In the early hours of Sunday morning (if you reside in the UK / US), Si Woo Park will be entering the biggest and most important fight of her career. Despite only turning pro five years ago (at the age of 26), the late bloomer is set to take on all-time great Ayaka Hamasaki in the semi-finals of the atomweight Grand Prix.
Her career-best performance came only two months ago against former atomweight Grand Prix winner, Kanna Asakura. For those who had been unaware of Park's talents, it was a sudden wake-up call - a signal from the Korean that she was not to be played with. For those initiated, Park simply vindicated what we already knew: the dark horse in the tournament was well and truly galloping.
Every time Asakura shot for a takedown, Park met her with a well-timed sprawl and dug punches to her body until the fight returned to a standing position. Park wasn't doing anything new - over the last few years, she has developed a total mastery of the old-school art of sprawl-and-brawl. The Asakura fight simply cemented that mastery.
You Shoot, I Punish
Park's greatest trait as a fighter is her defensive grappling - not just because it prevents her from being taken down but also because it allows her to unleash most of her offensive tools too. A lot of the damage that Park deals to her opponents is typically off the break in a clinch situation or the few seconds following a perfectly stuffed takedown.
Although the fighter that Park is in 2022 is a stark contrast from who she was in 2019, it was around that time when she decided to leave South Korea for Japan with an 0-2 record. Although she wasn't the fighter that she is today, there were glimpses of that anti-wrestling on display before she ever joined Krazy Bee gym under the watchful eye of wrestling ace Miyuu Yamamoto.
At the end of 2019, Park had levelled out her record to 2-2 and was matched up with Hikaru Aono - a former college wrestler and amateur Shooto champion who had won her previous two fights by submission.
Although Aono wouldn't be the last fighter to ever shoot on Park within the first few seconds of a fight, she was the first to truly experience the devastating brilliance of Park's game.
Her immediate attempt to shoot a takedown was stuffed by Park who managed to reverse the grappling situation with a whizzer kick:
When a fighter's entire camp is built around the idea of being able to outwrestle another fighter, it causes severe complications if they find that they're unable to establish their game early.
After Park defended the third and fourth takedown attempts, Aono started to shoot out of desperation. With little tools on the feet to match Park's sleek stance switching (which we'll discuss later), all that Aono could do was shoot and hope that she might catch the Korean off balance. It was not to be - and Aono would pay the ultimate price.
Halfway through the first round, the once bouncy and energetic Aono lazily shoots for a single leg. Park times the shot and evades it with a side step (built off some lateral movement) and catches Aono with a few punches as she gets back up. From there, Park lands her patented roundhouse kick which hurts Aono and follows up with a flurry of punches to seal the deal.
For the first time in her career, Park now boasted a winning record of 3-2. Her performances in Japan had completed shifted the trajectory of her career and the emphatic win over Aono landed her a main event spot against rising star Saori Oshima at DEEP JEWELS 31.
Oshima possessed similar tools as Aono. Though less of a wrestler than Aono, Oshima is a well-trained and experienced judoka with an arsenal of takedowns and submissions that could trouble any atomweight in the world. All of her wins prior to the Park fight were via finish, including a double wristlock, scarfhold choke and a TKO from the crucifix position. Oshima has made a career of turning her opponents into human pretzels.
Their fight started in a similar way to the Aono one, Oshima immediately shooting for takedowns that Park not only sprawled to counter but also managed to turn into a takedown of her own. Watch as she defends the first two takedowns - it isn't just the fact that she's stuffing them, she's punishing every shot with short punches or a jab on the exit:
There's a segment later in the round where Park neutralises another takedown from Oshima but gets her arm trapped by the judoka. Cautious of scrambling or making any rash decisions to exit the position, Park generates separation with a couple of creative short elbows that immediately cause Oshima to let go of her arm.
The remainder of the fight played out in the same manner. In almost 30 takedown attempts, Oshima managed to get Park down only once. Park's timing visibly troubled Oshima who couldn't find much of an opening on the Korean despite genuinely trying to set up a lot of her shots. It was a superb display of anti-wrestling with the intent to pummel and punish her opponent along each step of the way.
The Asakura fight a couple of years later in the opening round of the atomweight Grand Prix saw Park blend together everything that she showcased in the Aono and Oshima fights to devastating effect.
Asakura is the biggest name in women's MMA in Japan. As a teenager in 2017, she won RIZIN's inaugural atomweight Grand Prix. Meanwhile, Park didn't even have an MMA win on her record which highlights just how quickly she has developed into a top-tier fighter in her weight class.
The fight was contested mainly up against the corner of the ring due to Asakura's inability to back Park up with her striking. Although she tried many times to take Park to the ground, the Korean's lateral movement and stance switching meant that Asakura was rarely able to get the timing of her shots down.
