Table of Contents:
Analyzing Alexander Volkanovski’s Match-up with Islam Makhachev and Challenging MMA’s Myths
- Table of Contents:
- Analyzing Alexander Volkanovski’s Match-up with Islam Makhachev and Challenging MMA’s Myths
- The Crown Prince of Control
- Myths vs Match-ups
- 1 Fight in 2 Gifs
- Four Points of Control
- Body Locks
- Leg Rides
- Wrist Rides
- Chest to Chest
- The Space to Win
- Under Hooks & Sitting Up
- Tilts & Butterfly Half
- Space to Stand-Up
- A Realistic Path to Victory?
- Open the Cards to Study
The Crown Prince of Control
Islam Makhachev is the most suffocating grappler in the UFC today. From the moment the man gets his hands on you, he’s pulling the life out of you until the fight is finished. Islam’s record currently sits at 23-1, his last five wins have been stoppages on the ground, and four of those are submissions. Islam’s sublime record is earned, but before he became the champion his position in the spotlight was all but handed to him by his coach, training partner, and the former lightweight king, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
When Islam debuted three years after Khabib the MMA universe decided that the former was here to follow in the latter’s path. Same weight class, same coaching staff, and same fighting style; it only made sense that they would have the same success. But that’s not really true. Yes, they are both lightweights that came up through the same coaching system in Russia and eventually American Kickboxing Academy, but the nuances of their individual fighting styles make push them apart.
Strategically Islam and Khabib are similar. They both use a mixture of freestyle wrestling and judo takedowns, love to push people to the fence, and exhaust opposition with pressure. Once they’re on the ground, their games’ actually start to alienate.
Khabib was always all offense. Khabib would literally sprint at opponents, grab their legs, and run them around the octagon until they fell down. From there he would thud them with ground and pound. If they scrambled, Khabib would put them back in the same position to keep hitting them. If they got back to their feet, Khabib would simply start the process again until you wilted.
Khabib fights like a bear. He relentlessly mauls people like it’s his only option. Islam fights like he’s bored, he waits for his opponents to make the mistake that they don’t even know was the wrong choice in the first place.
Where Khabib is direct, ferocious, and violent, Islam is calculated, methodical, and unforgiving. He lets people move just enough so they can choose their own painful adventure. Islam gets to positions where he has options to win and his opponents don’t seem to know the correct path forward.
Both Islam and Khabib are overwhelming and almost no one can stand-up to either of them. On February 11th, Alexander Volkanovski will attempt to do just that. Literally and figuratively, Volkanovski will have to stand-up to win against Islam.
As a fighter accrues more and more wins, fans, journalists, analysts, and sometimes even other athletes have a tendency to mythologize the fighter. It’s not enough to say someone is great, or even special; these people become monsters, beasts, or a force of nature.
Hyperbole has its place. Humans become heroes become Herculean. It’s fun and poetic, but it’s just not true. If anything it does a disservice to those that seek to understand the sport.
A fighter that is unbeaten is simply well matched. Father time is undefeated and eventually he will put someone in front of an unbeaten athlete that has an answer for everything they do.
Fedor was and always will be a legend, but, like every other athlete, still a person that benefitted from youth and appropriate matches to make the most of his incredible talent and skill. This is not written to disparage him or any fighter. For the record, Fedor is one of my favorite fighters to ever compete heavyweight. No matter how otherworldly anyone seems to be, eventually their star will come back to Earth.
Myths vs Match-ups
I’m writing this on the weekend of Fedor Emelianenko’s last fight, a loss. The man many consider the greatest heavyweight ever lost his second fight by stoppage to Ryan Bader. Bader becomes the only person to ever beat him twice, let alone stop him. The stoic MMA pioneer retires at 46 years old with a record of 40 wins, 7 losses, and 1 no contest. At one point that record was 31 wins, 1 loss, and 1 no contest, with both of his non-wins coming from incidental cuts.
Islam Makhachev is approaching mythological status. The lightweight champion has looked flawless on the floor for the majority of his fights in the UFC. He’s being labeled an immovable object, but, again, that can’t be true.
