For most of his career, Brazilian flyweight veteran Jussier Formiga has been known for his prolific back taking, masterful guard passing and persistent top control.
After nearly seven years in the UFC, Formiga has transformed into a highly competent striker, rounding out his skill set to become an undeniably elite fighter, regardless of weight class.
On June 29th, the number one contender will have the chance to avenge a brutal 2013 knockout loss to Joseph Benavidez.
While the grappling matchup in this fight is fascinating in its own right, it is the striking of Jussier Formiga that will ultimately decide if he can even the score with Benavidez.
Through analysis of his fight with Deiveson Figueiredo, let’s take a look at the strengths of Formiga’s striking approach, as well as some of his shortcomings.
The Striking of Jussier Formiga
While Joseph Benavidez and Deiveson Figueiredo are extremely distinct operators, they are both powerful pressure fighters. Benavidez thrives much more on the counter, in combination, than Figueiredo does, but Formiga’s response to Figueiredo’s pressure is still valuable in assessing the Benavidez fight.
One of the most common narratives about Jussier Formiga is that his style has been formed around compensating for his lack of athleticism.
While I’d like to argue that ‘fast, strong, or explosive’ are not the only types of athleticism, they are very important for MMA, and it’s not the time for that rant.
As a grappler, it is ultimately in Formiga’s best interests to close the distance to change levels for a shot, or tie up to work for underhooks.
But Formiga’s physicality does not lend itself to pursuit of the pocket, and he lacks the explosivity to quickly cover ground. Instead, Formiga has developed a patient outfighting game.
The cornerstone of Formiga’s approach is his jab. Typically staying just outside round kicking range, Formiga moves in and out from orthodox, sometimes teasing a stronger step forward.
He’ll tease a shoulder feint here and there, he may throw a low kick, but ultimately Formiga is waiting for his opponent to enter punching range.
Formiga’s strike selection depends on the degree of aggression in his opponent’s entry. When Deiveson Figueiredo moved into range to begin a combination, or to jab, that’s typically when Formiga would step in double jabbing to scare him off and reestablish his range. Eventually, Figueiredo became frustrated and entered with more telegraphed strikes from closed stance, giving Formiga the looks he needed to begin grappling.
The jab works best from a closed stance matchup, meaning when both fights are leading with the same hand and the trail foot lines up outside your opponent’s lead. This has a lot to do with the positioning of your opponent’s guard, from open stance your lead hand typically matches up with your opponent’s, instead of falling somewhere in the middle.
In this fight, Formiga did not build off his jab in the traditional sense. He did not use the reads he gained to determine which strike comes next in a combination, he generally did not throw in combination at all.
Instead, Formiga played with the idea of that springing step in, what Figueiredo should expect when he sees it, and the illusion of vulnerability without it.
I should say that Formiga’s strike selection is not purely reactive. Formiga continually frustrated Figueiredo with his in and out footwork and refusal to take ground, even after backing Figueiredo up. He knew that after some time, Figueiredo would take any opportunity given to him to move forward in earnest.
So when Formiga finally stood still, that’s when Figueiredo planted to throw.
I can’t say I understand the choice to throw a naked low kick from that distance, but the speed with which Formiga was prepared to counter would have made the intercepting right an excellent choice even if Figueiredo threw something that made sense. Formiga slips his head outside Figueiredo’s rear hand on the first intercepting right, which tells you he did not expect Figueiredo to kick either.
In Figueiredo’s defense, perhaps he expected Formiga to retreat once again as soon as he committed, so he instead chose to stutter step to threaten the punch then punt the legs on the retreat. However, he was wrong, twice.
The ability to bait strikes is essential for a high level counter striker, it’s something we see here from Formiga. Later on, it’s something we’ll see (perhaps even more effectively) from Figueiredo.
While reactive takedowns are a fantastic tool for a grappler, especially when facing power-punching pressure fighters like Figueiredo, it’s always best to have a multidimensional approach.
Formiga has developed a darting lead right hand, one that stunned Figueiredo when it was first revealed.
After fighting almost exclusively off the counter for most of a round, Formiga picked his spot to give Figueiredo something new to deal with. After that initial sting, Formiga darts in again, showing the right hand. Predictably, Figueiredo prepared to swing back, making it the perfect takedown entry for Formiga.
Patience is a huge component of Formiga’s game. You’ll soon see that Figueiredo is fairly quick at picking up on Formiga’s habits and finding his counters. Formiga could not afford any throwaway strikes, everything had to have intention and work toward his gameplan. In this case, that meant low volume and only going to certain tactics in the proper situations. The three darting rights seen above are the only three he threw in the fight.
Based on the first sequence, you can assume that the third right was the antecedent to a secondary dart in that would have masked his takedown entry.
