It may strike some as odd to frame a breakdown around the losing fighter in a matchup, but against flyweight title challenger Joseph Benavidez, Drexel wrestling alumnus and former Bellator bantamweight champion Zach Makovsky showed off some of the best “wrestling for MMA” conceptual work of his career.
It’s also worth mentioning that the fight came together on relatively short notice for both men. Makovsky has mentioned in the past that he typically likes as much time as possible to prepare, but that a shorter camp may stop him from over-analyzing and potentially free up his game. It certainly appeared that Makovsky was willing to pull the trigger and fight to a simple gameplan, but he noticeably slowed in the third round and his low output cost him the fight.
The flyweight wrestler is a true veteran of the sport who has competed successfully in world-level organizations like Bellator, the UFC, ACB, and now Brave FC. I wanted to take some time and highlight the underrated craft of Zach Makovsky.
Wrestling for MMA: Zach Makovsky
Joseph Benavidez - the counter combination pressure fighter.
Zach Makovsky - the springing outfighter, a Tristar specialty.
Considering the advantage - on paper, that Makovsky had in terms of neutral wrestling, the matchup was about how the Pennsylvanian would get to his entries, and how Benavidez would shut them down or counter the subsequent exchanges.
The easiest entry for the majority of wrestlers in MMA is the reactive shot. That style of wrestling isn’t really conducive to Benavidez’s skill-set, and the solid positioning and reaction time of Benavidez made it less of an option for Makovsky. Makovsky typically retreated linearly against Benavidez’s blitzing entries, at times he’d abruptly plant and look to hit his level change. Suddenly reversing directions like that is hard, and more often than not Makovsky had to lean over at the waist rather than bending his legs to get in position for a legitimate takedown entry. On several occasions, Benavidez was able to pull his hips back and frame off on the arms or face of Makovsky to interrupt that motion and keep him tall.
It was up to Makovsky to create his own takedown opportunities.
Playing with Momentum and Levels
Makovsky’s southpaw jab and lead inside kick set up most of his striking entries. He springs in and out and mixes up the jab by changing levels, while he varies the kick by switching between the skip-up inside low kick and the low line side kick.
The low line kick jams Benavidez’s bursts, allowing Makovsky to control when they exchange. The jabs are his most versatile entry, as Makovsky can chose to stay in range or pop back out, while the skip-up low kick commits him to an entry, and the low line kick lends itself the most to keeping distance. We did see Max Holloway use this kick as a committed entry against Alexander Volkanovski later in their fight, but it’s a dangerous game to play if you’re not ready for potential counters. Just look at what Amanda Nunes did to Holly Holm.
The level change, masked by the jab, is also an important tool for Makovsky, it allows him to crash in and smother Benavidez’s wide combinations in addition to disguising potential shot entries.
Shot Selection and Alternative Finishes
Benavidez does sometimes switch stances, but when both are southpaw - in the closed stance matchup, Makovsky has a line for his lead hand to attack the inside of Benavidez’s lead leg. His shot choices are likely the high crotch or double leg. From open stance, he’s got a better path for a snatch single or even better, a sweep single - my personal favorite.
After about one minute of setting up the in-out dynamic with limited looks for entries, Makovsky enters on his inside low kick, plants to strike, then hits his level change for a shot as Benavidez begins to throw his jab.
Makovsky was looking for the double, but Benavidez wisely bladed his stance and increased the distance between his legs. Traditionally, on a double leg, you turn the corner around your opponent’s lead leg, and use your head to drive on the hip while you collapse the legs and run through the shot. MMA fighters often have easier entry opportunities than wrestlers do in a match, and you’ll see them spear double straight through, focusing on countering forward momentum.
Zach Makovsky has a much more controlled approach to his shots, albeit still extremely physically demanding.
After entering on the shot, Makovsky lifts the lead leg and circles Benavidez toward his head-hip side, rather than using his head to push and aid the shot finish. This forces Benavidez to balance on his rear leg and hop it toward that side, narrowing his base and allowing Makovsky to get a solid grip for a true double.
Once he has both legs controlled, Makovsky bends his legs, straightens his back with his head up, then explodes up, popping Benavidez off the mat.
Here’s where that head positioning comes in. Makovsky is angling Benavidez’s far side toward the mat so he can land in a control position, but his head is pushing against Benavidez’s ribs in that same direction, doing a ton of the work in tilting him mid-air.
Once the “popping” motion is done, Makovsky adjusts releases the grip mid-air and covers the back of Benavidez with his left arm to ensure he lands flat in side control. My old coaches would call that an “Olympic finish”. It’s an impressive, explosive maneuver, that would mean guaranteed control time against 99% of fighters.
But when you’re fighting the best scrambler in MMA history, it’s not enough. The instant Benavidez hits his back, Makovsky is spread to break his own fall, his hips are away from Benavidez and he’s only covering with his chest. That small window was all Benavidez needed, the scrappy flyweight swam away from Makovsky’s legs while framing off on Makovsky’s hips to keep the pressure limited, then swung his weight back through to belly down and come up on a single.
In a five second sequence, we were treated to some of the most brilliant wrestling offense and defense MMA has to offer.
Same Tools, Different Looks
Against an opponent of Joseph Benavidez’s caliber, persistence and a wide variety of looks are necessary to get your offense going if you’re only using a few tools.
