What Makes a Good Counter-Fighter?

International Kickboxer Magazine Vol. 17 No.3

Competitive fighting can be viewed as being similar to a conversation; one person talks, one person replies. Each person says what they believe will give them an advantage and hopefully, the upper hand. After all, fighting is all about convincing the three judges, whether it comes by knockout or their considered decision, given the arguments that are presented to them. As a counter fighter, you specialise in replying to your opponent. This means you tend to let the other fighter put his case first, which is difficult for a beginner to achieve; in addition to the pain, being hit is pretty alarming! Counter fighting really depends on a cool head and a sound defence.     

A fighter is ‘advanced’ once he (or she) has a full skill set. This means that when he has to strike, he can do so. It also means that he can effectively defend a punch and check a kick. Until these fundamentals are under control, fighting is going to be brawling, which is a bit like a kindergarten; everyone screams as loud as they can, and all at the same time until the bell goes or they run out of breath.  

After five to ten fights, everyone tends to get sick of running out of breath. That approach doesn’t result in consistently finding the knockout either, and let’s face it, the knockout is the undeniable and spectacular outcome every fighter is hoping for. It is much easier to achieve it when you are picking your shots. Penetrating even the most basic defence requires that you look at what your opponent is doing.       

If, as an experienced fighter you’ve ever trained a beginner, they always ask the same frustrating question, “But if you throw that technique, doesn’t leave you open to being hit with a…?” The answer is that when you attack, you’re always vulnerable in some way. And a counter fighter works to become an expert in the vulnerabilities created by each kind of attack.

Some fighters have one or two favoured techniques. Soren Monkontong is a master of the Thai-style, lean-back-from-a-high-round-kick and retaliate. Being a tall fighter, leaning works perfectly well for him. Leaning is dangerous, especially for shorter people; once a fighter leans back, he separates himself from his feet and can’t get away if there are more attacks to follow. Soren understands how to read the high kick and times his evasion perfectly. Effective retaliation depends on the attack ‘just’ missing, so you can be close enough to strike before your opponent can recover. After the kick glides past, Soren can take advantage of highly vulnerable opponent with kicks or punches of his own.

Mark Hunt, on the other hand, will always be remembered by fight fans as having hooks and uppercuts like lightning bolts. When he arrived in Japan for the GP final in 2001, he was a virtual unknown and not much was expected in the face of seasoned stars like Jerome Le Banner and Francisco Filho. This worked to his advantage, as is almost always the case with underestimation – just ask the recent K1 under-100kgs champion, Keijiro Maeda! Hunt would wait for his opponent to come in close enough and counter an attack with his jab. This initial punch worked as an introduction for the right hand known as the ‘sleeping pill’.

Ernesto Hoost is a true master of counter fighting and it is probably the talent which earned him the title ‘Mr Perfect’, along with his 4 GP victories. Hoost has every technique at his disposal, and his fights demonstrate that his most potent weapon sits between his ears. Each fight is different and Hoost always has a strategy shaped especially for that opponent on the night. And it almost always works; the most significant part of Bob Sapp’s mystique was that, for all his size and hilarious lack of ability, he could consistently defeat Ernesto.

Early in his K1 career, Hoost fought Andy Hug, the famous Swiss Kyokushin Karate fighter at the 1996 GP finals. Hug, from a karate background, was obviously not cued in to either the Thai or boxing elements that make up the K1 skill set, and Ernesto pushed his attack on these aspects. Hoost avoided Hug’s attempts to feel him out with the low kick, and retaliated with short, crisp punch combinations, finally closing distance to mute Hug’s hands with his own. When Hug turtled, obviously unsure of what to do next, Ernesto brought up his knees.

What happened next is the hallmark of Ernesto’s genius. Hug figured out that the knee was probably a good idea, and when they closed again toward the end of the round, Hug brought up his own knee to Hoost’s midsection. When Hug put his foot down, Hoost attacked that leg with a low kick. Even when his opponents begin to catch on and employ his techniques, Hoost has thought of counters for his counters. 

At the other end of his career, Hoost further displayed his trademark ringcraft when meeting Remy Bonjasky in the quarter final eliminations of the K1 GP final in 2004. While Bonjasky won the fight and went on to win the tournament, he came out to the ring looking very nervous. For good reason; the first round showed Ernesto to be very much the teacher. Bonjansky had experienced a dream run the year before, putting away both Peter Graham and Cyril Abidi in a single round before meeting Musashi in the finals. Nobody in K1 had really tested Bonjansky prior to his entry in that tournament, and he had won all of his fights in the year following, also. Hoost, the image of confidence, wasn’t intimidated by Bonjansky’s reputation. And in the first round of the fight, he showcased a vocabulary of techniques that justified his confidence. 

Bonjansky was, and remains, possibly the most spectacular athlete in the competition. His flying knees and kicks have generated a new dimension in the way heavyweight competition is fought. He probably defines the positives of an open weight class like K1 super heavyweight; most ‘big’ fighters (120kgs plus,) simply can’t fight like that. Can you imagine Semmy Schilt delivering a flying knee? He would look like a bulldozer shot out of a catapult! 

Remy’s obvious ‘weakness’ were his hands and conversely, his great strength were his kicks and knees. His early first round KO of Peter Graham by way of knee to the ribcage the year before adequately spelled the dangers. Hoost pressed Remy with his hands, closing distance and kicking to the legs. Bonjansky managed to make some room to his favoured long-range weapons, which briefly pushed Ernesto onto the back foot. When Bonjansky round kicked to Hoost’s leg, Hoost caught it, lifted it to upset Bonjansky’s balance and dumped him onto the canvas. Hoost proceeded to catch most of Remy’s kicks for the next minute, and either rewarded him with a dumping or a kick to his standing leg. The psychology became obvious; Hoost upset Remy’s confidence by punishing him for what he is good at. Hoost scored points, but if you can beat a man mentally, you have him beaten in every sense.      

At the highest level, fighters almost always (unless they have some ‘freakish’ natural ability, like a Mighty Mo hook or Hong Man Choi height,) possess a complete range of techniques for attack and defence. The edge comes from analysis of an opponent. This is where gyms and trainers really are separated by their quality, because a really good trainer does his homework. For a counter fighter, this means watching tapes of a particular opponent to figure out what his approach will be. Analysing which techniques he likes to use and when he’ll deploy them. How he paces his fight. And what his technique and physicality leaves him open to. The best fighters can change how they fight and even change their technique to get an advantage. And all successful fighters have to have the ability to listen to their corner. When you’re under pressure, they can see the fight better than you.         

Bonjasky’s most recent fight against feared MMA fighter and successful Badr Hari-headhunter, Alistair Overeem, beautifully demonstrates this approach. With legend of the sport Cor Hemmers in his corner (Cor is the head trainer at Golden Glory, his most famous student being Ramon Dekkers), Alistair had a rock-solid game plan set out for him. At the opening bell he attacked Bonjansky with a flying knee, Remy’s signature move. For the rest of the fight Alistair stayed in-close, working to make it as much an exchange of punches as possible. He also took every opportunity to dump Remy. Even though dumping Remy did nothing for his score, it did everything to make Remy feel monstered and physically inferior. Bonjansky being Bonjansky, however, succeeded in stealing the fight in its dying seconds when he planted Alistair with a solid right cross.    

Fighting is about technique, fitness and power. Counter fighting, however, requires heavy use of another kind of muscle, namely, the one between the ears. Questions of ability have to be fully resolved through  training and sparring before you get into the ring. No matter what situation your opponent poses on the night, it’s your job to have the answer.

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