If there has been a noticeable development in the evolution of striking in mixed martial arts, it is that while still infrequent, spinning attacks – most notably spinning kicks – are finding more successful application than ever. It’s true celebrated strikers like Edson Barboza is landing them in UFC competition, but so are fighters who were thought to be only hand specialists like Junior dos Santos and Vitor Belfort. In the case of Belfort, he’s using them successfully against high-level opposition as he ages into his thirties.
Is this merely coincidence? Is it something expected? Who is teaching these fighters how to do it? And if they’re landing them now, does that mean fighters will adapt or can we expect more of the same with each passing year?
To help understand the current predicament, MMA Fighting spoke to Henri Hooft, a former kickboxer and current striking coach of the Blackzilians. Hooft admits he’s as surprised as anyone else that these types of kicks and attacks are becoming more prominent, but believes they’re a function of fighters trying to gain an advantage by adding low probability strikes to their arsenal.
In this interview, Hooft theorizes about the growing popularity of these kicks, who does them well, where this evolutionary wrinkle is headed and much more.
Before we get started, can you give me your background in kickboxing for folks who may not know what it is?
Yes, I’m Henri Hooft. I’m at this moment the striking coach of the Blackzilians in south Florida. I come from Amsterdam, Holland. I started my kickboxing career when I was like sixteen years old, which was a long, long time ago. I’m training kickboxing now for 29 years. I was a European world champion myself. I have won 100 fights, more or less.
I’ve trained with a lot of great fighters in my career like Rob Kaman, Ernesto Hoost. At this moment I’m training Tyron Spong. Since three years now I’m training all the guys at the Blackzilians like Vitor [Belfort], Thiago [Silva], Rashad [Evans, Anthony Johnson and also other guys here. So, that's my background.
We're seeing it more and more now. Edson Barboza did it, Junior dos Santos did it, Vitor Belfort did it. The list goes on. Why are we seeing more successful uses of spinning kicks in mixed martial arts today?
Well, the first thing I have to say is it's a very, very difficult kick and myself as a kickboxer, very surprised to see it used it MMA, too, more and more. With Vitor, because I'm very close with him, training with him so I can know about him, is that it's something new. It happens with creative guys that are very good at this, but also it's about the movement.
The last couple of years you see people more standing up, so they invent more stuff by themselves. They know they need some more techniques because people are getting better and better in stand up. But again, I'm surprised myself seeing the spinning kicks. People knocking people out that way. It's a very effective kick, but you need to train the kick very well and you need the timing for this kick very well because if you don't hit target, you're out of balance and the guy can counter punch or counter you very easily.
So, it's a very difficult kick, but again, creative people, people who have good timing, good movement, they can use the kick.
I've been told the majority of spinning kicks come from martial arts outside of Muay Thai. They come from tae kwon do or san shou. How true is that? Where do these spinning kicks come from?
I come from a kickboxing background, so not Muay Thai. But in Holland it's really similar. Again, at the end of the day, it's kicking and punching. It comes from karate or tae kwon do. These guys are very flexible, they have good timing, they kick much more than kickboxers because kickboxers, they use more the combination of kicking and punching. You see it more with the tae kwon do, karate guys, but again, we have kickboxers in Holland who can do the spinning kicks and then you see MMA guys like Vitor, they can do it, too.
If you want to do it and you put your mind to it and train it a lot, like, we train it a lot. Even before the [Michael] Bisping fight, we trained it because Vitor is a southpaw and a lot of guys move out of the left hand, so they walk into the spinning kick. That’s why we started using it. For this fight with Luke Rockhold, we just train it before and did it in the dressing room just for fun. It’s ‘Let’s do something for fun!’ and that’s the way it comes, like a creative kick, when you see it more and more.
What about spinning back fists? Are those a different beast altogether or is that also part of how you trained when you grew up?
No, I didn’t. Again, I’m a kicking and punching, straight forward guy. I don’t use too many of these flashy stuff, that I call it. Because just myself, I’m not so flexible. I’m just like more a man of low kicks and hard punches.
Spinning back fist, again, is the same similar stuff, but I still prefer my legs because they are longer. You’re further away from you’re opponent. A spinning back fist works, too, but it’s more safe to do the kick with your distance. But again, it’s a very, very difficult strike and you need to train well to do it.
Luke: Realistically speaking, let’s say you have a reasonably athletic 22-year old fighter, how long would it take to get someone to learn a spinning back kick?
That’s, of course, not so easy. It depends, but you can – if you really put your mind in it and at the end of every training you do it like an extra thing.
It’s not really the kick, but you have to know the movement of your opponent. That’s very simple. It’s not only the kick. The technique is to do it at the right moment, to meet their head with your heel. Like dos Santos’ kick is a little bit with the calf, not the heel. Vitor and Barboza, they kicked the guy with the heel. It’s very, very difficult. You need to put a lot of time in it and it’s not for everybody.
If he’s flexible and you put the step by step, the guy’s moving to a certain side and you can have the angle of the kick and you train it a lot, you can do it. But the second thing is do it in the fight when someone is punching you and putting pressure on you, it’s going to be much more difficult. But you can do it. Let’s do it for a couple of months, let’s do it for a year and you see the progress, you know?
