Rising star, Ilia Topuria, will face off opposite knockout artist, Josh Emmett, this Saturday (June 24, 2023) at UFC Jacksonville inside Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
Topuria looks like he’s on the fast track to a UFC title. The 26-year-old Spaniard by way of Georgia is tremendously talented, an all-around plus athlete with serious skill everywhere. He’s destroying opponents left and right, having most recently run through Bryce Mitchell as if “Thug Nasty” was nothing special. The question is whether or not he’s ready to contend right now. This bout opposite Emmett will help decide that, as a title shot could be on the line if Topuria continues to perform and create violent results.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Topuria wasn’t known for his power upon his UFC debut, but he’s been knocking opponents around the Octagon since his sophomore appearance. He’s primarily a boxer, a clubbing puncher who does the vast majority of his work with his hands.
Beyond the fact that Topuria mostly punches, he just moves like a boxer. His legs are more bent than many MMA fighters, which allows an extra bit of bounce in his step. He rolls his head like a boxer and builds combinations on the inside well, shifting his weight between shots far better than the average MMA striker.
There are some cons with this as well, but let’s talk about those at the end.
Topuria’s movement makes his jab rather effective. Because he’s light on his feet, he can bounce forward and pull back effectively, making for a nice feint that hides when he actually steps in with his jab. When “El Matador” jabs, it’s a hard, spearing strike that snaps his opponent’s head back. He’s not just flicking the punch; he’s making an impact. Topuria’s will jab to the body as well, and he’ll occasionally shift his right shoulder through to load up the jab, allowing him to cover an extra step of distance and add power.
Before long, Topuria is hiding his left hook behind that same movement. His slight squat and advance forward could be the jab, but he’s also skilled at sneaking a left hook around the guard without a ton of tell. Like all Topuria shots, his hook has power, even in this case where it’s not fully loaded up.
Topuria’s educated lead hand helps him convince opponents to circle into his right hand, a tremendously powerful weapon. What’s interesting about Topuria is that he can throw his right hand as a very crisp straight shot or the more classically chaotic MMA-style overhand, in which he falls into the punch like a boxer never would. However, he has an ability that most fighters do not: he can follow up even the sloppier variation with powerful combinations. Topuria manages to follow his right with a killer left hook regardless of his body positioning, which has caught several opponents off-guard.
A great element of Topuria’s striking is his commitment to body work. Aside from the body jab, Topuria will commonly take his right straight to the bread basket. Even more of a signature weapon for Topuria is his left hook to the liver. He’ll throw that punch as a lead, which requires exceptional quickness and great timing to land well.
Really though, Topuria’s boxing all comes together when his opponent nears the fence (GIF). Time and time again, that’s when Topuria sends foes to the canvas. His commitment to body punches and ability to string together multi-punch combinations of knockout-worthy punches is highly unusual, and it’s never more effective than when his opponent has no way to back off from the pocket.
Topuria is definitely an offensive dynamo, capable of hurting just about any man who stands in front of him. However, it’s important to note that despite efforts to move his head after swinging his right hand and showing some nice counters when opponents punch at him, Topuria has major defensive liabilities.
Generally, Topuria doesn’t respect his opponent’s offense. In the case of Ryan Hall and Bryan Mitchell, that’s not a huge issue, given the absolutely massive gap in punching power. Topuria’s brief experiment at Lightweight against Jai Herbert, however, hopefully helped the talented prospect learn he’s mortal.
Herbert’s lanky build and crafty kickboxing exposed holes in Topuria’s defense that have been shown in other fights, but Herbert actually hurt him for these issues. For example, Topuria tends to move straight back when he pulls off his movement. Herbert and Mitchell both landed numerous 1-2s by timing this movement, catching him clean as he tried to reset.
Another issue is that Topuria’s head comes forward when he swings the right. His head moving forward from a low stance is highly vulnerable from an MMA perspective, an opponents have timed this with knees and high kicks. On the whole, Topuria’s defense to round kicks just isn’t that great, either absorbing them clean or blocking with a single hand. He does punch through kicks often enough that it’s a risky prospect for his opponent too, but stepping through kicks alone isn’t good defense.
Despite his Greco-Roman wrestling background and clear abilities in that regard, Topuria hasn’t actually wrestled all that much in the Octagon. When he has, however, he’s been electric!
A majority of Topuria’s offensive wrestling came in his debut opposite Youssef Zalal, who was riding a nice win streak at the time. Early on, the two wrapped up along the fence, trading position and pummeling for under hooks. It seemed like a bit of a stalemate until Topuria suddenly locked his hands, hipped in, and suplexed Zalal across himself.
Greco-Roman wrestling 101!
Beyond that throw, Topuria has largely wrestled at the waist. He has a very powerful double leg shot that he most typically completes in the center of the cage. If his opponent is able to maintain their footing and get to the fence, Topuria continues to wrestle well. Often, he’ll switch to the high crotch and step deep between his opponent’s legs, threatening to lift. As his opponent tries to defend the lift, Topuria will reshoot and attempt to return to the double leg.
Defensively, Topuria shut Bryce Mitchell down wonderfully. He lowered his level an extra notch, which made his sprawl even more effective. When he started overthrowing, Mitchell was able to find his hips more effectively, but even then, Topuria was kicking his hips back and heavily weighting overhooks to stop him in his tracks.
Better yet, he routinely punished Mitchell’s takedown attempts with heavy knees and punches.
A black belt with eight wins via tapout, Topuria is an excellent top player who hunts for chokes very well.
Once on top, Topuria loves to jump on the neck. He does great work controlling the head, even from a position like half guard that isn’t necessarily ideal to finish submissions. He’ll start threatening, and if there’s nothing there, he can still work to advance into mount (where he’ll attack the arm triangle).
More often, Topuria starts working his way under the chin. As soon as he’s threatening the neck, Topuria will look to crank and pass into mount for the guillotine finish. If his opponent turns more onto their hip and starts fighting hands, Topuria is likely to swim his arm deeper and attack the anaconda. Against Zalal, Topuria nearly finished an anaconda by using his thigh to catch the elbow and tighten the squeeze, but Zalal either fought hands masterfully with his free hand or grabbed the glove to save himself.
Tying into this submission chain is the arm-across guillotine or seated arm triangle, which traps his opponent’s arm across their own neck — it’s the move Jack Hermansson used twice, and Anthony Hernandez uses a dozen times per fight. The great thing about this choke is that it allows Topuria to retain control, and it can often be used to take the back as well.
It hasn’t happened yet in the UFC, but Topuria is always looking to step over an arm in mount for the triangle. In the likely event that his opponent tries to escape out the back door, Topuria will knee slide and circle behind, landing him in turtle — a great position to punch and take the back!
On the canvas, Topuria remains highly aggressive and excels at chaining his submissions and positional advancements together.
Rarely do 26-year-old fighters look as well-rounded and dangerous as Topuria. Even as his defense remains a work in progress, there’s little doubt that the Georgian standout is a major threat to the Featherweight division as a whole.
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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