How to Fight a Taller Opponent in Striking (MMA, Kickboxing & Muay Thai)

This article treats this subject from a striking point of view. If you want to learn about how to fight a taller opponent from  a grappling point of view check thi article

We’ve all been there.

If you’ve practiced any martial art for a decent length of time then no doubt you will have had the unfortunate experience of being paired with ‘The tall one’ in the class. That guy or girl who looks like they fell asleep in a greenhouse with their feet in a bag of fertilizer.

With a a height advatage that makes you suspect their head probably has snow on top of it and a reach like a fucking albatros, negotiating the obvious physical advantages possessed by such a tall opponent can be incredibly challenging.

Not only that, but in this era of weight classes, it is increasingly difficult to find useful examples of how noted fighters in the world’s bigger MMA promotions deal with this situation.

Fortunately, the early, more lawless days of UFC, (when weight classes were considered to be for sissies rather than a legitimate safety concern) and Japanese MMA promotions (where so called ‘freak show’ fights are common) provide plenty of examples of how noted fighters handle such situations, not to mention the many examples from complimentary sports like Muay Thai and particularly western boxing.

So, let’s dive in and look at……….’com’s guide to possible approaches, tips and techniques for dealing with a much taller opponent. Remember, we’ve got your back.

In part one we will look at standup and striking strategies for dealing with this issue.

The most immediate and obvious advantage possessed by those who live at the top of the beanstalk is their reach.

Be it with kicks using their longer legs to keep a shorter opponent out of range, or with their lengthy arms having longer limbs means that their torque has a greater fulcrum from which to swing, meaning more momentum and often, if you’re on the end of it, harder impact.

Given the chance, tall guys can throw. The trick then, is to not be there when they do, or don’t give them the chance.

Think of it like someone swinging a baseball bat. The one point you do not want to be at is at the end. If you’re close to the person swinging, within the arc of their swing then the force is neutralised, if you’re too far out for the end to hit you, again it is neutralised.

Striking with a taller opponent is all about managing range and distance.

Easier said than done, I hear you cry. This is true, but the two lead principles in neutralising this tall person advantage are either to get inside the range, or work outside of it using a hit and run tactics. Let’s look at the best approaches for each.

Get Inside: Tyson and The ‘Limpet Range’

The first tactic to use when trying to neutralise a taller opponent is crowding.

With a much longer reach, the taller opponent has a great opportunity to keep a smaller guy or girl at the end of the jab, or a testing front kick, keeping them out of range to land anything themselves and well within the danger zone to get damaged.

The trick then is to get to a critical range before the tall guy. At the outset of any confrontation the distance and range advantage is going to be with a taller fighter. It is therefore imperative that the shorter fighter close the distance quickly.

Watch any of notoriously short heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson’s early bouts against much taller opponents and you will see great examples of this technique.

He closes distance early, reaching critical range before the opponent has a chance to establish a defensive jab and stays in limpet like close proximity to his opponent.

Tyson’s usual stance, despite his comparatively meagre stature, involved being in a half squat much of the time, making himself even shorter. This allowed him to successfully crowd his opponent, staying so close that he might as well have been a tattoo on the other guy’s chest.

Watch his two fights against the much taller Frank Bruno and you’ll see that by being well within the swing of Bruno’s lengthy arms, Tyson is able to neutralise big Frank’s main offensive weapon.

In many of Tyson’s fights you see the strikes of his taller opponents reduced to short, rabbit punches, and close hooks that come from the arm and shoulder rather than the hips. Not the most powerful options for taller fighters.

Whenever Tyson had difficulty with taller fighters (for example in his loss to Lennox Lewis) it was because he was unable to close that distance early and forced instead to work at the end of the taller fighters lead jab. Exactly where you don’t want to be (tactics for avoiding this, coming up later)

The same ‘get inside’ tactics can be seen in MMA in the Fedor Emilanenko vs Hong Man Choi fight, (which if you have never seen it is a fabulous example of the Japanese penchant for promoting visual mismatches in terms of height and weight, if not necessarily ability).

Choi, an absolute giant in comparison to Fedor, lands some shots and visibly marks up Emilanenko’s face, but the shots are always in the scramble or on the mat and always short punches rather than the massive swing he has the potential to deliver.

This is because in both standing exchanges with the giant, Emelianenko instantly closes the distance and gets ‘inside’ so quickly, that Choi is unable to use his natural advantages. Limpet style- job done.

Small and Smaller

Another advantage of Tyson’s slightly squatted stance means that even when throwing more successfully, the taller fighter is having to punch further downward than Tyson’s regular height, meaning that he is always having to overcommit, sacrificing both power and accuracy in his striking, leaving himself open to attacks on the inside. Attacks like…

Body combinations and uppercuts

One disadvantage of being tall and having a long range is that there is often a large area to be exploited between the waist and shoulder.

Ever wondered why a lot of tall boxers pull their waistbands up to their nipples like a self inflicted nuclear wedgie? It’s because this is an area shorter fighters can exploit.

Unlike shorter fighters where the distance between hip and shoulder wouldn’t be big enough to stick on a postage stamp, on taller fighters there is acres of space to be exploited, especially around the floating ribs, which are necessarily left exposed whenever a taller fighter lifts his arms to strike.

