I watched UFC 168 last night and saw Anderson Silva’s leg kick break. Frankly, it didn’t surprise me one bit as he makes a rookie mistake in how he throws it. He isn’t the first, nor the last, not even at that high level of competition. Does that mean he’s a bad fighter? Not at all. But his mistake is a basic one all muay Thai and kickboxing fighters learn in their first couple lessons in the gym:
You do not lead with the leg kick.
There are exceptions to this rule (Gokhan Saki, who’s leg kick is as fast as a jab…) and some people get away with it for a long time but eventually, there is always a price to pay eventually. Anderson Silva paid that price, just like all the others before him have. He now faces surgery and at the very least 3 months of recovery before he can even consider training again. There will be a long rehab process and only then can he resume training. I don’t expect him back in the Octagon in at least 9 months. 12 months is much more likely, if at all.
He’s also 38 right now and coming near the end of his career. There’ a good chance that he just had his last fight. Going out in this way is really sad for a champion of his stature. Even more so because I believe it could have been avoided. I’ll explain why here below, but first the video (not for the faint of heart):
So what went wrong?
Before I answer that, you might want to read up on my “How To do a Leg Kick” guide and a few other articles. I wrote that guide 4 years ago and just spent some time updating the videos because some of them were no longer available. Some of the terminology I use won’t make sense if you skip those posts, so it might be practical to take a look at them first or do so after you finish reading this post. Here they are:
- How to do a leg kick:
- How to block a leg kick
- Gokhan Saki’s leg kick
Now let’s get back to the question: What went wrong and lead to Anderson Silva’s leg kick break? He led with the leg kick.
As simple as that.
He didn’t set it up, there was no preparation, no feint, nothing. He just moves in with the leg kick when he saw Weidman put his weight on his lead leg.
The only way this works consistently is if you time it perfectly and even then it’s not a given. In MMA, fighters are in a lower and wider stance than in muay Thai. This means the lead leg is usually carrying a lot of weight, making it hard to block leg kicks. But if the fighter does manage to block them, he tends to do the “short block” because, due to that stance, he has no time for any of the other defensive techniques against the leg kick.Watch the clip in slow motion and you’ll see Weidman stutter with his lead leg right before he blocks the kick. Even with that stutter slowing him down, he is still more than fast enough to block the leg kick. In the interview after the fight, he stated that they worked on blocking Anderson’s kicks as in their first fight, he ate a lot of them and wanted to avoid that this time. The angle of the short block is also such that it stops the leg kick at one of the hardest parts of the lower leg/knee, which makes for a painful impact.
There’s also very little give to it because the knee doesn’t bleed off much of the impact, it goes straight to the hips. Newton’s law of action/reaction comes into play here: the harder the surface you hit, the more of the shock travels back into your shin.
A final issue is that Anderson used the half-hip to power the kick. In and of itself, that isn’t a bad thing. But combined with all the previous issues, it increases the odds of a leg kick break happening, as was the case here. The half-hip tends to “lock” the kicking leg a lot more, making for a stiffer impact, which makes it harder for there to be some give in Anderson’s leg. He could have used some…
If you use the full hip for the leg kick, you can still get a leg kick break but the angle of both your shin and the knee position relative to your hip tends to mitigate some of the danger. It’s not perfect, but it can spell the difference between a full leg break or just limping for a while.
Regardless all the previous points, the main reason this happened is because Anderson was leading with the leg kick.
This is a no-no in muay Thai and kickboxing. You learn this quickly when you start training in those sports because in and of themselves, leg kicks are easy to defend against. They are relatively easy to spot at the early stages and you just have to pick up a leg to block them. You don’t even have to pick it up very high, a couple of inches is more than plenty. Beginning fighters don’t understand this at first and they have to run into a short block a few times before they get it. I’ve seen lots of fights end this way: the shin wasn’t broken but the fighter was in too much pain to continue after a badly timed leg kick. I’ve also seen numerous leg kick breaks in muay Thai. Those fighters weren’t as famous as Anderson Silva but their legs broke just as easily. I think it’s safe to say this is a real issue in combat sports and needs to be address in training.
I learned this the hard way after training with a much smaller sparring partner for a while. He systematically used short blocks to stop my leg kicks. After my shins were black and blue for the gazzilionth time (I’m a slow learner…), I decided to train harder on my set-ups for that kick. It made a difference.
All this said, just because you leg kick against a short block, that doesn’t mean you will always end up with a broken shin and fibula. It won’t always break, but it will always hurt. Sometimes you can keep going, other times you’ll limp for a while. In many cases, you will not be able to kick with that shin again during the fight. Sometimes, you’ll also have a lot of trouble with your footwork and driving off that leg from then on.
So all in all, I think it’s rather important to be smart about how you throw a leg kick.
Let’s take a look at that now.
Basic leg kick tactics
The single-most important rule of using the leg kick is this:
You only throw it when your opponent has the least chance of blocking it.
Everything else is secondary to that. Can you ignore this rule? Sure you can. There are a couple other ways to use the leg kick but they’re the exceptions, not the rule. Perhaps you’ll never get injured if you don’t think about when or how to throw your leg kick, it could happen. But you increase your odds of this horrific injury happening, big time. What’s more, if you follow this rule, you have a better shot at landing the leg kick, which is the whole point of throwing it right?
Look again at that footage of Anderson Silva’s foot dangling of his lower leg. Do what you want, but me, I don’t want to experience that, ever. So I train accordingly and cross my fingers Mr. Murphy leaves me alone on this one.
Let’s assume you agree with me on this golden rule and move on to the two basic tactics that incorporate it.
