Rising contender, Marlon Vera, will look to take out another former champion, Dominick Cruz, this Saturday (Aug. 13, 2022) at UFC San Diego inside Pechanga Arena in southern California.
Sometime back in 2018, a flip switched in Vera, He was bullied in a couple consecutive fights by power punches, and he seemingly decided then and there that he would be the one doing the bullying moving forward. His results since then have been largely spectacular, breaking opponent after opponent by endlessly marching them down and constantly attacking. Of course, an excellent chin and deep gas tank make that strategy a great deal more feasible. This weekend, Vera will take on the antithesis of his style in Cruz, who is the polar opposite of a straightforward pressure fighter.
Let’s take a closer look at the finisher’s skill set:
The best word to describe Vera’s striking is punishing. He’s developing heavy offense at every range, from his long distance kicks all the way to nasty elbows and knees from within the phone booth.
As mentioned in the intro, Vera has largely adapted a pressure fighter style, seemingly in response to his defeats to John Lineker and Douglas Silva de Andrade. After all, Vera cannot get backed into the cage and beaten up if he’s the one walking down his opponent down. Add in the fact that Vera consistently targets his opponent’s body, and he’s an exhausting man to fight who commonly picks up steam as fights wear on.
Vera’s distance and body work begin with his kicks. Primarily a Southpaw, Vera actually does great work with both legs. The classic Southpaw left kick to the open side is naturally a big weapon for him. “Chito” kicks powerfully and with good form, meaning a minimal amount of setup (i.e. a quick feint or slap of the lead hand) is all that’s required to let it rip to the liver or skull (GIF).
That’s pretty standard stuff for a Southpaw, but Vera’s front kick/teep is more unique. Vera really likes to stab his right toes straight into the gut, either as a lead leg teep or more powerful rear leg stab from Orthodox. Often, Vera will double up on the strike, poking his foe in the belly twice to interrupt any would-be counter punches (GIF).
Vera builds off his teep well (GIF). He’ll march his knees, showing one teep then throwing the other after closing a step of distance. Or, he’ll step forward after the teep, closing range into the pocket with punches or crashing into the clinch (more on that in a moment).
The biggest technical improvements to Vera’s game have come in regards to his boxing. At this stage of his career, Vera fights as much from the Orthodox stance as he does in Southpaw, which opens up different offensive options. For example, Vera has really done great work with the jab and right calf kick combination, ripping up his opponent’s lead leg.
Vera’s left jab is a great punch. Since that his dominant hand, Vera’s jab carries real pop and has dropped more than one opponent. Vera will also hook off the jab, and he uses the punch to set up body shots well. Against an opponent covering up along the cage — which will happen at some point given Vera’s relentless pressure — Vera does excellent work in slapping a punch high before slipping over and ripping the liver with a left hook. From either stance, the cross to the mid-section is a big weapon for Vera as well.
Finally, Vera is spectacularly violent in the clinch. The Ecuadorian athlete does well in transitioning directly from punches to wrapping up control of his opponent’s head while they attempt to retreat, allowing him to get in a free shot or two. Attacking with both knees and elbows ruthlessly, Vera makes it difficult for his opponent to tie up all his potential weapons.
An important element of Vera’s clinch attack is just how well he angles his strikes. Knees to the body can be throwaway shots that kind of glance off or fight-finishers, and Vera accomplishes the ladder by really turning his hips and leading with the point of the knee. Against Davey Grant, Vera showed off a rare diversity in elbow strikes by angling up the middle and carving his opponent up (GIF).
While many of these weapons were utilized, Vera actually adjusted his strategy against Rob Font. For the first time in a while, Vera opted to fight at distance, often doing his best work with counter shots. At distance, Vera began to establish himself with low kicks and jabs, but Font was still landing well with his combinations.
The problem for Font, however, was one of durability. See, Font is a regular human being. When people hit him hard, he feels it. Vera, on the other hand, has no such limitations. As such, he was plenty willing to fall behind on the scorecards early, get a sense of Font’s timing, then start clipping him.
Vera did a wonderful job of timing Font (GIF). He timed his opponent’s head movement with a step knee, lunging left hook, side kick to the jaw — and these are just the shots that produced knockdowns! Repeatedly, Vera proved that he had his opponent figured out, and he let him walk into big shots.
Early on, wrestling Vera to victory was a very viable path to victory. Nowadays, it’s much more difficult.
Admittedly, Vera is not impossible to take down by any measure. He stands a bit tall, throws lots of kicks, and pressures heavily — none of those elements are necessarily great for takedown defense. Fortunately, Vera’s commitment to body work helps nullify these disadvantages, as no one wants to shoot directly through a teep kick. In short, Vera can be taken down with a well-timed entry to his hips, but anything less than that is unlikely to work.
Offensively, Vera likes to work from the clinch. Often, these trip attempts come after long exchanges of elbows, knees, and pressure in the clinch. Suddenly, Vera will switch his focus to squeezing the body lock and tying up a leg. A simple enough technique on its own, but one made more effective by this mix of tactics.
A jiu-jitsu black belt, Vera has eight wins via submission and many tricks up his sleeves.
Vera has long been quite active from his back. He’s always throwing up his legs in pursuit of armbars and triangles, which is how he picked up his first UFC victory. Opposite Roman Salazar, Vera used the classic triangle setup of jamming an arm between his legs to isolate Salazar’s head and arm. Right away, Vera unleashed a torrent of elbows, which made it easier to secure the ideal angle and attack the arm (GIF).
When opponents try to wrestle, Vera is quick to turn to his jiu-jitsu as a means of takedown defense. He’s attacked with the guillotine and d’arce choke, but his kimura-turned-armbar victory over Brian Kelleher was particularly sweet.
As Kelleher attacked a single-leg takedown (and later high-crotch), Vera tied up his opponent’s arm in the figure four grip. Kelleher decided to complete the trip anyway into top position, but Vera immediately cranked on his shoulder and knocked him off-balance. Without Kelleher’s weight holding him in place, Vera was able to quickly rotate his hips and throw his legs into Kelleher’s face. Extending his hips right away, Vera forced the finish immediately (GIF).
Vera also has a pair of rear naked choke wins inside the Octagon, and his setup here is pretty simple: stun his opponent with strikes first! When “Chito” has an opponent hurt, he’s quite happy to jump the back and sink in a choke if his opponent turns away or takes a bad shot.
Vera has the distance tools to kick the hell out of Cruz and halt his movement, but it’s going to take a lot of discipline to follow that strategy. If Vera fights with any lack of patience, however, he could find himself following directly into Cruz’s hands. After all, “The Dominator” made his career off dealing with pressure fighters.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter 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.
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