What Is a Calf Kick in MMA/UFC? (How to Calf Kick)

Jeremy Stephens’ calf kick vs Gilbert Melendez

Are you wondering what a calf kick in MMA is and also how to calf kick?

In this article, we’ll look at what a calf kick in MMA is, how to calf kick step by step, the effectiveness of calf kicks in MMA/UFC, how to defend and counter calf kicks, some examples of calf kicks winning fights in the UFC, and some related questions.

What Is a Calf Kick in MMA/UFC?

A calf kick is a low leg kick that attacks the opponent’s calf muscle with the lower part of the shin bone or the instep of the foot. Calf kicks can strike the calf muscle on the inside or outside, and from the bottom to around the knee area.

A calf kick that strikes with the instep of the foot is essentially a roundhouse kick, while a calf kick that strikes with the lower part of the shin bone is essentially a muay Thai shin kick; both of which are heavily used in muay Thai, kickboxing, and now MMA.

Calf kicks are often thrown with a whip-around motion as the user is trying to avoid checks. Calf kicks connect with the instep of the foot when the user is trying to keep more distance from their opponent and with the blade of the shin when they’re trying to put more power into the strike.

Traditionally, striking the calf was only used when looking to sweep an opponent, rather than using it as a strike to score points and deal damage.

A calf kick is now one of the most effective tools for victory in MMA, so most fighters are attempting to land them many times in a fight, which means many fighters are also trying to evade or check calf kicks.

Checking a calf kick is a defensive block where a fighter tries to block with the upper denser part of the shin bone against an opponent’s lower weaker part of the shin bone.

What Martial Arts Use Calf Kicks?

Calf kicks are most known for their use in MMA, muay Thai, and kickboxing, but they’re also used in karate and its variations, lethwei, taekwondo, krav maga, kūdō, hapkido, pradal serey, combat sambo, capoeira, and many other smaller martial arts.

Essentially, many martial arts use calf kicks because they’re an extremely valuable tool in self-defense and competitive sport-based fights.

How to Calf Kick in MMA: Step by Step

Here’s how to calf kick step by step.

1. Stand in your favored stance (southpaw or orthodox) with the hips slightly turned out.

2. Turn the lead foot outward to a 45-degree angle and shift your weight to the front foot. If fighters want to close the distance with a calf kick, they can also step forward with the lead leg at a 45-degree angle.

3. Pivot on your front foot (or step forward), lift the rear leg, rotate the rear hip toward the center line, swing a roundhouse kick toward the outside lead calf of your opponent, and connect with the instep of the foot. The leg should be just off straight with a slight bend at the knee.

4. Keep a high guard and tuck the chin to protect the head from counterstrikes. Naturally, the rear arm will go down slightly to maintain balance while kicking, so the lead arm should be kept high ready to block or parry.

5. If the kick misses the intended target badly because an opponent evaded by stepping backward, spin through 360 degrees by pivoting on the grounded foot as this helps avoid the natural misbalance when missing.

The key to a successful calf kick is putting all the above steps together in a quick, snapping motion.

A calf kick with the shin is a more powerful strike and can be used by getting closer and at an angle on the outside by shuffling to the side of the opponent’s lead leg. This allows you to really whip around and angle the shin into the back or side of an opponent’s calf.

Calf kicks can also be thrown from low to high in a diagonal plane by aiming for the opposite shoulder and connecting with the instep of the foot to the outside of the calf. For example, when kicking the outside of an opponent’s lead left leg, the right leg is used and aimed in the direction of the opponent’s right shoulder.

Here’s a short video demonstration on how to calf kick in MMA. Notice how he either pivots on his lead leg or steps forward at a 45-degree angle.

Are Calf Kicks Effective in MMA/UFC?

Calf kicks have become hugely popular in MMA because they’re very effective. They’ve become the most commonly used kick over the thigh kick, body kick, head kick, oblique kick, or any other kick.

Calf kicks are highly effective in MMA for the following 6 reasons.

1. Calf kicks are very quick to throw

Calf kicks have less setup required, can be used with zero telegraphing, and can be thrown while standing still. As they’re so quick, they can be hard to defend against because they come out of nowhere.

As soon as an opponent stops bouncing and moving around, and puts weight on their front foot, it can be met with an immediate calf kick if timed well.

