Russia has steadily become more and more prominent in the landscape of mixed martial arts over the last few years. While much of the criticism revolving around M-1, Russia's premier mixed martial arts promotion, is due to its management's handling of former PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko, the promotion itself has continued to put on various shows around the world, successfully filling those arenas with fans and providing fans around the world a glimpse at the talent the region is producing.
M-1 has yet to find a successor to the great Fedor, but the sheer number of events that they have managed to produce has allowed many of Russia's brightest prospects to gain the experience they need to battle on a worldwide level. St. Petersburg-bred striker Alexander Sarnavskiy (11-0) has shown that it's time to make that major step, and he chimes in at #7 on the 2011 World MMA Lightweight prospect rankings.
Offensive Skills: Sarnavskiy's primary offense relies heavily on his striking skills, and while most people who have actually watched him compete continue to state that his ground game is just as good -- they'd be lying through their teeth. Sarnavskiy's stand-up game is his true means to defeating the competition, utilizing a quick jab and lengthy frame to batter opponents from the outside while also possesses crippling power when involved in close quarter combat. He is a bit of a wild striker at times, throwing flying kicks and spinning back fists, but he did manage to knock out Victor Kuku with a spinning back fist a little over a week ago.
On the ground, color me unimpressed. While he's certainly shown the skills to submit lesser competition, he's looked rather ineffective against competition that actually challenged him. His grappling, even from the top, has been a struggle at times, but at only 21 years of age -- he has ample time to improve.
Defensive Skills: His lengthy frame keeps his chin relatively unscathed due to the range that opponents have to wade through to punch him, and he does a pretty good job at keeping his hands up to protect his chin when he does get into firefights. His submission defense is probably his best asset in this category however, and he's shown on multiple occasions that he not only has the toughness to outlast attempts -- but he's fairly intelligent in knowing exactly how to escape techniques.
Progression & Learning Ability: From some of his earlier fights to his more recent bouts, specifically his last two performances, he's looked much more improved. While the Kuku fight went rather quickly, the battle with Grigoryan showed he has the ability to learn from some of the mistakes he made previously. He also only happens to be 21 years old, which should allow for years of soaking in knowledge and progressing to the next level.
Environment: Sarnavskiy trains out of the RusFighters Sport Club in St. Petersburg, Russia, most famous for housing Bellator middleweight contender Alexander "Storm" Shlemenko. That should be an indication of the path that Sarnavskiy intends to carve for himself as Shlemenko has made a career out of being a devastating striker. Shlemenko's experiences should help Sarnavskiy develop into quite the talent, although I worry that too much emphasis on striking will hurt Sarnavskiy's chances if he attempts to come stateside.
Potential: This was one of the tougher picks of the scouting report, mostly due to the fact that I continued to focus on how uneventful and methodical Sarnavskiy's ground game was when fighting equally-skilled competition. While his defense to submissions is very good, he has a lot of trouble going on the offensive. In fact, Sarnavskiy performs better off his back while being in the crosshairs of a ground and pound beating versus a half-guard position.
But it's hard to deny the fact that his striking is powerful and improving with every fight, and at only 21 years of age -- he has the time to improve before he peaks as a fighter. I think that outweighed my feelings that his offensive abilities on the floor were a bit deficient at the moment.
The jury is out on whether Sarnavskiy can bring his skill-set to a much bigger stage and succeed, but his youthfulness holds a lot of hope for him. I think he's certainly better than our previous ranked fighters, but I'm not about to label him as the #1 prospect in Europe. He just doesn't have the skills yet.
Alexander Sarnavskiy vs. Victor Kuku - October 28, 2010
Alexander Sarnavskiy vs. Maratbek Kalabekov, Round 1 - December 19, 2009
Alexander Sarnavskiy vs. Maratbek Kalabekov, Round 2 & 3 - December 19, 2009
Alexander Sarnavskiy vs. Maxim Kuptsov - February 26, 2010