbing.
Makdessi met him toward the end of his fighting prime, after the passing of his head coach and brother-in-law, Shawn Tompkins.
The Stout fight was a great display of Makdessi’s counter punching. The commentary team dropped a great line, Sam Stout was, “predictably aggressive.”
“The Bull” Plays Matador
Rather evading and then attacking, Makdessi usually hit simultaneous counters. He waited on Stout to lead, then when he saw him commit to begin throwing, Makdessi slipped outside and popped off with his lead hand in sync.
Most of the time, that meant jabs and left hooks. Based on how soon he got the read, Makdessi was either sliding back, or stepping in to cut Stout off.
Unlike some counter punchers, Makdessi isn’t married to the idea that he has to hit every counter he sees. Someone like Conor McGregor is burdened by his eye for the counter, especially considering he throws with malicious intent.
Makdessi throws short, stabbing punches, and he throws to connect, nothing more. He’s also perfectly content to show off his evasive footwork and head movement without throwing anything.
On his counter lefts in closed stance, Makdessi is typically slipping outside. Here we see him fading back, and slipping outside the jab. The fade or rock back is a perfect set up for his check left hook, and the occasional inside slip will later feed into his right hand.
What do you do when someone is constantly slipping your punches? One answer is: kick them (hold on to that one), another, and the more boxing-centric answer is: bang the body.
The problem for Stout was, he couldn’t get off an entry to set up very many body shots (Floyd Mayweather hadn’t invented the body jab yet.) To get around this, Stout leaps in with a liver shot.
He eats a clean left hook for it as Makdessi rocks back. The beauty of it is, Makdessi didn’t need to know if that shot was going high or low, it’s the same counter for him.
Stout’s new trainer, Mark Delagrotte, was screaming for him to “move his head on the way in.” The issue with that was that Stout has been striking for a lifetime, and at that moment the way he threw his punches was set.
It didn’t mean anything to move his head before throwing, as he’s getting countered on the strike entry itself. It’s not an in-fight adjustment to learn how to punch differently. Ideally, Stout would be feinting and drawing the counter before his entries, but that’s another tactic trained over time.
Stout could only make adjustments that already existed in his game at that point in time. For him, that meant saying, “I don’t care if I get countered, I will continue throwing my combination.”
It worked in spots, but Makdessi’s answer was to put a little more pepper on his shots, and Stout was forced to relent.
For 2012 MMA, Makdessi “looked like he was from the future”, as Philippe Marchetti would say.
vs. Renée Forte (2013)
What happens when Makdessi fights an aggressive, but sloppy fighter who doesn’t have Sam Stout’s chin?
Renée Forte surprised John Makdessi by coming out with a kick-heavy gameplan. But of course, “The Bull” adjusted. He began to catch the kicks and get his own game going, frustrating the Brazilian grappler.
Desperate to land something clean, Forte hopped forward with his lead hand down and threw a wild right.
Makdessi stepped off to his left, ever so slightly. He took a step with his back leg away from the right hand, rocked back, and smashed Forte in the temple with two short right hands.
This is a quick glimpse into Makdessi’s ability to double up on punches, which we’ll see much more of against Pearson.
vs. Shane Campbell (2015)
Shame Campbell entered the UFC off a viral “hadouken” finish in WSOF (RIP) at 11-2. His kickboxing and muay thai credentials sound lovely, but I’m sure striking expert Lucas Bourdon would be able to point out the quality (or lack thereof) of some North American kickboxing titles.
Makdessi’s greatest flaw is kicking defense. It’s not that Makdessi isn’t good at defending kicks, it’s that he often gets so zoned in on his boxing approach that he can neglect attacks below the waist.
After taking a few stinging low kicks, Makdessi understood that he couldn’t sit at mid-range and wait for Campbell to open himself up to counters.
Against the taller man, Makdessi began to step in and lead to the body. Importantly, Makdessi changed levels (with his legs) when he threw, he didn’t just angle his punch to the body.
Once he got Campbell feeling a few body shots, Makdessi began to disguise his right hands up top with those same level changes.
Campbell became extremely uncomfortable, unable to read where Makdessi’s shots would go. The counter uppercut was there for Campbell, but he could never time Makdessi properly to land it cleanly. He backed off, allowing Makdessi to walk him down and throw whatever he wanted.
With nothing left to fear, Makdessi threw with power and clocked Campbell.
Campbell somehow survived the assault and got back to his feet, but he was doomed.
Standing sideways to protect his body, Campbell threw a weak lead hook to keep Makdessi away.
In a brilliant maneuver, Makdessi parried the punch aside, took the angle outside the lead foot, stepped in and fed him a right hook.
It’s one of the most underrated knockouts in MMA history. The whole fight was beautiful after Makdessi got his body punching going. You hear analysts (and those trying their hand at it) go on and on about gaining outside foot position, well there it is.
vs. Abel Trujillo (2017)
Abel Trujillo was a decent folkstyle wrestler who made a style around explosivity, power and aggression early in his UFC career. Over time, he’s become less and less rabid, maybe it’s his newfound vegan lifestyle.
Trujillo is another victim of a common mentality: “technical” means doing less. His style worked best with mindless aggression, now he’s still mostly a puncher with a 3-2, but he’s taking fewer risks and giving himself less of a chance to win.
However, his loopier punches and athleticism gave Makdessi problems in the very early going. Makdessi didn’t quite have the timing down from the jump.
