Across the world of mixed martial arts, you’re guaranteed to see some amazing kinds of talent. There are those big heavy hitters with one-punch knockout power, like Derrick Lewis. There’s also those kick-accuracy kings, like Anderson Silva.
But one thing that often goes under the radar, is footwork. Footwork is not just a fundamental of MMA and all fighting sports, but it’s also what separates the very best fighters from all others.
If you’re in a rush, here’s my fighter shortlist of the best footwork in MMA:
The fighters with the best footwork in MMA and UFC history are Dominick Cruz, T.J. Dillashaw, Max Holloway, Sean O’Malley, Cory Sandhagen, Valentina Shevchenko, Israel Adesanya, Anderson Silva, and Conor McGregor.
Magic movement makes a fighter able to slip and move around their opponent’s strikes and return with critical counters, and these are simply some of the best moments to see.
In this article, I’ll list the fighters with the very best footwork in UFC. Some we can all agree on, but some deserve more attention than they currently get. So keep reading to see the full list!
Table of Contents
Dominick is fighting his way back to a top contender spot, and yet he’s already considered one of the legends of the UFC and the history of modern mixed martial arts. Not just for his fighting skills as a former Champion, but also his commentary ability and critical thinking.
“The Dominator” Cruz is often known as one of the Matrix-level fighters in his division and the entire sport as on his best day his opponents are expelling empty shots at nothing but air with Cruz seeing strikes before they’re even thrown.
He’s consistently displayed this kind of elite-level movement and footwork that allows him to stay out of the firing line of strikes. He puts a lot of this ability down to the simple understanding that in almost all forms of martial arts, from striking to takedown/ground fighting, they require the target to be on the midline.
The midline is also sometimes called the train tracks by coaches like Trevor Wittman, which basically means standing in front of your opponent with your feet aligned with theirs.
And this perception makes sense when you think about it. And especially when you watch Cruz display it so effectively.
By always throwing his own attacks that put him out at an angle off from his opponent, he is immediately ready for a counterattack which is only setting him up for his next attack.
You’ll often see him dip his head down to one side, bending over, whilst simultaneously positioning his hips toward the opponent. He activates this when there’s a hook coming over the top for which he is ready to bow under and counter immediately with his rear hand with one of his long-reach punches. And this can repeat if more big swings follow up as he’ll just switch between two side-on stances and duck under each strike to return with another counter.
What’s particularly crazy about his technique is that his hands are almost always down away from guarding his head until a high kick is being thrown (and even then, he mostly would try to bend away). With his hands down, Cruz can see shots firing from all angles and rely on his footwork and movement above all else; but sometimes it costs him as not even Neo can dodge every bullet.
Dillashaw has had a rocky history in his MMA career, as he served a long-time ban for performance drugs use. But even so, he still remains one of the most talented fighters out there – and a lot of that has been down to his meticulous footwork.
T.J. implements a few particular strategies that make him a nightmare to fight against and although some of them may seem a bit too cute to work, they still continue to. Lately, T.J. has expanded his abilities to be more fluid and trusting in his natural counter ability as well.
The footwork strategies that Dillashaw implements give him options to push the opponent into a weak position making it easier to gain striking advantages. He is a prolific user of the switch cross (a quick fake stance switch, followed by a rear cross whilst moving the head off-center) to confuse his opponents at the middle whilst moving to their weaker side to evade counters and open up for more easy hits.
This same quick stance switching also allows him to set up for new attacks like the head kick (especially after the opponent gets wise to the switch cross), and a takedown. After setting them up on the switch cross for a while, he introduces these new variations and makes it simple for him to score more points.
These are just a few samples of what T.J. Dillashaw is capable of, and he’s one to continue watching as he twinkles his toes around the cage.
Max has screamed, “I am the best Boxer in the UFC!” when fighting in the cage against Calvin Kattar. And I’m not one to strongly disagree with him, as I would say he deserves to be high on this list for his footwork which is essentially a vital component in Boxing excellence.
Many of the fighting styles that Max implements are very much like a traditional Boxer, just one with a ton more freedom of movement and hand positioning. He has a habit of dropping his hands low and firing long strikes whilst stance-switching through the punch which catches opponents off guard plenty. He can then choose how to follow up with more strikes or duck or roll under and away from any counters.
He is often advancing whilst throwing punches, pressuring the opponent directly from the front with a flurry that has his weight behind each strike. Their best option is to move completely away from it as his long reach means he usually has an advantage against anything else that could be thrown back (except for a perfectly timed slip on Holloway’s entrance, which has happened).
Plenty of these different strikes come from his strengths in moving his feet intelligently. Max doesn’t appear like a fighter who is bouncy such as a Kickboxer, but rather one that plants his feet firmly and exactly where he means to in order to maximize his positioning and range. It’s subtle but makes him one of the greatest strikers in UFC history. And he is one of the greatest!
The fanbase for Max believes so strongly in his ability that he is often considered in the conversation for one of the best UFC fighters of all time, but I’d say there is still work to be done for Max to reach that status.
First of all, maybe we can agree that “The Suga Show” is Dana White’s next hype project and so he’s not yet fighting the biggest caliber of opponents that he otherwise could.
Even so, O’Malley has proved that he can knock out opponents and make it look breezy. I’d argue any day that this is down to his unique movement patterns, fake-outs, and footwork.
His unique Ectomorph body type allows him to have a very light frame, whilst remaining very tall and fast compared to his opponents at the same weight class.
This makes Sean very light on his feet and gives him the physical ability to spring in and out of range of opponents very easily, whilst also keeping them at his long range.
With that distance, Sean can work his feints into range to bait a strike and allow him to do what he does best; counter right hand straight down the middle.
