*Disclaimer: Please excuse my poor understanding of geography. I know some of these guys are from places like Chechnya and Dagestan and I think that makes them Russian but I’m not sure. If anyone can shed some light on that issue I would greatly appreciate it.
That said, it’s no secret that the Russians are coming to MMA in force: Bellator’s entire roster sometimes appears to be Russians and some of the UFC’s best new prospects are coming from that region. If you see a fighter with a last name that looks tough to pronounce fighting out of someplace like Dagestan, that fighter is probably about to fuck somebody up. What exactly is it that sets these guys apart from their opponents? Is it the cool fur hats, the wrestling with bears, the vodka? Maybe. But there’s more to it than that. The biggest strength brought to the table by Russian fighters is their ability to transition between striking and grappling with amazing fluidity.
Striking Off Level Changes:
The most basic strategy for a wrestler to beat a better striker in the standup is to consistently incorporate level changes. The beauty of a level change is that it can mean so many different things: a takedown, a body shot, a loaded up punch to the head, or simply nothing. Constant level changes paralyze opponents, especially ones who don’t know how to deal with one or more of the attacks being threatened. Every wrestler should know how to build offense off of their level changes. The Russians certainly do:
Against someone with takedowns as scary as Rustam Khabilov (more on that later), even fighters like Masvidal, who are extremely difficult to out-wrestle, must respect the level change. That’s why Khabilov is able to land a hard shot in the opening seconds of his most recent fight.
Khabilov comes in behind a weak jab, then immediately ducks his head and starts bending his knees. By the third frame, Masvidal’s lead hand is dropping fast as Khabilov’s body mechanics look very similar to a takedown attempt. With his lead hand down and no other form of defense available to him, Masvidal eats the overhand right clean. This is as basic as it gets and hints at something that will be a theme throughout the article: relying on your hands for defense is damn near useless against these Russian fighters. It’s too easy for them to find the openings, as Khabilov does again later in the round:
This time, Masvidal keeps his hands up as he reacts to the level change. It doesn’t help him though, as a right uppercut hits him in the stomach and is made worse by the fact that he starts partially sprawling; giving an angle to his torso that allows the punch to drive directly into him. Khabilov follows that uppercut with a left hook around the guard that is blocked, then a right hook that catches Masvidal on the chin. The biggest advantage to the level change is that it automatically puts the opponent on the defensive. Masvidal is not prepared to counter at any point in this sequence, so his opponent is free to throw whatever he wants, which means he has no trouble punching around the guard.
Nurmagomedov had been subtly feinting level changes all round. This time, he drops his weight onto his lead foot and loads up his lead hand. This allows him to explode forward, covering a large amount of distance while throwing a powerful lead uppercut. Tavares, who doesn’t know what is coming, goes to his standard shell and has no idea what happens when the uppercut comes up the middle and blasts him into unconsciousness. Again, even if the opponent doesn’t react to defend a takedown, feinting a level change gives a fighter the initiative and allows him to attack with techniques that would normally be pretty easy to counter. And what would normally be considered a telegraph is anything but. Nurmagomedov shows how grapplers can use level changes to throw difficult to see punches and load them without the opponent realizing it. But all of this is MMA striking 101; we’re really here for the more advanced stuff like:
Striking into the clinch:
What really sets the elite wrestlers in MMA apart from the rest is the ability to set up their wrestling attacks with their striking. The MMA world as a whole is only just starting to understand how this works, but the best of the best have been doing it for years. One of the pioneers of this strategy was none other than the great Fedor Emelianenko. However, this article is focused on the present so if you’re interested in studying Fedor’s methods I direct you to Jack Slack’s outstanding work. Currently, Rustam Khabilov is one of the best at punching into the clinch so that he can work his grappling.
In the above gif, Khabilov backs his opponent into a corner. With the opponent trapped, he attacks with a combination designed to get his opponent’s hands up as he closes the distance. It works perfectly, and he is easily able to get his arms around the hips and his head in close, since the elbows and hands are up too high. From that position, it is a simple matter of getting his hips close, elevating and tossing the opponent onto his head for the knockout. Again, relying on a high guard is suicidal against these guys. It leaves too many openings that they are more than willing to exploit. UFC fans will surely remember his debut against Vinc Pichel, where he earned a second KO via slamming someone’s head on the mat.
Again, after backing his opponent near the cage, Khabilov rushes in with a combination. He unloads several punches until his opponent is forced all the way into the cage. At that point, he ends the combination and essentially performs a roll after his final right hand. This roll both avoids the counter uppercut Pichel desperately throws and puts him in a great position to step forward and attack the right leg of Pichel. Once he is in, Pichel never shakes him off. Khabilov single legs, slams, trips and suplexes Pichel to death with some ground and pound sprinkled in for good measure.
