MMA fans are becoming infatuated with the Georgian phenom Merab Dvalishvili. An absolute cardio machine, Dvalishvili’s incredible pace has lead him to twice break the UFC’s one-fight takedown record.
While this record implies something lacking in Dvalishvili’s top control at this point, his consistency and improving striking solidify him as a contender to watch in the division.
Against short-notice replacement Gustavo Lopez, Dvalishvili scored with a number of entry tactics. Lopez was largely interested in planting his feet in front of Dvalishvili and swinging his right hand, making reactive double legs and extremely high percentage look for the Georgian.
However, Dvalishvili showed off some interesting looks on the lead, as well.
Take a look at how Dvalishvili’s overhand plays into his wrestling game.
Inherently, the rear overhand is a wrestler’s best friend in MMA. Not only does the athletic style of wrestling lend itself to mastering the mechanics of the strike, the motion itself can both mask takedown entries and put the offensive wrestler in position to get to the legs.
In the simplest terms - when shooting a takedown, fighters have to level change and move forward. When throwing a decent overhand, fighters have to change levels and move forward. After showing an opponent both of these looks, it will be difficult for them to predict what’s coming, making it easier to succeed with either.
As we saw in last week’s Cody Stamann breakdown, a variety of level-changing striking entries can set up perfect wrestling opportunities down the line.
The above explanation suggests fighters have to choose between actually throwing the strike or feinting to shoot, but Merab Dvalishvili demonstrated a few different ways that wrestlers can have their cake and eat it, too.
Throwing any aggressive rear hand strike has the potential to lead to a takedown entry. The offensive fighter is likely covering ground, it really depends on the reaction of their opponent. If they plant and cover up, you’re golden, their hips will be wide open. Revisit the clip of Dvalishvili’s entries.
Here you can see that Dvalishvili throws the overhand in a closed stance matchup, meaning their torso’s are originally facing opposite directions. In a wrestling context, closed stance benefits high-c and double leg entries, but make it difficult to hit any sort of outside step single leg.
Dvalishvili hits the overhand and squares his stance, then steps outside and rolls under the returning counter of Lopez to enter on his head-inside single.
Stepping through the rear-hand into a stance switch is a fairly common Serra-Longo wrestling entry tactic. We saw Aljamain Sterling using this with his rear straight as early as the Hugo Viana fight. The downside of this entry is that the offensive fighter still has to finish the shot, which is often difficult when entering with broken posture. It helps to have a few single leg finishes drilled to the point of instinct, as well as being super strong. Merab Dvalishvili appears to have both of these factors going for him. It also helps that Lopez only seems to know to balance on one leg when defending singles, not fighting grips, posting or turning to limp leg.
This is a scenario in which the defending fighter plants in place in response to the overhand. If they start to move back, things get a bit more complicated.
Linear retreats in MMA generally aren’t a great idea, but if a fighter is weaving right through their power strike into a takedown entry, and the defending fighter is able to maintain distance in response, it basically kills any driving power the entry may have had. They might still get to the leg, but it’s shallow, and even more difficult and energy-consuming to finish. The downside of that defensive tactic is, eventually, there will be a cage in the way and linear retreat is no longer an option.
In the case of Gustavo Lopez, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. On one hand, he saw the overhand as an opportunity to counter, and quite often did attempt to stand his ground, keep his eyes open and look to throw back after...eating it, essentially.
After feeling the entry from Dvalishvili a few times, Lopez played with the idea of linear retreat, taking small steps back when he saw Dvalishvili loading up.
While it may make static single leg entries more difficult, a retreating opponent has other vulnerabilities, especially if their footwork mechanics are lacking. When moving back, Lopez leaves his stance, bringing his feet together and putting his weight on his heels.
Against a fighter with decent driving attacks, this is an open invitation that reads, “run me over.”
This entry from Dvalishvili begins from an open-stance matchup, the lead legs are aligned and both fighters’ torsos are facing the same direction. This gives Dvalishvili’s lead hand and foot a direct path to Lopez’s lead leg.
Looking to indeed run Lopez over, Dvalishvili combines his rear overhand entry with a knee pick with his lead hand, allowing him to cover distance, strike, and get to the legs all in one motion.
