Alexander Volkanovski is a master at baiting his opponent in subtle, but highly effective ways. Throughout his career, he’s switched stances and punished foes for stepping into the pocket without making the proper adjustments. It’s led him to the featherweight title with wins over Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes, Max Holloway, Korean Zombie, Brian Ortega, and Yair Rodriguez not to mention the all time classic with Islam Makhachev. In all of these fights, Volkanovski utilized the stance switching and led him to much success.
Today I want to break down a few aspects of Alexander Volkanovski’s footwork and how he sets traps on the feet, making him such a dangerous striker. We will look at how he switches by stepping back to fake his opponent into thinking he is retreating, how he switches quickly to get different power shots off and why that works, as well as how he uses the switching from southpaw to orthodox in a defensive manner.
The Foundation: How Alexander Volkanovski Uses Footwook Defensively
First thing, first. Let’s hear it from Alexander Volkanovski himself.
Defensive footwork is the foundation of safe and smart fighting. Alexander Volkanovski utilizes the switching of stances in just this way. Perpetually the shorter fighter, despite a long reach, puts Volkanovski at a disadvantage. Having to punch up the majority of the time really takes much of Volkanovski’s reach away from him. So countering for Volkanovski relies on power, speed, or distance management. Alongside hand fighting, the footwork is a critical part of this.
The illusion of giving ground is the basis of switching stances with Alexander Volkanovski. To truly give the illusion of retreat, one has to actually give ground. This is perfectly illustrated when Volkanovski did so against The Korean Zombie. We can see here Volkanovski starts by (1) shifting his lead foot from orthodox (2) backwards to a southpaw stance. He repeats the process mirrored (3) by stepping back with his now lead right foot into orthodox again.
This one motion is the foundation of all of Alexander Volkanovski’s countering from the stance switch. Being comfortable and able to go between southpaw and orthodox fluidly allows him to quickly change where the power shots come from, where the jabs come from, and what his opponent can expect to land in terms of their own offense.
When Volkanovski gets comfortable with his opponent’s range and speed, he starts to let them a bit closer which allows them to strike. Again, we go to The Korean Zombie.
(1) The Korean Zombie is known to come forward at all costs. To negate the distance issue, Volkanovski, (2) who is in southpaw, will (3) step back with his right foot into orthodox, expecting a cross from Zombie to follow up from a thrown jab. Doing this creates more space. Notice in the second frame that Volkanovski now allows Zombie to get in and feel out the distance as he retreats. The additional space will allow Volkanovski to stay in retreat, counter, or simply give him more reaction time.
Volkanovski is also not particular in what he likes to switch and pivot on. We saw a great example of him getting out of the way of the push kick against Yair Rodriguez at UFC 290.
When Rodriguez comes forward, he likes to push kick his opponents back and get them to the fence to ensure they cannot retreat to the rear any longer. (1) In our section above, Volkanovski starts out in southpaw. (2) Rodriguez starts his throw of the push kick and Volkanovski switches to orthodox. Switching allows Volkanovski to (3) swing his rear foot out and around the outstretched leg of Rodriguez.
He hasn’t put this together yet but there are opportunities to strike from this position. We see some of the best work from this by the Thai boxing legend Superlek.
Alexander Volkanovski likes to build off the stance switch and has a variety of different methods of attacks that he uses based off what stance he and his opponent is in.
Attacking off the Switch
Defense is nice and everything but the unified ruleset of MMA calls for effective damage as the best way to win a fight. Alexander Volkanovski is about as effective as a fighter we’ve ever seen in the UFC’s featherweight division. That in itself is saying something. Champions that have topped the division include Jose Aldo, Conor McGregor, and Max Holloway, three of the best offensive fighters of all time.
But when Volkanovski is on, he’s hellacious. With his long reach, he will switch stances and will know the range instantly. This was displayed perfectly against Yair Rodriguez in the third round.
(1) We start our exchange out with Volkanovski in orthodox and Rodriguez in southpaw. (2) To land the right and close the distance, Volkanovski hops into southpaw quickly. This brings his right hand from the power hand at the back to the lead hand which opens up the lead hook. Due to the fast nature of the switch, Rodriguez is still defending his right side as the lead hand from Volkanovski. This means his right hand is high and looking for the lead hook and the left hand is looking for the cross.
(3) Because of all this, the fast switch from Volkanovski and the failure to recognize and react on Rodriguez’ part, allows Alexander Volkanovski to land the lead right hook clean.
To understand why the switch works, we must first understand the basics of the guard. In Edwin Haislet’s Boxing, an essential manual for boxing fundamentals released in 1940, we can read the basic counters for both the cross and the lead hook. Haislet states that a lead hook should be blocked with the forearm by bringing your forearm up or by turning your body in and raising your right hand similar to the forearm block. For a cross, a fighter can extend their arm up and out to gain the inside position, turn and take the punch on the shoulder, or against an overhand, drop the body back and away.
