Every now and then, fight fans will see something in the cage that reminds them just how primal MMA can be. Whether it be a jumping kick off the cage, a brutal body slam or tactical shoulder strikes in the clinch, fighters never fail to disappoint with their understanding of the game. But every now and then, a fighter will resurface a move that’ll spread across the world of mixed martial arts. Take for example the calf kick.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the calf kick became a thing, but today it’s inevitable that they should be part of a fighter’s toolkit. Justin Gaethjie, Jose Aldo, Dustin Poirier and countless other MMA athletes have successfully incorporated the calf kick and used it to debilitate their opponents.
Fighter’s tend to follow the pack when it comes to what works – whether that be a flying knee, foot stomp or, in the case of the UFC 246 main event, a shoulder strike.
When Conor McGregor used shoulder strikes to break Donald Cerrone’s nose and set him up for a shocking 40-second finish, it was hard to deny McGregor’s brilliance. Pretty soon, the technique went viral. Reddit threads brought up old examples of its use. Instructional clips surgically broke down the fight-ending sequence.
The shoulder strike even resurfaced in the main event of UFC 257, where Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier had a little back and forth shoulder strike bout in the clinch.
But McGregor isn’t the first fighter to use shoulder strikes to their advantage, and he certainly won’t be the last considering the devastation it caused to Cowboy. In this article, we’ll briefly go over the history of the shoulder strike, how it was traditionally used, and how we think it might be used in the future of MMA.
HISTORY OF THE SHOULDER STRIKE
In an interview with MMAFighting, former fighter and MMA coach Din Thomas explained how techniques like the shoulder strike were used by Greco-Roman wrestlers and MMA legends like Randy Couture and Dan Henderson in the clinch to force opponents to readjust, rather than cause real damage. Just like the foot stomp and toe stomp, shoulder strikes “where it maximized the available space and incentivized stubborn opponents who didn’t want to be controlled.”
Similar to how Khabib Nurmagomedov used a simple strike to break Dustin Poirier’s rear-naked choke defense and slip into a position to finish the lightweight contender at UFC 242, shoulder strikes were traditionally used as a means to an end. A way to force the opponent to readjust so you could do what you really wanted to do to them.
Moves like the shoulder strike were just one of many innovations imported from other sports that crafty athletes would bring to the cage. Once fighters take notice of effective techniques, they start to incorporate them into their training - how to use them and defend against them. Those who weren’t prepared for these techniques inside and out of the clinch would find themselves at a huge disadvantage, as seen in Cerrone’s response to McGregor’s violent shoulder strikes.
In the post fight interview, Cerrone’s face was visibly bruised and bloodied despite the fight lasting only 40 seconds. Joe Rogan asked how much of the damage was done by McGregor’s shoulder strikes in the clinch.
A true pioneer of the game. 👏— UFC (@ufc) January 19, 2020
Nothing but respect for @CowboyCerrone! #UFC246 pic.twitter.com/mVBUVQT06X
“I’d never seen anything like that,” Cerrone said. “They threw me way off-guard, he busted my nose, it started bleeding, then he stepped back and head-kicked me.”
According to Thomas, the reason why McGregor’s shoulder strikes were so shocking and unfamiliar is because fighters have grown accustomed to the idea that the clinch is just a “place of transition”.
In other words, because of the lack of ingenuity in the clinch and use of clever techniques, fighters are focused on “trying to see if they can jockey for position and wrestle, or get out of wrestling positions” in the clinch.
ARE SHOULDER STRIKES ‘DIRTY’?
Although not much is off the table when it comes to MMA, there are some techniques that are considered “dirty”. Foot stomps, discrete cage-grabbing and sneaky headbutts are a few techniques that are generally frowned upon. Shoulder strikes? Debatable.
However, we do know that shoulder strikes are completely legal in MMA and are part of what is widely considered “Dirty Boxing” - in-close boxing from a clinched position. In traditional boxing, athletes are separated from this position. But unlike boxing, MMA fighters are allowed to fight from the clinch.
For McGregor, the move wasn’t dirty at all – it was a technique straight out of the Crumlin Boxing Club, where his appetite for combat was born and bred.
Whether or not Conor McGregor’s devastating shoulder strikes against Donald Cerrone at UFC 246 will become more mainstream is still up in the air, but when a fighter of McGregor’s fame and stature cleverly finishes a legend like Cowboy, fighters take notice.
Maybe this will lead to an era where fighters make more use of their time in the clinch with shoulder strikes and foot stomps. Thinking back on what Din Thomas said, it's clear that the clinch is an area that hasn’t been used to its full potential. It'll be interesting to see what fighters bring to the table following McGregor's win at UFC 246.
Whether or not shoulder strikes become more common in the UFC and MMA world, one thing’s for sure – fighters should prepare for them to make sure that they don’t get caught out.