The Striking of Igor Vovchanchyn: "Russian Hooks"
Igor Vovchanchyn, Ukrainian superstar and pioneer of the striking game in No Holds Barred fighting, seems a peculiar man to have brought kickboxers to the main stage of MMA. Igor's offense was notably almost completely devoid of jabs, and lacked straight punches, for the most part, period. Yet he had enormous success against Jiu Jitsu players who had spent their entire martial arts careers proving how easy it was to step inside and clinch up against the kind of wide bombs which Igor was known for.
One of the brilliant assets of Igor's career from a spectator's or an analyst's standpoint is that he had almost 70 fights in Mixed Martial Arts after supposedly having been bored with a 40+ fight kickboxing record, which he in turn transferred to after boxing for several years. There is a menagerie of fight film available of Igor Vovchanchyn and the same strategies seem to work time and again for him in these videos despite the perception that he was a limited and wild fighter.
In the first part of this series I examined Igor's use of retreating punching. It was not as polished as that of Anderson Silva or of Fedor Emelianenko, but he pioneered it's use in Mixed Martial Arts and applied it with a power which neither of aforementioned champions could match, despite their notable punch. Many spectators do not notice Igor's fondness for striking on the retreat and instead write the knockout wins he obtained doing this to freak power, yet it is a technique which is present in so many of his fights that it is highly unlikely that he simply lucked into it.
In this part of the series we will examine the far more obvious "eccentricities" of Vovchanchyn's striking arsenal. These are the points which are immediately noticeable to even novice MMA fans such as his "Russian Hooks" in which he turns his thumb knuckle almost toward the floor and swings his arm close to straight.
These are undoubtedly Igor's signature technique. One could watch a silhouette of Igor fighting or even hitting the heavy bag and they would know it was him simply from his unique way of throwing punches. The Russian hooks of Igor Vovchanchyn were advantageous in three ways:
- They could be thrown with the arm almost fully extended - making them the only circular hand strike which was effective in outfighting range.
- They protected his fingers and could be thrown in rapid combinations
- They forced his elbows to flare and his shoulders to instinctively rise to cover his chin. Something he would have to consciously force when throwing orthodox hooks.
Jack Dempsey stated that a punch with has less than a 90 degree bend at the elbow ceases being a hook and becomes a swing, and further advised that the swing should be "cast into the slop bucket". His reasoning was that when one throws a swing in the modern, American style (the knuckle at the base of the thumb pointing toward the ceiling), it is easy to connect with the fragile door knocking knuckles and difficult to connect with the solid, base knuckles. He also reasoned that if one were to keeping the thumb knuckle turned in towards himself it would be very likely to connect first and break also, as shown below.
Of course, this means that the range of a hook is much shorter than a swing, but the lack of a solid surface with which to land on a swing means that they are often completely ineffectual when thrown. What Igor Vovchanchyn did was to turn the swing into a dangerous and lengthy weapon, a "Russian Hook" - so called because they are only really seen from Russian boxers and Igor and Fedor in MMA. By turning the hand over all the way so that the thumb knuckle is facing down one can ensure connection with the base knuckles of the fingers. In MMA gloves, this makes it so that the padding of the glove connects rather than the unpadded and brittle digits.In Karate circles this technique is known as "Furi-uchi" or whip strike. Watching Igor chain them together it is certainly clear why.
The fact that these hooks can be thrown with any slight degree of bend in the elbow effectively means that the reach of a Russian Hook is almost the same as that of a straight! This can certainly be seen in the fact that Igor Vovchanchyn - a short, stocky fighter at 5'8", was able to land by leading with hooks from outfighting range while is opponent was limited to straight punches.
Notice how, in the above gif, Igor's opponent misses with a long straight, yet is still in range for Vovchanchyn to connect a straight armed slap, and a rear hand Russian hook which has almost the same reach. A second reason for utilizing a Russian hook, or turning the punching hand all the way over so that the thumb knuckle faces the floor, is elaborated on by Fedor Emelianenko in his excellent self titled instructional book. The turning of the hand all the way over forces the elbow to come out, which in turn raises the shoulder of the punching arm up to cover the chin. Notice how Igor's right shoulder flows out to almost his his chin, and then as he recovers he tucks his chin behind his left while ducking.
When done right the Russian hook ensures that the chin is protected throughout most of the movement, better so than when many fighters throw a regular hook, as it is hard to force the shoulder to cover the chin without turning the hand all the way over. Notice how tight Igor's lead hooks are against Goodridge, the first one almost looks as if he is throwing a jab in this twitchy gif. The tightness of these hooks, even though they looked wide, was largely responsible for the difficulty opponents had in clinching Vovchanchyn when he was throwing punches.
This is why Fedor Emelianenko was able to come out of so many seemingly wild exchanges unscathed - for all the talk of his being wild, it is hard to pinpoint a counter opening amid the whirling dervish of well protected Russian Hooks he throws against Naoya Ogawa or Gary Goodridge. His dropping of Zuluzinho, who had a much longer reach, was also accomplished by a hand trap and a long Russian hook which was able to sneak around Zulu's guard. It was only when Emelianenko attempted his long hooks in a range befitting of infighting which he exposed himself to counters. Watching his fight with Fujita, Fedor is almost on top of his opponent when he is countered by Fujita's overhand. Fedor finished the fight by dropping Fujita with Russian Hooks and following with a choke - but this time he made sure that he physically pushed Fujita back, establishing range for a long lead hook.
The main fault of Russian hooks are that they can damage the hand. Landing with the correct variation of this technique will save the hand from damage it would suffer throwing a normal swing at range. But conversely, a Russian hook thrown too close or when the opponent moves in unexpectedly can lead to landing with the base thumb knuckle - and is likely responsible for many of Fedor's recurring hand injuries. Vovchanchyn, now a retired restaurant owner whom many thought got out of the sport with his health has also gone on record in interviews to say that he damaged his hands and wrists significantly from poor connections and years on the bareknuckle circuit. The Russian hook is certainly a worthwhile technique to learn, and packs significant power and range, but one must always be careful to measure the distance and anticipate the opponent's movement, or it is possible to land incorrectly and significantly damage the hands. But this happens to even the best, orthodox punchers and is a risk of the fight game.
Jack Slack's first ebook - "Advanced Striking: Tactics of Kickboxing, Boxing and MMA Masters" will feature in depth breakdowns of the techniques and gameplans of 20 of the world's top fighters with demonstrative photography, and will be available around Easter.
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