These two defenses are the opposite to each other and expose your defense to the opposite punch. No offensive attack is without counter. Switching stances and attacking before your opponent can comprehend that defense should now be different and opposite, you can exploit this hole in the defense and land some heavy, heavy blows.
Off of this, Volkanovski will also walk his opponents onto these lead hooks instead of leading the charge. Building off of the step back previously touched up upon against Korean Zombie, Volkanovski will shift stances backwards and his opponent will follow to stay in range. But that’s exactly what Volkanovski is looking to counter.
Just before the ground and pound, Volkanovski used this stepping back into southpaw to drop Yair Rodriguez. (1) To start out, Volkanovski is in orthodox and will poke at Rodriguez with the inside kick. He will bring his foot up and kick the inside of Rodriguez lead leg. As the kick lands, (2) Rodriguez thinks out the appropriate counter to a low kick, the cross. This is the same counter Dustin Poirier knocked out Justin Gaethje with in their first fight. But Volkanovski (3) will counter this counter by stepping back with that lead foot into orthodox creating a bit more space. Rodriguez has committed to exchanging and follows up on the missed cross with a roundhouse. This puts Rodriguez on one leg and forces him to drop his left arm to balance as he’s throwing the kick. Volkanovski, (4) now in southpaw, lands a right lead hook clean and drops Rodriguez.
The natural action of the rear low kick almost always causes the opposite hand to reach down and out to counter balance. The GIF above shows Jose Aldo landing said kick and even he, as great a kicker as he is, lowers his hand. It’s not always necessary to lower your hand, but that’s an exception and the majority of low kicks require this for balance issues. Against a mirrored stance (orthodox vs. southpaw) the rear kick opens up the cross. The lead hook isn’t the usual counter. With Volkanovski stepping back, the lead hook opens up as Rodriguez drops his hand on the kick.
On the attack
While he does like to go backwards to get range, Alexander Volkanovski isn’t scared to go forward and press the attack. Even in unintuitive fights, like Islam Makhachev, Volkanovski will switch to close distance and land big blows. Makhachev is the fighter you don’t want to come forward on and throw wild. Makhachev will duck under and get you to the ground where there will be hell to pay. Volkanovski approaches this differently.
With Makhachev being more comfortable and traditional with his hands than his predecessor, Khabib Nurmagomedov, (1) Volkanovski, who is the orthodox fighter, can reach out and control the lead hand of Makhachev. He will (2) dip low as to throw a cross and instead comes up with a lead right hook on the step through, similar to the Rodriguez hook except this time he’s coming forward. (3) Now in southpaw, blading the stances, Volkanovski (4) throws a left cross instead of a right cross out of orthodox. The step through was enough to cross Makhachev gets out of position, bundled up on his stance, and dropped by Volkanovski.
Putting it all together, we will move over to Alexander Volkanovski’s win over Brian Ortega, perhaps his best performance.
An amalgamation of technique
Alexander Volkanovski has put on some masterclass performances and while many would point to Makhachev or one of the Max Holloway fights as his quintessential performance would come at UFC 266 against Brian Ortega.
The particular moment I want to look at in Volkanovski and Ortega’s fight is in that epic third round at around three minutes in. Volkanovski chains together all of the techniques together that we’ve discussed so far.
(1) We start out in southpaw versus orthodox with Volkanovski being the orthodox fighter. To get into the pocket, (2) Volkanovski steps forward and dips as if to throw a big right hand. Ortega lifts up and brings up his guard. Instead of throwing, Volkanovski will (3) slide his rear foot up which will open up that low kick. This is a unique setup for the low kick that we didn’t see in the Rodriguez example earlier. But this is where Volkanovski sets up all his work from. The entry is only the entry. It’s the exit we’re concerned with. (4) The step up outside kick lands. Remember what Volkanovski said at the beginning of our reading:
One thing that I like to do off kicks: I switch stances, especially off my leg kick.
He does just that. As Ortega (5) throws the “proper” counter, a cross just like Rodriguez, the step back provides Volkanovski with a counter. This time, Volkanovski has to slip to the inside of Ortega’s cross. But that lead right hook is now available as Volkanovski has switched to southpaw. Gassed, Ortega stumbles forward and into orthodox himself, though I don’t think this was as intentional. (6) In a dangerous spot, Ortega has the outside foot position so Volkanovski is forced to step over his leg, which is deep. In doing so, (7) Alexander Volkanovski puts his right leg to the rear and he’s returned to orthodox.
At the end of the day, Alexander Volkanovski may be the most complete fighter we’ve ever seen in the sport of mixed martial arts. He’s incredibly tricky standing up, he can wrestle, he’s incredible with ground and pound. This guide is only one small aspect of what makes Alexander so great. While it’s impossible to know how much more he has left, he’s given us fourteen fights in the UFC and someday we can comb through the footage and look back at how much Volkanovski will have changed the sport for the better. He will go down as an all time great because he is Alexander the Great.