Looking again at Tyson, one of his most successful combinations once inside the swing range was the right hook to the body followed by the right uppercut. Because he had already successfully negotiated the distance and got past the big guy’s defences Tyson would then be able to exploit the lack of defences in these two areas. Using the damage caused by one to set up the other

This is also where the other advantage of the slightly squatted stance comes in handy, as it allows the shorter fighter greater hip torque on the punches and some added spring from the power in their legs when punching upwards (or in Tyson’s case at a peculiar but devastating diagonal) Wanna succeed on the inside against taller opponents? Don’t skip leg day.

Knees, elbows and headwork

Depending upon the parameters of the ruleset and sport you are working in these three tactics are gold for shorter fighters, for the simple fact that they can be used in very close quarters and and at a range advantageous to the smaller fighter.

If you’re close enough to throw a decent standing elbow then you are well out of range of the the taller opponents main arsenal. Knees allow you to exploit that same body/rib area we talked about above, and whilst not necessarily a fight winner, they will very easily tire an opponent and soften them up for a finish.

Using the head in these close proximity situations can range from using short headbuts if your rule set allows it, using this heavy part of your body in a similar way to that which a wrestler might in a clinch. Pressing into the chest to force an opponent backward and jolting upward under the chin/ against the neck to throw off the opponents centre line. (or if you are that unscrupulous, to use this as an under the radar headbut when clinching, a much dirtier tactic also employed by Tyson)

The masters in this sort of close quarter striking are Muay Thai and Burmese Lethwei fighters, particularly the latter where headbuts are allowed and from close distances are employed to devastating effect. Search out some videos of these to see what you can add to your game.

Closing the distance

The above is all well and good, some might say, as long as you CAN close the distance. So how do you get there in the first place? Well, there are two big tips for this in terms of striking approaches

Lateral head movement

If you again watch any early Mike Tyson fight one thing you will notice is that he weaves around like a cobra on a spring, his head bobbing laterally like it’s floating on water. This is where we see that boxing is about more than being able to throw thunderous KO inducing shots as Tyson was clearly able to.

By using lateral head movement, the world’s most famous ear biter was able to slip a lot of his larger opponents jabs forcing them to overcommit and getting inside to that more comfortable and less dangerous range.

Jabbing the lead hand

Whilst this may seem counter intuitive, after all, you’re not gonna win fights or KO anyone punching their hands, jabbing the lead hand of a taller fighter is a legitimate and much used technique in both MMA and boxing. When you see boxers like Lennox Lewis or the Klitchko brothers or boxing trained MMA fighters like Holly Holm controlling distance, it usually involves keeping opponents on the end of jabs for days keeps their advantage.

Jabbing at that hand stops the taller opponent from being able to fully extend and control the distance. Keeping the lead hand busy also enables the smaller fighter to push the opponent backward. When the taller opponent attempts to neutralise this by using their rear hand, it takes longer than the lead and may be telegraphed, allowing a smaller opponent plenty of time to dodge (remember the lateral head movement we talked about) and, in the likely event of an over extension by the taller fighter, to counter punch at the now exposed jaw on the rear hand side or the body, or both if you’re so inclined. This lapse also allows the smaller fighter to find an angle and get inside and stay there. Repeat the tips above, stir and allow to settle.

From the outside

Having talked about the advantages of getting inside the striking range of a taller fighter, and techniques to use there it is also important to look at the more hit and run tactics that can be employed from outside of that range.

If you remember our baseball bat analogy, this would involve being on the outside of the curve and stepping briefly within the arc to attack before returning to the outside.

To look at this tactic in action we’ll see two comparatively smaller mma fighters (Igor Vovchancyn and Maro Ruas) tackling the same super tall opponent, Paul Varleans.

These tactics generally rely on speed, movement and some nifty footwork, so only try them out if you are confident that you can counter punch and get in and out quickly. The alternative is to use these techniques to open up the range and close distance and then refer to the closer quarters techniques mentioned above.

Chopping the tree down: Thai leg kicks


In the finals of UFC 7 (Jesus that makes me feel old) Marco Ruas took on the 6’8 ‘Polar Bear’ Paul Varleans.

Unable to match Varleans in terms of raw strength and with such a pronounced weight advantage. reluctant to grapple with him (Ruas had also just come off a gruelling grappling based contest with Remco Pardeau and so was likely much more exhausted that Varleans) Ruas decided instead to use the hit and run tactic from the outside.

This essentially involved patiently using hard thai leg kicks to ‘chop down the tree’ weakening Varlean’s thighs to such an extent that he literally had a ‘timber’ moment in which his legs gave in and he collapsed, only for a waiting Ruas to then pounce and beat the shit out of him. Advantage neutralised.

The big upside to this technique is that at no point was Ruas really within the arc of Varlean’s strikes. When big Paul did attempt to strike his attempts were telegraphed, unwieldy and based on over commitment because he was forced to go beyond his natural range and over extend.

The choice of Muay Thai kicks was to the upper legs is an interesting one for an assault against a taller opponent.

The technique allows the kicker to naturally exploit the angle of his body to control range, working like a snake to extend to strike before recoiling back out of striking distance.

With Muay Thai leg kicks the striking surface goes forward whilst the head leans back. It’s interesting when looking at Ruas’s strikes how far he leans back with each strike. With the angle of the torso to the hips remaining obtuse and often well beyond 90 degrees he is able to strike at speed whilst ensuring that the jaw is never really exposed to the striking range of the taller fighter.