The evolution of the calf kick from Arona to Gaethje

Calf kick

Due to the sports youthful age, we are in a constant stage of development in the world of mixed martial arts, witnessing hundreds upon hundreds of new tricks and techniques being carefully constructed and implemented under the bright lights. One weapon used by each and every MMA athlete is the leg kick, a maneuver with the potential of shifting momentum in a fight, or in many cases, ending them.

The leg kick has undergone its own evolution in the past couple of years, with a handful of stars challenging the norm and rectifying the move adopted by so many. An example of this would be the enigma that is Justin Gaethje, who continues to perplex the MMA community through his short and snappy leg kicks, often thrown from inside the pocket; the idea of propelling your leg towards your opponents from anywhere but at range was met with criticism for many years, however, has paid dividends for not only Gaethje but a wide variety of names.

Aside from Gaethje’s own style of kicking questioning the way fighters throw their lower limb, a fairly new move is being added to the skillset of the sport’s elite. This move, named the calf kick, has only begun gaining shine within the last five years (give or take), because of its growing popularity and probability to do damage. We have yet to see any widespread defense to counter the calf kick, making it one of MMA’s more intriguing attacks.

Below you will find a list of people who consistently, and most importantly best, show off the calf kick during their fights. This does not necessarily mean they are the manufacturer — this is just a highlighting of the evolution of this kick, and the most important figures on that timescale.

Along with each athlete will be one shining performance: a fight where they displayed the calf kick to great effect.

Ricardo Arona

Making his professional debut in the year 2000, Brazil’s Ricardo Arona is best known for both his six-year stint in PRIDE and his undefeated run in ADCC, claiming three gold medals in the space of two years. Considering the fact that Arona was a jiu-jitsu specialist — and owned very poor striking — its very odd that he is one of the first fighters to use calf kicks regularly.

After losing to Fedor Emelianenko in just his third pro fight, Arona compiled a six-fight win streak and was signed by Japanese powerhouse promotion PRIDE, who were quick to throw him into the lion’s den.

Following a successful debut against UFC veteran Guy Mezger, the Brazilian Top Team product eagerly returned to the ring to defeat future champion Dan Henderson and Murilo Rua, brother of the legendary “Shogun”.

It was around this time where Arona began showcasing a kick that commentator Bas Rutten referred to as “a low kick,” causing big, sturdy men to wobble on their legs and throw them off the desired gameplan.

Arona, being one of the founding fathers of this kick in MMA, did a poor job at masking the shot, throwing it out naked. Despite this, the opposition was often unable to defend or counter the calf attack, biting down on their mouthpieces and being forced to limp. He would throw this strike at range and frequently use it after absorbing a leg kick of his own. It has quite literally contributed to many wins in Arona’s career, including some of the more high profile names on his win list.

Arona displayed this odd strike on the world’s premier mixed martial arts stage at the time, finding enormous success with it. As previously mentioned, he wasn’t the sole manufacturer but was the first to bring it to center stage on MMA’s grandest tournament — PRIDE’s yearly Grand Prix.

August 28, 2005 – Ricardo Arona vs Wanderlei Silva – PRIDE Final Conflict 2005

The legend of Wanderlei Silva and his unbelievable reign of terror in Japan still remains prominent in the hearts of modern-day fight fans. In the span of four years “The Axe Murderer” hunted and dispatched of 16 men, frequently stealing their consciousness through powerful punches and ironclad knees.

Dropping a split decision to future UFC heavyweight Mark Hunt a year prior, Silva entered August 28 on a two-fight win streak, however, more importantly, held one title Arona was eager to obtain — middleweight champion.

Silva had held the middleweight crown for a solid four years, brushing off each contender as if they were dust. The stage was set: Arona vs Silva, with the winner pressing forward to the finals of PRIDE’s 2005 Grand Prix. 

After a lengthy feeling-out process which included multiple leg kicks on each end, Ricardo Arona sent Wanderlei Silva crashing to the canvas with a stiff calf kick. The main reason his Brazilian counterpart went to the ground was not just the power and tenacity behind the shot, but more the opportune time at which it was thrown.

After avoiding eating a leg kick of his own, Arona immediately fired back just as Silva had reset his posture; limited stability on the lead leg caused for little to no balance.

