The year that was 2014 provided us with a plentiful bounty of violence. From head kicks and flying knees to counter elbows and liver shots, the latest crop of concussions and other bodily injuries was incredibly diverse -- a sign of the trend toward ever more technical and skilled striking in mixed martial arts.
So varied and impressive were these knockouts that picking a winner was exceptionally difficult. From Fabricio Werdum’s crafty flying knee and Mark Hunt’s walk-off uppercut to Joe Schilling’s he-dead right-left combination that put Melvin Manhoef to sleep, the year was replete with worthy contenders. In the end, however, one KO ruled them all: Dong Hyun Kim’s spinning elbow finish of John Hathaway at a UFC Fight Night event held in Macau, China, on March 1 reigns as Sherdog.com’s “Knockout of the Year” for 2014.
For the first five years of his Ultimate Fighting Championship career, Kim was known as a talented but relatively unassuming clinch and top-position grinder who consistently fell a step short of the stacked welterweight division’s uppermost echelon. His first run ended with a loss -- it was later changed to a no-contest -- against Karo Parisyan; his second ended with a devastating knockout at the hands of future interim champion Carlos Condit; and a freak rib injury put him away against Demian Maia.
Kim flashed signs of a developing striking repertoire. He landed a Lyoto Machida-esque flying front kick against Sean Pierson, for example, and showed solid mechanics in his rangy southpaw punching and kicking games when he chose to make use of them. In fact, it was clear that despite his preference for strong control in the clinch and on the ground, he was developing into a patient, quick, powerful and reasonably technical kickboxer.
Two more wins followed the loss to Maia, both of them dominating top-control decisions over Paulo Thiago and Siyar Bahadurzada; and both fit neatly within Kim’s established identity as a grinder. When he faced off with Erick Silva in October 2013, however, all of that went out the window. In place of his patient, stalking game, Kim recklessly pursued Silva around the cage, winging wild, looping punches as he attempted to back the Brazilian to the cage and pound away.
To be clear, this newfound, borderline-psychotic aggression was less brutalizing yet still technical old-school Chute Boxe than a seemingly desperate attempt to get his mitts on his Brazilian opponent in any way possible. More than any particular desire for technical effectiveness, Kim may well have realized that, at 31 and nearly a decade into his MMA career, his prime years were slipping away; grinders are not getting many title shots these days; and, as the releases of Jon Fitch and Jake Shields showed, they are not being given much slack to stick around the organization.
Silva popped Kim with counter after counter in return for that aggressiveness until a miracle straight left from the South Korean put down the Brazilian in the second round. It was indeed a miracle, because it was the only time in the entire fight that Kim pulled his head off the centerline while throwing that left hand, which is what saved him from Silva’s simultaneous right.
While perhaps ill-advised in the grand scheme of things -- Silva out-landed him by nearly a 3-to-1 margin -- Kim carried that same aggression into his matchup with Hathaway. A talented but rarely active Englishman who carried a 7-1 record under the UFC banner into the bout, Hathaway was in many ways the mirror image of Kim: big, strong, athletic and fond of grinding away in the clinch and from top position. Seeing Kim’s performance against Silva as an aberration, most observers foresaw a relatively slow-paced bout that would take place mostly at close range and on the ground, with little threat of a finish given that the two competitors had combined to finish just one fight in their 21 total UFC appearances.
That is not what happened. From the opening bell, Kim demonstrated that his newfound devotion to forward-moving bombs and trading strikes was not a one-off occurrence. Less than 15 seconds into the fight, Kim had eaten a couple of flush shots and landed a brutal right hook that sent Hathaway reeling backwards. The Englishman was forced to reach for the clinch just to get time to recover, and that set the tone for most of the fight. Kim stalked forward, threw a wicked left hand and either landed or dove forward into the clinch, while Hathaway responded with right hands and elbows at close range and forced the clinch of his own volition.
In addition to his straight and overhand left, Kim also threatened repeatedly with spinning strikes, mostly backfists, something he had also tried unsuccessfully throughout his bout with Silva. He did not throw the spinning strikes willy-nilly but tried to maximize their effectiveness by attempting them on clinch breaks and when he forced Hathaway’s back to the fence.
This is essential when throwing spinning strikes, flying knees and to a lesser extent high kicks. By their very nature, they take a long time to develop in comparison to other strike types, and that time gives the opponent advance warning to defend the incoming shot either by blocking or moving out of range. Against the fence, moving away is not an option, and on clinch entries and exits, turning one’s hips or ducking down -- as Jon Jones does on his spinning elbows -- could indicate multiple other possibilities, including attempted shot takedowns, hip tosses or a simple attempt to get away. This can freeze the opponent and draw his hands out of position, further increasing the likelihood of landing the strike.
Kim hurt Hathaway with another vicious left hand near the end of the first round, but the Englishman stormed back in the second frame, landing a big step-in knee at the beginning of the round to set the tone and then following up with a series of rights and a flying knee. Moreover, Hathaway seemed to have largely figured out the linear nature of Kim’s stalking movement. The South Korean was following Hathaway around the cage, not cutting off his angles and thereby wasting a great deal of energy through that inefficiency.
A late takedown and top control likely sealed the second round for Kim, but the flow of the fight was moving increasingly in Hathaway’s direction, as the South Korean’s furious pace took a toll and slowed him down. The Englishman landed a flying knee and a series of elbows to open the third, and it seemed as if the tide had turned for good. In one moment, all of that changed. Some 45 seconds into the third round, Hathaway grabbed a strong clinch and pushed Kim to the fence; the judoka separated and then stepped forward. Hathaway looked to counter the likely left hand with a right elbow, and Kim stepped forward and, outside the path of the oncoming strike, spun and landed the point of his left elbow on Hathaway’s temple. The Englishman dropped to the ground, already unconscious.
It was an amazing, ballsy and perfectly executed strike delivered at precisely the right moment. The two men had been exchanging punches, elbows and clinch entries at close range for 11 minutes, and it speaks to Kim’s slick sense of timing and reaction that he was able to anticipate and respond to a counter that Hathaway had shown several times before the end.
Kim went on to lose to Tyron Woodley in his next outing, stopping his rise to the top and showing the limitations of his new balls-to-the-wall approach. However, that spinning elbow stands alone as the year’s best knockout.
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