Heralded as the next Dagestani grappler to dominate the UFC’s lightweight division, Islam Makhachev has been mythologized to a degree. When his teammate and mentor Khabib Nurmagomedov rose to greatness, many treated his wrestling and grappling ability as magical, unknowable, and unbeatable. The truth of the matter is that while the physical attributes that come from a lifetime of grappling are hard to compete with, it’s attention to detail, and the use of systems that sets these athletes apart. Small adjustments in common positions can open up a world of possibilities. Islam Makhachev’s foot sweep against Arman Tsarukyan is one such example.
Fans eagerly awaiting Makhachev’s ascension were in for a scare early on, as Tsarukyan appeared to be Makhachev’s first UFC opponent equipped to defend takedowns and scramble out of bad positions. Ultimately, Makhachev’s experience and patience allowed him to successfully navigate enough situations to cool off the determined debutant.
If you’re interested in a foot sweep breakdown from a different position, check out this article on freestyle World champion Frank Chamizo.
Islam Makhachev sweeps Arman Tsarukyan off his feet
The over-under position in MMA can be tricky for many fighters. Each fighter having an underhook creates the possibility of takedowns and the ability to press backward, typically both combatants show caution. In pure wrestling, to stall out a position like this, an athlete might back their hips up and limit their opponent’s control. In MMA, that still happens quite frequently, but it opens up the possibility of landing clean attacks to the body.
Naturally, as Tsarukyan backed out of the position, Islam Makhachev threw a knee up the middle. However, in this case, a knee is not just a knee - it’s bait. Based on Tsarukyan’s reaction, Makhachev is prepared to run through a sequence of techniques. Earlier I alluded to “systems”, this is a perfect example. Makhachev knew Tsarukyan’s left arm was committed to the underhook, he would have to reach across his body with his right arm to block the knee. Even after Makhachev returned to his stance, Tsarukyan kept that blocking arm. Additionally, the knee stood Tsarukyan up into a taller posture, making his base easier to move. The more hunched over and low Tsarukyan was, the easier it would be to hit him with hard body shots from the clinch. Tsarukyan chose to weaken his position as a wrestler in order to better deal with strikes. This on its own would be a great way to prime an opponent for clinch takedowns, but the most important detail was about to reveal itself.
Following that first knee and both men resetting in their stances, Makhachev threw a right hand to the body. Naturally, Tsarukyan utilized that blocking arm to cover up. But Makhachev wasn’t trying to strike - he was initiating the hand-fight. Either he was going to grab the wrist or hand, or Tsarukyan was going to do it himself. It didn’t matter, as long as he could establish a grip and control that limb. Perhaps feeling uncomfortable in the situation, hoping to establish his own offense, Tsarukyan fired off his left knee.
This time, the two men were much closer together. Makhachev had immediately begun to pull Tsarukyan’s arm across his body and into his own pocket. This both squared Tsarukyan’s stance, and brought his hips closer to Makhachev’s. It was not a good time to be on one leg.
Obviously, throwing a strike with one leg means all of that fighter’s weight is on their other leg. If you take away that leg, they are no longer standing. Clinch based takedowns require the offensive fighter to manipulate both the upper and lower body. Essentially all of the upper body work on this foot sweep was done by that cross-body wrist control. The rest was achieved by Makhachev pulling the lat on the opposite side.
Pulling that wrist forced Tsarukyan’s right hip to turn in. Unless the floor is somehow slippery, pivoting on one leg without taking a step can be very difficult, and even dangerous for the knee. That stress of turning weakened Tsarukyan’s balance, it was just a matter of tipping the lower body the rest of the way.
Using his near-side foot, Makhachev turned his foot out and swept it underneath Tsarukyan’s ankle. Utilizing this motion while pulling Makhachev’s weight against his base tipped Tsarukyan to the side, where Makhachev could scoop the leg up even more with his sweeping foot.
That trapped hand killed Tsarukyan’s defense. Take a look at a repeat attempt later in the fight.
Although Makhachev is once again able to time that sweep when Tsarukyan is on one leg, there’s one key difference - no trapped hand. Essentially the only difference here is that as Tsarukyan is falling, he is able to use his right arm to post out and quickly recover his base, leading to a much more workable scramble.
Makhachev is surely very experienced with this technique and has a great feel for when to hit it, but there’s a clear difference in efficacy when the takedown is planned. In the first example, Makhachev set bait and encouraged Tsarukyan to respond in ways that would make his stance vulnerable, and that would allow Makhachev to gain wrist control.
Terms like chain-wrestling and scrambling are often ill-defined in MMA. While they may occur largely subconsciously in live competition, most techniques do. They play out as a result of muscle memory from planned repetition. Wrestling is often taught in terms of “series”, chains of techniques that often work in sequence because of common reactions. Nine times out of ten, each piece of a scramble, or chained attack, is wholly commonplace and logical when slowed down and studied.
Islam Makhachev went semi-viral with his “Russian-tie snap” takedown in the training room at AKA. Well, guess what differentiated that technique from a normal snapdown? Wrist control.
For further examples of the thought process behind complicated-looking wrestling exchanges, check out my Joseph Benavidez vs. Dustin Ortiz breakdown.