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UFC 187: Makhachev v Kuntz Photo by Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Vegas 49’s Islam Makhachev

Stifling wrestler, Islam Makhachev, will look to continue his win streak versus late-replacement, Bobby Green, this Saturday (Feb. 26, 2022) at UFC Vegas 49 inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.

It’s a frustrating situation. Makhachev is clearly an elite talent, but despite UFC’s best efforts, he has yet to face a Top 10-ranked fighter with a full camp behind him. Bouts with Rafael dos Anjos and Beneil Dariush have failed to materialize, forcing men like Dan Hooker and Bobby Green to step in on perilously short notice. Ultimately, Makhachev can only beat up the men who make it into the cage with him, and he’s consistently done just that.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

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Striking

Makhachev does not often look to keep the fight on the feet. However, he is not incompetent there, though his game is rather 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, 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.

UFC Fight Night: Makhachev v Tsarukyan Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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.

UFC 242 mixed martial arts tournament in Abu Dhabi Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

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 way back in 2015.

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.

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 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.

UFC 208: Lentz v Makhachev Photo by Anthony Geathers/Getty Images

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. Against Dan Hooker, he converted a caught kick into an effortless double leg while pressing the Kiwi.

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 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.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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.

UFC 267: Makhachev v Hooker Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

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 latest 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)

UFC Fight Night: Johnson v Makhachev Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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 is an incredible fighter, a grappling master who is highly favored to win his 10th straight bout inside the Octagon. If Makhachev defeats Green, it’ll likely result in a title shot, a strangely similar circumstance to how Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated Al Iaquinta to earn his belt.


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.


Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 49 fight card right here, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance (also on ESPN+) at 7 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 49: “Makhachev vs. Green” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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