Fighting as a Taller Fighter

What NOT to do, courtesy of Peter Aerts

International Kickboxer Magazine, Vol.17, No.1

If I landed a shot for every time someone said my height was an advantage, I would never have lost a sparring session. The annals of K1 are littered with tall fighters who have at one time or other, ruled their division or at least made a lot of trouble for everyone else. There are, or course, fighters like Ray Sefo, Gokhan Saki and Chalid Die Faust who, scraping six feet and weighing not much more than 100kgs, also create a lot of trouble of their own. This has everything to do with exploiting the weaknesses of fighters taller than them. In short – it’s one thing to be tall, but quite another thing to take full advantage of it.

The most dominant K1 champ in history is Semmy Schilt. His height and weight are obvious assets, but beneath a seemingly awkward style is an ingenious approach that makes the most of his natural advantages. By examining two of his fights, both against Peter Aerts, you can see how the assets of Schilt’s physicality are fully exploited and then, thanks to the greatness of Aerts, eventually used against him.

First up, let’s talk fundamental physics. The longer the and heavier the lever, the more power delivered at impact, provided it’s moving fast. Speed is the stand-out distinction between boxers and kickboxers. Kickboxing allows fighters to push, so therefore, many of their strikes, especially punches, have contact before they have velocity. Boxers, however, know they have to be quick to land a strike, but also to generate power. A taller fighter will have longer, heavier levers, and provided they work on their speed, they will hit harder than a shorter fighter of the same weight.

The most obvious visible advantage of being taller is that your head is a lot harder to reach. Punching up also drains strikes of their force, so a tall fighter should always seek to stand up and over their opponents. A less experienced fighter (like me) tends to bend down, in the hope of making himself as small a target as possible. This might instinctively feel better, but like most things in fighting, has to be undone and reworked through many hours of focused sparring.

The third of a taller fighter’s advantages is their reach. When people talk about reach, they mean, most simply, the ability of one fighter to hit another one first. The principal weapon in the Schilt arsenal is his front kick. He uses it less to inflict damage and more to position his opponents for a punch or round kick. Schilt uses mainly straight kicks and punches. This is because he understands it is one thing to hurt his opponents, and another to beat them. He maintains all his assets by keeping other fighters at a distance.    

More than any other skill set, K1 is a banquet of advantages for a taller fighter. The use of knees means that for a shorter person, there is no safe distance. Shorter fighters have to battle past the kicks and punches to get in range for their own strikes and then once inside they have to deal with the knees, which are probably Schilt’s most dangerous weapon – just ask Glaube Feitosa, or Paul Slowinski!

The 2007 K1GP Final saw an ever-gutsy Peter Aerts fall victim to Schilt’s third consecutive K1 title. The two minutes of that single round showcase everything not to do against a taller fighter.

Semmy has an undeniably ungainly style. From the bell, the majority of his strikes are straight punches and kicks, predominantly off his leading leg. This is because the initial stages of the fight are all about Semmy trying to keep Aerts at bay. When Aerts finally gets in, Semmy leans back to get his head out of danger and brings up the knee.

Aerts is well-prepped, but undeniably fighting on Schilt’s terms. He lands the occasional overhand and blocks Semmy’s knee, but is soon dropped by the sheer force of a round kick. Aerts continues to try and bluster his way in, striking whatever he can reach before tying Schilt up. Semmy allows this, but always stands up and over. This is safer and also has the advantage of making him look dominant to the judges.

Referee Kakuda separates the fighters and shortly after, Schilt drops Aerts with a succession of quick jabs with 1 min left in the round. ‘Just’ a jab doesn’t fully describe Semmy’s power. He once KOed Ray Sefo, and fractured Bjorn Bregy’s skull so badly at Final Elimination in 2006 that he still doesn’t have any feeling in his teeth on his right side and his vision disappears in that eye when he lies down.

Peter Aerts and his trainer, Jan Plas, had done their homework by the time Schilt and Aerts met again, this time at Final Elimination last year. Schilt leads off with a push kick and Peter grabs the leg and redirects it. This throws Semmy off-balance and turns him to one side, allowing Aerts to get close enough to start punching. If there is one thing Semmy doesn’t cope well with it’s being on the back foot, and leaning backwards to keep his head out of range seems to make this worse. Aerts backs Schilt up so that he can’t retreat and has to cope with flurry after flurry of punches. The other positive of Aerts being so close is that without room to extend, Semmy simply can’t generate as much power.

Aerts fights at a more measured pace than he has previously, making good work of negotiating the distance. When outside, he peppers Schilt’s thighs with a succession of well-timed low kicks. When left without an option, simply landing the kick means he can keep scoring.

It’s a fairly simple approach, and with the assistance of a liberal referees’ attitude to holding, Aerts lands enough techniques and manages enough of a show of dominance to earn the judges’ decision. He seems to focus most of his punching attacks to Schilt’s head, however, and could perhaps have made better use of Schilt’s body.

Having once sparred a man who was 7’2” I remember being close enough to understand what was so great about getting inside the reach of a taller fighter. The targets, especially the openings along the ribcage between hip and elbow, are enormous. Being that close allows you to hook and rip up into the floating rib. The solar plexus is also close and difficult to defend. When Chalid ‘Die Faust’ Arrab fought Ernesto Hoost in 2006 at the GP Final he brought the fight to a very close draw on the basis of his exceptional hand skills. He exploited these larger targets and larger openings, staying inside the range of Hoost’s maximum extension. He struck the body to bring down the hands and then threw overhand punches up and over the taller man’s lowered guard. A shorter man is also in a better position to uppercut to the chin and Arrab made full use of this, testing Hoost to the limits of his skill, almost delivering a major upset.    

There are many advantages to being tall, but they come at a price. When you understand the asset and watch a fighter like Schilt, you realise that his record isn’t simply the result of a mere physical advantage. It has everything to do with a well-conditioned fighter who has a smart, strategic gym behind him.

 Aerts’ second bite of the cherry.

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