Getting the distance and timing right on those springing entries to level changes is hard enough, as seen by Makovsky’s shot coming up shallow and turning into a smothered clinch exchange more often than not. On top of that, Benavidez was pressuring with volume and keeping Makovsky on the backfoot. If Benavidez had conceded range and allowed Makovsky to enter and exit as he pleased, perhaps those entries would have been clean.
About halfway through the second frame, Makovsky got another bite. Earlier in the round, Makovsky was finding his offense off the level change following the jab. He jabbed in and lowered for a shot, and was stuffed. In the following exchange, he jabbed in, then dropped levels on his rear straight, nailing Benavidez after he lowered his hands, anticipating a takedown.
With that information in mind, Benavidez had to consider whether he needed to position himself to deal with striking or wrestling after Makovsky jabbed in. This finally allowed Makovsky a clean path to the legs through jabbing in from closed stance, after Benavidez raised his hands to parry. Another important detail is that Makovsky switched up his takedown, entering on a head outside snatch single rather than the double. A double leg entry gives Benavidez a much better window for catching with underhooks and controlling posture, this entry is much faster. The catch is, the finish takes a bit more work and is less likely to end in a control position.
Although he was only attacking the lead leg, rather than both, the mechanics on the finish were nearly identical to his double in the first round. He circled toward the head-side to bring Benavidez’s hips square with his, giving him proper positioning for a big lift (rather than running the pipe.)
Just like on the double, Makovsky bent his legs, straightened his back with his head up and exploded up, taking Benavidez off his feet. In mid-air, Makovsky released and covered the back. While this finish put him in referee’s position\top turtle on the landing, not being able to manipulate the far leg or hip prevented him from turning Benavidez to his back.
Against competent scramblers from rear-standing, or if you’re a fighter who doesn’t excel from those back control positions, this finish is not ideal. Speed is of the essence, however, and who knows if Makovsky would have had the opportunity to ground his opponent had he switched to a double before the lift.
A neat little wrinkle is that Benavidez kept the head while Makovsky held rear standing, using it to control for his elevator sweep when Makovsky looked to pop him up and plant him with the tight waist\bodylock.
Those high amplitude shot finishes are cool as heck, and Makovsky has a real system and the athletic ability to make them work.
Joseph Benavidez showed exactly what kind of fighter you have to be to deal with that type of approach, he’s likely one of the most capable fighters in MMA history for dealing with any style of grappler.
I will say that if you’re working with a limited gas tank, especially more so than you’re used to, in Makovsky’s case, maybe big lifts aren’t the ideal finish against a fighter who is going to keep you working like Benavidez did.
To further illustrate that point, on Makovsky’s next entry, the dynamic had changed. A few times in this fight, Makovsky showed a leading rear straight entry, which he typically retreated off of. Having spent more than half of the fight working his wrestling through his jab, the variance was much needed.
Flowing in off the lead straight, Makovsky followed the momentum of the shot to step through and hit that snatch single once again. Just like before, he circled Benavidez to the head-side, but he hesitated, continuing to circle and angle Benavidez’s hip to the mat (running the pipe) instead of going to his lift.
Ideally, Makovsky could sit him down to his left then cover up with the double on the right side once Benavidez hit the mat.
Perhaps feeling this, Benavidez went to the head and underhook (as seen before in Wrestling for MMA: Joseph Benavidez) and sat through for his elevator sweep once more. It’s a lovely technique, especially for freestyle, as you can pull their weight down by the head, use the butterfly hook to elevate, then use the underhook to direct them diagonally over your head.
Makovsky kicked through brilliantly and turned back in to cover, nearly securing side control.
I’d argue that Makovsky had more success attempting to run the pipe on the snatch single than he did on the lift. It’s tough to say whether or not a fresher Makovsky could have made it work, but his striking entries seemed to be lending themselves to the single far more than the double.
Look at that skip-up low kick takedown entry Makovsky used so beautifully in the first round.
Late in the second, Makovsky used that same entry to angle off to the rear leg for a head-inside single.
It may not have resulted in anything but an over-under position, but that sequence led to Benavidez throwing his rear knee, Makovsky catching it with an underhook and showing off a lovely Metzger finish to plant Benavidez.
The resulting scramble gave Makovsky the back with a body triangle against Benavidez, his best chance to finish of the entire fight.
Parting Thoughts: Could Makovsky have done anything differently?
Makovsky finding mixed success establishing control positions is mostly a testament to the counters and scrambling of Joseph Benavidez. As we’ve seen in other performances from “Fun-Size”, not many fighters can deal with those high-power finishes.
The scrambles were inevitable, perhaps the gameplan should have been “cheap” finishes that force Benavidez to put himself in dangerous positions, rather than attempting to finish clean on the slipperiest fighter in organizational history. Makovsky still may not have been in his absolute best shape in terms of cardio (what a statement) to put on that type of fight, with the abbreviated training camp. I’m sure his coaches had him approach with the fight that worked best for where he was at that moment.
This is just Monday morning quarterbacking, Makovsky fought phenomenally and it’s a pleasure to look back at some of the advanced tactics he demonstrated in this bout.
Look forward to more single-fight breakdowns like this! Leave your suggestions in the comments.