Arona steps in with a good calf kick, just escaping the pocket as his opponent throws a number of hefty strikes. This is one of the rare occasions the BJJ black belt even considered setting up his kick, using the jab before causing mass amounts of harm with his foot.

Silva, seemingly perplexed by the kick, attempts to counter by stepping forward with winging shots, however, is unable to be mobile due to the calf attack.

At this time in the sport, there was no real answer to an action so fresh yet undervalued. Even in today’s era of MMA fighters struggle to adjust and adapt to the calf kick, which has since skyrocketed in popularity.

Once again, Arona replies to the middleweight champion’s leg kick with a low kick of his own. Silva half attempts to check the strike, but ultimately absorbs the majority of force coming his way.

Arona found the one tool that many athletes hadn’t seen before. Despite it often being referred to as a “traditional” martial arts maneuver, the calf kick had failed to carve its path anywhere near the mainstream, until this jiu-jitsu ace discovered its effectiveness. A man with very poor striking — both offensively and defensively — was now remaining competitive with some of PRIDE’s most fearsome strikers.

Arona would go on to rematch Silva, fight Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, and even calf kick his way to victory against heavyweight kickboxing virtuoso Alistair Overeem. He had offered a different puzzle for striking experts to solve, albeit many years would pass before it was officially lionized within the community.

Benson Henderson

Many, many years had passed before we observed a consistent, efficient use of the calf kick. The strike was used between then, sure, but no singular mixed martial artist performed the exercise to the degree of the aforementioned Arona. That was until a young, taekwondo savvy Benson Henderson took the 155-pound weight class by storm.

Also known as “Smooth,” Benson Henderson is known for his career-high performance versus Frankie Edgar, where he captured the UFC lightweight crown. In addition to reaching the pinnacle of one promotion, Henderson was able to become WEC champion before his UFC days, and this was where he first exhibited the calf kick.

Rather than fire the shot naked and in the open, he had learned from Arona’s faults and began mixing it into his combinations. Henderson was aware that by masking the kick behind punches his adversary would be unsuspecting of what awaited them; this also gifted them little to no time to react. The discovery of this low kick further allowed him to control the pace of a fight, forcing his temporary nemesis to compete at his tempo while painfully jeopardized.

In December 2012, Henderson was set to defend his lightweight title against promotional bad-boy Nate Diaz, who was fresh off a submission win over Jim Miller. The fight headlined the UFC’s fifth card under dealership with Fox, offering Henderson the perfect opportunity to unveil his already accredited set of skills.

December 8, 2005 – Benson Henderson vs Nate Diaz – UFC on Fox 5 

To be completely honest, Nate Diaz isn’t exactly the most elite fighter Benson Henderson has faced. Stylistically the fight was ideal for the champion, who was eager to put an end to the Stockton native’s foul mouthing antics.

Diaz was more than willing to stand and trade with Henderson, preferring to piece him up through his lead leg heavy boxing game — to say this backfired would be a complete understatement; he was the model opponent to showcase calf kicks against. 

From the opening bell, he immediately attacked the long legs of Diaz, looking to reduce his mobility and throw him off his gameplan. The challenger clinched early on because of these kicks but soon fell victim to their ferocity.

As Diaz marches forward it is clearly visible that the majority of his weight is on the lead leg, thus Henderson attacks it with a sweet calf kick. He then circles out and avoids eating any punches.

Taken from the second round of their fight, Henderson can be seen throwing a teep kick to the body. He misses this shot, instantly pivoting out to escape any type of counter strike (this also allows him to reset his stance). Deciding he isn’t done there and wanting to put a bigger stamp on his performance, Henderson disrupts the rhythm of the bout by landing a calf kick shortly after, leaving a battered Diaz wondering how he is going survive the three abiding rounds left.

The lightweight champion, who remained at kicking rage the entire fight, steps in with another formidable calf kick. He uses this to set up his following punch, a lead hook, which narrowly misses the target.

Benson Henderson was the first major athlete in MMA to adopt calf kicks and use them regularly on a big stage. While throwing them naked a lot of the time, he landed much quicker than Arona did and with more precision, still managing to mix them with combinations every now and then. This helps make the strike unforeseen. 

In 2012, he was by far the best calf kicker in the sport, quite possibly in its history, too. Not only was he able to further dictate the outcome of fights through their use offensively, but Henderson also used them as a defense mechanism; when met with pressure or backed against the cage he utilized the kick, ultimately creating an escape route. 

