Movsar Evloev vs. Hakeem Dawodu at UFC 263 was a battle for access to the next tier of ranked featherweights. The fight had the potential to be an exciting clash of strikers, given Evloev’s insistence on leading and jabbing in volume, and Dawodu’s skill on the counter.
However, some may have been misled about Evloev’s style based on his recent UFC matchups. In the majority of his bouts in the organization, Evloev has fought wrestlers who could not match him on the feet, leading to showcases of defensive wrestling from the Ingushetian. I highlighted some of his defensive wrestling craft in the 2020 Wrestling for MMA Awards. Finally given a matchup where he could be the one initiating wrestling exchanges, Evloev demonstrated new wrinkles in his game.
Setting up takedowns in MMA is typically either a function of programmed looks, or forced positioning. Positioning refers to a fighter’s place in the cage, typically this means the offensive wrestler strikes and pressures their opponent against the cage, where they can attack a more static target. Programmed looks are intentional striking tactics designed to draw out specific reactions in order to expose openings. Movsar Evloev’s offensive wrestling setups are programmed looks.
How Movsar Evloev took down Hakeem Dawodu
Evloev is one of the most active jabbers in the UFC today. He can use his jab as a volume tool on its own, and to work into larger, more damaging combinations. The jab is also one of the most versatile weapons in MMA when it comes to exposing openings to wrestle. Check out this breakdown on Jussier Formiga, who almost exclusively used his jab for takedown setups.
Hakeem Dawodu showed counters essentially every time Evloev jabbed into range, so the setup was fairly straightforward. Dawodu continually looked to counter jab, check hook or cross counter against Evloev’s jab, all strikes to the head. All Evloev had to do was jab into close range and level change under that response, once the pattern had been established.
Hakeem Dawodu’s single leg defense primarily consisted of trying to balance on one leg, he wasn’t particularly active in fighting the hands or head, giving Evloev time to build into a stronger position. After a few failed attempts to run the pipe, Evloev stepped in tall, getting height on the leg, then hit an inside trip finish on the base leg.
To Dawodu’s credit, he showed urgency from the stacked position, kicking off and rolling back to his base to attempt to stand, but Evloev followed him swiftly and reshot a double to cover.
Evloev showed another interesting takedown entry off of the overhand right. Early in the first round, Evloev crashed in hard from space with his overhand. Dawodu’s instinct was to lean back and counter. So, the next time he showed it in the second round, Evloev exploited that reaction to weave into his takedown.
Evloev knew he would be able to crash into the pocket, and he knew that Dawodu would be looking for that rear hand counter. While bending over at the waist like that isn’t the strongest position, the most important thing was for him to evade Dawodu’s counter and get a bite on his legs.
Evloev stepped through with his trail leg, using that as an outside step entry. The momentum of Evloev falling through did a lot of the work to take down the unprepared Dawodu, but it was also keep for Evloev to reach across to block Dawodu’s far leg, as well. When Evloev collapsed to his right side, Dawodu had no base underneath him to stop that momentum.
In addition to improved open space wrestling, Evloev also showed a high level of competency when wrestling Dawodu against the cage.
The defensive wrestling meta in MMA has heavily trended toward defending shots against the cage. Interestingly enough, most of the tactics seen today are designed to stop double legs and pull fighters up into the clinch. Finishing single legs against the cage is difficult, and it’s a skill-set not often seen, even at the higher levels of MMA. In the past I’ve covered a few fighters who exploited this lack of single leg defense to enhance their cage wrestling - Khabib Nurmagomedov, Frankie Edgar, and Joseph Benavidez come to mind.
MMA fighters constantly give up their backs and the rear-standing position, so few of their opponents are capable of fully exploiting that tactic. Movsar Evloev is one of the rare exceptions. Attempting to pop the hips and mat return near the cage is a risky venture, the defending fighter is likely going to get right back up into the same exact position. Instead, Evloev dropped off the rear standing position into a head outside single leg, using the takedown to square up and move Dawodu’s legs closer together. From there, he was able to double off and get a clean grip on the legs.
Once again, Dawodu turned to his knees and looked to build right back up, and Evloev hopped on his back, putting in a hook on his left side. In a brilliant move, Evloev used his free right leg to push off the cage and move the exchange to the center of the octagon, where Dawodu would not be able to use the cage as a crutch. Now that they were in open space, Evloev was free to get off to the side, pop his hips and hit a traditional mat return to plant Dawodu and take his back.
How Hakeem Dawodu Adjusted
It was clear that Hakeem Dawodu did not have the knowledge to win grappling exchanges vs. Movsar Evloev. If he ended up on bottom in a solid position, that was the round. It was also clear that his defensive wrestling, in a vacuum, wasn’t good enough to stop Evloev from taking him down once he had a clean bite on a leg.
There is a misconception that MMA is a battle of competencies. Evloev is the better wrestler and grappler, they’re competitive as strikers, so that’s that. But Hakeem Dawodu demonstrated how tactical adjustments and changes in striking can allow for improved defense against wrestling. I’ve written many times about anti-wrestling, the ways in which strike selection and ringcraft can limit an opponent’s ability to wrestle. Dawodu’s adjustments were precisely in that category.
As noted previously, Evloev’s setups weren’t all that much about pressuring to the cage. This meant Hakeem Dawodu could afford to use linear space in his favor, backing up wouldn’t be the death sentence it typically is when fighting a pressure grappler.
Dawodu’s first adjustment was to force Evloev to cover distance on his striking entries. Evloev’s first two successful takedown entries came after striking his way into the pocket, but now he was being denied that space. Dawodu would step straight back and counter jab after Evloev had thrown to cover space, allowing him to maintain enough distance to see takedowns coming. When Dawodu actually saw the takedown entries, his defensive wrestling looked fine. He was changing levels with Dawodu, and he got his hips back with a powerful sprawl.
Dawodu’s next adjustment was one that fighters so often miss - he threw to the body. Throwing to the body is by far the most functional answer when fighting a wrestler, the takedown defense is built-in. When throwing to the body, the attacking fighter changes levels, and their arms are typically lower than their opponent’s. When Evloev wanted to hit those reactive takedowns, he found himself on the same level as Dawodu, unable to drive past his head and hands defense. Body punches easily convert into underhooks and the crossface, making it simple to stand your opponent up after they shoot.
It’s also noteworthy that body striking is attritional work. Not only is the attacking wrestler now wasting energy failing takedown attempts, they’re also having their stamina drained by those body shots, making their next attempts even weaker.
This worked brilliantly for Dawodu. He was stinging Evloev with his counter jabs, levering his hooks body-head, This adjustment salvaged my hope for Hakeem Dawodu as a prospect, it was a really intelligent, and difficult change to make after a very discouraging fight.
Movsar Evloev responded in turn, potentially saving himself from a 10-8 third round. He salvaged what little energy he had left and went back to old reliable - the jab to single leg.
Dawodu needed to do serious damage or even finish Evloev to win, and started to stand his ground a bit more against Evloev’s entries as the round progressed. It turned out all of those anti-wrestling tactics were extremely necessary, because as soon as he stopped, Evloev was on his legs.
Evloev was able to build up on his single, drive forward and double off for the finish. Dawodu’s takedown defense had not improved between rounds - it was his tactical approach on the feet that led to his success.
Had this fight gone five rounds instead of three, it’s very likely that Dawodu could have continued that momentum and came away with the win. It’s also true that Movsar Evloev’s approach could have changed based on the length of the fight, so hypotheticals of that nature are often fruitless.
I’m looking forward to seeing both of these fighters against the top of the division, the future looks bright at 145.