International Master of Sports in Sambo, Ali Bagautinov, looks to hand Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) flyweight kingpin, Demetrious Johnson, his first loss in the division this Saturday night (June 14, 2014) at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
There just aren't a ton of flyweight contenders at the moment.
However, that's not a problem for the "Puncher King," whose three fight win streak earned him a shot at Octagon gold. Just 15 fights into his mixed martial arts (MMA) career, Bagautinov will take a big step up in competition against the inaugural flyweight champion.
Luckily for the Dagestani, he has far more experience than his short record shows. Ranked at least a Master of Sports in five different base martial arts, Bagautinov is an expert in many areas of MMA. Can he put it all together against "Mighty Mouse?"
Let's find out.
One of the more powerful strikers at Flyweight, Bagautinov lives up to his moniker of "Puncher King." A Master of Sports in hand-to-hand combat, Bagautinov maintains a very nice balance between patience and aggression, as he waits to explode in bursts of violence.
Much like his fellow Dagestani wrestlers Khabib Nurmagomedov and Rustam Khabilov, Bagautinov likes to stand just outside of his opponent's boxing range. Similarly, Bagautinov will blast forward with either a looping punch, a combination of looping punches, or a takedown.
Bagautinov throws quick combos more often than not. He's very active and convincing with his feints, allowing him to surprise his opponent with a lightning fast flurry of strikes mixed to the head and body. Since his punches often force his opponent back towards the fence, Bagautinov will often end these combinations with a clinch or takedown attempt. If his opponent circles off or just isn't very close to the cage, Bagautinov likes to end his combination with a body or head kick.
One of Bagautinov's favorite lead is the straight right hand. After circling for a bit, Bagautinov will stop, plant his feet, and then spring into his right hand. In this situation, Bagautinov's ability to quickly cover distance is vital.
Unlike the aforementioned Russians, Bagautinov spends a majority of his time countering strikes. As he stands far from his opponent, he feints and threatens with flurries. Once his opponent attacks, Bagautinov will take a small step back and either dodge or slightly absorb a punch or kick. Then, he'll immediately spring forward with a powerful combination of punches.
Bagautinov will also interrupt his opponent's combination with punches of his own. Since he generally has the power advantage, Bagautinov will wait until his opponent comes forward with a combination. Rather than backing out of range, Bagautinov will stay in place and fire back.
Another impressive skill from the Russian is his ability to mix together his striking with his grappling. Against Marcos Vinicius, Bagautinov was looking for a single leg against the cage. Then, he dropped "Vina's" leg and went upstairs with a right hook to the temple, sending the Brazilian tumbling to the mat.
Another example came in Bagautinov's fight with Lineker. In the final round, Lineker returned to his feet with a couple minutes left. Bagautinov controlled the clinch but broke off with a huge right hand that shook "Hands of Stone." Lineker was physically spun from the punch and turned to face Bagautinov directly into a clinch trip.
Mixing strikes between grappling exchanges like this makes Bagautinov very dangerous considering his impressive wrestling and punching power.
The danger with this style of striking comes when Bagautinov is pinned against the fence. When he's in a poor position like that, he cannot back away and is forced to exchange. Though he's generally happy to exchange punches, that may not always be the case. For example, John Lineker's brutal left hook to the body landed frequently when Lineker backed him up to the cage and forced the Russian to shoot multiple desperation takedowns.
For a more recent example, Lineker's teammate and countryman Khabilov was just dropped and then finished by a two punch combination by Ben Henderson while the fence was at his back.
Bagautinov has an incredible grappling resume. An International Master of Sports in both Sambo and Pankration as well a Master of Sports in Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, Bagautinov is more than prepared to drag his opponent to the mat regardless of where the fight takes place.
Most of Bagautinov's takedowns occur in the center of the Octagon, where he has space to drive through his double leg. Bagautinov very much relies on his initial blast to finish the shot, as he rarely transitions to other takedowns from his shot. Luckily, Bagautinov has a very strong blast. Plus, he'll mix in an outside trip to his shot if his opponent begins to sprawl out on his double.