“Smooth” had laid the blueprint on how to deliver heaps of damage with just one simple yet systematic attack targeted toward the lower leg.

Jeremy Stephens

As time went on, more and more fighters embraced the low kick, accepting its place in MMA while adding their own twists and styles to the strike. Some went down the route that Henderson popularized, choosing to conceal the shot within combinations and various other movements. Others took inspiration from the kick’s earliest predecessors, purely concentrating on damage and damage only, no matter how obvious looking. 

Featherweight Jeremy Stephens has sustained the same style of fighting for over a decade. Often throwing both technique and logic out of the window, Stephens intends to cripple each and every opponent by enticing them into the pocket. This method of fighting is exceedingly rewarding for fans, however, can backfire for the athlete when met with a granite chinned power puncher with a good understanding of in-fighting (cue Jose Aldo).

If you have ever watched Stephens perform, you’ll be fully aware of the violence and hostility he brings to the Octagon, therefore it is no surprise he applies the calf kick to great effect. As I see it, he owns one of the best calf strikes in the business today, hence why he makes this list. 

To say it plainly, Jeremy Stephens understands legs kicks. After countering a leg kick from his opponent, Doo Ho Choi, with a shuddering straight right, Stephens felt the momentum shift completely in his favor. Stalking Choi around the cage as he routinely does, the brawler decided to return the courtesy, unloading back-to-back kicks of his own. These kicks, directed at the calf, sent the opposition retreating backward. Moments later Stephens was victorious via monstrous TKO.

Despite his statement win over Choi, his career-best performance came four months prior against former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez, who was once the sports consensus No. 1 lightweight.

The fight was billed as Melendez’s featherweight debut within the organization, but Stephens was more than happy to play spoiler. 

September 9, 2017 – Jeremy Stephens vs Gilbert Melendez – UFC 215

Kicking off UFC 215’s main card was a highly anticipated firefight between Stephens and Melendez, the latter of which was keen to make a mark on the 145-pound weight class. Oddsmakers had the fight between the pair even, but that wasn’t a fair representation of what was to come.

Stephens entered the bout having dropped a split decision to top contender and multi-talented Renato Moicano, whereas Melendez hadn’t tasted triumph since a sloppy slugfest with Diego Sanchez in 2013. Both were hungry, that’s for sure, and it was evident from the outset. 

Melendez frequently relied on his lead leg to carry most of his weight, just like his teammate and good friend Nate Diaz. This is worth noting as it increases its chances of getting hit (when facing an intelligent and somewhat well-rounded opponent, of course). 

Early in the first round, Stephens commits to the legs of Melendez, chopping his lead with a calf kick which briefly sends him stumbling. Uninterested in landing only one strike, he follows this move up with a jab that barely misses the mark.

Stephens begins to mount up his offense by pressing forward with heavy punches. He rounds off his attacking combination with a low kick which Melendez, fortunately, escapes, however recognizing their potential to cause harm, the Strikeforce alumni opts to get in the face of his opponent and keep the pressure high. 

This a common strategy used by those on the receiving end of low kicks; take away the strikers kicking range and the likelihood of them throwing the strike decreases profoundly. Just like Henderson, Stephens (sometimes) used the kick in a defensive manner.

In the clip above, Stephens fakes a 1-2, pulls back to avoid being countered, fakes a jab, and steps in with a hard calf kick. This proves that he has drilled the calf kick extensively and has ingrained it into his game, and at UFC 215, reaped the benefits of this. The opposition could only withstand so much punishment and moments later decided to fall backward onto the mat. 

Although best described as both a brawler and a veteran of the game, he is displaying a willingness to learn new tricks.

After avoiding a big overhand right, Stephens circles out and re-enters the pocket with short steps followed by a calf kick, once again causing his opponent to drop. 

Jeremy “Lil’ Heathen” Stephens uses his calf strikes considerably similar to that of Benson Henderson, both blending in and using them as a defensive appliance. He is able to generate enormous power with hardly any wind up which makes his fellow combatants’ task more daunting and vexatious. 

While he never had a major impact on the move (compared to the two above), Stephens reminded practitioners that you could execute with a cocktail of technique, power, and unpredictability,  escalating its severity.

