January 25, 2018

UFC on FOX 27: Justine Kish: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Schwan Humes

On January 27th at UFC on FOX 27, the promotion will welcome yet another entrant into the flyweight division, as blue chip prospect and exceptional athletic talent Justine Kish steps back into the Octagon. Coming off her first defeat, Kish has been out of action for the better part of the year and hopes to restart her career in the newly minted 125-pound weight class. Today we are going to look at the good, bad, and ugly of Kish’s game, and how that will benefit or limit her in this division.


The Good:

Justine Kish benefited greatly from huge physical advantages at strawweight. Though there were many physically gifted fighters in the division, very few of them were as gifted across the board, as Kish was blessed with length, size, physicality, strength, explosiveness, flexibility, agility, durability, and power. Rarely was Kish at a loss in any one area; in the rare instances that she was inferior, it wasn’t by much, and she had numerous other areas that allowed her to navigate any problems created by her opponent. Kish’s physical tools allowed her to enhance her well-crafted offensive striking game and provided a wider margin of error for her defensive gaffes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, these same physical gifts allowed her more freedom when using her underrated, still developing wrestling/grappling game.

At flyweight I would consider Kish to be one of the better all-around athletes in the division, as she will still have a unique blend of physical abilities; she will still be one of the quicker, more explosive, more agile fighters in the weight class. Now that she won’t be the victim of ridiculous weight cuts, she should in fact see an increase in her overall conditioning. This will more than likely allow her to work at a higher pace, throw more volume, and be able to draw on the reserves in her body so that she can explode multiple times throughout a fight, instead of doing it early, gassing out, and then being worked over late. Basically all the advantages she had in areas of quickness, agility, explosiveness, and activity should be even more pronounced, as she will be facing either women moving up in weight who couldn’t compete with her athleticism, or women dropping down in weight who have a size and strength advantage, but won’t be able to match Kish’s athleticism.

The Bad:

As many benefits as Kish has as a result of her athleticism (i.e. speed, agility, activity, explosiveness), the fact of the matter is the other tools that helped her separate herself from the rest of the division -- her physicality, her strength, and her size -- won’t be nearly the determining factors they were at strawweight. Most importantly, she won’t be able to lean on her durability nearly as much as she has throughout the majority of her career in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Kish won’t be mediocre in any of these areas, but she won’t have the margin for error on the feet or on the ground that she had previously as a result of not just being the better athlete, but also being the bigger, stronger, and more durable athlete. There are multiple women at 125 capable of neutralizing at least half of the physical gifts that make her a unique fighter; without those advantages she becomes just a good fighter.

The Ugly:

Kish, as good as she is in certain aspects of fighting, is for all intents and purposes an attribute fighter. Moving up in weight could backfire because her style and approach has been largely built around certain advantages; when those advantages no longer exist, she may find that her style isn’t really effective, due in large part to a lack of depth in her skills. As seen against Nina Ansaroff and Felice Herrig, when her physical tools weren’t sufficient to navigate the holes in her game, she wasn’t nearly as effective or dynamic as she had shown previously.

Another concern is that the time she spent injured and her tough weight cuts may have in fact done some harm. If the injuries and tough cuts have put a cap on her physical tools, which a fighter moving up in weight and facing better opposition can’t really afford, Kish could have a rough road ahead of her at 125.

Fight Skills

The Good:

Justine Kish is a striker by trade -- she has the length, athleticism, and range of strikes to fight at distance and beat opponents with technical, accurate, diverse, and powerful striking. Kish is a former WMC Muay Thai champion and twenty-fight veteran, with the skills and athleticism to fight using movement and volume like a Jessica Eye or by sticking and moving like a Katlyn Chookagian. However, she instead prefers to use a pressure-heavy fighting style, stringing together organic striking combinations that allow her to back up, break down, or overwhelm the opposition. Once an opponent has been backed up or had her forward progress stymied, she is able to walk into clinches, where she can use a series of double collar ties. This allows her to control opponents, forcing them to the fence and chopping them in half with combinations of knees and short punches to the body, then chipping them up with short punches and elbows. This permits her to break stances, disrupt balance, and create opportunities to get takedowns via head and arm throws or trips, which lead to grappling exchanges that she uses her athleticism to create scrambles in, getting her to neutral or superior positions that afford her opportunities to transition to better positions or submissions.

The Bad:

The problems this game creates at flyweight for Kish are twofold: First off, she wasn’t smoking girls on the feet, as she wasn’t that kind of hitter; secondly, she leans heavily on her toughness to get clinches and go to work in it. At this weight she won’t have the same advantages in physical strength or size or power, meaning this type of fight strategy won’t be easy to enact or maintain due to the size, strength and power disadvantages that will come when moving up in weight. She will have to be much more deliberate in how and when she engages in this type of fight.

What she's going to need to do is set the table for this attack. Her transition from outside to pocket and pocket to clinch needs to be crisp. And the work she does at range needs to be busier and take full advantage of her pedigree as a striker. Kish can use defensively responsible footwork, counter and/or lead, throw straight rights to the head and body, approach behind a jab, throw right crosses, use spinning attacks, and lead or counter with knees, inside/outside leg kicks, body kicks, or push/front kicks. Without her clear physical advantages, Kish is going to have to emphasize her advantages in technique, variety, explosiveness, mobility, cardio, and activity.

