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UFC Fight Night 149 on Saturday marked the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s second stop in Russia, but the UFC wasn’t the only act in town over the weekend, as Rizin Fighting Federation staged an event in Yokohama, Japan. Between two major MMA cards, we certainly have some lessons to study.
Alistair Overeem needed less than five minutes to clobber Alexey Oleynik in St. Petersburg, giving us a rote reminder of the true nature of the heavyweight division. However, the UFC’s co-feature gave us considerably more upon which to chew, as unsung contender Islam Makhachev got his hand raised and pluckier-than-expected opponent Arman Tsarukyan raised eyebrows by giving the Dagestani all he could handle in a surprisingly competitive bout. Where are these 155-pounders headed?
There was a Rizin card, too. Maybe you tuned in to watch Jiri Prochazka get revenge on Muhammed Lawal and claim the promotion’s 205-pound title; or maybe you checked in to watch Tenshin Nasukawa do his thing in a kickboxing bout. However, more to the heart of MMA things, Rizin 15 offered a refresher on just how good Kyoji Horiguchi is and why he should be considered among the top pound-for-pounders on the planet. With lessons from both sides of the Pacific, here are five things we learned from the fights:
OVEREEM IS HERE UNTIL HE’S OVER
No doubt, Overeem had more trouble with Oleynik than most of us anticipated. Oleynik backed Overeem to the fence with heavy overhand rights, dug to his body and tried to figure out how to crack the Dutchman’s infamously iffy chin. However, at the end of the day, it was all for naught, as Overeem began landing bevies of stepping knees, eventually dropped Oleynik and polished him off inside of the first round. Like any Overeem bout, there was a harried moment, but ultimately, technique shone through. That’s a lesson to learn.
Overeem turns 39 years old in less than a month. His entire career is bound up in the idea that he is a glass cannon, an offensive devastator who can be felled with one square shot on his chin. None of that is incorrect, but the real question is how much that classification actually matters. Owing to boxing mythology, the idea is that “power is the last thing to go,” but when it comes to MMA particulars, things are a little more specific. Yes, striking power doesn’t dissipate with age, but the dearth of high-level heavyweight talent is such that a well-rounded, offensively gifted fighter can stick around essentially as long as he wants. Yes, Overeem took nasty losses to Francis Ngannou and Curtis Blaydes in the last 18 months, but the division is so hurting for talent that those losses don’t disqualify him in the slightest. He is still right there in the mix.
After his first-round knockout of Oleynik, Overeem worked his best diplomatic microphone skills and called for originally intended opponent Alexander Volkov to meet him in the Octagon. It’s a fight that makes all the sense in the world, as the UFC tries to vet and establish new heavyweight contenders. With that said, there’s still the very real possibility that Overeem, a former K-1 World Grand Prix winner, lamps Volkov in that matchup. Then what? In a world where we’re waiting for Daniel Cormier to face Brock Lesnar in order to retire, there’s hardly any sober, clear ideas about where the heavyweight division is going. Overeem may be eternally fallible and just a haymaker away from imploding, but in this division, skill dies hard and “Ubereem” is ultimately more skilled than the majority of his contemporaries. Until he decides to hang up his gloves, he is always going to figure into the UFC title picture, and in this contemporaneous moment, he may be closer to another crack at gold than we even realize.
MAKHACHEV IS A PROBLEM, PARTIALLY OF HIS OWN DOING
Makhachev got a crucial win at the UFC event in St. Petersburg, but in many ways, it was emblematic of exactly the kind of issues that have hamstrung his career thus far. Makhachev was clinical in his win over Tsarukyan, but he beat a virtual unknown who tested him beyond what most people expected; and as a result, he couldn’t really take a step forward in the jam-packed 155-pound division. On top of that, he has the awkward impasse of trying to forge his way in a division now ruled by stablemate and training partner Khabib Nurmagomedov. It’s a tough row to hoe.
Between his injury issues and getting embroiled in the Nurmagomedov-Conor McGregor beef, Makhachev hasn’t exactly been blessed with choice UFC matchmaking. He has had to toil against the likes of Nik Lentz and Gleison Tibau, essentially fighters others aren’t particularly willing to face. He has done so with aplomb. The only time Makhachev has screwed up in his entire career was when he got clocked early by Adriano Martins almost three years ago in a fight that he would more than likely win 99 times out of 100.
Headed into the bout with Tsarukyan, Makhachev’s 0.82 significant strikes per minute was the lowest in UFC history. He is a consummate, buttoned-up grappler, and while he doesn’t excel in terms of pure control the way Nurmagomedov does, he is a more dynamic guard passer and submission grappler, constantly looking for dominant positions that offer him a chance to end a fight. Because of his connections and the fact that he will never face the incumbent champion, he has become simply the guy no one wants to face. On some level, it may seem like a badge of honor, but it really gets you nowhere fast in a promotion like the UFC.
BUT, ON THE MAKHACHEV COROLLARY …
Tsarukyan is good. In fact, he’s really good. I advised in my Parlaying and Praying column to expect his bout with Makhachev to go all the way to the judges’ scorecards, simply because the Armenian native is such a stout wrestler and I thought his unpredictable striking might stifle Makhachev a little bit. Even if two judges had Tsarukyan losing every single round, that doesn’t begin to explain the skill and technique the 22-year-old put on display and just how difficult he made Makhachev’s path to victory.