Another awesome Russian, Ali Bagautinov, showed great ability to punch and clutch in his UFC debut:
As a counter striker, Bagautinov is not one to throw wild strikes at a ready opponent. However, he is very willing to throw wild strikes against an opponent who is recovering from a miss. After pressuring Vinicius back against the cage (are you noticing a pattern?) Bagautinov patiently waits for him to strike. When Vinicius leads with a front kick, Bagautinov is able to move barely out of range before exploding forward again and swarming with punches. He grabs an underhook with his left arm and pins Vinicius against the cage in a poor position. I'll describe what happens next later.
Like level changing, striking into the clinch isn’t the most impressive skill these guys possess. It’s still pretty basic, even if not that many fighters are employing it. But both of these tactics are incredibly effective and extremely difficult to deal with, as has been demonstrated by Fedor, Couture, Velasquez, Cormier, Evans and more. One of the greatest advantages of punching into the clinch is that it allows fighters to over-commit to shots and punch with what is typically considered poor technique. An opponent who stands in place and tries to counter makes it even easier for the wrestler to get the clinch they want.
One of the things I appreciate most about the Russians is that they are able to throw strikes in the middle of defending takedowns. They are so comfortable with both aspects that they can strike at times when most fighters need to be 100% in grappling mode.
Here, in his fight against Tim Elliott, Bagautinov starts by measuring the distance with his lead arm. Distance control is a key aspect of both striking and grappling defense, which is why all the Russians are very good at judging it and moving accordingly. So why Elliott tries to come in with a hook, Bagautinov is able to easily see it and step back out of range. However, he is still in his stance and ready to counter as Elliott barrels forward into an attempted take down. Bagautinov has time to land a short counter right uppercut that turns into an underhook before reaching his left arm down for a second underhook, completely shutting down Elliot’s offense. That little punch is beautiful, as is Bagautinov’s ability to be in the perfect range to attack and defend.This is why footwork is more important than blocking. The Russians don't get caught easily by punching into the clinch because their method of defense does not leave openings for a wrestler.
Khabib Nurmagomedov can do the same, combining grappling defense with striking offense to land unexpected punches:
Here, he is using the lead arm to post similarly to Bagautinov. Tibau is ducking and trying to attack for what looks like a knee tap, but Nurmagomedov is able to hop back out of range and remove his leg from danger. Both fighters end up in a very awkward position as a result, leaning forward with their feet in the front places. However, Nurmagomedov is still able to take advantage of his weight being forward by winging a left hook out that clips Tibau on the jaw. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t very powerful, but the takedown defense is impressive enough on its own without him landing punches in the process.
My favorite example, though, is Bagautinov again.
In that gif, you see how easily he is able to flow from striking to grappling. After landing a beautiful counter right, he sees the opening for a knee and slams it into Elliot's head. Elliot catches the knee, but Bagautinov pivots immediately and escapes. It is still a simple matter for him to adjust to Elliott’s grappling attack and limp leg out like nothing. That’s great counter striking and great counter wrestling within a few seconds of one another, in a way that I haven’t seen from many fighters.
The reason Russians have this ability is that none of them rely primarily on hands for defense. All of them emphasize footwork first, head movement second and blocking as an absolute last resort. As a result, they are all hard to hit and hard to take down. If you watch a Russian fight, there is a lot of lateral movement and a lot of careful distance control. Their footwork in response to grappling attacks is excellent. They do make errors, a lot of them will square up and move awkwardly from time to time. However, their movement is very effective and hard to deal with.
Striking on the Break:
Striking on the break is the real specialty of the Russians. What it means is choosing to disengage from a grappling situation and striking as you do so. Too often, a grappler will bail on a position and retreat way out of range. Not the Russians, they’ll let go and punch you in the face.
In the above sequence, Bagautinov shows his awareness of when to strike and when to grapple. As Elliott initiates with a straight left, he ducks under it and moves his body into the space created, immediately transitioning into a nice knee to the stomach when most fighters would have pursued the double leg. After the knee lands, Elliott drops his hips back and uses his overhooks to take away Bagautinov’s control with his underhooks. You can see in the third frame how shallow those underhooks are, to the point where they offer him no real advantage. Instead of giving up and retreating, Bagautinov lets go with his left hand and reaches it up to grab a collar tie, as seen in the fourth frame. Aiming to take advantage of Elliot’s poor posture and forward lean, he yanks down on the head and throws an uppercut that only misses because Elliot is damn near impossible to actually hit clean, no matter how ugly his striking looks. Even though his uppercut misses, it’s awesome to see the level he’s operating at where he can capitalize on opportunities to both grapple and strike, keeping the opponent on the defensive.
