It’s been a slow start to the year in MMA. UFC 208 didn’t live up to expectations, Bellator 172 lost its main event and the sport’s biggest stars are either on sabbatical or on the verge of retirement. Yet things will pick up with UFC 209. A welterweight title fight and one of the best lightweight match ups in recent history headline a card that will be followed by the returns of Daniel Cormier, Jose Aldo, Stipe Miocic, Joanna Jedrejczyk and many more. The champions are coming. Yet before we get into the ‘busy season’ tucked away between the announcement of GSP’s return and Cris Cyborg’s USADA clearance was UFC Fight Night 105. There wasn’t much expected of this card. It was lacking in star power and didn’t have implications at the top of any weight class. Yet it was surprisingly enjoyable.
Derrick Lewis defeated Travis Browne by knock out in the second round of the main event as he continues his unlikely ascension up the heavyweight ladder. Browne’s career, meanwhile, has spiralled to a new low. 1-4 in his last 5 fights, Browne has floated into obscurity in the heavyweight rankings. While a change in camp doesn’t necessarily mean a renewed charge towards to the top, he can’t stick to what he’s been doing recently if he ever wants to be a contender again.
While most of the media headlines were about Lewis’ win, his post-fight interview and Browne’s startling decline, one of the other major talking points was the emergence of Gavin Tucker.
Gavin Tucker’s UFC debut coinciding with Georges St. Pierre’s return can only be a good thing for MMA in Canada. A mini Mecca of MMA when GSP was in his pomp, Canada has suffered in recent years. The UFC exit and subsequent prolonged absence from competition of Rory Macdonald coupled with a lack of rising stars has hurt Canadian MMA. Yet in Tucker, they seemed to have found that elusive rising star again.
Tucker looked good in a comfortable victory over Sam Sicilia. To understand how Tucker defeated Sicilia, it is imperative to understand foot positions and lead foot dominance. When fighters stand in opposite stances, one in southpaw and the other in orthodox, both the centre lines are hidden behind the respective fighter’s lead shoulder and hence harder to hit.
Stepping to the outside of the opponent’s lead foot gives a fighter the angular advantage over his opposite stance wielding opponent. This is the establishment of lead foot dominance. A fighter with lead foot dominance can attack with both hands and feet while his opponent’s power hand is being blocked by his own body.
Tucker put on a masterclass of lead foot dominance in Halifax. From the very first exchange, he stepped outside Sicilia’s lead foot every time he entered to strike. This gave him the advantage in the exchange allowing him to land hooks and straights without much danger of a counter.
On the odd occasion that Sicilia established lead foot dominance, Tucker moved backwards and exited range quickly. The only time that Tucker surrendered lead foot dominance was when he would step inside to throw a high kick.
Another interesting aspect of Tucker’s performance was his ability to switch stances while striking. He used a darting left and from the southpaw position and ended it in an orthodox stance. This technique has been regularly employed by Alistair Overeem among others. Tucker’s ability to switch stances almost at will and attack from different angles made it very difficult for Sicilia to suss his game plan out. Stance switching provided Tucker with a plethora of options and the unpredictability of what was about to come seemed to overcome Sicilia. Duane Ludwig, a devout teacher of stance switching has often hailed its benefits not only in opening up options for the fighter whilst in either stance but also the possibilities it creates in the transitional phase between stances. Dominick Cruz and TJ Dillashaw use this transitional phase excellently to fake movements, open up striking options and land takedowns. While it’s premature to compare Tucker to the two greatest bantamweights of all time, his comfort in both stances and elusive footwork show the potential he has.
Yet in order to fulfill that potential, Tucker will have to face sterner opponents, Sicilia didn’t ask too many questions of Tucker. He virtually stood in front of him and let Tucker pick him apart. Feints, takedowns attempts and clinch fighting would have forced Tucker to break his rhythm however Sicilia didn’t do any of them. He seemed content waiting for an opening to throw a power right hand which never presented itself. When Sicilia did attack with some vigour (after his corner berated his performance), Tucker did a good job of circling away to avoid the power punches showcasing solid defensive prowess.
Tucker’s finest moment came in the third round when he used a leg switch to trick Sicilia into anticipating a high kick and instead threw an uppercut on the exposed jaw as Sicilia rotated his guard to protect his temple. It was a beautifully set up and flawlessly executed and was just a snippet of Tucker’s dominance in the fight.
The UFC featherweight division is beginning to heat up. Aldo and Holloway are set to clash soon, Yair Rodriguez is on the rise and fighters like Edgar, Pettis, Lamas and Swanson are still around. While it’s too soon for Tucker to be matched up to any of them, he does have massive upside. His next opponent in all likelihood will not be as one note as Sicilia was and should present Tucker with a new set of problems. We’ll get to know a lot more of his abilities and career trajectory over his next few fights but this was an excellent introduction, one Tucker can be proud of.