On paper Islam’s match-up with Alexander Volkanovski straightforward. The smaller quicker striker, Volkanovski, will have to pick his shots to pick Islam apart and pick up a win. Conversely, the larger dominating grappler will work to take Alex down and grind him out to win. In reality, the match is going to be won or lost in between that. It’s not a matter of if Alex can avoid the takedown. Barring a flash knockout effectively no one can avoid Islam’s chain wrestling. The question is, can Volkanovski stand-up, and how much will those stand-ups take out of him?
Today, we’re going to look at how Islam holds people down, who has been able to disrupt Islam’s suffocating top pressure, and how Alex has a shot to get back to his feet. Before we do that let’s briefly address what Volkanovski can’t do.
If Volkanovski wants any chance of winning he can’t waste time underneath Islam. Volkanovski has to immediately work to create space, sweep, and stand-up. You simply can’t afford to play guard against Islam. Before we get into specifics on where Islam finds the most success and what can be done against him, let’s touch on his most recent performance.
1 Fight in 2 Gifs
In Islam’s most recent fight against Charles Oliveira, Oliveira simultaneously showed what to do and what not to do in less than a round.
Live to keep fighting
- Islam is trying to ground and pound
- Oliveira makes space by pushing Islam off with his legs
- Oliveira frames to stop a cross face while trying to play knee shield
- Islam sprawls his weight down
- Oliveira uses his guard to elevate Islam so he can invert and attack a leg
- Islam stands and runs so Oliveira chases a rear body lock
No matter how godly we think Islam’s grappling is, he can’t change the rules of physics. Two objects cannot occupy the same space. If you put your limbs in between you and your opponent they have to move around them. That means there is space to stand-up.
Now that we’ve looked at where Oliveira successfully countered Islam’s ground game, let’s look at what Islam wants you to do.
Let Islam settle into a victory
- Islam is chest to to chest in half guard with a cross face
- Oliveira bridges into Islam
- Oliveira scrambles to bring his inside knee to his chest
- Islam stays low and tries to walk over the Oliveira’s inside knee
- Oliveira extracts his leg to close guard
Choosing to stay on bottom is a suicide mission against Islam. Islam is too long, strong, and technical to play guard against. Until someone gets reasonably close to a submission on Islam, it’s safe to say submissions aren’t a viable path to victory.
So, what are we left with? Obviously you want to stay on the feet against the Russian grappler but it’s never that simple. Avoidance is not a real plan nor a path to victory. To fight Islam you have to plan on countering his takedowns and getting up off the ground. To get off the ground, you need to stay on the inside of his limbs to negate his length; you have to be quick so he can’t settle in to his strong points of control; and you have be scrappy and scrambly so you can make him work in the process of getting up. Before we go into the mechanics of what this looks like, let’s look at where Islam does his best work.
Four Points of Control
Islam Makhachev has a fairly straightforward top game with two end goals. Islam either wants to pass guard to submit you, or push you to the fence so he can tire you out and make the former easier. To accomplish that, Islam’s ground game has four specific elements. These elements are simple, direct, and coalesce to create a suffocating top game that allows opponents to move just enough to tire themselves out. These elements are:
- Body locks
- Leg rides
- Wrist rides (Dagestani handcuff)
- Chest to chest half guard
Let’s review these techniques and how Islam uses them below.
A body lock is when you wrap both of your arms around your opponent to control their centerline. Broadly speaking there are 4 types of body locks; double under body locks, over under body locks, double under body locks, and open body locks.
In jiujitsu you often see all types of body locks being used when someone is trying to pass guard. In MMA you tend to see more double under body locks and open body locks mainly because the latter allows you to hit someone while controlling their centerline. Islam does this excellently.
Islam Makhachev vs Bobby Green
- Islam has just taken Green down
- Islam raises his hips & wraps his arms around Green to put pressure on him with an open body lock
- Islam holds Greens hips with his right arm while he punches Green with his left
- Islam drives his head into Green’s face to flatten Green out
In this sequence we see Islam try to use the next element of his controlling game, leg riding. Let’s look at a more clear example of leg riding from Islam’s fight with Drew Dober.
Leg riding is a broad term that describes using your legs to hook your opponent’s legs when they’re underneath you. This prevents them from bridging and standing up. Khabib Nurmagomedov and Islam regularly use this technique to keep their opponents beneath them.
