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Fighters implement more efficient striking to reach new heights inside the cage

12/23/2008

Flash back to Sept. 6.

The sight of Rashad Evans' arm cocking back and then coming forward with explosive power, just as Chuck Liddell tried to land his own uppercut, was a masterpiece for mixed martial arts purists. It was also a lesson in the progression of strikers in the sport.

That punch. That right hand. That hammer that was placed with Muhammad Ali-like precision on Liddell's chin proved today's striking -- stand-up fighting, which includes punching elbows and knees -- goes beyond the primitive style of ultimate fighting's early years.

More and more, fighters have worked on achieving advanced boxing skills.

Liddell relied on sheer power and an unorthodox style to build his reputation as the UFC's premier knockout artist. Not the undefeated Evans, who takes on fellow "Ultimate Fighter" winner Forrest Griffin for the light heavyweight belt Saturday at UFC 92 -- he's finished three of his past five fights with knockouts, even though he considers himself a wrestler.

"Having that advantage with the wrestling background gave me a big edge over the competition early on," Evans said. "But now, I think it's to the point where fighters are more well-rounded. And I'm going to need more than just wrestling to bring me [to] the next level. So I think one area I still would like to improve on is my striking, where it's just simply outstanding and nobody can really deal with it."

He's not alone in that desire.

Lightweight Roger Huerta trained with former WBC champ Verno Phillips prior to an August fight Huerta had against Kenny Florian. Brock Lesnar hired former pro boxer Scott LeDoux to teach him how to punch properly when he began his MMA career. And Affliction's Andrei Arlovski, a former UFC heavyweight champ who faces Fedor Emelianenko in January, has toyed with the idea of balancing pro MMA and boxing careers.

Some of 2008's best fights and biggest upsets were swayed toward the better striker. Lesnar took Randy Couture's heavyweight belt in November by putting Couture down with his heavy hands and finishing him off with ground strikes. In August, Georges St. Pierre's quicker hands overwhelmed Jon Fitch early and helped him coast to a decision win. And Junior Dos Santos derailed Fabricio Werdum's push toward a title shot with a first uppercut that knocked Werdum into another dimension.

"The fans want to see the action in the fight," said light heavyweight contender Wanderlei Silva. "I love to fight in the stand up."

Striking figures to play a major role in Silva's third fight against Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, which will be on the UFC's final card of the year. If Jackson expects to get his first win in three tries against Silva, he'll need his sharp, fleeting fists to do it.

For his part, Jackson sometimes prefers to fight on his feet rather than go to the ground. He also said striking skills are imperative because of the tough takedown defense of some of his opponents.

On top of that, a lot of fans, especially mainstream followers, come to fights looking for big knockouts and not dragged-out mauling matches that end with submissions.

"I think striking is probably one of the most important elements of MMA," Jackson said. "Because when we get in the Octagon, we don't start on our knees like some people do in jiu-jitsu practice. We start on our feet and another guy in front of you. You need to know how to strike because you can't take down everybody. And it's exciting; it's fun."

Still, stand-up skills are one facet of an increasingly diverse arsenal utilized by mixed martial artists. Evans said the challenge is having the ability to combine all of the skills throughout a fight. In other words, powerful striking is less important than smart striking.

"It's very important because as an MMA fighter … we have all different attacks coming from all different angles," Jackson said. "To be well-rounded in all those areas is very hard to develop. You can go from one boxing technique and then throw, maybe, an elbow or a spinning back fist or throw a leg kick, and if it doesn't fit together seamlessly, then you'll get caught and probably knocked out."

Just ask some of his recent opponents.

Myron P. Medcalf is a staff writer for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and a freelancer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.