When Sergio Pettis knocked out Kyoji Horiguchi in the fourth round of their title fight this past weekend at Bellator 272 with a spinning hammerfist seemingly out of nowhere, two primary reactions arose after the initial shock. The first is that Pettis had landed a fluke shot in a fight he was losing badly. The second was that a careless Horiguchi put his hands down and got blindsided. While both of these reactions contain a grain of truth, the fact of the matter is Pettis set up and executed a tremendous fight-changing shot against possibly the most dangerous fighter outside of the UFC. And the shot that he landed was the Chicago Pimp Hand.
Spinning backfists and hammerfists tend to acquire the “fluke” reputation easily. It is not hard to see why. They are not typically thought of as the scientific striker’s weapon. They force the user to turn their back – which in MMA can be punished via back takes. They are particularly troublesome to get the right distance on. The spinning elbow, by contrast, is somewhat more consistent. Hitting with the forearm on the spinning backfist can also be dangerous. While it can still be a powerful connection, it can also fracture the forearm. However, the spinning hammerfist is somewhat safer as the tougher blade of the forearm will land. Thus, the spinning backfist and hammerfist have acquired a sort of reputation as strikes used as a hail mary by a losing fighter or thrown out by one parsing his options.
However, as MMA evolves, fighters are integrating the spinning backfist into their games, using how potent it becomes as a combination weapon. Petr Yan made fantastic use of the spinning backfist into a left hook to knock Cory Sandhagen off of his feet during their dramatic encounter at UFC 267. One of the most useful applications of the spinning backfist is off of a missed kick. Rather than being some new innovation, it has been seen in fits and starts throughout the years. The fighter simply throws a spinning backfist with their lead hand after missing a kick. Shonie Carter knocked out Matt Serra with seconds left in their first fight with a spinning backfist off of a missed high kick. Muay Thai legend Samson Issan did the same in one of his bouts, smashing his opponent against the ropes with a spinning elbow after a missed high kick.
Simply put, there are two ways to recover a stance after missing a round kick. The first is to perform a pullback, withdrawing the leg and hip back to the stance the way it came. The second is to follow through and rotate fully around 360 degrees, returning to the original position. In general, the first requires more precise control but usually leaves the fighter less open to a counterattack. Certain kicks are also basically impossible to retract the first way, like the wheel kick. The second exposes the back but requires less control. The second method also allows a fighter to set up a spinning elbow or a spinning backfist – the latter allegedly dubbed by Carter as the Chicago Pimp Hand. The “tornado kick” from taekwondo functions off of a similar principle.
The strike is dangerous because of two factors. Firstly, the force from the spin is transmitted at least partially to the punch. Secondly, it tends to catch opponents off guard. After a high kick and such a lengthy recovery, the last thing an opponent would expect is a backfist. They may also attempt to close the distance after a missed kick to try and go for a smothering clinch or a back take as Matt Serra did in the first round of his first fight against Carter. Horiguchi has tremendous distance management, which has proven his most reliable asset in his career. While he often leaves his hands fairly low, he compensates with good head movement, speed, and frequently being just out of range. For example, in his kickboxing bout against legendary kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa, Horiguchi avoided the CPH off of a missed high kick, putting his guard up and scooting just out of reach. Against Pettis, though, he was caught completely off guard because for a moment he thought he was safe as well as in the worst possible position. High kicks out of clinches are already very rare, but what makes Pettis’s move even more impressive is his choice of kick to set up the Chicago Pimp Hand.
All three of the examples previously mentioned were missed high roundhouse kicks. With the wheel kick or the spinning back kick, often once the fighter misses, they are too far gone to hit with a spinning backfist. A missed side kick to the body can potentially be turned into a spinning elbow, but the missed high roundhouse kick provides the perfect opportunity for the Chicago Pimp Hand because after a miss the opposing fighter is usually at the perfect range for a spinning backfist. Pettis, however, threw none of these. Instead, he used the seldom-seen outside-inside kick with his lead leg.
This kick and its compatriot, the inside-outside kick (both confusingly sometimes misnamed the crescent kick, which is an entirely different kick) are almost useless because they are so easily intercepted and have a high chance for a mediocre connection with the fleshy calf muscle. However, its advantage is that it tends to provide a bit more stability for the thrower since the motion is not purely round, but up and over. Pettis threw it while both his and Horiguchi’s hands were occupied in the clinch, meaning Horiguchi had to duck his head to avoid it even as the clinch broke. When Horiguchi’s head popped back up Sergio’s hammerfist was already on the way to meet it.
This process left Horiguchi’s hands low coming out of the clinch and his head high as he raised it from the duck. At the same time, the choice of kick minimized the chance that Pettis would strike his leg on a shoulder and rob himself of his desired position and momentum. Sometimes the Chicago Pimp Hand is thrown as an emergency response to try and recover from an unexpectedly missed kick. For Pettis, however, who was attempting to land the backfist a few times earlier in the fight, it seems to have been part of the plan all along.
Pettis has frequently been in the shadow of his brother Anthony Pettis, who is often seen as less technically slick but faster and more entertaining. Not only does defeating Horiguchi put Pettis’s career on the same level as his brother, the way that he did it – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat with a thrilling blow – showed that he can be every bit the showman as “Showtime”, too.
Featured Image courtesy of Bellator MMA