Sure, a loss is a loss and a defeat is never particularly beneficial to your standing in the UFC and especially in a division like lightweight, arguably the most talented weight class in the game and where the promotion has roughly 100 fighters on roster. However, if we are in agreement that Makhachev is a dynamic threat at 155 pounds, it’s worth considerable note that Tsarukyan engaged the Dagestani in the strongest part of his game. If there’s any quibble to be had with how Tsarukyan fought, it’s that he was too willing to repeatedly shoot for takedowns and engage in the wrestling department. He was having success with his striking, which he has soundly developed over the last 18 months or so, becoming an unpredictable and nasty standup artist by working clever punching in and around his unorthodox kicking.
Again, with the UFC having approximately 100 lightweights under employ, Tsarukyan is already good enough to beat a solid 80 to 85 percent of them. He got an inhospitable first matchup for his Octagon debut, a style pairing against a more experienced veteran designed to thwart what he does best, and yet, he still showed considerable technical ability to shut down much of how Makhachev normally operates. Remember, he’s only 22 years old and this was a massive leap in competition for him. Suffice to say, Tsarukyan, even if he lost his UFC debut, is a prospect to watch and a fighter that figures to quickly become a mover and shaker at 155 pounds.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT RIZIN, DON’T FORGET ABOUT HORIGUCHI
No, the UFC wasn’t the only show in town. Rizin Fighting Federation staged a card in Yokohama, Japan, and while the bill was built around the light heavyweight title rematch between Prochazka and Lawal, alongside a Nasukawa kickboxing workout, the card also featured perhaps the most criminally slept on fighter on the planet: Horiguchi. You better believe he handled business.
It took Horiguchi less than three minutes to destroy fellow UFC veteran Ben Nguyen. Nguyen was never a UFC title contender, having gone 4-3 inside the Octagon. However, he is a serviceable fighter, and Horiguchi ran through him like he was absolutely nothing. After dropping Nguyen with a right hand, Horiguchi swarmed his counterpart in the corner and battered him with both hands until referee Jason Herzog mercifully hopped in to end the beating. It was the 12th straight win for Horiguchi, and six of his last seven victories have come by way of stoppage, which is notable considering that he has been floating between flyweight and bantamweight -- a weight range that doesn’t normally confer a lot of stoppages. The only man who has beaten him in over seven years is Demetrious Johnson. Plain and simple, Horiguchi is at worst one of the best 15 pound-for-pound fighters on the planet, and his exploits, regardless of opponent, should always be appointment viewing.
At this point, Horiguchi is bouncing between two divisions and trashing all the quality opposition that comes his way. The sad part is that he doesn’t have the magnetic, bombastic personality to make him a transformative star for Rizin and bring about another kakutogi boom. He’s not an Olympic medalist like Hidehiko Yoshida; he isn’t ikemen like Masato and can’t sell cosmetics; and he’s not a cultural phenomenon like Bob Sapp. The only personality quirk he has going for him is that he loves fly fishing. He’s just a great fighter in a weight range that is all too often overlooked. The best he can hope for is that Scott Coker and Co. stay true to their word and Horiguchi gets brought across the ocean to rematch Bellator MMA bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell, a man he already choked out four months ago. That would afford him a little more stateside shine, hopefully hipping folks to the fact that not all of the best fighters on the planet are in the UFC.
CLINCHING IS CLUTCH
When people size up the necessary skills to excel at MMA, you normally get some variation of “striking, wrestling and submission grappling.” Sure, that may be a helpful broad-stroke explanation, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in detailing the actual intricacies of this sport. Obviously, that oblique description doesn’t begin to entertain questions of timing, distance and range. With that in mind, I think the UFC show in St. Petersburg offered several instances that brilliantly showcased the cruciality of the clinch in modern MMA and why a deficit in clinch fighting ability can spell disaster for any athlete.
We have recently seen just how potent and important clinch fighting can be. Look at how Kamaru Usman embarrassed and dominated Tyron Woodley on his way to taking the UFC welterweight title. The vast majority of Usman’s attack was predicated on relentless clinch pressure and striking. He battered Woodley to the body and used the clinch to set up his bigger boxing combinations and his takedowns, all combining into a unified offensive threat that ran Woodley out of gas. Skilled clinch experts can combine striking and grappling to dummy opponents, even if they never get a single takedown. An important clinch engagement may only be a brief moment, or it may be prolonged, but nonetheless, an opponent who can’t defend inside the clinch is at a massive disadvantage.
Look at Shamil Abdurakhimov and Marcin Tybura, a fight in which the Russian’s best strikes over the first seven minutes were short hockey-style uppercuts from a single collar tie when Tybura tried to tie him up. It was not a protracted clinch engagement, but ultimately, clinch tactics put Abdurakhimov on the offensive and got his striking on track. How did Roxanne Modafferi upset Antonina Shevchenko? She relentlessly pursued the clinch, pushing Shevchenko into the fence, where she had no idea how to get an underhook and take control of the engagement, allowing Modafferi to buy takedown after takedown despite being at a considerable athletic and striking deficit. Look at the card’s main event. Sure, Overeem got dinged up early by Oleynik, but how did he ultimately seal the deal within five minutes? Oleynik ran face-first into the clinch, where Overeem easily controlled him and drilled him in the head with knees, precipitating the finish.
Naturally, some fighters will be more proficient from the clinch than others, but this is a post-dirty boxing world. It’s not good enough to simply regard the clinch as an area of stylistic preference. Even if you’re not going to be an elbow- and knee-throwing dynamo in close quarters, it behooves athletes in the cage to get their clinch mechanics down pat, whether that means striking ably or simply having savvy enough defense to stay upright and free themselves. In 2019, if you don’t have skills and strategy for clinch scenarios, it’s likely going to be your undoing.