Counter with the leg kick.
This is the safest method of using the leg kick. It requires good timing, but you can drill that in pretty fast if you focus on it in your training. Here are some specific counters you can use:
- Against a front, push or even side kick. Redirect the attacking leg with your arm, preferably unbalancing your opponent at the same time. Launch your leg kick right before he lands with his foot so your shin slams into the target at the exact moment his full body weight comes down on that leg.
- Against mid or high circular kicks. Double block the kick and redirect is in the same way as mentioned in the previous bullet. It works best against high kicks.
- Against straight punches. This requires precise timing: Parry, deflect or slip the punch and land the leg kick right after. When your opponent punches with power, he needs a solid base to strike from. That means his legs need to be planted firmly on the ground. When you deflect his attack, you have a split second where it’s very hard for him to raise his legs to block your kick.
Set it up with other techniques.
When you hide your leg kick with other techniques, it’s difficult for your opponent to block it. Even if he knows you’re setting him up, there’s only so much time for him to react and raise his leg to block. If you keep mixing it up, he won’t know when the leg kick comes. Here are a couple of ways you can do that:
- Punches. It doesn’t matter which punch you use, straight, hook, uppercut, whatever. Just follow up with a rear leg kick. You’ll notice it’s easier to use the full hip turn when your throw a lead hand. From a rear hand attack, the fastest way to leg kick is with the half-hip. If you train for it, you can even use the same hip turn to power both the rear hand punch and the leg kick.
- Kicks. The same as for punches, pick a kick and follow up with a leg kick. Obviously, jump spinning kicks aren’t a great choice as a set up. Keep it simple with push kicks, roundhouse kicks and the like. But do them at different levels (low, medium or high) to add variety and use both legs to set up the rear leg kick. A good trick is to use mainly speed for the first kick and go for power with the leg kick. It’s similar to when you use mainly speed with the jab to set up a power shot with the right cross.
- Feints. Feint with the head, feint a punch or a kick, feint a take down, whatever. When your opponent reacts to the feint, you have a window of opportunity to score a leg kick. Be careful not to overdo this one though; after a while he’ll anticipate the feint and nail you as you’re getting ready to kick.
- Combinations. Set up a combination with three or four (or more) techniques and put the leg kick somewhere in there. A common method is to end with it: regardless of what you do in the first two or three techniques of the combination, you end with the leg kick. Or you can throw one or two techniques, do the leg kick and then quickly throw another technique as your leg retracts.
Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about. Check out this highlight of Rob Kaman and you’ll see he uses both tactics exceedingly well: countering and setting it up.
These are the most common tactics for using the leg kick, but they’re not the only ones. There are many others, but they’re more risky or more advanced and therefor not basic. Especially when you are just getting started training the leg kick, you can’t go wrong with these two tactics. If you’re creative, you’ll find hundreds of variations with just these two here. You’re only limited by your own imagination and how much work you’re willing to put in.
Whatever you do, understand that there is always the risk of a leg kick break, just like with Anderson here. There are no guarantees when you fight. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to avoid it.
Fight smart and hard, instead of only hard.
For more on how to develop and use a devastating leg kick, you can get my book about it here.
UPDATE: I received a ton of email on this article in less than 24h. Here are some additional points worth mentioning:
- I’m sure Anderson’s shins are well conditioned and stronger than those of the average person. But there is no amount of conditioning that can make a shin bone unbreakable. Conditioning helps, for sure, but our bones aren’t made out of titanium. They will eventually break, given enough force applied on them.
- Also, he might have had a hairline fracture already from training or throwing other kicks. You don’t necessarily feel that, but it weakens the bone and makes it more susceptible to breaking.
- I received numerous comments about never having seen this kind of injury before, but it is actually fairly common. The result isn’t always a broken leg though. Whenever you kick with your shin into a knee (or sometimes even an elbow) and you start limping right away, that’s essentially the same thing as what happened with Anderson: you kicked an unyielding target and all the force of the impact was slammed into your shin. Any muay Thai fighter or kickboxer knows exactly how this feels. Happens all the time. Which is why it’s so important to time your kicks correctly when you fight without shin guards. It’s also why the Thai don’t spar all that much but focus on technique and conditioning instead (they can compete every week if they want to, so lack of ring experience is not an issue for them). On the opposite side of that theory is the Dutch school: lots of sparring, but always with thick shin guards to avoid injuries. Both systems work and produce champions. But you don’t see a lot of champions sparring without shin guards all the time…
- I haven’t read any of Anderson’s books so I don’t know if he teaches combinations that start with a leg kick or not. That said, he sure leads with it a lot. I’ve seen him do it tons of times in his fights. He usually sets them up well because of his timing, that’s why they worked for him for so long. Until now…
- Anderson’s skill is without question. He’s a champion, no doubt about it. But that doesn’t change the fact that he made a serious tactical error by leading with the leg kick so much in his fights. Given his skill, speed and conditioning, he didn’t pay a price for it and got away unharmed for the longest time. Until now. Here’s my point: no matter how skilled you are, dangerous techniques don’t become safe just because you are good at using them. The exception does not negate the rule.
- Yes, I know there are other ways to set up the leg kick than those I explained. Yes, I know you can leg kick from the clinch. Please re-read the last paragraph: what I described are basic ways of landing an effective leg kick, not the advanced or more difficult ones. I focused on things every beginner can learn in a short amount of time, solid basics that will work well for everybody. The other stuff is best saved for when you master these basics. Just like you don’t start learning spinning elbows as your first striking technique; you learn straight punches and hooks first. There are reasons for that and they go for the leg kick as well.