Khabib Nurmagomedov has been very good at this once he pins people against the cage. He will let go, throw a few punches then duck back under and start grappling again. His opponents are often caught off guard and usually eat the punches.
In that gif, Nurmagomedov is seen landing some decent punches on Tibau; who he and everyone else in the lightweight division struggle greatly to take down. Notice that Tibau is still trying to grapple as he is eating punches to the face, then before he can adjust Nurmagomedov is back in to control him. He did the same thing in his most recent fight against Pat Healy:
This time, the punches he lands are much harder. Healy, being one of the scrappiest motherfuckers around, does not hesitate to trade punches but is in a much worse position to do so and gets by far the worst of these exchanges. It’s just so difficult for many fighters to react to what the Russians bring to the table. Another great example also came in the Healy fight.
Backed against the cage, Nurmagomedov lands a solid left hook as Healy comes in with a right hand. Healy, still being a scrappy motherfucker, comes back with his own left hook. However, Nurmagomedov is able to duck it and get his head outside Healy’s left arm. Nurmagomedov pivots as he uses his right hand to push Healy away, keeping him off balance and making it more difficult for him to turn. Instead of trying to lock up a clinch, Nurmagomedov throws a left hook that misses by millimeters as he disengages from clinch range. With his weight forward after the hook, he is able to launch a right head kick at Healy immediately. While it doesn’t land clean, it still hits him behind the guard and impresses the shit out of me. Healy is not ready for any of those strikes, and with a bit more accuracy that could have ended the fight.
To see how dangerous these types of strikes can be, look no further than Bagautinov’s UFC debut. After punching his way into the clinch in the sequence described previously, he started working for a single leg.
However, Vinicius is defending well and Bagautinov does not manage to get the leg. Instead, he lets go of the leg with his left arm and pushes it across Vinicius’ chin to cross face him. With that control in place, he drops the leg completely and frees his right hand in the third frame. Vinicius, whose leg is only just returning to the floor, eats a powerful right hook with zero balance or ability to defend. As a result, he gets knocked on his ass and nearly finished with ground and pound before Bagautinov gives up position going for a guillotine. [GIF of knockdown] It's amazing that Bagautinov is actively setting these punches up when he lets go. The results can be disastrous for his opponents, who are still worried only about the grappling.
One of the crazier knockouts I’ve seen recently was delivered by Adlan Amagov against TJ Waldburger in his second UFC fight. While defending a single, Amagov had been landing surprising hard shots with his left hand—hard enough to convince Waldburger to let go of the single. Instead of exiting the clinch after stopping the take down, Amagov continued to dirty box. With a right whizzer on Waldburger’s arm, Amagov steps his left leg back and throws short punches with that hand. He keeps pivoting and pulling on that whizzer to spin Waldburger, until eventually he creates enough space to land a knockdown punch. As the opponent falls, he lets go of the whizzer and grabs the head, landing a brutal punch that causes Waldburger to faceplant on the mat, then another as he tries to sit up.
This doesn't exactly fit into the category because they are still in the clinch, but it still illustrates the threat Russian fighters pose in strange transitions and situations.
Striking on the break is one of those awkward areas where MMA fighters have a lot of room to improve. The Russians are taking the first steps and showing how dangerous a fighter can be in that transition. Most fighters can't even adapt to the changing mindset quickly enough and are overwhelmed when this happens.
The Russians fight ugly. Between their heavily movement and power punching based striking styles, willingness to exchange in transitions and constant intent to hurt the other guy as badly as possible, their fights take on a very unique appearance. The weakness of the current style is that the Russians often lack any real control. They rarely jab, even the ones who have really, really good jabs. On the ground, they are typically more willing to lose position while striking than most grapplers. The same can be said in standing grappling situations as well. If there truly is a new breed of fighter, it’s someone who can merge this aggressive Russian style with more conservative attacks. Right now, there are no fighters who really know how to dirty box with control in the clinch, let go and unload some bombs, then tie up again and continue roughing the opponent up. Velasquez and Cormier are close, but they lack the willingness to brawl which separates the Russians from them. There is a lot to learn from the Russian fighters and their violent approach, but they also have a lot to learn from others about having more educated striking games that rely less on throwing only full power shots.