Against the fence, Bagautinov is also quite effective with his wrestling. He often starts in the clinch and then transitions into a shot from there. Though he still uses an explosive double, Bagautinov will also work for single legs against the fence. To finish them, he likes to raise the single leg as high as possible then kick out the remaining leg.
Finally, Bagautinov will work his clinch takedowns. He's not as suplex-obsessed as the other Dagestani wrestlers, but he will force his opponent back and then sneak a trip in. He does an excellent job pressuring his opponent before the trip and giving his foe no opportunity to reverse direction.
From the top, Bagautinov has demonstrated a very strong base while working for ground and pound. Once he stands, Bagautinov will move into a very wide stance that allows him to land power shots while maintaining pressure on his opponent. He's not incredibly active with his ground striking, but Bagautinov does make his shots count.
Defensively, Bagautinov has shown very strong defensive wrestling. The only opponent to have any success with his wrestling against Bagautinov was Tim Elliott, who is a physical beast at Flyweight. Even then. a majority of Elliot's takedowns were stuffed and his few successes resulted in at most a couple minutes of ground control.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
A Russian Jiu-Jitsu national champion and FILA grappling national champ, Bagautinov has showcased some solid submission skills in his career. Though he has finished just four opponents via submission, Bagautinov has proven that his ground game is aggressive as well.
Bagautinov's most frequent attempted submission is his guillotine choke. The Dagestani thrives during scrambles -- caused by either punches or slams -- and uses these opportunities to hunt for his opponent's neck. Bagautinov's technique is not especially complex; he yanks straight through his opponent's neck from the full guard. This is not the most efficient finish for the guillotine, but "Puncher King" clearly has a powerful squeeze.
Bagautinov's first two career victories came via armbar. In his fight with Elliott, Bagautinov showed off his guard game by using a transitional armbar game to stand up. After rolling up for an armbar and making Elliott pull away, Bagautinov continued to roll until he was on his knees. From there, he used the threat of a double leg takedown to stand up.
That's pretty much the entirety of Bagautinov's guard play in the UFC, but it was still a pretty impressive maneuver against a solid top grappler.
Finally, Bagautinov has shown that he fits two stereotypes of Sambo combatants. The first is that he possesses an aggressive footlock game. When Lineker tried to land an outside heel hook, Bagautinov ignored the defense of his own foot in order to try to rip apart Lineker's leg with a heel hook of his own. Neither man succeeded, but the fact that Bagautinov's immediate response to a leglock attempt is to attack with one of his own is very telling.
The second stereotype is considerably less positive. When Marcos Vinicius scrambled onto Bagautinov's back, the "Puncher King" looked lost. Despite "Vina" doing his best to lose position and be reversed by sitting much to high on Bagautinov's back, Bagautinov did nothing to shake Vinicius off of him. He eventually escaped the position when Vincius switched to an armbar, but he showed inexperience from the back mount that is fairly common for Sambo fighters.
Best chance for success
Bagautinov has to really focus on his counterboxing for this fight. Any flurries that are not set up excellently with feints will result in him being taken down, which will be quite exhausting. Instead, Bagautinov needs to let "Mighty Mouse" come to him and look to catch him.
If Johnson has showed one weakness on his feet, it's that he occasionally runs straight into a counter punch. Notably, John Dodson and John Moraga both managed to drop the champion with counter strikes. However, neither had consistent success with this technique, due to Dodson's deteriorating cardio and Moraga's inability to stop a takedown.
Unlike those two, Bagautinov can learn from their failures.
Firstly, Bagautinov already has the wrestling necessary to keep it standing, assuming he doesn't get over-excited with his stand up. If Bagautinov really focuses on his conditioning and limits his counters to controlled bursts, he can at least keep up with the champion. Plus, this is very similar to his usual game. If he forces Johnson to adapt to his attack rather than vice versa, his conditioning will hold up much better.
Then again, there's always the chance that he knocks out the crafty kingpin early.
Can Bagautinov become the second flyweight champion in UFC history, or will Johnson earn his fourth title defense?