Up Against It: The Evolution of Fence Tactics in MMA

Burgos setting up choke against wall (Photo: Kevin Wuchter)

Shane “The Hurricane” Burgos scores a body lock takedown and ends up in half guard. His opponent, Jason Aronica, seems comfortable attacking off of his back, so Burgos takes the opportunity to make his first use of the cage wall in the fight. He pushes Aronica’s head into the barrier, cutting off most of Aronica’s mobility and offensive options. This maneuver is now so standard that it is considered conventional wisdom in mixed martial arts. It is easy to forget that this common technique is a recent invention, and just the beginning of the fighter’s tactical use of the fence.

Aronica gets an underhook and tries to escape out the back, but Burgos puts his hands into position for a D’Arce choke during the scramble. Burgos attempts to finish but doesn’t have the correct angle. The wall The Hurricane used to his advantage seconds ago now blocks his way. Here he must choose between letting go of the submission or backing up from the wall and giving his man room to escape.

Burgos elects not to make that choice. Instead, he walks his feet along the wall. Balancing his weight on Aronica with his chest, The Hurricane grips the cage with his feet until he is fully upside down and vertical over his opponent. This is not so conventional. Still vertical, Burgos somersaults off the cage to finish the maneuver for the win.

This scene did not take place on a nationally televised fight card in Las Vegas, but in the Rec Center of Rahway. New Jersey at the Evolution Fighting Championship 8 amateur card. The locally-run amateur promotion represents the entry level of competitive mixed martial arts. Yet Burgos, not yet a professional, performed a technique that would have been the mark of a particularly creative veteran just a few years ago.

While the rules of mixed martial arts prohibit gripping the fence with fingers, Burgos had observed, like many before him, that regulations are rather non-specific about toes. It’s a common sentiment that the use of feet to grip the fence is using a technicality to violate the spirit of the rules. However, it’s not knowing the regulations, but knowing exactly how to bend them that leads to true mastery. In Burgos’ case, his “cop out” of the rules resulted in a thoroughly fantastic setup for a fight-winning choke. Finding the little loopholes in the regulations to sneak in new techniques is where the mixed martial arts allows for real creativity. The canvas for this artistry is the cage wall.

Burgos’ use of the fence was only the most dramatic of several that night in Rahway. Forward charging opponents were quickly redirected with a well timed bounce against the wall. The backward spring of hitting the chain link was used to set up takedowns: all techniques that were used are considered requisite knowledge for MMA competition. Yet all of them were well beyond what the designers of the first UFC octagon had imagined.

The UFC, which has informed the standards of all smaller MMA promotions, began as an intricately designed commercial for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which most of the organization’s founders now admit to. The decision to use a cage rather than a ring was mostly so larger strikers with no grappling experience would have less ability to avoid the takedowns of BJJ exponent Royce Gracie.

After the days where every athlete only represented one specific style of fighting, the cage was kept and expanded to other promotions for aesthetic reasons rather than tactical ones. A locked cage communicated to the fans a sense of confinement and adrenaline that an open ring did not.

But, as tool using mammals, the best human warriors have always been defined by the ability to turn the presence or absence of anything into a weapon. And there is no more obvious presence than the wall. There are the, now, obvious tactics. The fence, once used to enhance the chances of takedowns, now just as commonly defeats them. Squatting up while pressing alternating shoulders against the fence, or wall-walking, is now a standard way for a fighter to regain his feet and the complete antithesis of what the cage was originally designed for. But turn-about is just the beginning of what can be done with the wall.

While there were many memorable moments on the eve of UFC 100 in July of 2009, the most unique came in the bout between Alan Belcher and Yoshihiro Akiyama. Towards the end of a very close fight, Akiyama was walking Belcher against the wall. Belcher had been unable to enter into striking range quickly enough to avoid retaliation that night, and in the final minutes was hanging back just outside of his man’s reach. Now against the fence, Belcher had nowhere to go but into the fray. So, he put one foot up and bounced off the wall, performing in the flesh what video game fans may recognize as the Maximum Spider.

Observant fans turned to each other with a look that asked the question “Is that even legal?” Not only was it legal, it was beautiful.

With one punch, Belcher illustrated a concept that was quickly spreading to all segments of MMA: when an athletes sets out to use all of his weapons in a bout, the environment can be added to the list that includes his hands, shins, head, and weight.

Belcher was later upstaged by Anthony “Showtime” Pettis. In another close bout, Pettis put the final distance between himself and Benson Henderson on the score card by leaping at him and using the fence to change the trajectory of a flying round kick while in mid-air. This is still referred to as the “Showtime Kick.”

Now, as illustrated by the performances of Burgos and the other young amateurs at Evolution, fighters on every level are becoming more cognizant of what they can do with the chain link weapon that surrounds their battlefield. Soon, Peter Parker stunts will be as much a part of the sport as punches and takedowns. That is the true beauty of wall work.

Effective fighting fundamentals have not changed significantly over time. While some people with unique size and shape have learned to use their bodies in creative and exciting ways, fighters all still have two arms, two legs, and only so many different things you can do with all of them. But around the canvas is a brand new metal limb that people have only just begun to experiment with.

MMA is a very young sport and has seen almost yearly alterations to what is considered tactical standards. An oft repeated truism is that no one knows where the future of the sport will lead. It leads to the fence.

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