Working Off the Jab

Yusuke Fujimoto at the business end of bad news:

International Kickboxer Magazine, Vol.17, No.4

Sam Greco says that the jab is a fighter’s yardstick; if you can reach your opponent with your jab, then you are at effective range for all other weapons. A good, solid jab is the foundation of kickboxing technique. It is important to make a distinction at this early point, however; a kickboxer isn’t the same animal as a Thai boxer. For a kickboxer, the jab is a close-range weapon. For a Thai boxer, the jab is a middle-range weapon. In Thai boxing, punches don’t score the same value as other techniques, so Thais tend to use punches for closing the middle distance. The great success Ramon Dekkers had when fighting in Thailand really foregrounded the importance of Western-style boxing; instead of simply closing for elbows and knees, Dekkers worked to outbox the grapple, often with devastating results.    

In the West, Dekkers’ example revolutionised the way people conceived kickboxing technique. Karate stylists like Semmy Schilt still often choose to lead with their legs, these being the longest-range weapons at their disposal. It works especially well for Semmy. He can keep opponents at the end of his impossibly long reach and then lean in with powerful, if rudimentary hands. This had been working pretty well for him, until lately.

Badr Hari is the first fighter close enough to Semmy in height (there are 4 inches between Hari at 6’6” and Schilt at 6’10”) to really trade hands with him. The ‘It’s Showtime’ promotion at the Amsterdam Arena on 16 of May this year must have given Semmy something to think about; Hari got in close enough to throw some punches and the whole affair was over inside one round. Semmy sat on the canvas, blinking and wondering what happened. There were a few things in play, all worth discussing. In fact, Hari’s climb through the heavyweight ranks can be charted alongside his wildfire improvement in technique. All the tools were obvious from early on, but foregrounding his lightning-fast, well-timed jab has been the cornerstone of his ongoing success.

The first time I really saw Hari was when he fought Peter Graham at the 2006 K1 WGP held in New Zealand. His arrival in the ring was preceded by two events; his spectacular first round KO dispatch of Stefan Leko by way of spinning heel kick the year before and his brawl with Graham at the press conference a few days prior. Graham entered the ring with a scowl; he was there to earn a place at final elimination and entry to the upper echelon of K1 which had always eluded him. Hari was 21, had a spectacular record and was about 20 kilograms lighter. What were we to expect from this egotistical, lip-synching beanpole, obviously sent downunder by the K1 organisation to cut his teeth?

Graham set to work like a man with a karate axe trying to cut down a beanstalk. His power was formidable but Hari stood up straight, covered his head and allowed Graham to back him up onto the ropes. A lot of the action took place at short range; Graham leading with an inside low kick to deliver his punches and finishing with an outside round. Hari stayed closed through these attacks and retaliated, always finding the spot. Graham’s resolve eventually decayed into frustration; there were no visible signs of hurt and Hari got the best of almost every exchange, repeatedly hacking into Peter’s thighs with his razor-sharp shins. Hari counter-fought his way to the final bell, when Peter ripped out his trademark Rolling Thunder and put Hari flat on his back.

It took some time on the sidelines waiting for his broken jaw to heal before we saw Hari again. When he fought Paul Slowinski at the K1 Final 8 in 2006 it was a battle of the rising stars; Slowinski was now the protégé of Mr Perfect, Ernesto Hoost, and Hari was just beginning to develop a reputation, both as a result of his obnoxious antics outside of the ring as well as in it. That day, Hari gave Slowinski a masterclass in technical kickboxing finesse. Significant about this fight is that we saw Hari really using his reach. He fought at a distance, using long, straight punches to create opportunities which allowed Paul the occasion to showcase little more than the durability of his chin.

Ernesto Hoost, while commentating one of Hari’s fights, made the comment that rather than having fantastic boxing skills, it was more a case that, “He knows the timing.” Facing off against Glaube Feitosa in 2008, another karate fighter, Hari unveiled his now-lethal jab. It had been sharpened by new trainer Mike Passenier to a near-lethal point. Hari has a very Thai style; his hands are carried very high and he steps from foot-to-foot, setting his rhythm. His jab comes off this. It is the text-book example of what a jab should be; it is used to jam the opponent’s rhythm. By reacting to the jab, the victim will close his eyes and be knocked back onto his heels. This leaves him prone for the leg kick, or whatever is to follow. If you watch Hari’s fights from Slowinski onwards, his opening attack is a left jab, followed by a right low round kick. And they always land. This is because, as Hoost pointed out, he can read that instant when his opponent is vulnerable.

By the time Hari fought the Japanese Yusuke Fujimoto for the K1 under-100kgs title, it was almost a foregone conclusion. Hari probably threw less than ten techniques in total; his first jab landed and knocked Fujimoto down for the first eight count. Shortly after action resumed came the fatal head kick and Fujimoto was lying on his back, wondering where all the lights came from.

The most popular approach to kickboxing is a hands-first, legs-later approach. The longest weapon, and the first to pierce an opponent’s comfort-zone, is the jab. It has to be sharpened to a point in terms of rhythm, speed and force. Once developed, it will be the tool you can use with the efficiency of a can-opener to open your opponent’s defences.

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