After hitting the overhand, Dvalishvili continues to step through, pulling in the leg on the knee pick side and squaring up, burying his head in Lopez’s chest. This also squares the hips of Lopez. If you’ve ever been taught the basics of stances in martial arts, you’ll know that standing with your feet far apart (right to left) makes it difficult to move you right or left, while standing with your feet apart (up and down) makes it difficult to move you forward or backward.
Gustavo Lopez isn’t standing wide in either direction, but what’s important is that his feet are completely squared up, while Dvalishvili is driving him straight backward, with force. He is able to continue that drive, using the punching hand to double off and finish the shot.
So what happens if Lopez is in a strong stance, and Dvalishvili can’t simply run him backward?
Let’s take a look at that same entry, from the open stance, with a different finish.
In this first example, Dvalishvili retracts the punching hand to double off, and he buries his head in the chest as he moves forward.
This time, Dvalishvili takes an even deeper outside step on the overhand, using the punch to club into a collar tie. His head is outside the hip, on the knee-pick side.
The mechanics of this finish are similar to that of a knee tap, Dvalishvili is pulling the leg through one way, while punching the collar tie (an underhook, if it’s a knee tap) in the other direction. In a knee tap, the attacking wrestler typically runs their feet in the punching direction, so they can run them across the side with no base, but it works just fine with no additional footwork in this case.
The pull on the leg and full-body push on the head is enough to twist Lopez’s body across and knock him over.
It’s not always smart to wing overhands as an entry - as a strike they’re relatively easy to read, and the potential counters are extremely dangerous. However, if your opponent has a tendency to cover up or move straight back against power strikes, the takedown opportunities can be fairly reliable.
After using this setup a few times, Dvalishvili was able to draw reactions from Lopez by simply feinting the overhand, without throwing himself into danger.
In the first frame, Dvalishvili mimics the exact motion he uses when throwing an overhand, drawing up the guard of Lopez, as well as shrinking his stance. Instead, Dvalishvili shoots both hands to the legs, rather than the overhand and knee pick.
This is a tough entry to pull off. If your opponent can catch underhooks and hip back, it’s probably over. If Lopez had the reaction to both cover up and frame with this guard, while kicking his hips back, it’s likely he would have given Dvalishvili a considerably tougher time.
But half the battle is knowing your opponent, and Dvalishvili was confident he could get to the legs at this point without Lopez making it complicated. Earlier, it was noted that double legs are easier from a closed stance matchup. Traditionally in wrestling, to shoot a double the attacking wrestler takes a penetration step, hitting their knee in the middle of their opponent’s stance, while getting their head outside the hip on the rear-side.
The attacking wrestler is then able to slide up that rear leg, turn the corner and drive with their feet and head while collapsing the legs. So the arms are pulling in, while the head and feet drive across.
In this case, from open stance, Dvalishvili is going to use similar principles, but his head is not in the mix.
Shooting from open stance, it’s actually easier to circle toward the head-side, rather than using the head as a lever to run them the other way. To pull this off, Dvalishvili attacks lower on the ankle on the head-side, pulling it high while using his rear-hand to move Lopez in that direction.
Because Lopez has no base on that side, and because Dvalishvili is pulling that leg across his body, essentially, he is able to sit Lopez on his hip.
To make a clever finish even more beautiful, Dvalishvili immediately hits a cartwheel pass to finish on the opposite side of Lopez’s legs, to avoid any possibility of a guillotine counter.
Merab Dvalishvili has plenty of tools for wrestling entries in open space.
Moving forward, my concerns are about his ringcraft, and discipline in selecting shots that make more sense for specific opponents. Lopez didn’t have much to offer defensively, so in this case it didn’t really matter when Dvalishvili decided to use this overhand setups. However, against stingier opponents, he may want to avoid laboring through finishes with compromised posture in the middle of the cage.
The one thing Dvalishvili does have going for him, which may carry him straight to contendership, is his incredible conditioning. Everyone gets tired eventually, but Merab Dvalishvili’s cardio ceiling appears to be considerably higher than the rest of the division.
Training with Aljamain Sterling almost daily, it’s likely that Dvalishvili will continue to improve. I’ll be sure to revisit and break down Dvalishvili’s wrestling once he takes a step up in competition.