Calf kicks use more of a snap and whipping motion and are therefore very quick, whereas thigh kicks require more rotation, hip drive, and to be closer to an opponent, and are therefore a naturally slower and more powerful strike.

2. Calf kicks are safer and can be used to keep a distance

Calf kicks can be used to keep distance because they can be used like a jab and are a very long-range strike, made longer when the instep of the foot is used to attack the nearest part of your opponent, their calf.

Essentially, calf kicks can be thrown with safety and distance in mind. They’re safer than other leg strikes because they’re harder for an opponent to catch as they fly under leg grabs. This means the likelihood of being countered by a takedown is much lower.

They also outrange punch counters and can be thrown with a high guard to block any strikes coming back with more range than expected.

They also have zero telegraphing so checks are much harder to time. If an opponent is timing the outside leg kick by directing the shin outwards, the opportunity to use the lead leg to inside calf kick is presented.

Also, calf kicks are safer than thigh kicks because they’re less likely to be defended by an effective check. The best place to check is with the upper part of the shin bone, but calf kicks can connect lower than this even when the opponent’s foot is planted.

Overall, calf kicks allow a fighter to stay out of the danger zone, whereas a thigh kick puts a fighter in the danger zone because they require more commitment as the leg is bending, the shin bone is being used, more hip rotation and force is used, and they’re a shorter range kick.

3. They’re damaging enough to win fights

A dozen cleanly connected calf kicks are almost always the downfall for many fighters.

The damage from calf kicks accumulates and snowballs drastically so that a fighter’s footwork, movement, and ability to deliver any power in their shots are severely compromised. When it gets to this stage, the fighter with the damaged calf has a hugely reduced chance of winning.

Calf kicks can also win fights via KO in as little as 1 or 2 connections by shutting down a fighter’s leg and taking toughness out of the equation. This happens because the calf has little muscle to protect the surrounding nerves, such as the peroneal nerve located very close to the surface just below to knee.

The peroneal nerve is responsible for the feelings and control of the muscles on the top of the foot and the outside of the shin.

Therefore, a well-connected calf kick can shut down the ability to lift the foot upwards (foot drop), outwards, or bear any weight on it; as well as deliver excruciating pain that feels like a shockwave through the leg. The peroneal nerve can be thought of as the liver of the leg.

4. Many MMA fighters fight with planted feet

Many MMA fighters fight with planted feet and a wider stance because it allows them to generate more power in their strikes and gives them a stronger base to defend takedowns as they’re more ready to sprawl and dart backward. It also makes it harder for their opponents to secure a double leg by locking their hands.

Fighters looking to defend takedowns also lean forward and have more weight on their front foot as this allows them to quickly move their head backward out of punching range, which again makes calf kicks more effective because they take longer to get their lead leg out of the way.

5. Most MMA fighters defend the head first

Despite the well-known effectiveness of calf kicks in MMA today, they continue to remain effective because fighters first and foremost naturally protect their head, and rightly so.

The amount of punches to the head still much outweighs the amount of calf kicks thrown in a fight, and not being knocked out by strikes to the head is always going to be priority number one. This makes calf kicks effective because they’re simply more available as fighters have less focus on defending them.

6. Calf kicks open an opponent to head and body strikes

Connecting hard or lots of less powerful calf kicks naturally brings a fighter’s attention to defending them, especially as the damage starts to accumulate. This split focus makes fighters more vulnerable to head and body strikes, as well as takedowns when they lift their leg to check a kick.

Also, when a calf kick connects, it’s possible to sweep an opponent slightly off balance (mostly with inside calf kicks) or cause them to have a flinching reaction with their arms. This makes them vulnerable to head and body strikes, especially if a combination is started with a calf kick.

How To Defend a Calf Kick in MMA (And Counter)

While the calf kick is one of the most effective tools in MMA today, there are several ways they can be defended, which are as follows.

1. Evasion

Calf kicks can be defended by evading them with nimble footwork. A fighter can either move backward out of range or step laterally.

2. Checking

Calf kicks can be defended by checking them. Checking a kick is blocking with the upper denser part of the shin bone against an opponent’s lower weaker part of the shin bone or instep of the foot.