If you had a super talented fighter and they wanted to learn this, is there a circumstance where you would say ‘I don’t think this kick would really benefit you’?
Yes. The thing is, I’m really A-B-C guy, the basic stuff. So for me to do that, it’s an extra thing. I always say if you have something like that, it’s just an extra. You work with your A-B-C normal stuff. If you have a chance to do something extra, you do an extra kick or you do something extra.
For me, first, the A-B-C stuff. If you can do it and if you’re young and again, these young guys, they’re creative. They want to do stuff. They can do it, but they have to really watch out because if it doesn’t work, they have a very big, big problem.
It’s nice to have creative people. It’s nice that people try it in the ring. But first, for me? The A-B-C. First, make sure that your opponent is expecting something else like good punches and then you have place and timing for the kick. If you just throw a kick, even a normal kick, it’s too dangerous in MMA. You need to have your hands first and then there’s time for it.
Everybody who is flexible and wants to learn, can learn it. Again, to do it in a fight, it’s not so easy. It’s difficult.
Can you tell me athletically what is required to pull off one of these kicks?
If you want to do it perfectly, your body must be in a certain angle. If you want to hit it, it’s more important not how your body is, but the body of your opponent. The angle of the kick is done by your opponent. If he walks into your kicks, it doesn’t really matter how your body is. As soon as your legs go up, he walks into that kick. That’s much more important than just only the kick.
That’s why when you have a heavy bag and it’s hanging there, you do the kick. It’s a totally different thing than the guy’s moving to the side and you’re moving to the side. It’s the angle of the kick. And if you’re flexible, you don’t need to train your body so much. If you’re not flexible, you can’t keep your body down because your legs are going up.
For me, it’s more the angle of where your opponent is going and then you can do the kick. Whatever you want.
How did it happen with Vitor? Did he come to you to say he wanted to learn these?
We were training for the [Michael] Bisping fight and Vitor is very creative. He does a lot of nice things in his fights. He asked me, ‘Coach, I want to do this kick. What do you think about this?’ So we started doing this after every training, after our training for the stuff we have to do for the fights and then we’re going to do the thing extra.
If you want to do it, you do it, just for fun because again, I’m really strict with my fighters. I want them to do the simple stuff first. And then we started doing stuff and it worked and I saw he was doing it very hard and very explosive. It doesn’t really bother his body. He doesn’t really get out of balance. He does it perfectly, very good. So for me, somebody like that, it’s very easy to train.
I train a kickboxer before, his name was Peter Aerts, one of the best fighters ever in kickboxing. We never trained on this kick because when he does a turning kick, he falls on the floor. He’s not athletic enough and flexible enough to do this kick. Vitor is. That’s why it just happened. ‘Let’s do it coach, every training’. And before the fight with Rockhold, he just said, ‘Let’s do some extra stuff. Let’s do the turning kick.’ And he did the turning kick in the fight. The first one was missed and then he saw the guy moving to that side and the second time, let’s do it again.
It’s also a trained kick because my photo was on Facebook after the fight like it not a lucky kick. We trained it, but to hit it in the fight, you also need like fifty to forty percent of luck to hit that kick because it must be perfect. Otherwise, it’ll just miss.
Let’s say you do miss. Where does it put you in a fight if you miss one of those kicks?
You can be in a very big problem because you’re out of balance. It’s very easy to defend the spinning kick. You only need to step forward. If you know it’s coming, that’s the difficulty.
If you just stand in front of your opponent, you can see it coming, you need to step forward. Step forward and then the kick is out. He’s never going to hit you.
That’s the position that the fighter who is throwing the kick has to put you in. I need to put you in a position so you don’t see my kick coming and then it’s only a target. But if you just stand in front of me, I will miss. The guy will step in and yes, you’re [giving your] back or you miss and you fall on the floor. He’s in top position. It’s a very dangerous kick. That’s why it’s more important how you place it, which moment you place the timing, then the kick itself.
How many camps have a trainer like you who can teach these skills to high-level fighters?
I don’t know. I think the level in America, the stand-up level, is not the same as in Europe. Like the wrestling level is very high here. The BJJ in Brazil is high. We are in Holland very good in stand-up fight because that’s our style of fighting.
I know Antoni Hardonk is focused in America. He’s Dutch. Of course, there will be some American guys like the Duke Roufus gym of Anthony Pettis. They’re very good at it, too.
I’m more well known if you look at Thiago, if you look at Vitor, if you look at who these people are, if you look at Tyrone Spong, our fighters put a lot of pressure on. I’m just always working with kick and punch and try to do everything as hard as possible. And then an extra thing is spinning kick and that’s different.
In our sport, in stand-up sport, we use it more often than in MMA, but again, I was really surprised. I was happy, of course, that [Vitor] knocked the guy out like that. That’s a highlight knockout. But I was like, ‘Oh, he did it! He did it!’ We had trained it before in the dressing room, so that’s kinda cool.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t seem to see the same amount of these spinning attacks used on the women’s side of the game. How much of this is a power attack?
