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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 123’s Cub Swanson

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Long-time top contender, Cub Swanson, will square off with rising submission ace, Brian Ortega, this Saturday (Dec. 9, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 123 inside Save Mart Center in Fresno, California.

Swanson is frustrated, but not by his opponents. It’s been well over two years since Swanson last tasted defeat, and “Killer Cub” has since strung together four straight victories over some stiff competition. He’s shown improvement and demanded a shot at UFC gold, but Swanson was passed over for Frankie Edgar.

I don’t find that to be an unfair decision, but it absolutely sucks for Swanson. Worse still, Swanson is facing another very dangerous up-and-comer this weekend, but there’s a chance he’ll be passed over for “The Answer” once again. Realistically, the best chance Swanson has at avoiding that face is to win in incredible fashion opposite Ortega.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

Swanson is a striker who thrives on unpredictability and playing with his opponent’s reactions. He often moves, feints and sets up combinations like a boxer, and evidence of high-level boxing sparring with athletes like Timothy Bradley shine through in his fights. At the same time, kicks remain a pivotal part of Swanson’s attack, and can range from standard round kicks to cartwheeling shins.

Swanson’s movement is a definite key to his success. He tends to work from the kicking range, switching stances and feinting smoothly. Much of Swanson’s boxing game begins from this range, as a big portion of his attack comes in the form of lengthy punch-kick combinations. When Swanson is punching in from distance, he’s vulnerable to counter punches. To diminish this risk, Swanson does an excellent job of ducking his head off the center line while punching. For example, it’s common for him to lead with the jab while ducking his head way off to the right, leaving him difficult to hit but still capable of throwing a big right hand.

Swanson does his best work with these lengthy combinations. He’s rarely finished after two strikes, and Swanson adjusts according to his opponent’s defense. Swanson’s favorite punch is likely his right overhand, and he follows up it differently depending on how his opponent reacts. Following up on the right hand is the subject of Swanson’s technique highlight, as it’s a big part of his game.

It’s not uncommon for Swanson to throw himself a bit off-balance while punching. In numerous fights, he’ll be punching and rolling only to muster whatever momentum he can and direct it into a low kick. He’s unafraid to throw himself into odd positions so long as his strikes land (GIF).

Swanson thrives in the chaos he creates.

Once Swanson lands a hard shot, he begins feinting with it actively. Building off the threat of this strike, Swanson is able to create new openings, while keeping his opponent guessing on when he'll next return to it. For example, Swanson landed a hard uppercut against Dennis Siver. Then, he feinted with an uppercut and instead stepped into a left high kick.

Remaining unpredictable is a major key to Swanson's success. To make this easier on himself, Swanson routinely mixes up his targets with punches and kicks. The Californian punches to the body often (GIF), and his kicks can range from the top of his opponent's head to his calf muscle. Speaking of, the calf kick is a big weapon for Swanson. Aside from being painful and difficult to catch, the outside calf kick often knocks his foe out of their stance. That’s a small opening, but it’s all that Swanson needs to burst forward with a wild combination.

From the Southpaw stance, Swanson will look to dig into his foe’s body with kicks as well (GIF). Swanson generally sets up his left kick well, feinting and charging so rapidly that his foe’s hands raise enough to open up the strike. It will also commonly punctuate his stance-shifting combinations.

When Swanson's opponent looks to close the gap between them, Swanson is quite accurate with his counters. He repeatedly nailed Jeremy Stephens with several ducking jabs, which works just as well to counter as to lead (GIF). In addition, Swanson will often look for the cross counter, meaning he'll slip inside his opponent's jab while heaving an overhand right. Notably, Swanson rocketed George Roop's mouthpiece across the Octagon with this technique (GIF).

Aside from that, Swanson’s check hook is a great weapon. After getting his opponent to watch for the counter jab, Swanson will switch to his check hook, working around the guard and catching his foe off-guard (GIF). Whether leading or countering, Swanson’s habit of getting his head off the center line is quite helpful.

Wrestling

There was a time when Swanson’s defensive wrestling was his greatest weakness. Over the years, he’s steadily improved in that aspect of his game. In recent years, the only wrestler to consistently force him to the mat was Frankie Edgar, who tends to make even great defensive wrestlers look mediocre. On his current win streak, Swanson has defeated a pair of top heavy grinders in Tatsuya Kawajiri and Hacran Dias.

Outside of the occasional running double-leg — used more to prevent his opponent’s forward pressure than anything else — Swanson relies on hip tosses to counter his opponent’s clinch work. Often, Swanson’s style of distance and movement makes lining up a shot difficult, which forces his opponent to reach for the clinch.

In the clinch, hip position is key. If Swanson’s opponent is really stretched out and reaching for “Killer Cub,” there will be a good deal of space between Swanson’s hips and his opponent’s own waist. In that situation, it doesn’t particularly matter whether Swanson has a single underhook or none, as he can step across his opponent’s waist and flip them to the mat (GIF). While looking to land this throw, Swanson has to drive his weight forward, which also helps him get past his opponent’s hips. This type of throw is high risk, as Swanson can be reversed or fail to control position, but Swanson is quick to step into mount before his foe can scramble away.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Swanson is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with some slick offense. He primarily shows his jiu-jitsu when put on his back, using it with the goal of submitting or creating the space necessary

Against foes looking to take him down, Swanson often looks to latch onto the neck. Regardless of whether he has an arm trapped or not, Swanson sits up and into the choke from full guard, which prevents his opponent from squirming around all that much. The downside of this is that it's not quite as effective as a strangle as other types of squeezes, so it will be a bit more difficult to finish.

In addition, Swanson often uses the threat of the guillotine to return to his feet. As his opponent defends his neck, Swanson will scoot his hips out to the side. From there, he can either apply pressure with a whizzer or simply stuff his opponent's head down as he goes to stand.

When Ricardo Lamas countered Swanson's guillotine attempt with an arm triangle, it initially appeared to be an excellent, on-the-spot counter to one of Swanson's specialties. However, further research simply shows that Lamas studied his tape, as Swanson was put in a similar predicament by Tommy Lee. Simply put, Swanson made it a habit to hold onto the choke too long, and Lamas was able to capitalize on it.

Outside of his guillotine, Swanson will occasionally look for the omoplata. Whenever his opponent places his hand on the mat, Swanson will use his excellent hip flexibility to pull his leg over the should and swivel his hips. Next, he locks his legs in a triangle and sits up quickly. By sitting up so soon, Swanson helps ensure that he'll succeed on either a stand up or sweep, as the omoplata is exceptionally difficult to finish as a submission.

Conclusion

Swanson is a proven tough out, one of the most game fighters in the sport with a unique skill set. His current issue is that he’s been unable to sell UFC on his chances in a rematch with Max Holloway, so they have currently set him on the back burner. The only way to move forward is to continue winning impressively, and hopefully handing Ortega his first defeat will go a long way.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.