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UFC 252, The Morning After: Sean O’Malley and the danger of power kicks

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UFC 222: O’Malley v Soukhamthath Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

It is difficult to convey the double-edged sword that is kicking in words. Shin-kicking into a kneecap or having a toe catch on an elbow are miserable experiences. It’s the type of pain that will see veterans hop up-and-down on one foot in agony.

Punch those same men in the face? No change in visible expression.

The vast, vast majority of mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters do almost all of their training while wearing shin guards, a heavily padded rubber shield that protects your training partners ... and yourself. Uncovered shins are reserved for pad work — in which you kick ... a pad — and live, professional fights.

The average professional fighter is not a Muay Thai specialist. Even if he/she is, they are unlikely to be a Thai national who has been kicking tires and banana trees since childhood. That’s the type of shin conditioning truly required to kick without fear of injury: lifelong dedication.

Or, at the very least, a Tony Ferguson-esque commitment to slamming bone and sinew into metal pipes.

For the rest of the professional fighting world, kicking with full power is a risk. A body or head kick that lands to the point of the elbow can break a bone, and colliding with the shin can literally snap a leg. Ask Anderson Silva, who has far more professional fights and Muay Thai experience than most of his peers.

That’s a scary outcome. Most fighters can mentally handle a loss, but a crippling injury? One that requires months without walking and likely over a year before a return to combat? No one wants that.

Part of the appeal of the calf kick — besides its destructive power — is that it really cannot go THAT wrong. As of right now, no one has found a way to effectively squat in an instant and block the calf kick with the knee. Usually, they pull the leg away, no harm, no foul. At worst, the kicked fighter turns the shin out, and the two athletes collide in a painful-but-even clash of shins.

Fear of self-destruction limits the kicking game. Sean O’Malley is learning why, and he’s doing it the hard way.

In five fights, O’Malley has twice damaged his right ankle. The first injury came in 2018 opposite Andre Soukhamthath, when O’Malley injured his foot throwing a right high kick. O’Malley could have easily lost the bout had Soukhamthath realized just how badly he was hurt, but instead, O’Malley merely coughed up the final round.

There would be no such mercy from Marlon Vera. As soon as the Ecuadorian athlete noticed he was facing a wounded foe, he pounced. He started attacking the other leg immediately, and upon gaining top position, slammed an elbow straight through O’Malley’s face into the canvas.

So yeah, this article is about O’Malley and kicks, but shoutout “Chito” for his savagery.

At the time of writing, it’s still not exactly clear how O’Malley injured his ankle. Was it the first misstep that saw him roll his ankle? That’s certainly a possibility. However, it’s also not likely a coincidence that O’Malley rolled the same ankle/foot that he injured previously, nor does O’Malley wear those ankle braces for style purposes.

“Suga” kicks with the reckless confidence of a young, undefeated fighter, because until last night, that was his status. The last time firing full commitment kicks at every opportunity bit him, he was still able to win.

There was no need to change.

A second injury and subsequent loss is definitive. Two ankle injuries in five fights is not bad luck, it’s a recurring problem. At the very least, it’s a pattern, and opponents haven’t even begun to target his calf with kicks yet.

There is only one real solution, and it’s being careful. That’s not a fun, flashy answer, but O’Malley is likely to run into this issue again if he’s not measuring his kicks more often. It’s only truly safe to commit his full power to a kick when he has an opponent fully tricked, when the setup is perfect.

Otherwise, he’s rolling the dice with his own body. O’Malley remains an incredibly bright prospect at 25 years old, but if quick footwork is the basis of his success, the health and mobility of his legs must be a priority.

For complete UFC 252: “Miocic vs. Cormier 3” results and play-by-play, click HERE!