For nearly ten years, New Mexico’s John Dodson has held steady in the title picture at both 125 and 135 pounds. An absurd athlete, even by flyweight standards, Dodson’s consistency can be attributed to his low-risk counter-punching style and effective defense. After halting a hot prospect in Nathaniel Wood in February, Dodson will play gatekeeper once again at UFC 252 when he faces Georgian grappling tornado Merab Dvalishvili.
While Dodson has demonstrably lost a step physically - his speed, power and durability deteriorating - he’s still far from washed up in the ultra-competitive bantamweight division. He’ll need every bit left of his craft and athleticism against Dvalishvili, a relentless cardio machine who has twice broken the bantamweight takedown record. After Dvalishvili’s last bout, I profiled his use of overhand punches to set up his open-space wrestling attacks.
How will Dodson’s defensive wrestling and grappling hold up against the rising contender? A two-time high school state champion in New Mexico, wrestling is Dodson’s base in mixed martial arts. While he doesn’t use it very often offensively, Dodson consistently demonstrates basic competency as a wrestler, and a few attributes and specific details in his game have made him an incredibly difficult fighter to wrestle with and hold down.
Defending in Open Space
After watching Dodson’s fights against the best wrestlers and most grappling-focused fighters of his career - Jussier Formiga, Zach Makovsky, and Demetrious Johnson, I found a grand total of zero takedowns started and finished in open space,
The way John Dodson strikes truly plays into the current wrestling meta in MMA. One very simple observation is that when directly transitioning from striking to leg attacks in the center, fighters almost never drop to a knee or fully level change as they shoot. There are many reasons for this, the most obvious being that it’s easier to take a more shallow level change from your stance to get in on the legs and see if you can work a finish. Fully committing to the shot means dropping out of your striking stance and potentially ending up fully underneath your opponent, which is much more dangerous in MMA than in grappling sports.
Even at flyweight, Dodson’s stature and build put his hips and legs at a lower point than most fighters. The mechanics of his striking style cause him to consistently lower his level on essentially every action, meaning a deeper level change and penetration shot are necessary to get a clean entry. Beyond that, Dodson has a hair trigger on kicking his hips back and framing out - either with straight posts or with his forearms.
Much like legendary defensive wrestler Jose Aldo, Dodson has a drilled-in instinct, when he can’t create distance with frames or posts, to favor his lead hip and create space on the open side. This allows him to either dig an underhook on the open side and pull his opponent off his leg, or to limp leg turn and kick out - which he’s a little worse at.
Because of that “shallow level change” meta, many shot attempts see the offensive wrestler leading more with their head and bending over, rather than penetrating with their feet and coming in with their head, feet and hips aligned. This means as long as Dodson can clear his hips of the initial reach and create barriers against the upper body, he has effectively defended the shot attempt.
The efficacy of this approach is best illustrated against Zach Makovsky - a wrestler with the footwork and finishing techniques to make his entries count, if he’s able to get to the legs.
Seeing Dodson plant on his lead leg, Makovsky anticipated a committed entry and level changed for a reactive shot. Demonstrating frankly unfair reaction time, Dodson is able to convert his lead hand into a frame and use that point to push off and kick his hips back.
Constantly feinting entries allows Dodson to draw out those reactive shots and shut them down, causing doubt in his opponent and eventually opening up his own offense. To Makovsky’s credit, he was not discouraged, and used his takedown entries to strike off the breaks, controlling most of the exchanges of the fight in this way.
Dodson’s Anti-Wrestling Strengths and Weaknesses
MMA fighters are beginning to build the art of “anti-wrestling” - fighting in a way that dissuades wrestlers, rather than attempting to counter them.
The two main categories of anti-wrestling approaches are strike selection and ringcraft.
When it comes to strike selection, Dodson excels. As mentioned earlier, level changing on his strike entries is built-in takedown defense - but it’s not only his squatting into power shots that accomplishes this. Dodson frequently hooks to the body, which is more or less an automatic underhook if his opponent crashes in.
The other type of strike best suited for anti-wrestling is one that intercepts levels. These range from the simple body jab or body straight, to uppercuts, to linear kicking, to intercepting knees. Linear kicking is growing in popularity, but we may see a regression to the norm as more fighters start to parry them across the body and convert them into takedown entries.
The intercepting knee is likely the most risky, with the highest reward. A step-in knee takes you out of stance, and even if it lands, we’ve seen wrestlers shoot through the strike and blow the striker off their feet. A flying knee is even more dangerous, as the load-up requires a rise in stance, making your base weaker. Conor McGregor’s plan to intercept Khabib Nurmagomedov’s entries with knees was flawed in this way.
On his own entries, Dodson prefers body punching and level-feint uppercuts.
