Dossier: Anatomy of the Calf Kick

By: Marcelo Alonso
Mar 4, 2021

Considered the pentathlon of combat sports, the short history of MMA has been marked by constant changes caused by the arrival of new techniques to the game. After Royce Gracie’s submissions, Marco Ruas’ leg kicks, Mark Coleman’s ground-and-pound, Lyoto Machida’s karate and Jon Jones’ elbows, the calf kick is fighters’ new nightmare.

The average fan started to notice after Conor McGregor stated that he had “never felt such pain” after his calf kick-driven defeat by Dustin Poirier at UFC 257. But that technique has actually been around for a long time, and it is getting rare to see an event where it doesn’t appear to decide a fight: Douglas Lima vs. Rory MacDonald 2, Dan Hooker vs. Al Iaquinta or Thiago Santos vs. Jon Jones, for example. Last Saturday, it was used by Pedro Munhoz to clearly win his rematch against Jimmie Rivera. So it's time to untangle this new MMA star. Where does it come from? Who was the first to use it, why does it hurt so badly, and what's the correct defense?

Why does it hurt so much?

The calf kick started to be known through American Top Team fighters like Amanda Nunes, Thiago Alves and “Marreta” Santos. Instead of conventional low kicks, so common in kickboxing and muay Thai fights, the low calf kick targets the outside of the calf at an angle that makes it difficult to defend. When it lands, it causes an acute pain that often ends up forcing the victim to switch stances.

Speaking to Sherdog, Dr. Rickson Moraes, official orthopedist of many Brazilian UFC fighters such as Jose Aldo and Ronaldo Souza, attempted to explain the reasons why this kick can cause so much damage with only two or three successful attacks. “That area around the head of the fibula [the smaller, outer bone of the lower leg] lacks muscle protection, so the whole structure ends up suffering with that lateral kick. In that area, besides the fibula bone head, there are ligaments, the short and long fibular tendons and the fibular nerve. Actually there are so many structures exposed, without a natural protective ‘envelope’ like other parts of the leg, that from a scientific point of view it's hard to say exactly which specific one causes such a strong acute pain,” said Dr. Moraes, who is also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, named for Rickson Gracie.

Origin: Muay Thai, Capoeira or Kung Fu?

Why was a technique so efficient in MMA not already very common at striking events like K-1 and Glory? Former UFC heavyweight contender Pedro Rizzo, who has spent long periods training in the kickboxing hotbed of Holland and won a European kickboxing title representing legendary Dutch gym Chakuriki in the 90s, confirms that the way it is used in MMA was not common in the striking world. “In kickboxing, we always kick leg or shin. To tell you the truth, the first time I saw [the calf kick] being used was by Antonio Silva against Mark Hunt in 2013. I was really impressed by the fact that even Hunt, who is such a tough guy, used to getting low kicks from the best kickers in K-1, just fell to his knees and started to limp a lot. After that fight [ATT muay Thai trainer] Katel Kubis told me that he was training that kick a lot with ‘Bigfoot’ and everyone from the team,” said Rizzo.

A disciple of Fabio Noguchi, Kubis learned that kick with his master, who came up in the first generation of the legendary Chute Boxe. “I brought this technique to ATT in 2009. Noguchi has always done that kick in muay Thai and I was sure it could work in MMA. I remember that when I arrived most people didn’t believe in the technique until the day Wilson Gouveia, fighting in Canada for Maximum Fighting Championship, knocked out his opponent in the first round. Since then more and more people started to train for that. Today in our striking class, every Wednesday and Friday, I have around 40 professional fighters training that kick: names like Amanda Nunes, Junior dos Santos, Thiago “Marreta,” Santiago Ponzinibbio, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Jussier Formiga, Pedro Munhoz, Nina Ansaroff, Dhiego Lima and Douglas Lima,” Kubis revealed.

American Top Team or MMA Masters?

The origin of the calf kick is not unanimous in Brazilian martial arts community, however. The head coach at MMA Masters, capoeira master Cesar Carneiro, claims that he was the first to bring it to MMA and his version is supported by the legendary Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Amanda Nunes.

