This Saturday night (June 7, 2014), No. 11 ranked lightweight contender Rustam Khabilov looks to take a major leap in title contention by defeating former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 155-pound kingpin Benson Henderson inside Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Khabilov spent much of his early mixed martial arts (MMA) career duking it out with his fellow Russians in M-1 Global. After building a 14-1 professional record, Khabilov was invited into the Octagon. The Dagestani quickly made an impression, winning his first two bouts via slam in under five minutes.
Next, "Tiger" took a big step up to face Strikeforce veteran Jorge Masvidal. The two men had a close battle for the first two rounds, and either could have been ahead on the score cards. Then, Khabilov pulled a wild spinning kick out of his arsenal to seal the third round and the fight.
Can he have similarly spectacular results against Henderson?
Let's find out.
An international master of sports in hand-to-hand combat and Sambo, Khabilov very much strikes like a Sambo based fighter. Covering large amounts of distance quickly with lunging power shots, Khabilov is often able to stun more experienced and more typical strikers with his attacks.
Khabilov, like other Sambo strikers such as Ali Bagautinov, likes to circle the cage to start the bout. He stands fairly far away from his opponent, meaning that normal punches like the jab or straight will not land. However, Khabilov and his leaping punches can land from this range, and "Tiger's" wrestling serves as an adequate deterrent to kicks.
This all means is that when allowed to maintain his preferred distance, Khabilov is the only man in the cage who can land significant strikes. His opponent has to either try to kick, risking a takedown, or look to close the distance, which risks counter strikes as well as takedowns. Overall, this puts his opponent in a difficult situation and is a big part of his 17 wins.
From his preferred range, Khabilov loves to use the overhand right. He's able to cover a shocking amount of distance with the strike, which can be difficult to adjust to. For example, Jorge Masvidal, a veteran in every sense of the word, had to adjust his defense a couple times after being cracked with the overhand while he thought he was out of range. After throwing his overhand, Khabilov uses the momentum of the strike to throw himself to his left and far away from his opponent. Then, he'll return to circling.
To set up the overhand, Khabilov constantly feints low with takedowns and jabs. It's not a complicated trick, but when the fighter has wrestling as solid as Khabilov's and a similarly powerful overhand, it's very effective.
Should Khabilov's opponent adjust to the overhand, the Russian will switch to his left hook. He doesn't cover as much distance with the strike, but it helps keep his opponent honest.
When Khabilov throws combinations, he'll often mix in an uppercut. He also mixes looping punches to the body before following with shots to the head. "Tiger" does a good job forcing his opponent to cover up and then attacking any unprotected parts of his opponent's body with his following strikes.
Khabilov is not exactly a counter striker -- his movement immediately after the right overhand takes him out of counter range -- but he does enforce his distance with punches. When his opponent tries to slowly work his way in, Khabilov will ferociously attack with an overhand. If his opponent comes in aggressively, Khabilov will back away while pumping the a hard jab.
Khabilov's kicking game is, well, odd. The few kicks that he's thrown inside the Octagon seem to pack a decent amount of power, but they look rather awkward. Even his brutal spinning wheel kick that he landed against Masvidal was just off, as he somehow landed with the flat of his foot right in Masvidal. Overall, it's far from the strongest section of his game, but it still must be respected.
As mentioned above, Khabilov is a master of sports in Sambo, which involves a grappling component that most resembles Judo. However, double and single leg takedowns are also a large part of the sport.
A majority of Khabilov's victories come from his ability to manhandle opponents inside the clinch. Khabilov's strength and technique inside the clinch is tough to match, as he's easily overpowered all but the most talented defensive wrestlers. To start his chain of wrestling attacks, Khabilov often seeks a single leg takedown.
WIth the single leg, Khabilov is excellent at finishing with his head on the inside. However, Khabilov often uses the single leg or the scramble following the single leg takedown to take his opponent's back standing. From the back clinch, Khabilov is able to easily suplex any opponent foolish enough not to immediately lower his weight down. Khabilov has three finish victories related to suplexes, indicating that he knows how to finish the throws with power as well.
Khabilov's ability to find his opponent's back and grab a body lock in scrambles is impressive. The Dagestani immediately looks to wrap up his opponent's back whenever his foe goes to stand, which works well for a simple reason. Many fighters are in such a hurry to get off of the mat due to losing rounds on the scorecard that they're more than willingly to risk giving up back mount to escape. Khabilov takes advantage of this not by hopping on the back and looking for a choke -- two techniques that are largely ignored in Sambo -- but instead by waiting for his foe to stand then delivering him back to the mat with authority.
Rather than continue to describe his violent slams, it's easier to post what is basically a two minute collection of his clinch techniques that the UFC has uploaded to market this event.
It's worth noting that Khabilov's wrestling outside of his preferred positions is not nearly as strong. Jorge Masvidal, who is, admittedly, an extremely talented wrestler, prevented Khabilov from ever securing his body locks. Instead, Khabilov was forced to shoot for numerous doubles and singles, most of which were stuffed by "Gamebred."
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Sambo does not focus on submissions as exclusively as jiu-jitsu, but it is well-known for a deep arsenal of joint locks. Accurately representing this portion of his martial art is Khabilov, who is the owner of four armbar victories out of his five submission victories.
To force an armbar, Khabilov sits very high on the mount. From there, his opponent's elbows cannot be pressed to the mat and are instead extended out. While Khabilov hammers away with ground strikes, his opponent is likely to extend his arms even further while trying to block the punches. When his opponent's arms are fully outstretched, Khabilov will quickly spin to side and yank back on the arm.
After falling back for the armbar, Khabilov showed that he can transition from the position well. As his foe tries to roll away or duck his elbow, Khabilov smoothly transitions along with the arm, either going belly down or readjusting the elbow. In addition, Khabilov is quick to rip through his opponent's grip before it is fully formed, which prevents his opponent from stalling the move or slowly working out of the position.
Best chance for success
In his last bout, Henderson was repeatedly thrown around by Josh Thomson inside the clinch. The former Strikeforce champion could do little on the feet with his broken hand, but he was still able to close the distance and slam "Smooth" repeatedly from Khabilov's wheelhouse.
That fight is largely the reason that people are giving Khabilov a legit chance to upset the former champion.
What Khabilov needs to do is simple: Avoid or counter Henderson's low kicks, throw his overhand over "Bendo's" less than superb jab, and then get inside with the clinch. From there, he should be able to get Henderson to the mat, and should Henderson look to stand back up, return him there with some force.
The real question is whether or not Khabilov can do this consistently. Henderson's cardio is impeccable, and he possesses the kicks to seriously hinder "Tiger's" movements. To win this bout, Khabilov has to avoid damage and be conditioned well enough to earn at least three of the five rounds. And considering Henderson's history with close decisions, he might want to win all five.
Khabilov has the technical skill and ability to defeat Henderson, but is he physically and mentally prepared to deal with the crafty former champ for 25 minutes?
We'll find out in just a few days.