This can hurt both fighters, but it hurts the kicker much more and deters them from kicking again.

As the sweet spot for striking the peroneal nerve is behind the fibular head and below the knee along the lateral aspect of the shin, fighters aiming for this spot are more vulnerable to a check because it’s in perfect alignment with the harder upper part of the shin bone.

Simply turn the shin 45 degrees outward toward the outside calf kick and ever so slightly lift the foot off the ground to cushion the impact and the kicker will come off much worse than the person checking.

The key to checking calf kicks is not having too much weight on the lead leg so that there’s time to lift the leg and turn it 45 degrees inward or outward.

Fighters can also plant their lead leg facing outward in a check-ready position against fighters who are calf kick-heavy. They can also walk forward and constantly initiate the check by quickly lifting the leg up and out every time the front leg goes forward.

3. Less weight on the front foot

Having less weight on the front foot is another way to defend calf kicks. This is done by making sure the toes aren’t way out in front of the knee by bringing them closer.

This more neutral stance allows fighters to quickly counterbalance their weight and get the leg up to check or be ready to evade by bouncing backward.

Fighters can also evade a calf kick by lifting the foot inward toward the other leg so that the sole of the foot shows. The knee does not move upward, only the lower part of the leg moves inward. Doing this has calf kicks flying under the lifted leg.

4. Stay out of mid-range (punching range)

If a fighter is being hit with a lot of calf kicks and is finding themselves too slow to check or evade them, they need to either be at a greater distance out of range or close range on the inside using clinches, knees, elbows, and takedown attempts.

5. Switching stance

If a fighter is taking a lot of calf kicks to a particular side, they can put the targeted leg to the back out of danger by switching stance.

Many fighters have a stronger and weaker stance, whether it be orthodox or southpaw. So, a great way to defend against calf kicks is to become proficient in both stances and have the ability to switch between them smoothly in a fight.

6. Condition the shins

Not so much defending calf kicks but more so how to deal with them; conditioning the shins is essential with how common calf kicks are in MMA today.

Because it can be hard to effectively check a calf kick with the upper shin bone if an opponent is aiming the kick at the lower calf, offering a well-conditioned shin to block a calf kick gives the checker an increased pain tolerance.

Conditioning the shins can be done in several ways but common practice is to kick the heavy bag with the inner and outer muscles of the shin as well as the shin bone. All shin conditioning should be done without knee pads or sleeves because they’re not used in a competitive fight.

7. Using teep kicks (defense and counter)

As the calf kick is one of the most long-range weapons in MMA, it has to be defended and countered with another long-range weapon, such as the teep kick to the stomach.

As the opponent twitches their leg, lift the targeted leg and fire the teep kick down the center. As they’re on one leg, this will push them back or knock them off balance and allow you to either regroup or push forward and pressure them.

Also, the overwhelming majority of fighters keep their guard high when throwing calf kicks. This means the counter to the body is perfect with other techniques such as a hook or body kick.

8. Jabs or crosses down the pipe or takedowns (defense and counter)

One of the most common counters to calf kicks are jabs or crosses down the pipe. This is because they’re quick and effective, and if timed perfectly they can catch an opponent on one foot and set up a blitz of combinations and even a takedown.

A lot of fighters take the chance to absorb a calf kick in order to time the cross counter or takedown, believing the trade to be worth it. However effective calf kicks are, they’re never going to be as effective as flushly connected punches to the face.

Here’s Francis Ngannou dealing with Jairzinho Rozenstruik’s calf kicks by timing a blitz accordingly.

Examples of Calf Kicks Winning Fights in the UFC

The effectiveness of the calf kick has seen its use in MMA and the UFC explode. Here are some examples of calf kicks winning fights in the UFC via accumulated damage and the peroneal nerve being struck.

1. Jeremy Stephens vs Gilbert Melendez (UFC 215 – 2017)

Jeremy Stephens landed repeated calf kicks on Gilbert Melendez and dropped him 7 times throughout their three-round fight.

Melendez had no answer to the calf kicks but Stephens wouldn’t go to the ground with him for fear of his Bjj.

In the end, Stephens won comfortably by decision as Melendez’s ability to stand on his lead leg and strike was severely compromised.

