Fundamentals of Fighting: Critical Distance

Control of distance is a concept familiar to anyone who has ever been involved in combatsports. It’s a common phrase among coaches, commentators and even couch potatoes. There are many complex factors at play when controlling distance. Fighters need to be taught important skills such as measuring distance and manipulating distance in order to control it. However,  before getting into the “how”, we need to understand the “why”. In the second installment of this ongoing series breaking down fundamentals, we’re going to take a close look at the concept of critical distance.

Critical distance is a universal concept that is found in all styles of combat. While the precise definition varies somewhat from style to style, the general idea always remains the same: critical distance is the range at which your attacks will be the most effective and your opponent’s the least effective. Those familiar with the Sweet Science will recognize immediately how critical distance is, well, critical to a fighter’s ability to “hit and don’t get hit”. The very definition of controlling distance is forcing the fight to take place at your critical distance instead of your opponent’s. It is obviously impossible to constantly maintain the same range for the entire fight, but if the fighter is able to ensure that the majority of exchanges take place at his preferred range, then he will almost always win the fight.

The pertinent question at this point is what determines critical distance? Some might answer that question by saying the build of the fighter. Taller fighters are better on the outside and shorter fighters are better on the inside, right? While there’s certainly truth to the notion, it doesn’t always work out exactly that way. For a simple illustration, a tall wrestler’s critical distance may actually be closer than a short kicker’s critical distance. Thus, critical distance is more accurately determined by what tools the fighter prefers to attack with. Granted, the build of the fighter has a significant influence on which tools he develops. A tall fighter with long limbs will often prefer straight punches and straight kicks, while a shorter, more compact fighter may prefer tight hooks, uppercuts and low kicks. However, there is enormous variation in skill-sets and styles even among fighters of similar builds, making critical distance unique based on the preferred weapons of the individual. It’s important to note that every attack has its own ideal distance, which contributes to the overall concept of a fighter’s critical distance.

As we now understand it, critical distance is the range at which a fighter can initiate his most effective attacks without having to worry about his opponent’s most dangerous weapons. It is helpful to have a general understanding of range. Different styles will break distance down into different ranges. I’ve often encountered the idea of four fighting ranges: kicking range, punching range, clinching range and grappling range. Personally, I prefer to break range down into three categories—long range, medium range and close range. The reason I prefer this system is that it is a little more flexible and accounts for multiple strikes being thrown within the same ranges. For example, at what is often called “punching range”, a fighter is also often at a good distance to attack with kicks, knees, elbows, and even shot based takedowns. Similarly, a fighter at “kicking range” may be attacking with a variety of kicks all of which have a different ideal distance. To account for this variability, I say that fighters either like to fight on the outside (long range), in the pocket (medium range) or on the inside (close range). The exact definitions of these ranges isn’t of great importance, as it’s more important to remember that every strike has its own unique ideal distance. To put it simply, long range is outside or just at the edge of arm’s reach, medium range is within arm’s reach, and close range is body-to-body contact.

In order to get a clearer understanding of how a fighter benefits from controlling critical distance, let’s examine a few notable cases, starting with Anthony Pettis. “Showtime” is a fighter whose critical distance is relatively simple to figure out. Remember, the best way to determine critical distance is by first identifying a fighter’s most effective weapons. For Pettis, it’s clearly his rear leg round kicks to the body and head. Hidden in a dazzling array of jumping and spinning kicks, the real core of Pettis’ game is simply feinting a rear straight and throwing a rear kick. He kicks so hard, so fast and with so much accuracy behind his feints that standing at long range with him is nearly a suicidal proposition. Even the notoriously durable Donald Cerrone, Benson Henderson and Joe Lauzon all folded under his kicking onslaught when they hung around on the outside.

Pettis circles back and to his left, the direction that will create the most space against his orthodox opponent. He springs forward with a quick combination. The punches are crisp, but Pettis isn’t loading up or sitting down on them. He just wants to see how Lauzon responds, and give Lauzon something to think about as he walks forward. Later in the fight, he flashes a few more quick punches, again without any real hurting intent behind them. Immediately after, he feints a 1-2 and destroys Lauzon with a perfect left high kick. This is what happens when you let a fighter establish his critical distance. Pettis is free to work his setups and initiate his favorite offense, while Lauzon is stuck reacting and unable to get anything off. It’s clear that to beat Pettis, a fighter must do their best to make sure that exchanges aren’t taking place on the outside. However, it isn’t as simple as just closing the distance, as Gilbert Melendez found out:

Coming forward aggressively, Melendez overall did a good job of staying out of the ideal distance for Pettis’ kicks. However, he was too desperate to avoid that range. Knowing he had nothing for Pettis at long range, he was swinging wildly and predictably coming forward. This meant that even though he was getting closer to what should have been his own critical distance (the pocket for his punches, the inside for his wrestling), he was putting himself in bad positions and making it easy for Pettis to time him. As a result, he got hurt by counter punches before leaving his neck exposed on a desperate shot and tapping to a guillotine. Critical distance isn’t as simple as “Pettis wins at long range, Melendez wins at medium range”. Melendez left himself too vulnerable, even at ranges that should have been favorable to him, all because he needed to avoid Pettis’ critical distance so badly. There was a man who was able to establish his own critical distance against Pettis AND be competitive even at Pettis’ critical distance, which is why that man is the current lightweight champion.

