Ryan Hall: BJJ wizard to stand-up puzzle

Saturday marked Ryan Hall’s 10th MMA fight, this time against Darren ‘The Damage’ Elkins. A specialist in leglocks and one of the most cerebral grapplers in the UFC, I don’t think anyone expected him to win the striking exchanges. I’m not sure even Ryan thought that would happen. The question is, how has a man so dedicated to the grappling arts, and so universally overlooked in the striking department, managed to become some wheel kicking savant? The way that his 50/50 game and submission ability relates to his striking is fascinating. 

Ryan hall spin kicks Darren Elkins during UFC Fight Night-Sacramento at Golden 1 Center. Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It is not unusual for BJJ guys to stand with stiffer striking opposition successfully, especially if they have an aggressive guard. Fear of his submission skills has saved Werdum from many attacks when he ends up on his back, and gives an unusual reprieve when under pressure. Suddenly, if you’re not worried about being taken down, you can start to let your striking go. You don’t need to concern yourself with sprawling, and don’t need to be fearful if the opponent grabs you. For people like Brian Ortega, this frees up his boxing. He can take a more traditional boxing style than most MMA fighters, letting him jump ahead of where he should be, utilizing different techniques and maybe even different coaching styles.

When you have no fear of being on your back, you can strike with one less worry

Most strikers in MMA aren’t kicking specialists, and especially not high kicking. The fear of being on your back is too much, and the risks of off balancing yourself too great. Not for the Jiujitero, who are less concerned about keeping their feet under them – just see how much Lovato favours the kicking game now. Ryan Hall has taken this to its logical conclusion, going for the least balanced, highest payoff attack. Not only does this make him a deadly as possible, it also makes him unorthodox and hard to deal with. Most people are skilled in punching, but not in kicking, which makes him an inherently hard opponent to prepare for. To become a punching specialist would take years more practice. By focusing on where most fighters are deficient he has jumped far ahead of where he should be.

A tricky tactician

These attacks also play well into the submission game. His spins disguise his Iminari rolls, and any loss of balance could be turned into a takedown attempt. If you grab his legs you put yourself in a position for leg entanglements – you can either choose to let him kick with impunity, or to grab the legs and potentially enter a grappling exchange. Elkins was so concerned with grappling, Hall even had the confidence to give up his back, allowing for more spinning attacks with the elbows and backfists. Staying attached to Hall’s back for too long exposes you to the Victor roll and the 50/50 guard that follows, forcing you to either work quickly or to let him go, further allowing Hall to throw unorthodox attacks. 

Perhaps even cleverer than the aggressive options is the way his 50/50 game allows him to control distance and stay safe. Ryan fights either on the far outside, or basically beneath his opponent. The amount of time he spends at punching range – where he is definitely most vulnerable – is barely a second at a time. As soon as he can’t escape, he rolls for the legs and potentially becomes even deadlier than before. I’ve never seen someone go or the legs in such a reactionary way, and I think it’s a brilliant tool in his arsenal. He barely even needs to work on his boxing, and this allows him to beat people who otherwise smash him on the feet. Just look at the way he dealt with Gray Maynard. Distance control is a hallmark of a successful MMA fighter nowadays, the key to success for many champions, but this is a completely different take on it. Many might not like the style, but it’s innovation at its best.

Ryan Hall demonstrating technique in his back attack finishes DVD

Love him or hate him, Ryan is a fantastic tactician with a brilliantly unique skill set. To see how much of an analyst he is just watch any of his instructionals, and he’s brought this level of analysis to his UFC career. I’m fascinated to see what he does next. If you want to see the strange and interesting ways that BJJ interacts with striking and MMA, make sure you keep an eye on the wizard. 

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Robbie Diserens

Training MMA out of Urban Warriors Academy, because I'm still not sensible enough to avoid getting punched in the face. One day I might be a good enough writer to make a living via combat sports without getting brain damage. You can follow my fighting stuff on instagram @diserensmma, and all my articles via twitter @DiserensRobert.

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