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The Blueprint: Fitch-Alves II

Over four years after their first meeting, Jon Fitch and Thiago Alves meet again this Sunday in Okaland, this time with a lot more on the line as the welterweight contenders jockey for another shot at the 170-pound crown.

After an agonizing wait, Thiago Alves will finally receive the opportunity to avenge his 2006 loss to fellow elite welterweight Jon Fitch.  The pair will clash in the co-featured bout of UFC 117 this Saturday night at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, which is only a couple dozen miles up the 880 freeway from the gym that Fitch calls home—the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California.

Fitch will therefore be the overwhelming crowd favorite.  Alves is the guy the oddsmakers prefer.

The winner will be next in line for the winner of the late-2010 bout between 170-lb kingpin Georges St-Pierre and Fitch’s teammate, Josh Koscheck, though if Kos wins, Fitch has already stated that he will move up to middleweight, rather than face his teammate in fistic combat.

The first fight was a relatively dominant performance by Fitch.  He took down Alves in the first round and controlled the action for virtually the entire round.  The former Purdue University wrestler scored another takedown early in the second round and worked his way around to Alves’ back.  The explosive Brazilian escaped and began to attack his downed opponent with strikes from the standing position.  A perfectly timed upkick ended the bout for all intents and purposes, though the official end came when Fitch mounted his fallen foe and began to pound away with undefended strikes.

That was more than four years ago.  Since that time, Alves has developed into one of the most fearsome knockout artists in the sport, due in part to his vastly improved takedown defense and his severely underrated ability to scramble back to his feet if his opponent is successful taking the fight to the ground.  

Fitch has also developed as a fighter, earning a black belt in Jiu Jitsu under Dave Camarillo and vastly improving his standup game.  More impressively, Fitch has learned how to win like few before or since.  The 2006 win over Alves was his third win in three trips to the Octagon.  He followed that up with five more consecutive wins, tying the then-record set by fighting icon Royce Gracie more than a decade earlier.  

Fitch’s 12-1 welterweight record is the best in the division, and suffering only one loss in the last seven years stands among the best on the planet.  Only UFC newcomer Jake Shields has had a similar run of dominance, albeit all of his fights have occurred outside the Octagon.

It suffices to say that Alves and Fitch will be two vastly different fighters, in terms of overall skill, experience and confidence, than the two men who fought on the fifth installment of the Ultimate Fight Night on SpikeTV.  But, alas, the game plan for each man remains precisely the same as it did almost half a decade ago.  At his core, Alves remains a striker who needs to land his fists, knees or shins with bad intentions in order to win.  And Fitch is still a wrestler, despite his growth as a mixed martial artist, who needs to get a guy like Alves to the ground early in the fight and keep him there, if he wants to win.

For Alves, the key to keeping the fight on the feet is to constantly change up his attack so that Fitch is continually guessing as to what is coming next.  The AKA star likes to time opponents and shoot under an overcommitted strike or an ill-timed kick or, as is more often the case, work for a takedown while in the clinch.  

Against Alves, Fitch will almost certainly prefer the former two situations to the latter because Alves is as good as any welterweight in the world from the clinch.  The Brazilian’s knee strikes, short punches, slicing elbows and general positional dominance is revered among even the best standup fighters.  So, I expect Fitch to want to keep the action on the outside and try to shoot off of a telegraphed strike.

As a result, Alves needs to continually mix up his attack to avoid getting planted on his backside, particularly early in the fight when both men are fresh.  He should lead with a mix of jabs and hard outside leg kicks.  Forget throwing lead kicks to the head.  Those should be reserved for cleaning up combinations because it is too easy to identify lead high kicks and duck under them for a single-leg or high-crotch takedown.

Outside leg kicks, by contrast, travel a relatively short distance and generally require less pre-strike movement to properly fire one when compared to a high kick.  The difference is similar to the difference between a jab and a lead right hand.  The former is much more difficult to time, absent some sort of hitch.

The major benefit of outside leg kicks versus the jab is that the latter is principally used to establish distance, score points and set up bigger, more powerful strikes, whereas the latter is a power strike in and of itself.  Alves can absolutely terrorize an opponent with leg kicks.  The first few begin to sap an opponent of his strength and quickness because he can no longer transfer his weight onto the leg as effectively due to the accumulated blood and damaged tissue in the attacked area.  Then, the kicks become a primary weapon as an opponent begins to lose the ability to fully support even his own body weight.  

Alves should really turn his hips and focus on causing damage with his outside leg kicks.  That is the best way to damage Fitch without opening himself up for unnecessary takedowns.

But kicks, like anything else, can be defended if an opponent knows that one is on the way.  The jab is the answer to disguising lead outside leg kicks.  Alves should fire hard left jabs, which he can do from a safe distance, while he circles to his own left.  Circling left is a much more natural movement for an orthodox fighter because he doesn’t have to cross his feet and is never really out of position to effectively fire either hand.  Moreover, it is easier for Alves to plant his right foot and uncork an outside leg kick while circling to his own left than if he is circling to his own right just based on his general foot mechanics.