Currently struggling picking up any form, he will hope to remind fans of his barbaric style in his next outing and reintroduce his forbidding low kick. In a 2019 bout with striking specialist Yair Rodriguez, he was unable to establish the shot, mainly due to his opponents kick orientated and mobile skillset. In fact, Stephens ate a number of calf kicks on behalf of Rodriguez, experiencing just an ounce of the pain he put Melendez through. 

These two above-listed athletes all shaped the calf kick in their own way, taking Arona’s simplistic attack and turning it into a force more deadly. They more notably added a defensive element to the strike which allowed them to abscond menacing circumstances. 

Douglas lIMA

Unbeknownst to casual fans, MMA is so much more than just the UFC. 

In its short yet illustrious history — specifically throughout the modern era — more and more promotions have established themselves as legitimate fight-wielding machines, some rivaling or even surpassing the UFC in particular sections of the globe. This has allowed for an increased number of athletes to make a better living and career.

Arguably the world’s second-biggest mixed martial arts organization, Bellator has proven itself as a household name with an impressive eye for scouting talent. Many of their champions have the skills required to be a top 15 caliber athlete within the UFC — Douglas Lima easily fits this stipulation. 

Lima is a three-time Bellator welterweight champion, holding victories over the likes of Michael “Venom” Page, Paul Daley, and Andrey Koreshkov. In his most recent outing, he dominated Rory MacDonald en route to capturing both the welterweight title and Grand Prix championship, thus making him one of the promotion’s more valuable assets. 

As a fighter, Lima prefers keeping the bout on its feet where he can punish the opposition with brutal kicks and straight punches; these kicks are often targeted towards the calf. He packs enough power to knock out any 170lber and has displayed this on a number of occasions.

Lima showcases his expert timing in this clip, countering a straight punch with a chopping calf kick. The power behind this shot causes his opponent, the flashy Michael “Venom” Page, to lose balance, as he crashes to the ground. Without giving him any time to recover Lima immediately lets loose a stiff uppercut, causing MVP to go limp. Two hammerfists sealed the deal as “The Phenom” was crowned the victor.

He was one of the first mainstream fighters to apply the low kick as a counter strike, leaving his adversaries unable to defend themselves due to their own offense taking priority. 

On top of using it as a counter, Lima has demonstrated good defense when on the receiving end.

The Brazilian takes one leap forward with a strong, extended jab, forcing Andrey Koreshkov to move backward and habitually fire the lead hook as a defensive measure. Lima lands a big calf kick on the half-beat, catching the opposition off guard. Seeking vengeance, Koreshkov looks to land an inside calf kick, only to be met by the knee of Lima; notice how he turns it towards the foot on impact. This is one of the very few defensive exercises we have seen in relation to the calf kick.

January 20, 2018 – Douglas Lima vs Rory MacDonald – Bellator 192

In one of the most enjoyable and hard-fought fights of 2018, reigning welterweight champion Douglas Lima battled UFC alumni Rory MacDonald over the course of five grueling rounds in a bid to determine the promotions best 170-pound athlete. Neither man was willing to accept defeat, pushing each other the brink and dishing out sickening amounts of punishment. 

Despite ultimately losing the contest, Lima put on a great performance and exhibited the use of the calf kick for 25 minutes. MacDonald was able to adjust and introduce takedowns to the fight, nevertheless found his lead leg chewed up. 

Lima not only showed the kick in a countering manner but in an averting and attacking movement, too. He pieced all the parts together to make each calf kick count.

As MacDonald feints and pushes his jab forwards, the Bellator welterweight champion counters with a rough calf kick and moves out of range. MacDonald surprisingly doesn’t react, but quickly closes the distance in order to decrease the likelihood of eating the strike again.

Following a good jab that momentarily off balances the champion, challenger Rory MacDonald continues to be the aggressor. Noticing he is being pressured, Lima hits him with a calf kick (one of, if not the best of the fight so far) and weaves himself out from the cage while avoiding an overhand right.

It is around this time where MacDonald begins to adjust as he realizes that countering calf kicks with punches is not the solution. 

Albeit not securing the takedown (and reacting slowly to the kick), he still shoots as a result of its effectiveness. Lima attempts to land the same uppercut he later caught “MVP” with and switches straight to defensive grappling; he once more trialed the low kick as a counter, throwing it after a good feint from his counterpart.

MacDonald had the upper hand in the clinch and was searching for the takedown in order to control the bout on the mat.