Park defended so many takedown attempts and fought at such a high pace that Asakura - who usually has a fairly respectable level of cardio - started to fade and fade. In the latter stages of the final round, Park unleashed a flurry of strikes up against the corner of the ring against a hapless and fatigued Asakura. The sound of the bell signalling the end of the fight was Asakura's saving grace as Park framed off a takedown attempt and plastered her face with a brutal kick.
Park is such a dangerous technical brawler that the instinct to grapple her makes total sense, especially for fighters like Aono, Oshima and Asakura who are seasoned grapplers in their own right. Those fights proved, however, that anything short of total perfection on the setting up and timing of the takedowns will lead to Park dishing out heaps of punishment.
Stance Switching Pays Dividends
While Park's athleticism and strength are certainly strong factors in her ability to muscle out of (and prevent) takedowns, credit should also be given to her technique and movement on the feet. I've written about her lateral movement being a key factor in how she throws off the timing of her opponents and makes it harder for them to consistently attack her legs but another understated tool in the way Park moves is her stance switching.
Stance switching allows Park to naturally mix in different threats on the feet. She can be found pumping a jab that opponents will try to duck under - once she switches stance, however, that jab suddenly becomes a rear straight. The switching between a probing strike to a power one will often dissuade fighters from shooting or, at the very least, drain some of the momentum out of the pressure they're entering with.
You won't see Park switching mid-combination - she's not that technically adept and, generally, most MMA fighters don't possess that ability that boxers do. By switching prior to unleashing a flurry of strikes, her patterns on the feet become harder to keep tabs on and fundamentally allows Park an easier path to defending wrestling exchanges.
Upkicks, Upkicks, Upkicks
Park may be great at sprawling and brawling but she isn't perfect. There are few fighters on the planet who can boast perfection when it comes to anti-wrestling. She can get taken down and has been taken down before.
There are many ways in which fighters react to getting taken down: some accept being on the bottom, banking on their guard game to cause their opponents issues. Others scramble and scramble until they manage to reverse position. Park is neither of those. When Park finds herself grounded, she immediately begins to elbow and punch her opponent no matter how awkward the angle. Most opponents who struggle to keep her grounded inevitably scramble to their feet, hoping to re-position and dive back in. That's where Park excels in making her opponents uncomfortable - the minute they stand over her, she starts throwing wild upkicks. The whole point of it is to disrupt the opponent's plan of diving back in on her but it also serves as a tool of damage.
In her oft-forgotten fight with JMMA prodigy Seika Izawa, Park planted a couple of upkicks that served to disengage the grappling on the ground but also caused such severe swelling on Izawa's eye that the fight was almost stopped multiple times.
Asakura also felt the impact of Park's chaotic activity off her back:
The danger that fighters encounter with Park is that they might spend the entire fight trying to get her down and, if and when they do, she's unlikely to sit back and rely on a semi-passive guard. You face unrelenting explosiveness wherever the fight is contested, even if positionally you seem to have the upper hand.
Slaying the GOAT?
Technique and prior performances aside, Park faces a seemingly insurmountable task at RIZIN 38. Hamasaki is, in this writer's opinion, the greatest atomweight of all time bar none. Not only is she a pioneer of women's MMA but, despite being 40 years of age, Hamasaki continues to be one of the best in the world.
Although she has fallen twice to Seika Izawa, Hamasaki returned to winning ways in the opening round of this year's atomweight Grand Prix when she dominated Jessica Aguilar for the entirety of their fight.
Park may not be as technically proficient or as incisive a finisher as Hamasaki but she possesses some tools that could cause the former RIZIN champion some issues. Three of Hamasaki's last four wins have come against fighters over the age of 40 and, while she won those fights fairly comfortably, there have been moments where Hamasaki was drawn into unnecessary brawls and perhaps fatigued late on. Hamasaki is a phenomenal MMA grappler but, in recent years, has really fallen in love with striking and spending large periods of the fight on her feet. She lacks the head movement to evade most strikes and so willingly takes a couple of strikes to return her own. Brawling with Park sounds like a recipe for disaster and while a loss to the Korean would certainly come as a shock to many, I can envision Hamasaki relishing the opportunity to fight someone who is more than happy to stand in the centre of the ring and trade with her.
Even if Hamasaki chooses to initiate some grappling sequences, I wonder with her age if she's able to consistently hunt the takedown if Park manages to prevent a few of them. Her cardio in the grappling department held up fairly well against Izawa but she was mostly on the bottom trying to scramble into advantageous positions as opposed to being the one who is willingly taking the fight to the ground.
Park is not the calibre of fighter that Hamasaki is, nor will she ever be, but I think her cardio and defensive skillset could see her bully a slowly fatiguing Hamasaki. If Park manages to pull off the feat, she will have defeated Rena, Asakura and Hamasaki all in the space of 9 months. A tremendous achievement for anyone, let alone a foreign fighter. Either way, Park has managed to go from an unconvincing 0-2 fighter in South Korea to one of the best in her weight class - all in the space of 5 years. That, in and of itself, is one hell of a feat too.