The Striking of Igor Vovchanchyn: Bear Slaps and Defense
Igor Vovchanchyn in his hey day was perhaps the most feared mixed martial artist on the planet and had unparalleled success under the one night tournament format of old school no holds barred fighting. In the first installment in this three part series I dissected Igor's pioneering use of punching while on the retreat to prevent grapplers from clinching him and to drag them out of their depth on the feet. In the second part we turned to Igor's fabled "Russian Hooks" (variously called "Corkscrew Swings" or "Casting Punches") and his fondness for landing strikes with the top of his fist rather than the front of it in order to maximize his limited reach. In this installment we will discuss another peculiarity of Vovchanchyn's striking, his use of "Bear Slaps" or palm strikes to damage opponents over short distances, and his excellent head movement.
Vovchanchyn's roots were in bareknuckle, no holds barred fighting. This is important to remember because his style of striking would have been largely affected by this. Spending much of his early career with no gloves, and having few weapons to defend himself other than his ungodly punching power, the health of Igor's hands took priority. A boxer with "glass hands" will have a hard and painful career but has eight or ten ounce gloves to soften the blows. A bareknuckle fighter with recurring hand injuries loses the use of his primary weapons altogether.
In efforts to protect the hands which he routinely threw like meaty bricks, Vovchanchyn would often utilize strikes with the heel of his palm or his open hand. When throwing the flurries of looping hooks which became a trademark of Vovchanchyn, Igor would often intersperse open handed swings for numerous reasons:
- To save his hands, which could often get damaged in the middle of exchanges by misjudging the position of an opponent and striking their skull or elbows.
- To feel where his opponent was in the middle of an exchange and to stop them moving their head in one direction.
- To maneuver the opponent's head into Igor's next punch.
This gif appeared in the previous article of the series, as it illustrates brilliantly Igor's long right hook, but it also shows an effective use of his open handed slaps. Watch as Igor uses his lead hand to feel for the opponent's head and slap it in line with his powerful punch. These sort of feeling strikes use little power and were of a great help to Igor who often took his eyes off of his opponent to bob and weave.
In addition to this sort of palm strike on the feet, Vovchanchyn also had enormous success striking from the bottom with his palm heel. While it was not pretty or spectacular, much of the time opponents spent in Igor's underdeveloped guard was plagued by closed fist palm strikes as Igor slapped the back of their head and ears with the inside of his wrist, palm and occasionally his "door knocking" knuckles. These strikes slipped under the radar for the most part, but following his first fight with Mark Kerr, Kerr was filmed (for the excellent documentary The Smashing Machine) telling Vovchanchyn that these strikes had opened up a cut on the side of his face while he was inside Vovchanchyn's guard. Vovchanchyn also used palm heel strikes in the brief instances that he was upright in the clinch and when Kerr was holding one of his legs off of the ground.
Using the inside of the wrist and palm heel to bloody up an opponent at close range has been utilized by some fighters in recent years but has still not been adopted as readily as it should. BJ Penn is famous for uppercutting his opponents with remarkable power while he is hopping on one leg, defending a takedown. Much of this power comes from the fact that he is connecting with the ungloved inside of his palm, and not having to bend his wrist and an awkward angle to connect on an unnatural arc. Rambaa Somdet, the former Shooto champion who came to MMA late with a purely Thai boxing arsenal, also used this technique to gruesomely close the eye of Hiroyuki Abe which forced a doctor's stoppage.
Junior dos Santos also throws punches which, to the boxing fan, look ugly. Connecting often with the inside of his palm or wrist, he has enormous success in short distances and throwing in combinations on covering opponents. In this rather grainy gif of his fight with the badly declining Gilbert Yvel, notice how his 3 right hands are thrown with the the palm. This sort of strike protects the fingers and connects with a hard, unpadded surface, andis an excellent way to exploit the rules of mixed martial arts.
A final note to be made regarding Igor Vochanchyn's still under-evaluated striking style is on his defense and evasions. Igor Vovchanchyn came from a boxing background before making the move to kickboxing and then to MMA. Though his offensive skills seemed wild and uneducated, his defensive movement was remarkably sound from a boxing perspective. Following his initial lead (in the form of a left hook, a thrusting left uppercut, or an overhand right), Vovchanchyn would duck out to the left or right of his opponent, avoiding their return and closing the distance to continue his salvo. This skill really came to light when he closed the distance against top level strikers despite carrying a 68 inch reach (which is considered short on Thiago Alves, as a welterweight). Against Masaaki Satake and Gilbert Yvel, Vovchanchyn looked masterful, and a far more technical striker than he did against the many grapplers he had dispatched. To see Igor's excellent use of bob and weave in MMA, take a look at this short clip from his fight with Gilbert Yvel (then in his athletic prime).
Throughout his entire career, few had success against Igor by trying to box with him. The only person who can claim a KO victory over Vovchancyhn was Mirko Cro Cop, who used his excellent left straight to make Vovchanchyn utilize his excellent head movement and duck right in to Mirko's high kick. Aside from Cro Cop, the only opponent (including Ernesto Hoost, Gilbert Yvel, Masaaki Satake) who found success in exploiting Igor's head movement was the unlikely Gary Goodridge. Goodridge announced before meeting Igor the second time that he had noticed Igor was vulnerable to knees when he was ducking low. Despite having announced this to the world, Goodridge went on to have success against Igor with it anyway, before being caught (as in the first meeting) with an enormous punch which sent him stumbling to a TKO loss.
It is my hope that this trilogy of editorials has done something to remove Igor from the bubble in most fans minds marked "brawler", and put him in the technician camp as he deserves. A sterling record, results against top quality fighters, and an unprecedented effectiveness against grapplers should ensure that study of Igor Vovchanchyn's bag of tricks proves valuable to strikers hoping to compete in MMA for the foreseeable future.
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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