2. Jussier Formiga vs Alex Perez (UFC 250 – 2020)

Alex Perez defeated Jussier Formiga via calf kick TKO after Formiga was knocked down to the canvas for the third time and Keith Peterson ended the fight.

3. Sean O’Malley vs Marlon Vera (UFC 252 – 2020)

Despite Sean O’Malley claiming he’s undefeated because he lost this fight through injury, people who understand calf kicks know that he lost because Marlon Vera connected a hard calf kick just underneath the knee to the outside of the upper shin bone that struck his peroneal nerve and sent his foot to sleep.

After the calf kick, Sean O’Malley fell after rolling his ankle inwards as he tried to put weight forward on his lead leg. Toward the end of the round, he tried to put weight on the same leg after delivering a knee but fell to the ground again before being finished by ground and pound.

4. Dustin Poirier vs Conor McGregor 2 (UFC 257 – 2021)

In the long-awaited rematch, Poirier continuously blasted McGregor with calf kicks in the first and second rounds; landing 18 leg kicks in total with the majority of those being calf kicks.

The calf kicks were effective as they constantly landed clean because McGregor had been training in boxing and had previously fought Mayweather; so he came into the fight heavy on his lead leg for power generation and to stay in boxing range.

Ultimately, Poirier sacrificed the first round in order to accumulate damage from the calf kicks.

Two minutes into the second round, Conor McGregor could barely move on his right lead leg, so Poirier circled out, pressured McGregor against the fence, and overwhelmed him with boxing combinations for a TKO victory.

Honorable Mentions

  • James Krause (W) vs. Jamie Varner (UFC 173 – 2014) – TKO via calf kick
  • Chris Gutierrez (W) vs. Vince Morales (UFC Vegas: 39 – 2020) – TKO via calf kick

Which UFC Fighters Have the Best Calf Kicks? (Best Calf Kickers in UFC)

Here’s a list of the best calf kickers in the UFC.

  • Douglas Lima
  • Jose Aldo
  • Justin Gaethje
  • Edson Barboza
  • Alexander Volkanovski
  • Ciryl Gane
  • Jan Blachowicz

MMA Calf Kick – Related Questions

Here are some related questions to calf kicks in MMA.

Why Do UFC Fighters Kick Calves?

UFC fighters kick calves because it’s a very effective offensive strike that helps a fighter win via damage accumulation, point scoring, or even TKO victory because the peroneal nerve renders a fighter unable to stand on their leg.

Calf kicks became more effective since many fighters adopted a wide stance with a lot of weight on their front foot in order to best defend against takedowns.

With this focus on defending takedowns, the calf kick became more available as fighters found it harder to evade and check them.

Originally, wrestling was the meta, in that the fighters who could take an opponent down and establish a dominant top position would most often win in the UFC. 

Over time, fighters adapted and focused more on their ability to defend takedowns; which has given way to the effectiveness of the calf kick in the UFC and MMA.

In muay Thai for example, fighters don’t have to worry about takedowns and therefore stand with a close stance and little weight on their lead leg so they can lift it quickly to check kicks and also deliver kicks.

Could Calf Kicks Ruin MMA?

Calf kicks don’t currently ruin MMA and they won’t in the future.

Like any strike or offensive technique, there are many ways to defend and counter calf kicks and it’s interesting to see how fighters approach a fight in terms of whether they use many calf kicks and how each adapts throughout the fight.

Calf kicks also won’t ruin MMA because they rarely cause serious injuries and fighters often recover from even the worst calf kick slaughters in 3 months at most.

In terms of broken bones, they’re the result of successful leg kick checks and not calf kicks themself.

If anything, broken bones make it more interesting because checks are now common and a fighter is throwing calf kicks with the acceptance that they could get checked and their leg could be broken.

The Bottom Line

So, ‘what is a calf kick in MMA?’

A calf kick in MMA is a low kick targeting an opponent’s calf muscle with the lower part of the shin bone or the instep of the foot. They mainly connect to the calf muscle on the outside but inside calf kicks work too. The target area is from the bottom of the calf muscle up to the knee level.

Calf kicks are extremely effective in MMA, but like any strike or technique, there are many ways to defend and counter calf kicks so it’s up to each fighter to adapt their fighting style to win the chess match that is MMA.

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