“I remember clearly that I went to train with Carneiro in 2008 and he insisted that I use it. By that time he was the trainer of Amanda Nunes, who was one of the first to use it in MMA, long before it started to be in fashion in the MMA world like it is now,” said “Minotauro.” ATT fighters Nunes and Nina Ansaroff, who met each other training at MMA Masters, confirmed Nogueira’s statement on their social media.

Carneiro revealed that he started to do this technique in Thailand while working on a movie with Jean Claude Van Damme. “We went to film ‘The Quest’ there and stayed there three months. Since I’m a capoeira fighter I started to throw that kick at the front leg in order to take out the base of my muay Thai sparring opponents and it worked, so I brought it to MMA.”

Harai Geri: Monk Technique

Before any “who is the real inventor” polemical starts, it's important to note that it's pretty common in human civilization that similar techniques are developed in different places as a result of the same need. In anthropology, this is called cultural convergence. The pyramids, built by Egyptians and Mayans in different parts of the globe, are great examples of that, as recalled by anthropologist and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Diego Colino in his 2019 book “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.” In the book, Colino gives examples such as the renowned De La Riva guard popularized by Carlson Gracie black belt Ricardo De La Riva in 80s that was also seen in 30s in Kosen judo in Japan. A similar example might be Eddie Bravo’s famous rubber guard, which was also done by Antonio Schembri in Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments long before Bravo started training.

According to karate master Vinicio Antony, former head coach of Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort and author of the book “The Hidden Art of Karate,” the calf kick used by both Brazilian MMA trainers was already practiced in kung fu a long time ago. “It was used by kung fu and imported by karate with the name of ‘harai geri.’ That technique was evolved by monks with the goal of causing minimum damage to the opponent, because they believed that the more damage they caused, the more they would suffer in their next incarnation (karma). So they always looked for the acupressure points that today are even used in acupuncture in order to cause an acute pain without causing too much damage. Of course it also brings a psychological impact and the fighter who doesn’t have a big heart gets discouraged after feeling that strong pain,” explained Antony.

How to Defend?

Since MMA is a game of questions and answers, of course defenses against the calf kick are also being studied and practiced. A curious point is that there are different ways to do that. Curiously the four specialists I consulted to make that report suggested different answers.

Rizzo, for example, likes to raise the leg a little bit while turning the knee outward. “That way the kick hits the shin and is neutralized,” explains the “Rock.”

Carneiro, on the other hand, advises avoiding the impact. “Muay Thai people think that by blocking you will lessen the shock, but that makes it worse,” says Carneiro, giving a practical example. “We have a fighter called Frank Carrillo, who faced Mike Rio in 2014. Mike´s trainer told him to block using the shin and the kid ended up breaking his leg. The right thing to do is take the leg out [of the way]. But to do that the fighter needs to be very well trained. We use a couple of drills with our fighters here. But no doubt the best defense is to avoid the shock.”

According to Antony, karate also has a defense technique for “harai geri.” “We call it ‘namiashi.’ It consists of rotating the hip at the same time you lift your foot and turn it outward. That way the kick passes by, doesn’t hit and at the same time, it allows me to counter attack my opponent.”

ATT trainer Kubis believes that choice of defense technique depends on his athletes’ style: “We have four different techniques to defend the calf Kick, with or without contact, and we fit it in the style of our fighters. The most important thing is make it work.”

The Rib Kick: A New Surprise from ATT?

According to Katel, the calf kick has been practiced at ATT for so long that it isn’t even considered a new technique anymore. And if MMA is a game of questions and answers, according to Katel, it's time for opponents to have a new worry: the rib kick. “It´s not a normal rib kick. The kick is placed in an exact spot that just makes it impossible to continue fighting,” claimed Kubis, who changed the subject when asked for more details, but said that it will start to be seen frequently in future MMA events.

Whether this mysterious “rib kick” will become as famous as the calf kick, only time will tell. The only certainty we have is that the degree of unpredictability of this big tool box called MMA is directly proportional to its enormous size.

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