Islam Makhachev vs Drew Dober
- Islam is lifting Dober’s legs to prevent him from standing
- Dober is trying to put his back against the cage to wall walk and get out from underneath Islam
- Islam pulls Dober off of the cage
- Islam steps over Dober’s legs and crosses his ankles to prevent Dober from standing
When you can’t bridge and stand-up you’re forced to use your hands to try to get back to your feet. Unfortunately this leads right into Islam’s next element of control.
Wrist riding generally describes how wrestlers break their opponents down by hand fighting on the ground. This prevents the person on bottom from posting to stand-up. In MMA you will commonly see wrist riding when a fighter on bottom attempts to post their hands on the mat so they can build a base and stand-up. Khabib and Islam use wrist riding so well, MMA fans actually refer to wrist rides as the Dagestani handcuff.
Islam Makhachev vs Drew Dober
- Dober is framing Islam’s left arm away
- Islam punches Dober so Dober posts on the mat to try to stand up
- Islam starts to wrist ride and steps over Dober’s legs while pulling Dober’s post out from underneath him
- Dober tries to elevate Islam, but they’re stuck on the fence and he can’t
- Islam drops his hips to flatten Dober out
When Islam gets his opponents flat and achieves chest to chest position is where we see his most exciting work.
Chest to Chest
Islam Makhachev’s most impressive finishes come when he flattens his opponents out and gets chest to chest. This position gives Islam two immediate submission options, and allows him to easily finish passing the guard.
Because of Islam’s strong open body locks, under hooks, and chest to chest pressure he is often in position to lock up an arm triangle choke.
Islam Makhachev vs Charles Oliveriera
- Islam has a strong cross face
- Islam locks his hands outside of Oliveriera’s shoulder
- Islam puts his forehead to the mat for added pressure
- Islam uses his free leg to open Oliveriera’s half guard, finish the pass, and get the submission
When the choke isn’t immediately available, Islam opts to attack the arm instead.
Islam Makhachev vs Dan Hooker
- Islam brings his cross face over Hooker’s head to scoop Hooker’s elbow, isolating Hooker’s far arm
- Islam pushes Hooker’s hand to the mat
- Islam locks up the kimura grip
- Islam back steps out of Hooker’s butterfly half guard
Pass the Guard
Even without the submission locked up, Islam has a simple avenue to slide out of guard from this same position.
Islam Makhachev vs Bobby Green
- Islam is chest to chest
- Islam threatens the kimura, similar to the sequence above
- Green tries to roll towards his belly to defend the kimura but opens his guard in the process
- Islam slides into mount to start hitting Bobby Green
The Space to Win
Before we discussed Islam’s favored techniques, we discussed the mythologizing of MMA fighters. What can be said for the Islam Makhachev myth? That is, how can we address the idea that Islam is just too good of a grappler for any of his opponents’ to have success when their back touches the mat?
Islam has a tendency to default to hugging his opponent or just holding their hips. That is not inherently incorrect, but combined with Islam’s lack of urgency to strike on the ground, he is leaving a lot of room to be countered.
The more static a grappler is, the more their opponent has the ability to deal with their current method of control. It doesn’t need to be fast or overly aggressive, but good control is active, progressive, and gives your opponents new problems to answer. Also, just to point out the elephant in the room, UFC judges are scoring grappling less and less favorably these days. Regardless of how you value grappling, taking someone down and not actively working to hurt them is not a winning strategy in today’s UFC.
So, what are reliable means of countering Islam’s grappling? How can someone hope to score against him and win the fight? It’s not easy, but it’s simple. You have to make space so you can move, score, and win.
One of the reasons Islam’s opponents drown beneath him is because they try to hold on to him. Because of Islam’s length, strength, and style, holding on to him is the exact opposite of how you should try to fight him on the ground. When opponents hold him, Islam drops his hips, digs under hooks, and works to get chest to chest. Islam’s opponents need to frame, dig under hooks, insert butterfly hooks, and use them to off balance Islam so they can get up if they want any hope of winning.
Sound impossible? People other than Charles Oliveira have already done it to him. More importantly, they’ve done it to him more than once in single fights against him.
Under Hooks & Sitting Up
In April 2013 a young Islam Makhachev took on the French fighter Mansour Barnaoui in M-1 Challenge. Barnaoui had more success against Islam on the ground than anyone I’ve seen. Barnaoui lost the fight by decision, but along the way he swept Makhachev all over the mat, nearly submitted in the second round with a side triangle, and gave us a few clear examples of ways to have success against the Dagestani grappler, namely by using simple under hooks.
