August 5, 2017

UFC Fight Night 114: Alexa Grasso for Dummies: Do and Don’t Edition

By Schwan Humes

At UFC Fight Night 114 this Saturday night in Mexico City, we have an exciting strawweight fight featuring the previously unbeaten potential superstar and mixed martial art wunderkind Alexa Grasso, who hopes to rebound from a decisive if not uneventful loss to divisional stalwart Felice Herrig. On the opposite side of the Octagon will be the unheralded Randa Markos -- the former TUF competitor has been consistent in her inconsistency as a fighter, but is coming off the biggest win of her career, winning a split decision over former champion Carla Esparza. Stakes are high for both combatants, as Markos seeks to build off her win over Esparza and, for the first time under the UFC banner, put together consecutive wins. But today we discuss Alexa Grasso, and the things that do and don’t need to happen for her to secure a win.

DO:

Work to create scrambles: Markos has a legitimate pedigree as a wrestler. She has flashed elements of that in certain areas, but control is not one of them, as she has been reversed on the ground in multiple fights (Jessica Penne, Cortney Casey, Karolina Kowalkiewicz). This resulted in fighters escaping her grasp or putting her on her back and on the feet, where she is pushed against the cage. (See the Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger and Kowalkiewicz fights.)

Punish her opponent for takedown attempts, while working in the clinch: Markos likes to work from the clinch. She isn’t much of a single or double type wrestler, instead waiting to get her hands on opponents to bully them, get them to the fence, and work inside or outside trips and body lock; this is one reason you strike actively at range. Secondly, Markos isn’t an automatic takedown machine, as she often gets stuck holding opponents against the fence and working knees or short punches before attempting (struggling) to get takedowns. So Grasso needs to punish her on these entries and work in the clinch (knees, elbows, and short punches). This will break Markos down on two fronts, as she will be punished and under duress in these attempts, and wasting energy on them. Also, Grasso can initiate clinch work, thereby taking the play away from Markos and limiting her ability to use or defend takedowns and strikes.

Jab: Grasso has an effective, busy jab; she has to establish it and use it consistently, as well as diversify how she uses it. Markos is the shorter, less refined striker; the jab will expose that and provide the most efficient and risk averse way to control pace and place in the fight. Markos often fights in spots and leans heavily on her athleticism and aggression to land strikes, as well as get into position for and attempt takedowns. The jab will keep Markos outside, control and limit her attacks, bust her up, and highlight Markos’ inconsistent jab and lack of refined footwork.

Punish the body and push the pace: Grasso is known for her pace, and she needs to continue to force Markos to move and fight at a pace that lessens the effectiveness of her style and physical tools. A higher pace doesn’t allow her to secure positions, be defensively responsible, or be measured offensively. It essentially will create more opportunities for Grasso’s savvy footwork, crisp punching combinations, and relentless aggression to dictate the terms of engagement. Punishing the body will blunt Markos’ aggression and dissuade her from executing and engaging, as well as punch a hole in her gas tank, as Markos has faded in numerous fights. And despite having a lot of fights, she still depends on athleticism and a lot of movement instead of pivots, circling, and angles, both offensively and defensively. This means she wastes a lot of time and energy in attempting to maintain the range she likes to operate at and to close distance to get her offense going. Also, for as experienced a fighter as Markos is, her cage IQ (i.e. decisionmaking under duress) is awful; if you give her a reason to make a mistake, she will make one.

DON’T:

Engage in extended grappling exchanges or scrambles: Though Markos’ top control isn’t great, she is a threat in scrambles to regain position or attempt submissions if you engage her long enough. She can also win fights on attempted submissions and positioning, as she did against Aisling Daly and Carla Esparza. Grasso lacks the depth of skill, seasoning, and refined technique to go tit for tat on the ground. She needs to work to get back up and fight for control and strikes, which have been a source of distress for Markos in the past, as shown in fights against Kowalkiewicz, Penne, and Jones-Lybarger.

Get put on the cage (for extended periods): Markos isn’t the greatest takedown artist in women’s mixed martial arts, but she does her best work against the cage. Grasso shouldn’t let Markos force her against the cage where she can excel. Even when she doesn’t get those takedowns, she controls opponents against the cage, sapping their explosiveness, draining athleticism, and limiting their opportunities to get off offensively, i.e. win rounds.

Fight without a sense of urgency: The loss to Herrig was a lot more about Grasso’s inability to make an adjustment or bite down and raise her volume of strikes or level of aggression. She cannot afford to let Markos, a momentum fighter, find her rhythm, confidence, and distance. There is a clear difference in the fights where Markos was able to assert control early (Esparza, Daly, Jones-Lybarger, Herrig) and fights where she wasn’t (Kowalkiewicz, Penne, Casey, Rose Namajunas). If you let her get started early, Markos is fully capable of repeating Herrig’s performance.

Concede ranges: There are clear spaces (outside/clinch) and techniques (jab, right hand, knees) where Markos needs to succeed in order to win, and yes, Grasso will want to avoid those. Yes, she should want to limit the chances she has to work in those ranges. But she has to be willing and able to handle Markos in those spots; it’s much more mental than physical. As Markos knows, in key spots Grasso is huge, and she has to get through those strengths to work her game.
Grasso, however, has to present enough of a challenge that she can safely get back to her areas of strength, or present enough of a challenge to limit Markos’ enthusiasm in taking those chances and executing her game plan. At some point or another, it’s likely Grasso will be put In a bad position or hurt. She needs to be able to mitigate damage done and keep Markos’ momentum from building if and when that happens. This means she needs to be at bare minimum competent in each range. Against Herrig, Grasso conceded kicking/long punching range, which allowed Herrig to move, interrupt her forward pressure, score points, put shots together, and take away Grasso’s vaunted boxing. And while Markos lacks Herrig’s seasoning and savvy, she has the ability and style -- if not the work rate -- to make up for it if Grasso allows this to happen again.

The UFC clearly values Alexa Grasso’s presence and pedigree, and the promotion is maximizing her value and opportunities by having her face a talented but vulnerable veteran. Randa Markos is coming off her biggest win and best performance, so Grasso is being done no favors in her return bout after the loss to Herrig. What I listed are some key concepts, strategies, techniques, and philosophies that will give Grasso her clearest avenue to victory, taking advantage of her athleticism, work rate, aggression, and refined skillset. If she implements these things, I am confident she wins and does so decisively. Make no mistake, this fight was made with the intent of Grasso winning, and if she can’t win, she may find herself in the space occupied by prospects like Kailin Curran and Paige VanZant -- fighters who had the hype, but not the goods.


UFC Fight Night 114: Pettis vs. Moreno takes place August 5, 2017 at Mexico City Arena in Mexico City, Mexico.

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