Douglas Lima, Jeremy Stephens and Colby Covington have few things in common. They fight at different weight classes. They stand at different heights. They even train in different states. Yet all three fighters could be viewed as poster boys for the effective use of a quickly growing offensive technique: the calf kick. It is an old-school attack that has gone viral in the sport, as it debilitates unsuspecting opponents and often decides the outcomes of fights.
A calf kick’s effectiveness is subtle and can vary. Similar to a body punch, it serves as “money in the bank,” where the rewards can be withdrawn early or later. You see it land, but it is not something that registers an obvious reaction from the victim. It is not flashy like a looping haymaker. It does not draw blood. It does not emit an audible slap like a kick to the quadriceps or abdomen. Yet in the last year, fighters from all stylistic backgrounds are using the move constantly -- and with great success.
The Bellator MMA welterweight title bout between Douglas Lima and Rory MacDonald on Jan. 20 was a prime example of how calf kicks work. From the outset, Lima attacked the lead leg of his Canadian counterpart. By the third round, MacDonald’s left shin was so swollen it looked like he had a calf muscle on both sides of his leg.
The situation was so dire for the title challenger that he went from a fighter known for his cerebral style to a desperate wrestler hoping to relieve the throbbing pain in his lower extremity. “I would say this one was the worst, as far as pain goes,” MacDonald said during a subsequent appearance on “The MMA Hour.” This is a man who had his nose smashed so horrifically in his rematch with Robbie Lawler that it made him double over in agony. Yet this subtle attack delivered results that ranked higher on his pain spectrum.
If that fails to make you a believer, then consider the UFC 215 showdown between Gilbert Melendez and Jeremy Stephens. In that three-round encounter, Stephens landed 32 of 35 kicks to the leg, per FightMetric. Midway through the match, Melendez -- one of the toughest and most durable fighters in the sport’s history -- was all but begging his opponent to jump into his guard so he could get off his feet. The aftermath of this low-kick bombardment left the former Strikeforce lightweight champion with a lower leg that resembled a freshly cased sausage.
So what makes this technique so different from other kicks? “I think it’s just a very simple and practical tool that people aren’t used to seeing, [and] it doesn’t require a lot of flexibility,” Legacy Martial Arts striking coach Dr. Paul Gavoni said. The BloodyElbow contributor has worked with fighters like Brad Pickett, Matt Schnell and Jordan Young during a nearly two-decade-long career. When trying to get his fighters to understand the kick’s usefulness, Gavoni actually had them watch the aforementioned Melendez-Stephens fight. “It’s not sexy like a spinning back kick or a high kick, but man is it simple and effective,” he said. The strategy worked and turned non-believers into converts. Soon after viewing the fight, all of Gavoni’s fighters were throwing calf kicks in practice.
The technique is simple and easily taught. You do not need to be a physical specimen to perform it, and it does not require much energy to attempt. Yet its appeal goes further than that. The kick’s placement, outside of danger while inflicting it, makes it unique. “I think what makes it attractive is that you can’t really grab the kick, either, for a takedown,” said longtime striking coach Ray Longo, who has trained former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders Chris Weidman and Matt Serra. He was quick to point out the technique is just as crippling to nerves in the lower leg as other kicks are to the upper leg. “Whereas you would once target the femoral nerve [in the upper leg],” Longo said, “there’s other nerves down by the bottom of the calf that really make that a dangerous kick.”
To further the point, Longo mentioned the lightweight title bout between Michael Chandler and Brent Primus at Bellator 180. Early in the matchup, Primus landed two benign-looking low kicks. However, soon after the second one landed, Chandler lost complete stability in the ankle area of his lead leg. Many viewers thought the former champion had broken his ankle. Yet when asked about the injury by ESPN, the fighter claimed he actually had temporary nerve damage. “[The nerve damage] pretty much shut down the whole lower part of my left leg. I wasn’t able to step anymore,” he said. “It’s called foot drop. Basically, you can’t lift your foot.”
In that case, we had an early withdrawal from the calf-kick bank; and just a couple of those kicks were enough to make a major MMA title change hands in a matter of minutes. “Because it’s new, I don’t think anybody really respected it,” Longo said. “They didn’t think anything could happen. They were so used to getting kicked in the thigh. Then when you realize, ‘Man, this is a problem,’ it’s too late.”
Covington and his coaches have clearly seen the value of this kick in rounding out his offensive game. It was a key element in his attack against Brazilian grappling savant Demian Maia on Oct. 28. “Colby’s game plan was a simple one: Keep it on the feet and win the striking battle,” said Mike Thomas Brown, who trains Covington at American Top Team. “The calf kick was a weapon we knew would be effective on another southpaw.”
The other southpaw Brown references is Dong Hyun Kim, who was Covington’s opponent before Maia. Another accomplished grappler, he was also the recipient of a serious kick output from the American Top Team rep. In the Maia and Kim fights, Covington landed an average of 19.5 kicks, many of them aimed at the calf. This is a major departure from his two previous fights, where he landed an average of 4.5 kicks per bout against Bryan Barberena and Max Griffin. “I think Colby has been developing a strong, dynamic kick game for the past several years,” Brown said. For a fighter trying to evolve beyond being just a strong wrestler, there may be no better technique on which to build.
As this beguiling weapon continues to go spread through MMA gyms across the globe, fighters will need to better prepare for it. Gavoni and Longo feel more fighters will soon learn to defend the kick, which comes in the form of turning up the leg at a 45-degree angle to give the rebuttal of a painful shin-on-shin block.
Fighters have used this defensive technique recently, a prime example being Yoel Romero early in his recent scrap with Luke Rockhold. In the first round, the Cuban countered his opponent’s low kick with the above-mentioned block. It resulted in a cut to Rockhold’s shin. Little by little, the talented kicker became a less talented boxer. That did not work out well for the former UFC middleweight champion.
Just learning calf-kick defense is not enough. “The more of those you do, if you have the gift of flexibility, you can start faking low and kicking high, and that becomes a real problem, too,” Longo said. “Even if you don’t have kick offense, you better know kick defense,” Gavoni said. “Otherwise, you’re going to be in trouble.”
Calf kicks have existed for quite some time in the sport. Ricardo Arona used them during his days in Pride Fighting Championships. Yet it took over a decade for the move to finally become popular and start affecting a larger number of fight outcomes. In MMA, the defensive learning curve can be quite slow when counteracting new and unique offensive tactics. If the last year is any indication, the calf kick is here to stay, and it will continue to be a staple of fight cards the world over.