Following an attempted elbow on the break, he returned to the center, anticipating another kick from Lima. This time around — learning from the previous clip — he had his timing down to a tee and proceeded to take the opponent down as opposed to responding with his fists.

Just as weight is applied to the lead leg, Lima rattles his opponent with a calf kick, sending him crashing to the mat. It is here that he unloads more kicks to lower regions, where a defenseless MacDonald lays on his back, maintaining a great poker face.

Shortly after the third round came to a close, and it was within those five minutes that Lima dished out the most punishment with his kicks. MacDonald would need a drastic change to assert total dominance in the fight, and he took one step closer to this in the fourth frame. He began looking for takedowns more frequently and even started this round with an attempted shot; Lima latched onto this plan and made him pay, raining down hard ground and pound while ruling from top mount. 

In spite of showing off his good overall takedown defense, he did a poor job of masking one strike and was driven to the ground. You can see this in the brief clip below. 

Succeeding a lackluster clinch, Lima once again returned to his favored strike, looking to land a kick to the calf of MacDonald. The Canadian, who had been edging closer with his takedown attempts, quite literally jumped forward, obviously wanting to avoid eating the shot.

As previously mentioned, Lima went on to lose the bout and his title, however, has since rematched MacDonald, claiming both revenge and the welterweight championship. 

He has consistently proved himself as Bellator’s very best welterweight competitor through numerous brutal performances and 14 promotional wins. At the time of writing, he is set to challenge veteran fighter Gegard Mousasi for the vacant middleweight title, in what will likely be one of Bellator’s biggest fights to date.

In conclusion to this chapter, Douglas Lima is an outstanding user of the calf kick. In a very short time frame, he has been able to bring together all three aforementioned components to the maneuver, even displaying how to check the kick when on the receiving end of it.

I truly think that he is one of the sports best in this department and remains highly underrated by fans worldwide as a whole. It’ll be interesting to see if Lima can evolve the move even further in the next few years.

Pedro Munhoz

From one Brazilian to another, we land on bantamweight’s Pedro Munhoz, one of the division’s very best technicians and all-around fighters.

Flying under the radar for quite some time, Munhoz made a name for himself amongst every fan with his first-round knockout of former champion Cody Garbrandt at UFC 235. This contest showed just a glimpse of his outstanding skillset.

Munhoz is a true student of the game and has expressed a willingness to constantly learn new tricks; this evolution has been evident inside the Octagon since his UFC debut. Starting off as a submission maestro, “The Young Punisher” would regularly win via his jiu-jitsu, specifically the guillotine choke. This chokehold persists as his most threatening move and can be accredited to six of his thirteen career finishes. 

As they must, he developed and matured as a professional fighter, and soon showcased his widely impressive standup skills. With these skills came the calf kick — just like Arona, another grappling based Brazilian had found the tool with a great potential of having success.

Taken from his 2018 win over Bryan Caraway, Munhoz narrowly misses eating a 1-2 on the chin, unexpectedly opting to return the favor with a harsh kick to the calf. This catches his opponent completely off guard and sends him wobbling. Following this, he lands a jab while Caraway lifts his front leg, clearly looking to defend any incoming low kick attack. Munhoz would go on to win via TKO in the first round.

Munhoz’s exemplar performance is very much similar to Stephens’ win over Melendez, as calf kicks played the most pivotal role in each collection of victories. Coming four months prior to his bout with Caraway, Pedro Munhoz clashed horns with gritty Welshman Brett Johns, a grappling ace eager to break into the division’s top 10.

Both men were unsuccessful in their previous outings, which only doubled down on the pressure already felt by professional combat sports competitors. Headlining the prelims of an extremely intriguing UFC pay-per-view, the fight was exposed to a large number of new fans, with both Munhoz and Johns leaving the arena having gained a wealth of support.

August 4, 2018 – Pedro Munhoz vs Brett Johns – UFC 227

From the outset of the fight, Pedro Munhoz ranked at the number nine position, demonstrated his excellent ability to kick while remaining defensively aware and precise, using the low strike to tamper with his opponent’s rhythm and stride. This approach paid dividends very rapidly as Johns was forced to switch stances multiple times in the early goings.

