One of the main components of any MMA fight these days is the game plan or strategy. Long gone are the days in which fighters would just be able to train without much thought of what they would need to do inside the Octagon to get the win.

Head coaches are often given the task of devising a structure to their fighters’ training camps to ensure that by the time the fight comes around it won’t feel like they are implementing a predefined game plan, but it will feel like second nature.

In this feature, we will look to identify the underdog in an upcoming bout and examine what is required of that underdog in order to overcome the odds and predictions and get the all-important “W” in the win column. The point, then, is to step into the shoes of a head coach to break down the fight and provide a game plan for the underdog.

This week’s subject is Rafael Natal, who squares off with Tim Kennedy at UFC Fight Night 31: Fight for the Troops 3 in Kentucky on Nov. 6.

Kennedy was originally slated to fight Lyoto Machida, but due to the untimely eye injury suffered by Michael Bisping, Machida had to step into the Octagon slightly earlier than originally planned. This left Kennedy without an opponent and seemingly with spare time on his hands to challenge practically every viable opponent via Twitter.

The man to answer the call of the UFC and Kennedy himself was Natal.

As we reach the main event in front of the troops, there is significant expectation that those positioned earlier on the card with links to the armed forces will have given the troops something to cheer before the main man of the night, Kennedy, steps through the curtain.

Kennedy has been in there with some of the best in recent years during his time in Strikeforce and will now be looking to make an impact under the UFC banner. Natal, meanwhile, has built himself up slowly, but he is a dangerous fighter with a background in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and skills in all areas of MMA.

Kennedy now finds himself as a clear favorite to leave Kentucky with a win, which was certainly not the case against his original opponent.

The Breakdown

Natal hopes to add another name to his list of victims. Whilst he has previously managed to convert his submission skills into a victory on eight occasions during his 22-fight career, he must not enter the Octagon with a singular focus of getting the fight to the ground. A patient approach will be required from the Brazilian. After all, his stand-up skills have looked competent in his previous fights, so there shouldn’t be an air of desperation about the Brazilian in this regard.

This patience is a prerequisite for all MMA fighters with a strong submission-based background, but for Natal this is required even more so against Kennedy, who has yet to be tapped during his MMA career and, as such, will be confident that he can avoid Natal’s attempts. Kennedy has been in there with Roger Gracie and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, who are two of the best pure BJJ fighters on the planet.

Kennedy is a master of positional dominance inside the cage and will look to get in close to the Brazilian, dominating position either in the clinch up against the fence or from a top position on the ground. He’ll hope to utilize consistent hip pressure to stifle the Brazilian’s submission attempts.

The Strategy

Natal has developed his game into a well-rounded mixed martial artist, of that there is no doubt. However, the Brazilian should not completely forget what led him to MMA in the first place, which is his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu prowess.

Whilst we have seen Kennedy successfully avoid submissions from other highly respectable BJJ practitioners, this does not mean that Kennedy cannot be caught. Over the course of a 25-minute fight—which, as a main event, this will be—you would expect Natal to have at least a few opportunities to get a hold of Kennedy with a view to go for a submission. Whether Natal can capitalize is a different matter.

On the feet, Natal has shown good punching power and head movement, which he should look to rely on against Kennedy, who will no doubt be looking to close the distance and push Natal back towards the cage before looking to change levels and work for a takedown. Natal needs to utilize his footwork to get in and out of range effectively. We have seen Johny Hendricks showcase the ability to close the distance at great speed as a good way of keeping an opponent off-balance and generally uneasy. Natal needs to try to emulate this model of striking displayed by the welterweight title challenger. He needs to ensure that he uses head movement to slip inside Kennedy’s punches before looking to close the gap, mixing in punches to the body and head in the process.

If Natal can find the footwork to get inside using this method, it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that he can finish the American. But even if that does not happen, it will at least slow Kennedy down and give Natal an opportunity to drag a dazed Kennedy to the floor and work his submission game towards a finish. After all, it is always easier to latch on a submission when an opponent is still reeling from a flurry of punches/kicks, as we have seen time and time again inside not just the UFC but across all MMA organizations.

Both men would be happy to take the fight to the floor if the opportunity presented itself. The key factor there is in who gains top position. Natal does not want to be suffocated on the bottom for too long in the fight as, though his skills are entirely credible, he could still find himself at a disadvantage against Kennedy, who has an ability to stifle even the best grapplers in the world.

If the fight does hit the floor, then Natal will need to ensure that his scrambling enables him to work towards top position. Otherwise, the rounds might start to get away from him.

Photo: Rafael Natal (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer

Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.