There’s no singular secret to success when it comes to world pound-for-pound #1 Abdulrashid Sadulaev of Dagestan.
“The Avar Tank” dominated his way to one Olympic and four World gold medals using a rare combination of upper weight athleticism and classic Russian techniques.
I did my best to describe the style of Sadulaev in this long-form career breakdown.
“Russian wrestlers are known for their phenomenal positioning, quick footwork, lethal reattacks, arm drags, head outside singles and overall mat generalship. They work well off elbow control, the “Russian” two-on-one tie, counter well off the collar ties of their opponents, and some of the more enthusiastic competitors like Sadulaev and Zaurbek Sidakov can be brutal punching through an underhook, occasionally they may cartwheel off the whizzer.
What sets Sadulaev apart? The simple answer is that he possesses physicality and an athletic style that is frankly absurd for a man his size. The Russian team is already considered to be the most thoughtful and technically proficient in the world. What do you get when you teach that system to a wrestler who can athletically outclass every man he wrestles? Unparalleled dominance.
In MMA we talk a lot about “Fight IQ”. For me, there is no better demonstration of IQ than when a fighter is willing to persistently push their advantages once they’ve been revealed. As we work through each of Sadulaev’s World and Olympic tournaments, it will become increasingly clear that most of his matches are won in one or two bursts of action.
Be it a counter or an attack off the elbow, Sadulaev typically explodes into an offensive flurry and pursues the go-behind above all else. While Sadulaev doesn’t necessarily have a conditioning problem, he’s a large man, there are limits to his gas tank. To best use his strengths, Sadulaev picks his spots and goes full throttle to get to his best position, the gut wrench, as soon as possible.
The sprinting nature of his flurries allows Sadulaev to get a grip under the ribs of his opponent before the takedown is completed. In freestyle, even the highest level competitors miss scoring opportunities because they treat takedowns and “par terre”, mat wrestling, as separate pieces. As soon as Sadulaev is in on an attack, he’s thinking about how best to transition to his gut.”
Typically, Sadulaev’s best scoring moments are achieved through pressure. As he picks up the pace with his hand-fighting and short offense, opponents are faced with a choice. Do you attack to disrupt his momentum, or do you take a defensive stance and attempt to stop his inevitable chain of offense?
More often than not, they choose the former. This process is especially effective because by the time his opponents cave and make their move, they’re out of position due to the snaps and drags of Sadulaev, making it simple for him to reattack or counter.
It helps to have superhuman timing and the grace of a jungle cat.
Let’s take a look at one specific pressure-based counter.
Turkey’s Selim Yasar came into his prime at the exact same time that Abdulrashid Sadulaev moved on to senior level competition. Unfortunate.
Their first meeting was in the 2014 World qualification round. It was a dominant 9-2 performance, but Sadulaev struggled to perform as efficiently as usual.
“Possessing a sturdy base and competent scrambling, Yasar made Sadulaev work hard for any and all scoring opportunities. Sadulaev was unable to find polished entries and took low ankle attacks off elbow control, fighting through to get to his scores. After going up 9-0, Sadulaev lacked the energy to get past Yasar’s stonewalling, even giving up a few pushouts before time expired.”
Essentially, Yasar learned to push his advantages, keeping Sadulaev tied up in collar and underhook positions to limit his motion from greater range.
When they met again in the 2015 World final at 86 kg, Yasar got back to that strategy immediately.
Instead of continuously clearing ties and taking shots from space, exerting himself to find scores, Sadulaev conceded that it would have to be a slower-paced match.
He picked his spots and set up his attacks from upper body positions, nowhere was safe for Selim Yasar.
Feeling that Yasar was continuously digging a left side underhook and favoring that leg, leaning forward, Sadulaev concocted an absolutely filthy counter.
After quickly switching his feet to line up in the “open stance” with Yasar, in one swift motion Sadulaev loosened and lowered his overhook to the elbow and threw it by to his left.
We see attempts at a similar motion performed from a stronger overhook or whizzer fairly often, which is great for bumping your opponent out of their stance, but with a small adjustment this becomes a scoring technique.
As Sadulaev bursts into the stance switch, he releases the overhook. It’s not an explosive switch and pull all at once, it’s a two-beat maneuver.
It’s similar to a limp-arm, in that you go loose to escape your opponent’s tie, then quickly whip back to establish the new tie. For Sadulaev, this meant simply straightening his arm, pulling back slightly and crunching down on the elbow. Pulling from a point further away from his base forces Yasar to step forward, the combined momentum of Sadulaev’s stance switch and pull is too much.
Fully rotating across, Sadulaev slings his right arm to the left, keeping his feet planted. Due to Yasar’s pressure and the abrupt timing of Sadulaev, Yasar falls forward to his knees.
As Yasar looks to build back up, Sadulaev turns in and hits a low double once the window to Yasar’s legs opens.
It may look simple, but those small details are extremely important. When everything lines up, it’s a highly effective technique - Sadulaev almost stole back the match from Kyle Snyder in 2017 with this exact same setup.
Wrestling is postponed until further notice, but I hope to see Sadulaev in action again next year.