The Film Room: Justin Willis

By Kevin Wilson Mar 22, 2019
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Justin Willis on Saturday will climb into the Octagon for the fifth time when he takes on Curtis Blaydes in the UFC Fight Night 148 co-headliner at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Fans may not know much about Willis outside of his win over Mark Hunt in 2018, but he ranks as one of the most polished strikers in the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight division and seems intent on making a name for himself with a victory over Blaydes.

Operating out of the American Kickboxing Academy, Willis provides the material for this installment of The Film Room.

Willis is an odd fighter for a heavyweight of his stature. He is shaped like Hunt but fights like a Jon Jones. Instead of using his stocky frame to bully others on the inside like most fighters his size, Willis elects to patiently work on the counter and pick apart his opponents from the outside. As a southpaw, his go-to is a simple counter straight left down the middle. Although his height is well below the heavyweight average, his 79-inch reach is longer than most and allows him to land his counter left against taller opponents.

Most of his counters are single precision strikes, but Willis will occasionally counter with a few quick hooks to the head. Willis has a high fight IQ for someone who has only been fighting for seven years and he knows it is not smart to hang around in the pocket, especially at heavyweight. As a result, even when he does come in with a combo, it is rarely more than three strikes before he resets at a comfortable range.

Willis knows his countering skills are better than most heavyweights, so he does not lead often, but he can be effective in quick bursts. Willis also knows that counterstrikers have to strike first occasionally to keep others guessing, so most of his leading attacks are used to set up the opponent for counters later in the fight. Since Blaydes is one of the best wrestlers in the division and Willis is not a great grappler, do not expect him to work on the lead much in this fight for fear of the takedown. He is smart enough to not get overzealous and leave his hips open.

Willis does not throw any head kicks since they have a further distance to the target, but he will occasionally attack the legs, albeit not enough. As a distance striker, Willis should use more leg kicks to keep opponents at a safe distance and limit their movement. It would not be smart to throw many against Blaydes since they can leave him open for takedowns, but perhaps he can incorporate more kicks into his game in the future.

Willis has shown flashes of his jab, but he does not use it enough. Against Hunt, Willis circled away from Hunt’s right hand while jabbing him the entire fight, but he was still too patient with his strikes. If Willis can learn to use the jab and leg kicks to keep opponents at bay and set up his counters, we could be looking at a future title contender in a division desperate for new blood. Advertisement


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