He is also an expert on lateral movement. He’s persistently faking his head in either direction, whilst moving to the right side of his opponent and jabbing to create space for him to angle back into center or away from the cage. Even so, he seems happy to be up against the cage as baiting in an attack and circling out is one of his specialties.
Sean might have a few more fights to go to prove himself in being able to apply that footwork with some of the best aggressive fighters in his division, but everything seems set for him to shine by continuing to build up experience until then.
The Sandman is another fighter on this list who has entered high rankings of the Bantamweight division on impeccable footwork skills.
A few of Cory’s highlights include the infamous flying knee that knocked out Frankie Edgar, and, more recently, his pretty special display of footwork maneuvering around Petr Yan in the early rounds of their clash at UFC 267.
Cory made it difficult for Petr to isolate his movements at first because of a few clever tactics from The Sandman in lead jab pressure and angle changes.
Cory would throw out his lead hand jab often to control distance against his opponents and did this against Petr Yan, but here he added an extra dimension by throwing out the lead jab to distract push Petr into his guard whilst he switched stance, stepping out at a 45-degree angle, and applied damage where it was unexpected with a few jabs (from southpaw) followed by a left hook around the guard.
The 45-degree angle switching is something that Cory utilizes beautifully, and he did so against T.J. Dillashaw too.
In that fight, he used his jab to control the distance and distract but would follow up with a rear cross whilst switching stance.
This lands him in the southpaw, jabbing now with his right hand and allowing him to choose whether to fire a Cross from the southpaw stance and keep repeating the stance switching attack or to use that switch to give him the 45-degree angle change and move backward away from any countering attacks.
All of this isn’t just understanding how to throw strikes, but it’s knowing how to use your feet rhythmically with your hands and yet be able to react to change as necessary when counters or takedowns come at you. Sandhagen is a specialist in footwork because he understands and displays all of these elements.
Now, there could be one of many female fighters to feature in this list. But for me, Valentina stands out the most. The whole combination of her skills adds up to one incredible fighter, without evening having to consider the man vs woman debate; because Valentina Shevchenko as a human being is an exceptional martial artist.
It’s clear that she is obsessed with perfectionism in her craft, as nearly every strike she throws – whether it’s a jab, a body kick, or a spinning back kick – looks like it was crafted by an artist. Hell, she is the artist!
What I’m talking about here is beautiful footwork. Valentina is always well-grounded, moving and adjusting around her opponent until the moment is ready for the correct strike, counter, or defensive maneuver.
The footwork that Valentina displays is exactly what allows her to deliver some of the most advanced techniques in the sport and actually land them consistently.
You can’t set up yourself well enough to hit with a spinning back fist, superman punch, or spinning back kick without understanding movement well. Valentina is able to move her feet into all the right positions, adjusting for distance and her range swiftly, to deliver some of the fastest spinning attacks you will ever see.
Israel Adesanya was an undefeated Champion in the UFC for a long time, only earning his first loss after moving up a weight division.
Other competitors at Middleweight have struggled to beat him in no small part down to his movement ability. Adesanya can keep his opponents at range, moving in to deliver quick combinations, and dart backward again to avoid damage and deliver head kicks.
With his unique size advantage against most opponents, he can stay agile and on his toes for most of the fight. Usually, Israel doesn’t get involved in a huddle when both fighters are throwing bombs; he doesn’t need to. Izzy constantly moves around his opponents to make them follow him around the cage, even from the outside, so they can’t keep up the pace.
When the moment is right, “The Last Stylebender” picks his opponents apart with clinical strikes. This is all possible because of footwork that comes from the dozens of fights he experienced at the professional Kickboxing level. In Kickboxing, it can be too easy to get hit and knocked out so expert avoidance is essential.
Some might say Adesanya wins because he avoids a slugfest. But this is what makes him a professional, he does only what he needs to at the right moment.
The Man. The Spider. The Legend. Anderson Silva goes down in all of our books as one of the greatest to have ever done it. One of the most electric and diverse fightings displays that we’ve ever had the pleasure to see.
Silva captivated the entire sporting world when he knocked out Vitor Belfort with a front kick (or “teep”) to the face. We’ve seen this since then, but none in the way Spider delivered it.
In many of the other great moments of Silva, we have seen him take simple steps out of range of oncoming punches with his hands by his waist only then to deliver a single damaging blow to the opponent’s chin to say goodnight and drop them to the floor. Sometimes, even knocking them out.
After Anderson Silva left the MMA world, he dove into his childhood dream of becoming a professional Boxer. He’s continuing to show that he can move with the best of them as he still looks spritely despite his age.
It’s clear to me that Silva has always had a lot of study in the Boxing methodologies of movement and using his feet to position advantageously against the opponent. It’s what made him so effective with the UFC and what continues to do so in the Boxing world.
Conor may have had some less-than-ideal results in the latter end of his career, but he still remains one of the footwork masters in UFC history and that’s why he’s right here.
Conor McGregor would have been unlikely to reach the phenomenal heights in his career, like becoming the Champ Champ, without having the exceptional ability to move his feet in and out of range of his opponents to his advantage.
It’s exactly this ability that enabled him to knock out Jose Aldo in the first round and why he was able to box for five rounds straight with Nate Diaz some years ago.
I’ve noticed that it’s not just because Conor has a difficult southpaw stance to deal with which makes him so successful but because he has an uncanny natural ability to bait his opponents in to strike and miss whilst he delivers a well-timed counter. Even in his late losses against Dustin Poirier, he showed a few splashes of his ducks and awkward angles that make him difficult to deal with.
It all comes down to a greater-than-normal ability of reaction, timing, and footwork. And Conor has always had all three.
That’s been my list of fighters with the best footwork in MMA! Do you agree or think I’ve missed anyone out? Let me know in the comments.