As Pettis attempts to circle and create space, dos Anjos calmly cuts him off. He stays in front of Pettis flashing his jab, and slams kicks into his body at range. He’s then able to step in behind his jab and smash Pettis in the face with a left straight. This is the exact opposite of what we saw against Lauzon—RDA is now the one getting his shots off while Pettis is reactive. Dos Anjos establishes his critical distance by showing Pettis that he’s dangerous at long range with his kicks in order to back Pettis up, then stepping into the pocket once Pettis has nowhere left to retreat. From the pocket, dos Anjos was able to land hard punches on Pettis, and also initiate his takedowns.

Pettis’ inability to get space meant that even though he was able to return fire in spots and throw a few of his own kicks, he was fighting a losing fight. Dos Anjos, by forcing both the striking and grappling exchanges to take place at his optimal range, controlled the majority of the One of the most important lessons to learn when studying critical distance is that to be great, a fighter must be competent at every range. If there is a range where you have absolutely nothing for your opponent, then any decent strategist will find ways to shut you down. Perhaps the best illustration of this concept in MMA history was seen during Holly Holm’s unbelievable upset of Ronda Rousey. Coming into the fight, everyone had a very clear intuitive understanding of Rousey’s critical distance. She’s a clinch master. If you let her tie you up, she’ll knee you in the liver then toss you on your head.

The general consensus coming in was that Holm was going to get tossed and submittedfast enough to fit the fight on Instagram. However, what we as a whole ignored was the fact that Rousey truly had nothing to threaten Holm with at long range. In the pocket, Rousey had shown some power, but there was no evidence to suggest that she could beat Holm there either. In other words, while most assumed that Rousey would get into close range and win, few truly considered the implications of her failing to establish that critical distance. As it turned out, Rousey struggled immensely to force exchanges to take place on her own terms. She was constantly getting outmaneuvered and walking into counters.

The few times she did get in close, Holm was able to escape—and even take Rousey down. Holm’s ability to establish her critical distance played a large role in her doing the unthinkable. Rousey was kept at range so long, and getting so frustrated, that she made the same mistake Gilbert Melendez did—she attacked too aggressively once she got to her critical distance. First she took Holm down once and went into sprint grappling mode to attack an armbar, but gave Holm the space to pop out. Later she got her favorite head control after wobbling Holm with a left hook and went for a throw immediately, but without breaking Holm’s posture or off-balancing her in any way. Holm kept a low center of gravity and strong balance, which made it easy for her to pop her hips forward and lift Rousey.

Finally, the finish came as Rousey walked into a perfectly-timed left straight, then ate a beautiful left high kick as Holm pushed her back into the ideal distance for that kick.

By forcing the fight to take place at her preferred range, Holm limited Rousey’s offensive output and created a ton of opportunities to hurt her. When Rousey was able to get to the inside, she felt the need to capitalize too quickly and made mistakes with both her positioning and timing. Rousey had nothing for Holm on the outside (and only a punchers chance in the pocket), but Holm was prepared to compete with her on the inside. Not to actually win an entire fight there, of course, but to control the nature of those few close range exchanges and get back to her critical distance as soon as possible. By establishing her critical distance, Holm was able to dominate and knock out the most dominant champion in UFC history. 

Practical Takeaways:

Critical distance is a major factor to consider in every single fight. The better we understand each fighter’s critical distance, what tools make that their preferred range and what skills they have to force the fight to take place there, the better we can understand what each man needs to do in order to maximize his chances for offense (hit) and minimize the opportunities he presents to his opponent (don’t get hit). The UFC’s next pay per view on December 12 offers some incredibly interesting stylistic matchups—Aldo vs McGregor, Weidman vs Rockhold, Jacare vs Romero, Holloway vs Stephens, etc.—and will make an excellent study for those interesting in honing their analytical skills and training their eyes.

For those looking to apply this concept to their own training, critical distance is an important tool in understanding your own strengths and weaknesses. The entire point of strategy is matching up your strengths and weaknesses with those of your opponent, so awareness of your critical distance gives you a goal to work towards. It also gives you a foundation to guide your training, as you develop accessory skills that allow you to funnel fights towards your strengths and force exchanges to occur at the range you fight best at. For example, a pressure fighter who likes to work in the pocket needs to learn head movement while stepping forward in order to get to medium range safely, but also angles and framing to avoid being held if the opponent tries to smother him. In future articles, we will discuss more of the “how” behind controlling distance, now that we understand the “why”.

James Stapleton2 Comments