Soon, however, he figured out the distance Trujillo could safely cover on an entry and found the space for his counters. His trusty lead hook emerged.
The slide back check hook was especially effective as Trujillo was leaping forward on his shots, throwing him off balance.
The highlight of the fight came when Makdessi slipped inside Trujillo’s charge and ran the bigger man into a short right hook.
Once Trujillo had been thoroughly convinced not to throw every time Makdessi gave him a look, Makdessi began to go body-head with his jab. He slowly established all of his tools. Before he threw, Makdessi consistently tenderized the inside of the leg with this lead low kick. With his base gone, Trujillo’s power was significantly diminished.
But Makdessi became frustrated. His boxing success froze Trujillo for long stretches, Makdessi began to chase him and let his kicks fly in anger. Trujillo’s hesitance to engage did lead to some interesting wrinkles. If Makdessi pressured in feinting and Trujillo but up the high guard, Makdessi instead leaned into a lead round kick to the body. As a result, Makdessi could also step up and feint the lead leg to drop Trujillo’s hands and punch high instead.
But that’s kicking. We’re here for punching. Enjoy this GIF of angry John Makdessi chasing down Abel Trujillo at the end of the fight.
vs. Ross Pearson (2018)
Perhaps the greatest performance of John Makdessi’s career, against the best boxer he’s ever faced in the UFC. Ross Pearson is an interesting striker in his own right, he took a decent approach to Makdessi in the early going.
Originally, Pearson was patient. He feinted, keeping his head and hands moving as he felt out the mid-range with Makdessi. Learning from Campbell, Pearson chopped at the lead leg of the boxing-minded Makdessi.
But Makdessi employed his own game, systematically creating and exploiting reactions from Pearson. There is far too much quality footage from this fight to review it chronologically, we’ll take one aspect of Makdessi’s performance at a time, instead.
The lancing jab of John Makdessi was an early deterrent for Pearson’s low kicking. At heart, Pearson is a slugger, and it would only take getting popped in the nose so many times before he could not resist the urge to throw hands.
Makdessi also feinted with the jab, high and low, mixing his committed attacks to the head and body as well. A newer development was doubling and tripling the jab, forcing Pearson to react.
The more Pearson got hit, the wider, shorter attacks he took. Power shots opened up opportunities for Makdessi to slide or fade back, where he still had the jab as a choice for a momentum stopper.
This is the Makdessi money punch.
Illustrated in this GIF is one of those new Roufusport wrinkles mentioned earlier. Makdessi skips into the inside low kick and immediately slides back, dipping his head and throwing the lead hook. He throws it at a cutting angle, catching Pearson regardless of whether or not he too lowered his level.
Ross Pearson loves to roll in for his entries, Makdessi’s short arms and tight form allowed him to hook on Pearson coming in at varied distances and levels.
One other nice addition is Makdessi parrying the lead hand to hit his lead hook, as he’s throwing inside the rear hand. Like Stout and Trujillo, Pearson was always there for the check hook on his entries.
The Right Hand
John Makdessi is a careful fighter. He prioritizes faster, lower risk techniques that complement his game. The proportion between lead and rear hand punches is insanely skewed in favor of his left. But in the Pearson fight, Makdessi set his traps and felt confident to let the right fly.
A simple reason Makdessi was able to use his right hand was that he had a ton of data on Pearson, the sheer quantity of exchanges allowed him to get a feel for what Pearson threw, from where, and when.
But that doesn’t mean Makdessi didn’t do intentional work to set Pearson up as well.
Makdessi spammed the jab enough that an experienced striker in Pearson eventually wised up and began to slip inside of it, toward Makdessi’s power side. Pearson loves to follow up with the left hook in that sequence.
But when he got Pearson slipping, that’s when Makdessi chopped him with the right hook.
A great look, which we could have used more of, was the rear uppercut. Pearson loves to get down behind his guard to enter under fire, Makdessi connected cleanly on one of his few attempts.
Working the Inside
Frankly, Makdessi was brilliant controlling wrists and working the inside against Pearson.
It worked especially well in conjunction with Makdessi doubling up his left hook, he could keep Pearson’s arm in place by threatening a punch intermittently with the clutch.
Otherwise, Makdessi was punching his way into the clinch, getting his head underneath Pearson’s and punching off the ties on the break.
I’m no boxing expert and likely can’t do it justice. Watch.
Can’t Touch This
I won’t call Ross Pearson the most varied, accurate, or fast striker in the division, so maybe it’s no surprise that he was a perfect foil for Makdessi’s slickness.
Makdessi was slipping, rocking back, rolling under, taking short steps to adjust his positioning all the while. It doesn’t hurt that Makdessi is serial killer calm in these exchanges and clearly has amazing reflexes.
When you hear about good footwork in MMA, think of John Makdessi, instead of fighters bounding backward linearly or skating the edge of the cage.
UFC Fight Night 148 (Nashville)
John Makdessi returns Saturday, March 23rd at UFC Fight Night 148: Thompson vs. Pettis in Nashville.
Originally scheduled to fight an intriguing prospect in Nasrat Haqparast, Makdessi will now fight Jesus Pinedo (as of March 13th) on the main card on ESPN+.
Make sure to tune in for more Makdessi magic, and keep in touch with Philippe Marchetti as he throws down a few John Makdessi GIFs throughout the week.
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