There are some tae kwon do women that can do it very, very good, too. I’m not really interested in women’s fighting. It’s not really that I look at that. It just doesn’t really get my attention. That’s one thing.
Another thing, I think the women are even more technical in tae kwon do, kung fu, karate than men. But in MMA, I don’t know, it will come. We didn’t see so many lady MMA fights. Maybe in a couple of years, maybe next month you’ll see spinning kicks with those.
Because in tae kwon do, the women are very, very flexible, very good.
If you land a spinning kick cleanly, is that kick harder or is just a standard shin to the head, head kick harder?
I think the shin kick to the head can be harder, but the other kick, you just don’t see. It’s just the angle, you don’t see it. He’s turning, you don’t see it, and boom. And it’s on your jaw. If it comes on your jaw like Badr Hari did it against Stefan Leko, and he broke his jaw in two places. If it comes on your jaw, it’s very hard and you don’t see it, but the straight on shin kick is a knockout, too.
The shin on your skull is also a knockout. I prefer that kick more, but the other kick is more action for the people because look, we’re talking about this now, but we don’t talk about the shin kick that Vitor gave to Bisping the fight before, the shin kick he knocked him out with. That was a clean shot and also technically very, very difficult to do that. First you kick someone three times hard in the body – that’s my style of fighting – then you see them place a high kick and it’s over.
Like Anthony [Pettis] kicks people out in the head. That’s technically very difficult, too, only the other kick you don’t see so much and you don’t see it coming. That’s why it’s so devastating.
Is there any way to see where this is headed? Fighters are doing spinning kicks now. Is there a ceiling on how creative they can be?
It can because fighters like Jon Jones or Anderson Silva did the front kick to Vitor’s face. People see that, they copy that. There’s so many young fighters, they see that, they see it in other sports and in MMA you can use a lot of techniques, a lot of tools. I think in the future you’re going to see more of this stuff, but for me, I don’t care. If the people do a lot of that stuff, I just keep doing my basic stuff. That’s the most important thing for me and then, an extra kick like that, is an extra thing that works that happens sometimes, but I’ve seen in my kickboxing so many fights and so little fights end up with the spinning kick that I prefer the other stuff before I use the spinning kicks and everything.
Are there any kind of spinning attacks you feel don’t work in MMA?
No, you can do spinning elbow. There’s all kinds of spinning stuff. Spinning kick, for me, is the most realistic one because of the right distance. But spinning elbows are good against the cage. You can do that, too.
How hard is it to get a former wrestler to be able to pull something like this off?
It’s difficult for everybody, but it’s difficult for them because they’re not used to it. They’re used to wrestling. So you start with kick and punch because he doesn’t have distance, the same timing, but he can learn. I always prefer to have young wrestlers and turn them into stand-up guys because for MMA, the base is so good. You can learn, if you really want to, you can learn a lot of stuff.
Fair to say at the Blackzilians camp, if a fighter doesn’t approach you asking for this to be taught to him, you won’t teach it?
No, if you come to our camp you can see, it’s very simple with me. I’m a trainer. I have 100 fights. I was a fighter myself. A lot of trainers overrate themselves a lot. They think they do everything. Well, I always say to my fighters: I’m just an extra pair of eyes and I make sure you’re fit.
The rest, what happens in the cage, of course I can coach you, help you figure it out. We are are not doing something special here. But the only thing I changed when I came in two years ago is that I spar very hard. In sparring, everyone tries to knock each other out. That’s the way it is. We spar very hard. You need to come up with some good stuff to survive in this camp.
But we don’t do anything special, special technical stuff. I don’t believe in game plans against an opponent. I’m not like that. I believe in my own style, my style is better than everybody’s style. If you believe that in your head and you train good and you’re fit, you can beat everybody. But too many tactics and strategies, we’re not in the army. We’re just fighting. It’s two people fighting each other. There’s nothing special about that.
I’m not a magic man. I’m just a guy who trains guys because I was a fighter myself. I love it. That’s why I do it. That’s why we have good results standing up. Because I put a lot of attention in. If there’s a big advantage to gain in America in MMA, it’s in the stand-up game. Because the wrestling of you guys is so far ahead of everybody in the rest of the world that stand-up, especially American guys, they just need to stick to the basic stuff and from basic stuff, they will get results. Don’t go starting out with jumping knees and flying kicks. Just keep to the basic stuff. Good low kicks and if you have that and you have good wrestling then you will fight easy.
Is there a fighter out there who you don’t train but you recognize they have really fun, flashy stuff?
Of course, I love to see Anthony Pettis fight also because the flashy stuff is not a bad word. Flashy clothes can look good, too. He has a really nice style of fighting. I love to see him fight. The way he moves.
The guy he was fighting, Jose Aldo, is the same stuff, but Anthony Pettis is just like, it looks fluid. I like Jose Aldo, that’s why it was a nice fight, because of his hard low kicks. These two guys, especially Anthony Pettis. His spinning kicks and stuff in the cage look amazing.
That’s the guy I always want to see fight. When he’s fighting, I really like to see him.
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