Mixed martial arts is in a constant state of evolution, with few changes more dramatic that the low low kick. At UFC 104 in 2009, controversial former MMA judge Cecil Peoples defended his scoring the Lyoto Machida vs. Shogun Rua fight for the karate man by downplaying low kicks.
"Although Rua threw a lot of low kicks they were not as damaging as Lyoto's diverse attack in the earlier rounds, which is why I scored the first three rounds for Machida," said Peoples to Cage Report. "You have to keep in mind we always favor the fighter who is trying to finish the fight, and leg kicks certainly don't do that."
He was wrong then, but even Cecil Peoples wouldn't make the argument today. However, the majority of low kick stoppages today come not from kicks to the thigh as it was traditionally executed, but from the low low kick, to the calf.
A fan in Japan recently put together a highlight reel of Calf Kick KOs. Check it out!
A Doctor Explains The Damage
Brian Sutterer, MD, has a popular YouTube channel where he breaks down sports injuries, with an emphasis on MMA. In the video below, he explains that the kick kick attacks a nerve that is close to the skin, and thus unprotected and susceptible to injury.
"A kick in this area is specifically targeting the common fibular nerve, or common peroneal nerve," explained the sports doctor. "It's a nerve that supplies muscle control to part of the lower leg, and also some of the sensation," he says,
"This is where these UFC fighters are trying to strike, to have these effective calf kicks. It's going to cause limited function of the muscles, because that nerve is going to be stunned... So you hit that nerve really close to the skin enough right here, and it's going to cause some of the nerves to shut off, it's going to cause some temporary damage to them, basically ending with this dead-feeling lower leg."
How to Execute The Calf Kick
As with all techniques, what matters most is the setup.
Most people already know how to throw it, as The Calf Kick is similar to the first kick most people are taught - the low kick. The major difference is bending the base, supporting leg as much as possible to get the hips low enough to hit with full force, using the core, rather than kicking with the leg alone. It's also important to make sure your head gets out of the pocket. Otherwise, it's a low kick - swing the leg up, rainbow it, arm can scissor, reference, or stay up, etc.
While the basic kick is similar, a significant change is the striking surface. Low kicking the thigh with the instep can hurt the ankle, and causes little damage. However, kicking the calf with the instep can cause the fight to end, and is safer, as you can be farther away.
The target is the nerve bundle near the top of the shin, where the Tibialis muscles are largest. You can readily identify it on yourself by pressing with your thumb. There is a lesser target 90 degrees or so out from the shin.
Developing the ability to bend the base leg significantly can be readily developed with an agility ladder, specifically, hops on a single leg. The chance of injury increases significantly with one leg, so warm up with a relatively slow, measured movement. Later you can move more explosively. As an aside, on an agility ladder aim from perfect movement the first four squares, and only then accelerate. And to develop clean footwork, don't simply try to get your foot somewhere in the square, but rather aim to base exactly in the center.
Start with single leg hops, moving forward, first with the right leg, and then with the left on the second pass. For most people, reverse that if you are a Southpaw. In either case, always start every drill with your weaker side, so you don't develop a sugar side.
Then do single sideways hops. Make sure you get both legs. And hop to the inside, and to the outside. Then try backward hops. All variations can be attempted with the eyes closed; just make sure there is adequate space between yourself and the person in front.
Then try the same sequence of four - front, inside, outside, and back - but moving in a zigzag pattern. The movement can be in and out on one side, or can go in, out on the other side, in, out on the first side.
Lastly, try 90 degree turns on each hop. Practiced three times a week, over the weeks, your ankles and knees will become stronger and more stable and able to readily bend as low as necessary to Calf Kick effectively.
Please note, these conditioning techniques are not of limited relevance, they are more or less everything. Without conditioning, knowing something will probably just get you in trouble.
With that said, as noted, all techniques have to be set up, and the setup is more important than the actual attack, in that once set up, there are usually multiple attacks available. And there have to be multiple setups, as continually trying the same setup is making yourself predictable, which is setting yourself up, the exact opposite of fighting.
At its core, the setup is to get the opponent to put weight on the lead leg (assuming you are both fighting orthodox or Southpaw. It is not possible to effectively attack an opponent in a Muay Thai stance with the weight set back - it can be checked too readily, and getting your Calf Kick checked hurts. Likewise, if the opponent is moving rapidly, it is difficult. Further, if the opponent is moving to his or her inside, then checking your calf kick is as easy as falling off a log.
Ideally, the opponent does the work for you. Ideally, the opponent comes in predictably, with a wide, power-punching stance, weight set forward. Then you use a low kick set up, and kick. It's there. If the opponent isn't so kind, you need to get them to set their weight forward.
The three most common initial standing attacks are the Pendulum kick, Teep, and Jab, all, of course, done with the lead, left side. Each can be used to set up the Calf Kick.
