Once upon a time, Thiago Alves was the most physical and dangerous striker in the welterweight division. UFC commentator Joe Rogan heaped on praise about his “brilliance at the basics”, as Alves chopped down waves of opponents with meat and potatoes boxing and thudding low kicks.
At 35 years old, it’s no surprise that Alves is not that same athlete. Speed declined, explosive power is harder to come by, and reaction time has certainly slowed.
We have seen many veteran fighters adapt their styles to their changing physical capabilites. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua had great success in the light heavyweight division after honing his skills as a lower volume counter puncher. It didn’t hurt that he fights in a division with a pronounced deficit in boxing skill.
Most aging fighters look to limit their exchanges and pick off counters, or incorporate prolonged grappling exchanges. Anything to minimize the potential for damage.
While Alves is not a bad wrestler for MMA, this was clearly not an option for him. So, how has Thiago Alves adapted his signature striking style over the years?
vs. Alexey Kunchenko
It wasn’t until very recently that we saw a bit of a different look from Alves. As his physicality waned, it was still the same Alves, just at a slower pace. Attempting to fight in the same way led to some disasterous results against Carlos Condit, and later Curtis Millender.
While we’ll be able to see those same problems addressed against Max Griffin, Alexey Kunchenko presented a different issue. He was an aggressive counter puncher who basically refused to lead until the third round.
Thiago Alves has always been known for longer, aesthetic combinations, typically ending with a round kick to any level from either side. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to throw kicks while adequately protecting the head in MMA, leaving Alves open to heavy counters while on one leg.
One simple adjustment from Alves was to shorten his exchanges. On the lead, he’s still sticking with his jab, cross, and left hook, but it ends there, and he’s back out of range. Alexey Kunchenko was eager to throw back on every entry, but the openings never came and he was consistently retreating by the end of the combination.
It would have been very tempting for Alves to kick his fleeing opponent in these scenarios.
But, accepting his role as an older fighter, Alves prioritized safety. Those short bursts were keeping Kunchenko confused and defensive.
From a defensive standpoint, Alves has become much less willing to bite on an entry. You’ll often see him backing off linearly with the double forearm guard up. From the middle range and on his own attacks, Alves is playing with the hands and grabbing wrists to stifle any potential offense when he’s preparing to attack.
You can see Alves using the hand fight as a setup for a rear round kick to the body here. With that idea in place, Alves is also feinting the handfight to get Kunchenko to react, then punting the legs.
It’s great to see Alves setting little traps for his power offense. The lead leg kick from Alves is followed by a beat, Kunchenko thinks the attack is over and goes to throw his own low kick, and Alves blasts the kicking leg.
While I’m glad to see new, creative setups from Alves, he still has old tricks that serve him well.
One of my favorite Thiago Alves combinations was when he would slide up with the lead inside low kick, followed by a jab. Previously in his career, Alves used this to enter the pocket and continue to throw after the jab.
In the Kunchenko fight, we saw a lot more patience with this tool. Alves used it to pick at Kunchenko and get a read on his reactions, waiting until he had a clear path to further offense to let his rear hand go. We also typically saw Alves pushing straight forward on this combination, whereas now you can observe Alves stepping off to his left, taking him away from the straight counter.
I’ve always prefered to see Alves punching off his kicks, rather than kicking off his punches. Some of his best offense against Kunchenko came with that type of setup.
Alves took his lumps in the third round, but largely this was a great performance. On rewatch, it’s hard to find two rounds for Kunchenko. But clearly, I’m biased.
If you’re type casting, Max Griffin is much closer to the sort of fighter who has troubled Alves as of late. A long, rangey striker willing to throw heat.
On one hand, Max Griffin was predictable, starting his combinations essentially every time he walked into range. Alves loves the simultaneous counter, and used the outside low kick brilliantly to smash the lead leg as Griffin put weight on it to throw.
On the other hand, Griffin was looking to fire straight down the middle every time Alves did anything, and it worked for him. This fight does not inspire confidence in the chin of Thiago Alves, but it did show he’s still tough and can survive rough spots.
An old strength that has come to work against Alves is that he is relatively poised in the pocket, with a hair trigger for finding the 3-2 (lead hook to rear straight). Head movement has never been his strong suit, so a lot of that success came from speed and a willingness to throw.
As Alves prepares to hunker down between his shoulders and throw back at a leading opponent, he is especially vulnerable to strikes straight up the middle. That’s essentially what took him out against both Condit and Millender.
We saw a lot more diversity in his counter punching against Griffin. Alves was willing to lean back and check hook or hit stiff jabs, he even slipped inside with the right straight. The old Alves counters are still there, but evolution is underway.
This isn’t new, but after Alves scared Griffin off from leading, he was able to walk him down and smash away with his lead round kick to the body. It’s the same kick that put away Jordan Mein.
Most of Thiago Alves’ success leading came late in the fight. Alves and Griffin pushed a ridiculous pace and each took a concerning amount of damage, so I don’t put too much stock into the ease in which Alves found his mark, or the lack of defensive awareness seen mid-combination.
If anything these exchanges just show Alves can still throw down if the opportunity presents itself, even though he probably shouldn’t.
On an unrelated note, my Alves bias doesn’t run too deep. While I saw the Kunchenko fight for Alves, there was a decent argument for a Max Griffin victory here.
Thiago Alves vs. Laureano Staropoli (UFC 237)
I haven’t seen much of Laureano Staropoli outside of his UFC debut against Hector Aldana.
What I do know, is that he was countered a lot. The guy loves to throw down, and is young and durable enough to neglect defense altogether. In short, he’s wild.
The technical gulf between Thiago Alves and Laureano Staropoli cannot be understated. However, there is probably a similar difference in physicality. Look for Alves to stay disciplined and choose his opportunities wisely. There will be plenty of chances to counter, it’s best not to take them all. It wouldn’t surprise me if Staropoli could eat a brick on his way in and still land something that hurts Alves.
This is the perfect fight for Alves to lean on his newly found late-career tactics.
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