MMA is the only sport I can think of that takes place on two distinct areas of play: the cage and the ring. The iconic Octagon was made famous by the UFC and is synonymous with MMA. For most fans, what would “cage fighting” be without the cage? What many fans don’t realize is that MMA is just as likely to take place in an old, reliable boxing ring as it is in the Octagon.
From a casual fan’s perspective, the action does not differ greatly from cage to ring. A good fight is a good fight regardless of where it takes place. However, for fighters and coaches, the difference can be astounding. Rings or cages can favor certain fighter’s styles and alter training methods, tactics, and strategies. The modern MMA athlete has to be adept in both atmospheres, and understanding the differences can help propel a fighter to victory.
Clinch: Your Back Is Against the Wall
Fighters such as Randy Couture turned fighting in the cage into an art form. Pinning your opponent against the cage, much like the ground, offers a chance to score with knees, elbows, and dirty boxing. When modified for the cage, takedowns—including trips and double and single leg—become higher percentage attacks. Since the cage has very little give to it, it is difficult to use your hips to defend takedowns. Hips are an important component of takedown defense.
The following isolation drills can be done in one workout or over the course of time to allow fighters to adapt to the cage.
• Pinning— Fighters start in the clinch with one having his back against the cage. The goal is for the fighter with his back against the cage to change position, get his opponent on the cage, or drive off the cage. This helps teach fighters how to escape from bad positions as well as how to dominate an opponent on the cage.
• Takedowns— While controlling the opponent on the cage, the fighter will begin to add takedowns. Fighters begin wrestling for—and defending against—one or two takedowns at a time and add techniques as they get more comfortable.
• Striking— Just like with takedowns, the fighters will add various strikes to the pinning drill. Start with just the strikes and then add the takedowns back in. Fighters also will start to get comfortable moving back and forth between standup and clinch.
Ground: A Tough Place to Be
The cage offers two potential tactical advantages that all fighters must prepare for. For the top fighter, positioning the bottom man near the cage can shut down his ability to move and escape. Pinning a great guard player against the cage in the right way can take away his submissions and make striking him easier. Learning to maneuver against the cage becomes a valuable skill, top or bottom. For the man on bottom, the cage can be an avenue for getting back to his feet. By positioning the body correctly, the bottom man can “walk” the cage back to his feet. Chuck Liddell is a master of this. Watch some of his old fights for great examples.
To make sure fighters are as comfortable in the middle of the cage as they are pinned against it, they must drill these situations.
• Maneuvering— The bottom man starts on his back, perpendicular to the cage with his head touching the cage. The top man starts in any top position. The bottom man practices moving near the cage and the top man works to pin the bottom man against the cage. Add strikes.
• Wall Walks— The bottom man, at any point in the round, can decide to work back to his feet using the cage. The top man must keep the fight on the ground.
• Transition— Once a fighter gets to his feet, he can transition immediately into the previous clinch drills to try and bring the fight back to the ground.
Train the Way You Fight
Whether it’s in an Octagon, hexagon, ring, pit, mat, or Thunderdome, a fight is a fight. Fighters need every advantage they can get. Matching the correct training, tactics, and strategy to the location can be that advantage. There are many variables specific to the cage that need to be addressed. While training, never forget to take into account what advantages the cage may give you and your opponent. Anything can happen in MMA, and being prepared for your environment can be the difference between winning and losing.