Fundamentals of Fighting: Measuring Distance and Gathering Information

In the second installment of the Fundamentals of Fighting series, we introduced the concept of critical distance. An important strategic concept, critical distance is essentially the range at which a fighter wants the exchanges to occur so that he is able to maximize his offensive opportunities while minimizing his defensive risks. Critical distance is a dynamic concept that is determined by the strengths and weaknesses of each fighter. An accurate assessment of critical distance gives the fighter a strong framework to support his overall strategy. 

With a sound strategy developed, the fighter must then have the tools to implement that strategy. One of the most important concepts when looking to establish critical distance is the ability to gather information. In this article, we will discuss the importance of gathering information, and the tools a fighter may use to do so in his efforts to control critical distance.

To the untrained, fighting is chaos. The variables are constantly changing and it becomes nearly impossible to keep up with them as your senses are overwhelmed. With training, you learn to control the variables. You learn that a good stance keeps you balanced and ready to attack or defend. You learn that footwork makes it more difficult for your opponent to attack you. You learn that your opponent has to react to the things that you do, and by reading his reactions you can get a step ahead of him. You learn to control the chaos. However, as you learn to manage the variables, your opponent also learns how to deceive you. The three most fundamental forms of deception in fighting are manipulation of distance, breaking of rhythm, and misdirection—corresponding to the fundamentals of distance, timing and positioning. Today, we are mainly concerned with manipulation of distance. 

Manipulation of distance is a form of deception where the opponent works to give you a false sense of how close or far away you are from them. The human eye is prone to being tricked—harmless fun when trying to determine the length of a line in an optical illusion, but absolutely deadly when trying to process the exact distance your opponent is standing at. The best distance manipulators trick the opponent into focusing on their head, ignoring the rest of the body, then playing with the distance their head is at to confuse and trap the opponent. Take perhaps the most famous example of distance manipulation, the classic Mayweather pull counter:

By leaning his head forward over his front foot, Mayweather gives his opponent the impression that he is standing much closer than he actually is. When the opponent comes forward and tries to reach his head, he pulls it back between his feet, causing the opponent’s punch to fall short while inviting him to walk directly into a clean counter punch. Mayweather was able to land this exact same punch consistently throughout his career, all because he showed his opponents a false opening that they jumped on based on their misunderstanding of distance. Other fighters may do the opposite—make you think they’re farther away than they are, only to close distance unexpectedly.

Mendes has stepped back into a southpaw stance as he retreats. He leans back as he shuffles away, luring Lentz into reaching further and coming forward faster in an attempt to find Mendes’ head. However, Mendes’ lead foot stays close to Lentz. When the time is right, Mendes shifts his weight over his front foot and easily ducks in on Lentz’ hips, taking him down straight to side control. By starting with his head back and his stance upright, Mendes tricked Lentz into overextending despite how close he was actually getting. 

More recently, Dominick Cruz put on a masterclass in deception as he forced TJ Dillashaw to swing at air for 25 minutes, making him miss nearly 300 strikes in the process. TJ, despite having developed his own spectacular movement, constantly lost track of Cruz and found his strikes coming up just a little short—the same way Renan Barao’s had against him previously. In the lead up to the fight, Cruz was insistent that fighters like TJ only look so dangerous against immobile targets, asking TJ “how are you gonna knock me out if you can’t hit me? I don’t get hit”. Both in the interview and in the fight, Cruz raised the key question—how do you hit something when you don’t know where it is? The danger there is clear. If you commit when you aren’t sure of the distance, you’re going to leave big openings for your opponent to capitalize on. The solution is, of course, to measure distance and gather information. 

 

When gathering information to plan an attack, there are two key things to worry about: how far away is the opponent, and where is he going? A fighter determines the answers to those question by using touches, feints and throwaway punches. Touching is the method to measure distance because it gives the fighter another sense to rely on instead of only their vision. Touching the opponent lets you FEEL the distance, in addition to seeing it. This is especially important early on in the fight (they call the first round a “feeling out” round for a reason). Different fighters will prefer to touch different targets, but the main ones are the chest (due to its relative lack of mobility and its close proximity to the head) and the hands (due to the ability to manipulate the opponent’s offense and establish contact from the furthest distance away). Feints are used to show the opponent an attack and see how he reacts to it. Throwaway punches are strikes that are thrown but never meant to land, only to guide the opponent into position while the fighter sets up his real strikes. 

