Sambo specialist, Islam Makhachev, will battle uncrowned king, Charles Oliveira, for the vacant UFC Lightweight title this Saturday (Oct. 22, 2022) at UFC 280 inside Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
It’s impossible to deny that Makhachev has earned his title shot. Ten straight wins is pretty undeniable, especially when most of them come via dominant finish. However, the problem remains that Makhachev has yet to face a Top 5-ranked opponent. He’s jumping over a significant portion of experienced contenders. Deserved or not, it’s an unusual situation. There’s a chance Makhachev trucks Oliveira like he’s done everyone else, but this could be also be the night we learn that Makhachev’s game doesn’t work as well against the division’s elite.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Makhachev fights mostly as a Southpaw, which means he can keep it pretty simple without costing too much effectiveness until the takedown comes.
Makhachev’s best weapon is very obviously his left leg (GIF). Despite being a lifelong wrestler more than anything else, he’s able to throw strong left kicks while relaxed, which tends to mean his kicks come quickly. He’s often taking advantage of facing Orthodox opponents, so his round kick requires little setup to be a major threat to the liver or head. In addition to mixing up his targets, Makhachev will stab up the middle with a left front kick.
Makhachev’s boxing is a bit stiffer. He’s grown more confident and comfortable over the years, but he still prefers short exchanges. Fortunately, Makhachev does understand the value of a good feint, as he’s always showing his opponent the jab. On occasion, he’ll actually pop one.
Makhachev unsurprisingly does more of his work with his left hand (GIF). He mostly throws it straight to the chin or body, often following a jab feint. In addition, Makhachev does a nice job of mixing in the occasional left hook around the guard rather than just firing straight. Makhachev’s best setup is clearly his feint towards the lead leg with his right hand or even his head. As his opponent attempts to pull the leg away from a potential shot, their head comes forward, directly into his overhand.
Against Davi Ramos, a left hand/takedown feint combo saw Ramos try to fire back, only to get wrapped up in the double-collar tie and dropped with a knee (GIF). Makhachev spent more time striking in that bout than any other, and he revealed the corkscrew uppercut into left straight as a combo of choice. However, he did tend to lead with his face, which saw his knees wobbled by a rare Ramos jab.
Leading with his head was also the problem in his sole UFC loss, a check hook knockout to Adriano Martins way back in 2015.
A Russian and world champion in Combat Sambo, a tremendous portion of Makhachev’s fights are spent in top control. This is where the Khabib comparisons come from, as the two share several of the same strategies even if there are important differences as well.
Before we get into any technique, if you have yet to see Makhachev’s fight with Arman Tsarukyan, it’s a fantastic display of MMA wrestling from both men.
In regard to the comparisons to Khabib’s wrestling, their approaches to taking opponents down are quite different. Nurmagomedov was all about suddenly closing the gap with athletic shots before finishing along the fence, whereas Makhachev is all about tricks and craft.
He’s also simply tremendous from the upper body clinch.
Makhachev’s clinic against Nik Lentz is perhaps the best example. In the first real wrestling exchange of the fight, Makhachev controlled an underhook along the fence and threatened an outside throw on the far leg. When Lentz widened his base to avoid getting tossed, Makhachev scored an easy inside trip on the near leg.
That inside trip is a common weapon of Makhachev, who will spin his opponent to the mat whenever he spreads his legs. Another common trick of Makhachev is to execute a foot sweep while his opponent attempts to land a knee, turning a corner and deftly knocking the base foot out of position to land on top.
Back to Lentz — at one point, Lentz attempted his own outside trip. Almost effortlessly, Makhachev applied pressure with his overhook and hopped, betting on his own balance and pressure against the American’s. He won, flipping Lentz to his back with a technique “The Carny” uses pretty often.
Against Arman Tsarukyan, Makhachev twice pulled off an awesome foot sweep from the over-under in the center of the Octagon, a position that really only occurs when two aggressive wrestlers meet. With his overhook arm, Makhachev would reach across the middle ground and catch Tsarukyan’s overhook wrist. This hand position allowed Makhachev to twist Tsarukyan a bit, and when the talented Armenian resisted, he moved directly into the foot sweep.
When Makhachev does level change into shots, he likes to do so when his opponent is backed into the fence, where overpowering his opponent with a double leg is a matter of posture and strength. Against Dan Hooker, he converted a caught kick into an effortless double leg while pressing the Kiwi. When Bobby Green did a nice job of hand-fighting and trying to circle off in the clinch, Makhachev dropped down quickly and bowled him over, shocking the veteran.
Defensively, Makhachev has proven incredibly difficult to take down. Lentz managed to gain good position on the double leg along the fence a couple times, but he was quickly pulled up to the waist and tripped up for his efforts.
The bout with Tsarukyan revealed even more about Makhachev’s excellent defense. Tsarukyan repeatedly committed fully to his shots, even hitting his knee along the canvas, Yet a vast majority of the time, Makhachev was still able to meet the shot with a hip bump and sprawl, dropping his weight heavy on an overhook to angle away from Tsarukyan’s head.
More than just stopping the shot, Makhachev made his opponent pay. He hung on the front head lock repeatedly, which is very wearing. In other exchanges, Makhachev drove into his own shot as Tsarukyan recovered his foot position — the classic re-shot more common to scholastic wrestling than cage-fighting.
We have to credit Makhachev’s incredible top control to his Sambo background and Russian fight team. In this realm, Makhachev is far more similar to Nurmagomedov. The man is heavy from top position, keeping his head high and stacking his opponent’s hips as he stands over them. He may not be a mauler on the level of Khabib, but getting stuck underneath Makhachev seems to suck pretty bad.
On the mat, Makhachev very often presents his foes with the same paradox as “The Eagle.” He’s constantly looking to lock the legs down. He’ll do so with the leg triangle after a successful takedown, collecting both legs then locking his own over top, effectively pinning his foe’s butt to the canvas. However, Makhachev also applies the same concept from half guard, locking his own legs to trap himself — and his opponent — in half guard.
His opponent has the option to simple stay there, but then he’ll just be eating elbows and losing the fight. More likely, his foe looks to push off the mat and build up to resist. This is precisely how Makhachev (and Khabib) finds his way to the two-on-one control, tying up the wrist behind the back.
It’s simple miserable, and there’s no easy escape. Not only does Makhachev likely score some free shots, but his foe often has to give up the back or mount to escape the two-on-one wrist ride — thus the trio of rear naked choke wins on his record.
In his victory over Hooker, Makhachev was pretty quickly able to latch onto a kimura. He caught Hooker being a bit lazy in half guard — which admittedly is not the easiest position to finish the shoulder look — and secured the figure-four grip. Then, he quickly moved into side control, a much better finishing position. The crank was tight, but it wasn’t until he was able to step over Hooker’s head and fully torque the should that he forced a fight-ending scream from “The Hangman.” (GIF)
Against Kajan Johnson, Makhachev pulled off a pretty neat armbar. After climbing high into the mount, Makhachev reached around his opponent’s head to catch a wrist in kind of an inverse gift wrap position. After a few punches, Makhachev drove forward even higher into the arm pit, using his other hand to help latch on rather than strike.
Makhachev sat back on the arm, controlled a leg to prevent his foe from sitting up, then yanked properly at the wrist to hyperextend the arm and force the tap.
Makhachev is a master in his realm of clinch wrestling and top control. There is arguably none better in either area, but he meets an entirely new and dangerous challenge in Oliveira. There are reasons to be confident in either man, but UFC 280’s main event is considered very difficult to predict for good reason.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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