The same goes for her work on the ground, as she will have to work a more technical and measured game using her physical tools to enhance what she does, instead of leaning on them as a crutch to enable what she does. There will be a lot of big, strong, physical grapplers who are able to control her or limit her ability to create scrambles and explosive escapes out of bad positions. More importantly, there are more than a few fighters with the technical skills, takedowns, and ground and pound to make her pay for her lack of structured approach when engaging on the ground.

Kish isn’t a fighter who just picked up striking, she has spent extensive time training and competing in that aspect of combat sports. She has developed the skills to present a balanced, technically refined striking game. But although she can do a lot of things, she has chosen to limit herself to one thing: apply pressure and walk opponents down. The problem is she has historically shown inconsistent defense at best, and awful defense at worst. Her unwillingness to move behind a jab, or actively use feints to create opportunities to counter or gain clean entries to clinches, has resulted in her getting rocked, backed up, and beat up by fighters who are inferior technical strikers, and in some cases inferior athletes. This caused her trouble at 115, but will most likely get her killed against fighters like Claudia Gadelha, Jessica Andrade, Bec Rawling, Joanne Calderwood, and Sijara EuBanks.

The lack of defensive responsibility is something that goes from manageable to problematic overnight, as a lack of durability instantly changes both her ability and willingness to press without hesitation. The issues on the feet will also have an impact on her ability to wrestle and grapple opponents. Kish hasn’t shown the power to back opponents up consistently or put them away, but she was able to do enough to make them think before they even attempted to get in range to attempt takedowns. And she was still taken down repeatedly by smaller, weaker, less athletic fighters. Now that her power can’t scare opponents off and her physical strength won’t allow her to consistently muscle her way out of takedowns, her defensive footwork and structured, technical takedown defense will be tested even more often, and there are a litany of fighters with the strength, durability, and aggression to fight for and get those takedowns. Fighters like Eubanks, Nico Montano, Barb Honchak, Lauren Murphy, Jessy Rose Clark, and Eye are a few of them; on top of that, these very same fighters have enough top control, awareness, and discipline to take advantage of Kish’s wide open grappling style.

Much like Sage Northcutt, Kish leans heavily on scrambles and explosiveness to get back to her feet, get better positions, or hunt for submissions, and she lacks the layered nuance to work her way out of bad spots or into good ones. Northcutt paid a price when facing more skilled and talented fighters, especially fighters with the size and physicality to offset his agility, explosiveness, and mobility. Similar problems await Justine Kish if she doesn’t show some growth in the areas of technical awareness, defensive responsibility, and comprehensive structured grappling.

The Ugly:

The biggest thing that has held Kish back in her career has been her injuries; it has affected her activity in the cage and her ability to introduce, develop, and perfect techniques and strategies outside the cage, in camps with her coaches and training partners. The impact of this is twofold: it hinders her feel of the game, which helps foster the need to rely on explosiveness, toughness, and athleticism; and because she hasn’t worked on the finer points of her game, it limits her situational awareness and technical refinement. This especially pertains to her grappling, as she has the tools to be effective as a grappler, but has limited experience, which has an impacts on her decisionmaking and the tightness of her game. Much like a Tim Elliot, Kish plays a very high-paced but technically loose grappling game, one that routinely forces her to get out of bad spots, constantly have to get back to her feet, or fight out of submissions. Unlike Elliot, she doesn’t have the seasoning through time invested to navigate the looseness of her game with savvy veteran generalship and tricks when facing quality opposition.

Against talented grappler Ashley Yoder, Kish was taken down, controlled, reversed, and repeatedly threatened with submissions, but she eked out a win. Against Herrig, a seasoned and savvy grappler, she was constantly on the defensive in wrestling and grappling exchanges, fighting to survive and escape, not to control or win. In both instances her lack of technical skill limited her ability to gain momentum offensively, and her awful cage IQ allowed her to pull a Cortney Casey, i.e. staying on your back hunting for submissions instead of getting to positions where the fight is 50/50 or in your advantage.

In striking, Kish has the savvy, versatility, and skills to fight a much cleaner, technical, controlled game. However, she has been unwilling to play to those obvious advantages, picking and choosing what techniques to commit to because her physical tools allowed her to get away with it. In fights against a neophyte striker in Yoder she repeatedly ate front kicks, body kicks, and right hands. Against Ansaroff she refused to jab, and as a result ate repeated jabs, straight punches, hooks, and body kicks. Those issues were overshadowed by the fact she kept winning, but mistakes of a similar tenor cost her as she engaged in pocket exchanges, hooking with a superior hooker in Herrig. This is another example of lack of IQ and situational awareness -- even more so than the grappling -- because she has the background that says she can fight in a more efficient and intelligent manner. She is just unable to make the right choices in approach or specific techniques, and routinely pays for it versus inferior strikers.

UFC on Fox 27 is a reset of sorts. Justine Kish gets to be at a weight that she can make comfortably, one that can allow her to show the full depth of her skills and abilities since she won’t be compromised as a result of weight. Her matchup with Ji Yeon Kim will tell us whether we are getting to see the real Justine, the blue chip prospect who was set to take over a division, or find out that we have seen the real Justine, and she just isn’t very good.

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