Munhoz, sporting the black trunks, opened up the bout with a feint followed by a head kick. Unwilling to just stand and absorb strikes this early on, Johns stood his ground and slowly pressed forward while his opponent circled out to regain space and distance. 10 seconds in, the Brazilian fires his first calf kick of this fight which causes his foe to reset, scoring damage and buying more time.

Munhoz steps in with a hot calf kick while keeping his chin tucked. Johns has the right idea as he plans to counter the strike, however, due to his opponent’s defensive expertise (note how Munhoz lifts his right arm just as he receives a left hook), he is unable to land any sort of solid offense. Pedro capitalizes on an opening and replies to this attempted flurry with a left hook, following up with quick knees, and after disengaging once again throws the low kick. 

This strike is beginning to throw the Welshman off his game, and it isn’t long until the striking savvy veteran sends him to the canvas.

It is now obvious that Brett Johns is no longer willing to stand and trade with Munhoz, who is finding more and more success as the fight draws on. In order to assert his grappling, he must first enter the pocket to get a hold of his opponent – this is by far easier said than done. Munhoz acknowledges this and plans to keep Johns at range, using teep and low kicks to prevent him from setting foot in the pocket. 

Following a brief moment of success from Johns in close range, which saw him momentarily get a grip of his counterpart, Munhoz reads his next move: stepping into range. He once more accompanies this strike with a lead hook that collides with the side of the head.

Pedro Munhoz was forcing his adversary to fight at range, punishing him whenever he even considered entering the pocket or stepping in with a jab. One thing that stands out from “The Young Punisher” is the way he uses the calf kick to set up more offense, such as head kicks and the aforementioned lead hook.

After defending a very poor albeit desperation shot from his foe, the veteran bantamweight pushes him away and steps in with two hefty calf shots. Johns recomposes himself before eating a jab through the guard; another calf kick prompts “The Pikey” to launch a lackluster takedown effort.

Succeeding this Munhoz decides to throw a head kick that is mainly blocked by his opponent’s guard. Nevertheless, this strike was still unexpected, as Johns had lifted his leg in an effort to check any incoming kick.

Munhoz is eager to exchange leather with his opponent as his chances of success are now high; if something were to go wrong, he had committed to the calf kick well enough to rely on it as a backup plan. One big, precise shot drops Johns, who immediately covers up as he anticipates being on the receiving end of a flurry of punches. Rather than talk with his fists, Munhoz attempts a heel-hook, further demonstrating his awesomeness.

Munhoz did an excellent job all fight of switching between the head and body, with calf strikes increasing his probability of landing clean. This is because Johns had his attention focused on checking the kick.

Munhoz is quite visibly one of the most efficient calf kickers in mixed martial arts, using the nerve-shattering tool to set up offense, force the opponent backward, and gain the upper hand in exchanges. 

He proves that length and lankiness are not needed to perform the move, making it effective for every shaped and sized fighter.

Justin Gaethje

Currently the UFC’s interim lightweight champion, Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje has a nickname befitting like no other, adding to both his and the promotions highlight reel in each Octagon appearance. With nine bonuses in seven fights, Gaethje is unrivaled in the realm of entertainment. 

When first landing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Gaethje was known as a slugger with a granite chin and crippling power, however this method of fighting — swinging for the fences with little to no regard for defense — is wildly abortive at the highest level.

After suffering back-to-back losses to a pair of lightweights best in Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier respectively, the Arizona native tweaked his style, now methodically picking his shots and choosing his pocket entries sensibly, albeit still maintaining high levels of pressure and a taste for blood.

If you’re a fan of the sport, you’ll be aware of who Justin Gaethje is and the presence he brings to the cage, therefore no further introduction is necessary.

Gaethje starts his 2019 encounter with fellow kicker Edson Barboza by feinting ever so slightly (which his opponent responds to by vaguely lifting his leg to block any incoming kick). He was keen to assert himself as the aggressor early on, and within three seconds of the bout starting, he landed a stern calf kick. After reading a feint from Barboza and checking his attempted shot. Gaethje stays at range and answers with one more calf strike to the lead leg.

This contest was approximately two fights into Justin’s mini-career resurgence. One of the ways this was obvious is by the way he threw his kicks; against Barboza, he would punish the legs while at range (like most are taught), remaining patient in the process. This is a complete 180 in comparison to earlier performances where Gaethje would unleash kicks when in the pocket. He still does this on occasion. 