Reactively, he looks to time intercepting knees - which often put him out of stance and end up hurting him.
The fact that Dodson often goes to these knees when he’s about to be trapped against the cage brings us to the next, and arguably more important piece of anti-wrestling: ringcraft.
Dodson’s control of positioning in the cage spans from lacking to downright unintentional. He doesn’t often intentionally pressure, which would be helpful in forcing reactions from his opponents and mitigate reactive takedown openings with more measured advances.
On the backfoot, Dodson leans on linear retreats, often conceding far more ground than he needs to, sacrificing positioning.
Dodson breaks stance on those linear retreats, meaning that when he does run out of room and hit the cage, he’s completely vulnerable for shot entries.
Look at how narrow and tall Dodson’s stance is once he hits the fence. Johnson’s momentum leads him right into range against the cage, and he’s easily able to level change and get control of both legs with the double.
Takedown defense against the cage requires both grip fighting and a wide base. Dodson’s reactions are great, but he’s completely out of position, there’s only so much he can do.
But even with proper time to react, Dodson tends to stand tall against the cage. It’s what allowed Demetrious Johnson to drop into doubles and lift fairly easily in both of their meetings. Dodson isn’t entirely lacking craft against the cage, but his skill competency in that area, combined with ringcraft failures, makes it a liability in his game.
Just Stand Up
But John Dodson wouldn’t be a perennial high-level competitor in crowded divisions if he didn’t have ways to compensate for his flaws.
Even when dog-tired, Dodson’s ability to get up off the ground almost never fails.
Because the hole in his takedown defense is to doubles against the cage, Dodson is often grounded in a seated position as fighters like Demetrious Johnson pull his hips off the cage and sit him down.
Logically, Dodson’s first instinct is to get height to stop Johnson from controlling his upper body. Very simply, he accomplishes this by posting on one or both hands. This is where a transition like Khabib Nurmagomedov’s “leg mount” would come in handy - Johnson is committed to controlling the legs with both arms, and if he freed one up to attack the posts of Dodson, it would allow him to move his hips and get back to his base.
Johnson could also opt to elevate and pull Dodson’s hips in tighter, putting Dodson’s upper body underneath him, but eventually he would still need to release to finish covering the position. The problem with Dodson is his physicality and athleticism make that “covering” window so small. The second he has mobility, he’s popping back to his feet, all he needs is one post. Clearly his triceps and core are exceptionally strong.
With Johnson controlling his legs, Dodson posts back, sits up, and commits one of his posts to the head of Johnson. The arms of Johnson are important for control, but the real pressure is coming from the head and chest. Impressively, Dodson is able to use one arm to push Johnson’s head below his hips and toward his knees, giving him room to turn and kick free.
It’s important to note that not only is Dodson pushing off and scooting his hips back, he’s using his right post to prop himself up and elevate his hips, which creates the space for him to slide his leg back out from under Johnson.
Even from more dominant positions like side control, Dodson’s posts are powerful enough to push off the hips of Johnson and make room to turn in and belly down.
UFC 252 vs. Merab Dvalishvili
With all of this in mind, how does he match up with Merab Dvalishvili?
In general, Dvalishvili is not known for his ground control. It’s part of the reason why his takedown stats are so high - his opponents keep getting up, so he has to take them back down. Against a prime Dodson, that would be a terrible sign.
Another point in Dodson’s favor is that many of Dvalishvili’s entries come in short bursts against static opponents, he’s not well suited for extended striking exchanges to push someone back to the cage. Considering the mechanics of Dvalishvili’s strikes are still in progress, he’d be leaving himself open to a check counter, like the one that felled Nathaniel Wood.
In Dvalishvili’s favor - youth, cardio, and size, for starters. Dodson has lost a step, and while he hasn’t fully dropped off athletically - there’s really no way to know when a steeper decline will set in. I still believe it takes a more schooled pressure fighter like Petr Yan to actually consistently corner and hurt Dodson, but it’s possible that he’s lost some steam on his counters and has a tough time discouraging Dvalishvili from coming after him.
On the technical side - Dvalishvili has shown solid wrestling finish tactics against the cage, as well as entries in open space that lead him into more committed leg attacks with a full level change. The Serra Longo camp favors the shifting rear strike into an outside single, we’ve seen it from both Dvalishvili and Aljamain Sterling.
It’s entirely possible that Dvalishvili can force enough situations in his favor that he just wins on volume. However, as a blanket read, at this point I think it’s more likely that he has a hard time getting his game going and Dodson gets the kind of fight he wants - a low volume striking contest.
Regardless of the result, we’re going to learn a lot about where both men are in their careers when they clash on the main card of UFC 252.