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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Vegas 31’s Islam Makhachev and Thiago Moises

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UFC 259: Makhachev v Dober Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Sambo specialist, Islam Makhachev, will square off with Brazilian prospect, Thiago Moises, this Saturday (July 17, 2021) at UFC Vegas 31 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Much like his team mate Khabib Nurmagomedov before him, UFC Lightweights are not all that excited about fighting Makhachev. He’s a miserable match up, an overwhelming wrestler who doesn’t yet have a big name. Despite being promised a top-ranked foe in the fall, Makhachev has opted to fight again to remain active.

Due to Max Holloway’s injury, he finds himself in a main event slot.

On the other hand, Moises was quite willing to fight the Dagestani. Moises’ recent three-fight win streak has carried him into the Top 15, but there’s no better way to build momentum than knocking off the division’s scariest match up.

Let’s take a closer look at the skills of each man:

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Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sat., Sept. 18, 2021, with an exciting match up in the Light Heavyweight division, as No. 6-ranked contender, Anthony Smith, faces off with No. 11-seeded contemporary, Ryan Spann. In UFC Vegas 37’s co-main event, fellow 205-pound veterans Ion Cutelaba and Devin Clark aim to steal the show.  

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Striking

Between the two men, Moises appears more comfortable on his feet, and that’s likely where his path to victory lies.

Moises’ style of kickboxing is very Muay Thai. He stands his ground well, rarely backing off from exchanges without answering with at least an attempted counter right hand. In general, the Brazilian does well to match his opponent’s output with short combinations that definitely have some sting.

In his last bout vs. Alexander Hernandez, Moises really beat up an athletic, high-volume striker with fundamentals and a mean right leg. As Hernandez juked and jived in an attempt to set up athletic combinations, Moises kept his guard high, blocked well, and routinely fired back with his right. Often, he landed the harder shots as a result of his composure.

Otherwise, Moises did a great job with his kicks to win the bout at distance and force Hernandez to keep advancing into his counter shots. Hernandez switches stance often, but Moises took the easily available targets. If Hernandez advanced behind an Orthodox jab, Moises would rip into his calf. Whenever his foe switched to Southpaw, Moises would look to snap a front kick or ram a round kick into his foe’s mid-section.

Makhachev’s kickboxing is similarly meat-and-potatoes.

Fighting from the Southpaw stance, 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, as 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 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 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.

Wrestling

A Russian and world champion in Combat Sambo, a tremendous portion of Makhachev’s fights are spent with the Dagestani combatant in top control. He draws comparisons to his training partner Khabib, and it’s not without reason: the two share several of the same strategies even if there are important differences as well.

In regards 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 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.

It’s largely unrelated, but Makhachev’s insane counter to the two-on-one position below does demonstrate his ability to manipulate wrist control.

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.

Defensively, Makhachev has proven incredible 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 simply 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.

Moises, on the other hand, has found more mixed results with his wrestling.

His best takedown performance undoubtedly came against Kurt Holobaugh in his second Octagon appearance. Repeatedly, Moises timed his double leg entries beneath the aggressive strikes of Holobaugh. The more Moises controlled his opponent, the more Holobaugh grew desperate, creating further takedown opportunities.

Alternatively, Moises’ first UFC loss came to Beneil Dariush — no shame there! In that bout, it was Dariush repeatedly landing his own double leg along the fence, and Moises simply couldn’t break free.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Moises is a jiu-jitsu black belt with six submission wins to his credit.

Inside the Octagon, Moises’ standout grappling moment came against Michael Johnson. As “The Menace” often does, Johnson looked tremendous in the opening frame, using his speed to handily outland Moises and avoid his foe’s takedown attempts.

Fortunately, Moises understood the situation and adjusted. As a single leg takedown failed, Moises opted to jump on the leg, tying Johnson’s leg up with his own two lower limbs. As Johnson fought to maintain his balance, Moises reaped the trapped knee, which pushed Johnson’s weight to his other leg. As a result of the knee reap, Moises was able to go belly-down and drop his weight on Johnson’s ankle, forcing the tap to a rare straight footlock (GIF).

Otherwise, Moises has attempted the guillotine on several occasions in the UFC>

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 AWFUL!

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 pair of rear naked choke wins on his record, as well as his arm triangle opposite Drew Dober.

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.

Conclusion

Makhachev should be expected to add another scalp to his win streak, but Moises is a talented young fighter with some real skill. It should be a quality fight, one that hopefully rises to the occasion of its unexpected main event status.


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.