If you Pendulum kick to the opponent's lead, left, inside leg, and he or she responds by turning the knee in to check, then the next time, fake the Pendulum Kick, and come in with a Calf Kick.
The Teep too can be used effectively to get the opponent to set weight forward. In fact, anything can - a jab, aggressive forward movement, feints. In fighting if you want to make a side heavy, you should first try to make it light. So a solid teep pushing the opponent back and taking weight off the lead leg can cause the opponent to react by setting weight forward, leaving an opening for a Calf Kick.
Likewise, a solid left jab can get their weight set forward. But only if the opponent catches the jab, shells, or slips to the inside. If they predictably do an orthodox right parry and right slip, then jab twice, with the second one shoveling in palm up. This is hard to parry and characteristically causes attention to go high, leaving the calf open.
If they aren't kind enough to catch, shell, or slip your inside, then they can be steered into a Calf Kick.
Circle to your left, and throw your jab to the far (their right) side of their face. This will make them step to their left, and again, leave them open to a Calf Kick as they plant.
A Wrong Stepping Jab can be used to great effect, as it set up a full power Calf Kick. As you jab, step right, just outside the pocket. Then hop across their body, driving all your power behind the Calf Kick. The full power kick can be thrown to the calf, but can also be thrown more conventionally to the side of the lead thigh, to the front of the thigh (their head will come forward so go for a Plumm or front headlock or other appropriate technique), or to the base leg.
This takes extra footwork and time, and can be countered, so you need another completely different calf kick off the same initial attack.
Step wide towards their back with your right foot and follow a little less with your left foot. then Calf Kick from their back. You can as well jab as you step. Now off the same wrong-stepping jab, you could be hopping across them to kick any of four targets, or you could be staying there and kicking towards the back of the calf. Note, this latest setup moving to their back is not great for a conventional low kick to their thigh, but the rest are.
Another series of setups for the Calf Kick is to low kick conventionally to the thigh. Make sure you aim for the lower part of the thigh, where in order to grab your foot they have to bend forward or level change. This will increase the chances that they will check the kick. You can then fake the low kick, and kick the calf as they plant down.
The technique is simple, but takes practice. To warm up, step off left 45 on the 'V' and then low kick. Then set extra wide; you will feel that you can no longer kick with pull power. So step extra wide, and slide your right, rear foot in a few inches, until you have resumed a solid stance, and then kick. The right foot must slide in on the ball of the foot, not rolled over on the toes.
Then you can step wide, preparatory to a low kick, slide your rear leg in, and then pause momentarily. As their check drops back down, kick the calf.
Further, any low kick where they check predictably can be countered by using your newfound Low Low kicking skills to "Submarine" under the check, and kick the calf of the base leg.
History of The Calf Kick
Knowing the history of a technique can be useful in refining it. The Calf Kick came of age at UFC 215 in 2017, when Jeremy Stephens destroyed Gilbert Melendez with it.
The peak of the kick was perhaps on January 23, 2021, at UFC 257, when ATT's Dustin Poirier destroyed Conor McGregorm the best-known MMA fighter in history, with it. After the fight "The Notorious" described his leg as feeling "dead."
"I felt stronger than him, but his leg kicks were good," conceded McGregor after the fight. "I didn't adjust. My leg was badly compromised, I've never experienced those low calf kicks, and I wasn't as comfortable as I needed to be... I have no excuses."
Identifying the origins of a technique can be problematic, but it's a staple in Sanda, a combat sport that draws its techniques almost exclusively from traditional Chinese Martial Arts.
The technique has emerged here and there for decades, but one candidate for bringing the kick into the MMA mainstream is Katel Kubis, an American Top Team striking coach, who has a series of instructional videos on the subject available from the awesome Dynamic Striking.
Kubis says he learned it from noted Brazilian Muay Thai coach Fabio Noguchi, who in turn had picked it up from Muay Thai fighters in the 1980s. Kubis used it during his many MMA and Muay Thai fights, and says it was popular in the Vale Tudo era. However, he did not find a great reception for it when he started coaching in the USA.
That started to change when Kubis convinced Wilson Gouveia of the kick's potential effectiveness. Gouveia was by then already released by the UFC. However, vs. Dwayne Lewis on January 27, 20212, at MFC 32: Bitter Rivals, Gouveia landed 17 Calf Kicks on his heavy-handed opponent, who was the favorite.
TV announcers Pat Miletich, who drafted the blueprint for mixed martial arts, noticed too.
“Gouveia’s going low,” said Miletich. “He’s kicking the calf, the fibula region on the leg. That’s annoying.”
It ended up being more than an annoyance.
“He kicked the guy in the calf and the guy’s leg exploded,” explained ATT owner Dan Lambert.
When the coach returned to the gym the following week, everyone wanted to learn it.
“It’s become an ATT brand,” said Kubis. “I’m so happy that all the fighters who come to ATT are very successful, because we know how to perfect this kick.”