Throughout the Cruz fight, TJ Dillashaw’s corner was constantly telling him to use these three tools. They were yelling “touch your way in”. They wanted TJ to stop committing to swinging at Cruz so soon, and instead to get a feel for him before unloading the big shots. Duane Ludwig also told him “feint first” and said “the first one or two shots don’t need to land. That’s gonna get us there”. Ludwig recognized the problem, and gave Dillashaw the solutions. He wanted Dillashaw to touch to measure distance, to feint to gather information, and to use throwaway punches to put himself into position to capitalize on that information.  Unfortunately, Dillashaw was unable to implement those solutions despite giving Cruz a very tough fight, as Cruz’ corner assured him “the harder he goes the more he misses”. Dillashaw would make a few attempts at flicking jabs at Cruz’ head (trying to land instead of trying to just touch) before going back to swinging with big shots and over committing to his movement.

An excellent example of a fighter using these concepts was Chris Weidman’s knockout ofAnderson Silva. Silva being a fighter who made his career manipulating his opponent’s sense of distance, Weidman did an outstanding job finding his elusive head. 

Weidman and Silva had both spent much of the fight flashing jabs at each other and pawing ateach other’s hands. Weidman reaches out and touches Silva’s right hand, measuring the distance between them. Weidman then raises his right hand, while lowering and extending his left. The right hand catches Silva’s eye and he shoots out his left hand to touch it, but as he does Weidman times him perfectly with a counter left hook that lands clean. The brilliance here is that Weidman has felt out Silva’s distance. He knows that if Silva is touching him with his left hand, then Weidman only has to move a certain amount to also be in range. He also knows that if he throws at the same time Silva is reaching out to touch him, Silva is likely to be stationary and not watching out for anything coming back up him. Thus, as Weidman steps in and slightly off to his left, he cracks Silva across the jaw. Silva makes the mistake of taunting Weidman without moving to reestablish his range, so Weidman unloads. His first left hook again catches Silva, but Silva is crafty enough to move with it and get mostly out of the way of the followup right hand. Weidman overextends and winds up off balance, but because of how close Silva let him start he’s too close for Silva to use his preferred long, straight counters. In other words, Weidman has moved into his critical distance, and Silva needs to create distance to be effective and capitalize on Weidman’s poor positioning. However, as Silva moves, Weidman throws a backhand at him. This backhand breaks Silva’s rhythm and gives Weidman a second to observe where Silva is going. It serves as a throwaway punch and allows him to gather information while moving into position. He figures out where Silva is going, steps in at a diagonal angle and catches Silva leaning past his feet, emphatically dethroning one of the most elusive fighters in MMA history with a well-placed hook. 

Measuring distance and gathering information are vital to being able to put together intelligent, effective offense while remaining defensively sound. Fighters with above average hand eye coordination and natural sense of distance can sometimes get away with tracking their opponent by eye, but to be sure of whether or not you can hit the opponent (and whether or not they can hit you), it is necessary to figure out how far away the opponent is and where they’re going. This information allows a fighter to plan the methods he will use to establish his critical distance, and thus implementing his strategy.

Application:

Measuring distance, like anything else, is a skill that must be developed through practice. There are many methods to instill a good understanding of distance in a fighter, with partner drills being generally the most effective. Here, Jonny “Rocket” Perez demonstrates a basic drill used to teach a fighter how to move in and out of range. 

The drill is simple. Jonny steps in with his own jab, then steps out to avoid the counter jab of his partner. Jonny thus gets two different types of feedback on distance—he feels the length of his own jab, and he feels the length of his opponent’s jab. In other words, he learns how far he needs to step in to touch his opponent, and how far away he needs to be to make his opponent fall short. In addition, Jonny gets a sense of his opponent’s speed and timing. All of this information can be put to use as he figures out the man in front of him. 

There are many ways to modify the drill for your own training. Beginners should avoid incorporating head movement and instead rely purely on a rear hand parry, which they use to feel distance as they attempt to figure out exactly how much (or how little) they need to move. More advanced students should begin by doing the same, but can mix in head movement and add in more footwork as time progresses. Shorter fighters may want to practice catching a jab then stepping in to jab the taller fighter. The fighter counter jabbing may be instructed to return fire with a double jab, a jab to the chest/body, or sometimes even a simultaneous counter jab. No matter the level you’re at, adding this drill into your weekly routine will improve your ability to measure and control distance, as well as get a read on your opponent.