As the fight wears on, plenty of opportunities will present themselves for Alves to throw his fight-ending right hand or devastating left hook.  There is no real need to focus on setting up those shots, aside from firing a healthy dose of jabs and outside leg kicks.  Instead, he can wait to counter off any ill-conceived Fitch counter fire, which undoubtedly will occur in the face of constant strikes landing from the outside.  

Alves knows that he can stop Fitch, or anyone else, for that matter, with a single punch.  He can also stop the action in an instant with a flying knee, but that strike is far too dangerous against a guy like Fitch, particularly early in the fight when he is fresh and ready for takedowns.  If the flying knee doesn’t find paydirt, Fitch will use the opportunity to fairly easily score a takedown and then proceed with his elite-level ground control and grueling ground-and-pound attack.  Thus, Alves should forget flying knees, at least in the first round.

If the fight hits the ground, Alves should quickly open his guard and look to scramble back to his feet.  Fitch is an expert at scoring inside someone’s guard.  Alves shouldn’t get lulled into a situation where he takes unnecessary punishment trying to stalemate Fitch with his guard.  Plus, it is impossible to stand up from the closed guard, and as long as Alves is on his back, he is losing the fight.  

Accordingly, he should take risks on the ground by opening his guard and trying to scramble back to his feet.  Fitch is very good at taking an opponent’s back, which is the common consequence of trying to stand up.  Alves can take that risk because he is very good at dealing with opponents who have either already take, or are in the process of trying to take, his back.  Let’s not forget that Alves regularly rolls with some of the best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners in the world at the American Top Team’s facilities in Southern Florida.

Once Alves is back on his feet, it’s back to a steady diet of jabs and outside leg kicks, until he senses that Fitch is wounded, at which point he can freely open the throttle and attack with the savagery that led to his nickname, “Pitbull.”

If Fitch wants to win on Saturday night, he needs to remain fully committed to his wrestling roots.  Sure, he has vastly improved his standup over the last few years, and it looks better and better each fight.  He still wants no part of a killer like Alves on the feet.  Trust me on that one.

Of course, that doesn’t mean come out diving across the cage for a takedown without throwing any strikes at all.  Despite his relative ease at taking down Alves back in 2006, Fitch needs to really focus on setting up his takedowns this time around.  Otherwise, he will end up taking the same sort of beating that Alves doled out to Matt Hughes and Koscheck, two guys who stand above Fitch in the wrestling food chain.

Both Hughes and Kos failed to effectively mask their takedown attempts when they faced Alves in 2008.  As a result, Alves defended expertly and made them pay for their mistakes with a healthy dose of strikes.  

GSP, by contrast, expertly transitioned between jabs and takedowns when he faced Alves in 2009.  The net result was that Alves spent the overwhelming majority of the fight on his back trying to defend GSP’s ground-and-pound attack.

Notice the use of the word “jab”?  That’s right.  The jab is one of the more effective takedown tools in mixed martial arts.  Why?  It forces an opponent to raise his arms and avert his attention to his head as defensive measures.  An attacker may use that opportunity to change levels and effectively shoot in for a double-leg, provided he does so before his opponent lowers his arms back into an effective sprawling position.  The key is to shoot off the jab, not to shoot after it.

Fitch has never really shown a good jab in a fight, but he has a very good jab in the training room.  Sooner or later, he needs to show some confidence in that punch and use it.  There is no better time than the present.  

The former collegiate wrestler needs to throw good, hard jabs.  Alves won’t be overly concerned with defending the jab with his hands.  He will instead look to slip the jab and counter.  Thus, Fitch must maintain keen focus on leaving his right hand pinned against his chin to defend against counter left hooks and instantly snapping his left straight back in order to defend against counter right hands.  

As Alves looks to counter, he will be less focused on sprawling, even if the jabs don’t land.  Fitch can take advantage of that situation by shooting under his foe’s raised arms.

Once on the ground, Fitch should do what he does best—dish out a sustained, methodical beating.  Passing the guard is great, but that opens the door for sweeps.  Fitch will be better served to fight like a young Tito Ortiz and bulldoze his opponent with short elbows and punches from inside the guard.  That way, he can focus on controlling the position and keeping the action in the only place where he can win—on the ground.

Fitch will also be well served to forget submissions.  Again, Alves is masterful at defending fight-ending holds.  He is also very adept at working to his feet during scrambles.  Where Alves is weak is slapping on triangle chokes and arm bars from the guard against a guy with Fitch’s situational awareness and BJJ black belt.  Thus, as long as Fitch can keep Alves defending strikes from his guard, he will be winning the fight.

How am I so confident of that notion?  If we have learned anything in mixed martial arts over the years, it is the undeniable fact that judges almost always lean toward the side of the fighter on top when the action unfolds more on the ground than it does on the feet.  And that is Fitch’s biggest key to victory.