Islam Makhachev vs Mansour Barnaoui
- Barnaoui has sat up in half guard using an under hook
- Islam is trying to counter with a front head lock, but its loose
- Barnaoui falls to his side
- Barnaoui comess up to Coyote Half
- Barnaoui stands up from Coyote Half to end up on top of Islam
Tilts & Butterfly Half
Even when Islam achieved chest to chest position on Barnaoui, he still wasn’t stable to hold him down for long.
Islam Makhachev vs Mansour Barnaoui
- Islam has an under hook and tries to step over Barnaoui’s opposite side leg
- Barnaoui blocks the knee with his elbow
- Barnaoui lifts Islam’s hips by keeping his elbow inside and bringing his knees to his chest
- As Islam tries to drive his inside knee across Barnaoui, Barnaoui simply turns his hips over to sweep Islam as he floats
Below you’ll see Barnaoui going back to the well a minute later. Nothing fancy, just under hooks, inside frames, and rocking his hips back and forth.
You’ll hear this sweep called the giggler, John Wayne, half guard tilt, or knee lever. This technique is extremely effective because it can take advantage of your opponent’s under hook, you don’t give up much by using it, and it opens a lot of follow-up attacks.
Space to Stand-Up
A few years ago Islam fought an unheralded newcomer Arman Tsarukyan. Everyone expected Islam to blow through Arman, and while Islam did win, Arman showed incredible resilience and some simple solutions to Islam’s suffocating pressure
Islam Makhachev vs Arman Tsarukyan
- Islam is leg riding Arman
- Arman brings his knees to his chest and lifts his legs to begin elevating Islam
- Islam keeps floating over Arman, and Arman keeps elevating and turning
- Arman elevates Islam while posting a foot on the floor, allowing him to create a base
- Arman stands and gets back to his feet
What is one major thing all of these sequences had in common? None of them took place on the fence. To ignore Islam’s opposition has more success in open space would be foolish.
A Realistic Path to Victory?
Alexander Volkanovski is going to get sucked into grappling exchanges. It’s likely not a matter of if but when Volkanovski gets taken down. Two questions remain:
- What can Volkanovski do to stand-up?
- What is a realistic path to victory for Volkanovski?
For starters, Volkanovski needs to stay off the cage. On the cage, Islam puts more pressure on his opponents, they have less ability to move, and it’s very difficult to use butterfly hooks to create space. If Volkanovski does get taken down along the fence he needs to immediately move away from the cage so he can sit-up into Islam to work with under hooks and butterfly guard.
Volkanovski needs to use a combination of under hooks, butterfly guard, and butterfly half to keep Islam’s weight off of him. Both Mansour Barnaoui and Arman Tsarukyan showed that in open space you can lift Islam off of you by digging under hooks, keeping inside frames, and using butterfly hooks to elevate his hips. Barnaoui used these techniques to sweep to top position, Arman used these techniques to stand-up, and Volkanovski needs to use this general strategy to get back to his feet and strike. If he can’t, he might as well stay home.
Recently, Alexander Volkanovski’s grappling coach, Craig Jones, released two instructionals that touch on both sides of this fight. Thinking Volkanovski isn’t at least tactically and strategically prepared to fight Islam would be incorrect. Whether or not he can execute the techniques that define the tactics is an entirely different story.
This whole article has been technical & tactical. We’ve talked about the X’s and O’s because generally I think that writing about intangibles at best can’t be known, and at worst isn’t relevant. Both Islam and Volkanovski have heart, they’re both tough, and I’m willing to bet they both really want to win. Still, there is an element that goes outside of the X’s and O’s that we need to address and that’s efficiency and endurance.
Volkaovski has an all time motor. I’ve never seen him tired in his entire UFC career and the man spent 75 minutes fighting Max Holloway. That’s absurd. Still, Volkanovski has never been sucked into the fights that Islam favors. More importantly, he hasn’t fought at 155 in 6 years. We simply don’t know how Volkanovski’s cardio will hold up to 25 minutes of being dragged down over and over again.
I guess the real question is, which is more likely? Islam sufficiently weaponizing his size and pace to make the most out of the grappling exchanges. Or, Volkanovski being opportunistic enough to capitalize on the space he creates and the time he spends on the feet to win a second title.
We’ll find out which man’s myth continues on February 11th.