Forearm Guard and Defensive Savvy
Formiga has always habitually gone to a higher guard and put the forearms up when threatened with a heavy entry. Early in his career, this was more of a shell, Formiga was covering up blindly. It’s exactly what left him open for the fight-ending knee against Benavidez.
Against Figueiredo, Formiga used his forearms with purpose.
Figueiredo jabbed a decent amount with Formiga, but his preferred entry was a heavy lead right hand. This was reinforced by Formiga rocking back off the jab on several occasions, convincing Figueiredo to step in deeper to reach him.
On those step in entries, Formiga blocked upward with his lead arm, causing Figueiredo’s punch to skate off at an angle.
Each time, Formiga looped back at Figueiredo with the blocking arm. If Figueiredo maintains that distance or backs out of the exchange, it becomes a counter left hook. In this case, Figueiredo crashed forward every time, giving Formiga a reliable clinch entry.
One worrying piece in these exchanges thus far is the lack of head movement from Formiga. While most of what he does happens on a straight line, he does have some counters with head movement built in, like the intercepting right, and he is quite capable of moving evasively.
It’s true that Figueiredo is clearly loading up on both of the above entries, but an earlier version of Formiga would likely have backed up in a straight line in a shell, or reached reactively for the clinch.
In the first exchange, Formiga changes levels under the strike and instinctively loops the left hook, as he did off the forearm blocks. Something I’ve failed to highlight is Formiga’s ability to strike off the clinch break. You can see that Formiga sets up the right hook by using the collar and elbow tie to steer Figueiredo, setting him on course to run into the punch.
Areas for Concern
Having flaws does not make Formiga any less elite as a mixed martial artist. It is entirely unrealistic to expect perfection from athletes chasing mastery of multiple disciplines. Jussier Formiga is an exceptional fighter, being a grappler with issues in his ever-developing striking is not a sin.
That does not mean it is out of place to identify those flaws, or that they’re inconsequential. Even if they’e an undefeated champion, or the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world (whose name is Robert Whittaker), every fighter has holes in their game that will eventually lead to a loss.
Some people needed to hear that.
Punished for Predictability
I previously mentioned that Formiga has situation-specific triggers for his various striking approaches. We owe Deiveson Figueiredo a ton of credit, because he noticed them fairly early on.
After being backed off the stepping double jab one time, Figueiredo was prepared to draw it again and counter.
Against an unforgiving burst counter puncher in Benavidez, this could be dire. Formiga has a decent amount of variety in his approach, but a lack of athletic dynamism really removes a lot of the fear when it comes to making him pay.
Formiga’s consistent collapsing of the pocket into clinches may also spell trouble. He’s not particularly active or physical from more shallow ties, typically looking to break and strike. Most of the clinch situations Formiga has exploited to get to his bodylock and then back takes have been off of wrestling exchanges or more wild striking moments. These straight entries are not conducive to getting Formiga where he wants to be.
Open Stance Issues
The most frustrating aspect of this fight was Deiveson Figueiredo’s refusal to push his advantages.
He had success drawing Formiga’s responses and countering. Does he continue to do so? No, he throws superman punches and crashes in recklessly.
Figueiredo did a decent amount of stance switching. From southpaw, early on in the fight, he threw a sinister front kick to the body.
Given his lack of success on the lead in the closed stance matchup, you would think Figueiredo would continue to try his hand at attacking from southpaw.
While Figueiredo spent plenty of time in southpaw, he threw exactly three strikes from that stance for the rest of the fight. Formiga has a hard, snappy rear round kick of his own that likely scared Figueiredo off from further pursuit of this stance in the first round, but I am still scratching my head as to why Figueiredo did not give more of this look.
As it turns out, Jussier Formiga’s defense is much less sophisticated from the open stance matchup. That, plus his preference for higher guard tactics, makes him especially vulnerable to southpaw body attacks.
While Formiga has grown tremendously since their first fight, Joseph Benavidez did in fact finish Formiga with a left knee to the body.
Jussier Formiga vs. Joseph Benavidez (UFC on ESPN 3)
If you’re a Formiga fan, there is plenty to feel good about ahead of his rematch with Benavidez. Against Dustin Ortiz, Benavidez showed a preference for the closed stance to kick the outside of the lead leg. That is the same situation where Formiga found his straight right counter.
While Benavidez prefers his power counter combinations from southpaw, he does throw much wider punches than Formiga, so the clinch may still be there to interrupt these combinations.
It’s also likely that Formiga is still growing as a striker, and that he’ll be able to take away lessons from the Figueiredo fight and build from there.
However, the aforementioned holes in Formiga’s game do align with many of Benavidez’s preferred attacks. Benavidez is the type to gameplan fairly well for his opponents, it’s unlikely he hasn’t made these reads as well.
This is a complex matchup, one of the best the UFC could possibly make. I will make no definitive predictions, but it will be interesting to keep some of these notes in mind as the fight plays out. Long live the flyweights.
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