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Calf Kicks: A smart or risky fighting strategy?

If you’ve been watching MMA in recent years — and let’s be real, if you’re here then you definitely have — then you’ve likely noticed a striking strategy that has become very trendy: calf kicks.

Whether it’s to chop down the lead leg of a boxer, keep distance from an opponent, or any other number of reasons, there’s no doubt that MMA fighters have fully figured out that calf kicks can be a great weapon.

Take the UFC 264 trilogy between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, for example. The outcome of this trio of PPV blockbusters was directly influenced by calf kicks. The first fight lasted less than two minutes and featured two young fighters who weren’t nearly as evolved as they are now, so we can throw that data to the wayside a bit. But the calf kick set the tone for the next two fights.

After feeling the power of McGregor’s left hand and going to sleep because of it in their first fight, Poirier masterfully chopped down McGregor’s lead leg on his way to a KO of his own in the second meeting.

In last weekend’s trilogy fight, McGregor decided to exchange calf kicks with Poirier early in the fight and seemed to be doing pretty well at it. But at the end of the first round, McGregor stepped awkwardly and snapped his left leg. No way to exactly know, but many believe McGregor may have broken his leg on an earlier calf kick and then the awkward step was the straw that broke the camel’s back — for lack of a better term.

Either way, McGregor’s strategy of throwing more calf kicks and his need to ready to defend Poirier’s calf kicks in the third fight clearly had a big factor on one of the UFC’s biggest PPVs of all time.

Then there’s the tale of Chris Weidman, which a UFC career altered by calf kicks — in both good and bad ways.

After defeating Anderson Silva for the Middleweight Championship back in July 2013 by way of a second-round KO with punches, Weidman got a little bit of luck in the rematch later that year when he chequed Silva’s calf kick and snapped the Brazilian’s leg. Certainly not the first, nor the last leg snapped due to a leg kick inside the cage in MMA, but probably the most notable and definitely one that shaped Weidman’s career. Bringing the whole thing full circle, Weidman snapped his own leg throwing a calf kick 17 seconds into his most recent MMA fight against Uriah Hall three months ago.

Both of these were good examples of how to cheque kicks from a defensive fighter’s point of view.

Now, I’m not saying calf kicks are a bad idea. The aforementioned examples are just two of many that show why calf kicks can be risky, but calf kicks have also won fights for many fighters and even a handful of UFC fighters have been able to stop fights with their ferocity.

It brings to mind an interesting question of whether or not calf kicks are a smart or risky strategy in MMA. Surely they can be a lethal weapon and slow a fighter who is purely a striker down, but they also seem to be more likely to severely injure the offensive fighter than most other types of strikes.

We all have seen the worst-case scenario when throwing a calf kick, but the strategy also leaves fighters’ chins open at times. Injuring a foot, ankle, or tibia is the primary concern of any fighter throwing a calf kick, but not seeing an overhand punch because they’re focusing on damaging their opponent’s leg is another risk calf kickers must keep in mind.

But these risks need to be weighed against all of the good reasons to utilize this low attack inside the cage.

  • Calf kicks are effective and efficient strikes late in rounds when fighters have low energy.
  • Compared to other types of kicks, especially higher kicks, calf kicks are rather simple from a technical standpoint, which makes them useful to a larger pool of fighters.
  • The speed of calf kicks makes them hard to see coming. They are like a jab with legs, making them harder to defend or counter.
  • For fighters who rely heavily on kicks, calf kicks can be a more effective strategy against wrestlers than other types of kicks. This is because calf kicks are low enough that grapplers will have a hard time catching the leg and bringing their opponent to the mat.

There are some murmurings on Reddit and amongst the MMA community about whether the UFC would ever consider banning calf kicks. Sounds like a drastic move to me, and while I could see stand-up fights being more entertaining without them, I think throwing calf kicks is a risk-reward decision each individual fighter has to make, and if there’s nothing dirty about them then they’re cool with me. But this is still a conversation that could continue to grow.

What do you think? Would banning these types of kicks be good for MMA? Maybe take the decision out of the fighters’ hands? Food for thought.

author avatar
Pat Donohue
Pat Donohue has been covering sports for more than 10 years. He is a former Washington Redskins beat reporter and has been covering the University of Maryland football and basketball recruiting and daily beats for since 2013. Pat graduated from Maryland with his master's degree in journalism and has received bylines in publications such as USA TODAY Sports, The Philadelphia Inquirer, SB Nation, and Yahoo! Sports. As a wrestler for 13 years in Pennsylvania, Pat has a deep appreciation for MMA and a keen understanding of the sport.