May 9, 2020 – Justin Gaethje vs Tony Ferguson – UFC 249

At UFC 249, Justin Gaethje took one step closer to championship gold when he faced divisional boogeyman Tony Ferguson, who happened to be riding a 12 fight win streak over the span of eight years. Entering as a slight underdog, Gaethje was poised to prove oddsmakers and fans wrong; a career-high performance would be needed. 

Ferguson is very sloppy defensively, often lowering his hands and squaring his hips in exchanges, leaving his chin exposed. Justin knew by taking away his mobility, thus negating his offense, Ferguson would replicate a sitting duck.

Ferguson, also known as “El Cucuy,” relies on his mobility, movement, and activeness when locked in the cage, therefore using his feet is a necessity. Gaethje was looking to take away all three of those attributes and started firing off calf kicks in order to do so. Instead of just firing out a blank calf kick, he followed up with a lead hook, creating a deadly combination that would later play a pivotal role in his performance.

Once again Gaethje throws the calf kick-lead hook combo, this time narrowly scraping the temple of his opponent. Each time he throws this he gets closer to connecting. Gaethje is also beginning to use the strike as a counter; watch how he throws as Tony taps a lead uppercut on his chin. 

Justin was not only attempting to land this combo but countering Ferguson with the calf kick whenever too much pressure was applied. This can be seen in the video clip below.

Despite being on the receiving end of a nasty kicking game, Tony Ferguson was looking to get in the face of his opponent, marching forward and sticking the jab into Gaethje’s high defensive guard. Gaethje caught on to this fairly early and opted to go back to the calf kick, forcing him to switch stances and requestion his entries; after starting his next sequence with a leaping left hook Ferguson darts backward, quickly removing his left leg (which ate the calf kick) from the danger zone. 

Above you will find a fine example of him countering his foe with a calf strike.

Aside from landing the kick, Gaethje is trying to set up the lead hook, using a series of feints to do so. Once more he misses, but that won’t remain the case for long.

Alas, Justin lands the combination he has been seeking all night — a calf kick topped off by a lead hook. It’s an extremely aesthetic sequence and had the MMA community in awe for weeks; the hook was enough to wobble any 155-pounder on the planet, except “El Cucuy.”

Gaethje goes back to punishing his opponent right away, countering with a perfect straight right. Although he was being broken down piece by piece, Ferguson was not willing to accept defeat. He started to reply to calf strikes with jabs or straights, which Gaethje sussed out almost instantaneously. 

Ferguson thought he had a read on the opposition’s leg strikes — counter with straights aimed at the head. This is usually a good way to counter leg kicks but not from at range; Gaethje kept his distance, knowing that Ferguson would be unable to score serious amounts of damage from that far out.

Just like the aforementioned Douglas Lima, Gaethje can defend kicks to the leg just as well as he can give them. At the start of the video, he strongly checks an outside leg kick, remaining focused enough to avoid an inside one, also. He continues his assault on Tony’s legs by ducking (he’s anticipating the counter strike) and hacking him down with another low kick, which the former interim champion expectedly replies to with a jab. This jab misses the target.

Justin Gaethje has evolved in more ways than one over the course of both his UFC and MMA career, and now hones the skills needed to become the undisputed lightweight champion of the world. His calf kick has undergone its very own advancement; he uses the strike as an offensive and defensive weapon, much like many of the others on this list. The timing, barbarity, and precision at which he lands this low kick make him stand out from the rest. Gaethje has a lot of depth in his striking and toolbox, albeit the calf kick is an action he can always depend on.

Presently, Gaethje stands as the interim lightweight champion and is set to unify the belts on October 24 at UFC 254. His axis will be Khabib Nurmagomedov, an undefeated grappling kingpin with a knack of mauling his opposite man. Calf kicks will play a critical role in this scheduled bout and will have the potential to assist Gaethje in victory. 

Ever since the arrival of the calf kick, some fighters let it walk by, while others took notes, added it to their skillset, and altered the overall capability of the maneuver. Finally, in the year 2020, it has become an inescapable norm for mixed martial artists. This year alone we have witnessed multiple high-level executions of the strike, with the most notable being in Marlon “Chito” Vera’s win over Sean O’Malley.

Whether it’s loved or hated, the calf kick is here to stay. Just like all things in life it’ll evolve and adapt with the times; there is no doubt athletes will shape ubiquitous forms of defense and add layers to its attack as the years roll on.