The upcoming fight between Alexander Volkanovski and Islam Makhachev will be making history as the top two pound-for-pound fighters collide in the octagon. Makhachev, the newly crowned lightweight king and number two pound-for-pound fighter, will be taking on Volkanovski, the featherweight champion and the current top pound-for-pound fighter. This card promises to be the pinnacle of combat sports and an unforgettable showdown between two elite athletes.
In today’s Beforemath analysis, we’ll delve into the tactics and skills that make Islam Makhachev a force to be reckoned with. We’ll examine his smothering style and analyze his dominant performances against Arman Tsarukyan and Charles Oliveira. Additionally, we’ll delve into Alexander Volkanovski’s game and explore how he plans to dethrone the Dagestani dynasty that was started by Khabib and his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. Let’s begin!
Islam Makhachev: Just Do Your Own Thing
Makhachev faces an oncoming invasion of his division with the 145 pound champ coming up and threatening his newly captured throne. Volkanovski is a monster of a fighter and Makhachev is set up to show he’s the monster hunter. When it comes to the game planning for Makhachev, he will abide by the old maxim: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He’s always smashed his opponents. He dominates through wrestling. Going into UFC 284 this weekend, he needs to do just that.
Alexander Volkanovski doesn’t have ironclad takedown defense like Jose Aldo or Max Holloway had. Chad Mendes, Brian Ortega and others have taken the champion down. Makhachev needs to go out there and implement his gameplan of takedown and smash to win this fight.
Islam Makhachev is great against the fence, as is everyone from Khabib’s fighting tree. Makhachev adds a great wrinkle to that with his trips. Oliveira had the right idea and (1) pressed Makhachev against the fence. He gives Makhachev too long to formulate an escape and (2) when he throws the knee, Makhachev will (3) step across with his right leg and (4) slam Oliveira. The issue here was Oliveira was too content keeping Makhachev against the fence and gave him time to work in his world. Makhachev, comfortable in any grappling position, will work every second, looking for trips, throws and knees to get the fight to the ground and wear his opponents out.
One thing Makhachev needs to avoid is getting lulled into striking with Volkanovski. Should he get caught into striking because Volkanovski has either thwarted takedowns and hurt the confidence of Makhachev, or if he is feeling like he’s the superior striker, disaster will strike as Volkanovski will chew him up from range.
We saw against Charles Oliveira was that Makhachev could get drawn into a fire fight. While Oliveira is a great striker in his own right, he’s not quite the striking tactician that Volkanovski is. Getting drawn into the firefight with Volkanovski will see Makhachev chewed up and ultimately lose his title.
We saw against Oliveira that Makhachev gives an opportunity for scrambles. Unlike Oliveira, Volkanovski is not going to throw up triangles and arm bars to put Makhachev away. If he gives space to Volkanovski, there will be a mad scramble to get up. Islam Makhachev will want to get Volkanovski down and control him, laying on the top pressure and tiring Volkanovski out.
So while we’re on the topic of Islam Makhachev and control, let’s talk about the Dagestani handcuff. While the technique of pulling out the post of your opponent trying to get up is nothing new, Khabib and subsequently Islam Makhachev have made it famous. Against Tsarukyan, Makhachev managed to get the handcuff for a moment in the third round. We can see that Makhachev reaches around the back of Tsarukyan and grabs the wrist. In this position, can pull that arm out as Tsarukyan postures up on that arm. Islam Makhachev also has the option to go 2 on 1 with the grips as we see here–two hands will always be stronger than one–or he can use one hand to hold the wrist and the other to smash his foe out. For added measure, Makhachev and Khabib also like to wrap the legs up and ride them to make posturing even harder with the immobility perpetuated by the position and the threat of the full mount.
All in all, Islam Makhachev’s game is all about doing what he does very efficiently. He’s strong and he wrestles. But he’s a specialist so he’s very strong and he wrestles very well also. It isn’t in Makhachev’s game to adjust how he fights. He implements his gameplan come hell or high water. It’s on his opponents to go in there and solve him. That brings us to Alexander Volkanovski…
Alexander Volkanovski: Kill The King
When you look at this fight on paper, everything screams Alexander Volkanovski should win this fight. He’s faster. He has better striking. He has the better experience with wins over much better fighters. Alexander Volkanovski should win. But the man he’s facing comes from a lineage that’s been near perfect. The Dagestani dynasty has destroyed almost everything in its path with the exception of the lone loss on Makhachev’s record in 2015. The burden is on Volkanovski. So how does he do it?
First thing for Volkanovski to consider is controlling himself. To beat a specialist like Islam Makhachev, getting yourself out of position will get you smashed on your back and the fight will start to slip away. While it’s not a lost cause at this point, doing so early on will put Volkanovski at a deficit and put him in a hole to dig out of. There should be no wide hooks and no squaring of the hips. He cannot give Makhachev anything to duck under and get to the hips. When the opportunity is given to the Dagestani, he will seize the moment and reap his well-earned rewards.
The next thing I would like to see from Alexander Volkanovski is, believe it or not, wrestling. When he gets a fight to the ground, Alexander Volkanovski will absolutely batter his opponents. But when looking at Islam Makhachev, specifically his fight with Arman Tsarukyan in 2019. Tsarukyan had success slowing down Makhachev by going after him. Where Tsarukyan fell short was his shot selection. Often, Tsarukyan would pursue a takedown for too long and Makhachev would find a mistake made by Tsarukyan and get the fight to the ground in favor of him.
Alexander Volkanovski will likely not be able to wrestle Makhachev as successful as Tsarukyan did in 2019. For one, Makhachev is a better MMA wrestler now than in 2019, and two, Makhachev will likely be the stronger fighter and fighting that battle will only tire out Volkanovski from the sheer exertion of the attempt.
Getting a hold of the leg of Makhachev will have to rely on the clinch and catching Makhachev out of position in the striking department where he’s more prone to mistakes. Against Arman Tsarukyan, we saw Tsarukyan (1) look for ways to get to the legs of Makhachev in the clinch. He manages to do so by (2) turning the corner to his underhook side so he can drop his arm and snag up the leg. But for Volkanovski, attempting a takedown isn’t a good idea. Instead, when we look at the Ortega fight, we see (3) Ortega throw a kick and (4) Volkanovski nab that leg up and counter with a right cross.
While Makhachev is more prone to not throw kicks, they are thrown. Volkanovski can take a hybrid approach and turn the corner in the clinch like Tsarukyan did. But instead of wrestling, he can grab a he can land big blows as he has the leg and threatens the takedown. Avoiding the unnecessary wrestling is of the utmost concern for Alexander Volkanovski.
But it’s Islam Makhachev we’re talking about here and takedowns are almost inevitable. Should Volkanovski find himself under Makhachev, he should take a play out of Arman Tsarukyan’s book. Many point to Makhachev’s sole loss as the way to beat him. “Knock him out,” everyone seems to think. But I believe that Arman Tsarukyan’s loss to Makhachev is much more compelling.
Back to the Tsarukyan fight, we saw Islam Makhachev get Tsarukyan in some bad positions. But Tsarukyan managed to fight his way off the ground at several points in the fight. In the figure above, Tsarukyan finds himself on the ground with Makhachev trying to get Tsarukyan’s back to the canvas. (1) Tsarukyan fights like hell to get on his hip and starts to work the butterfly hooks in to elevate and sweep Makhachev. (2) Tsarukyan gets the hooks in and begins to elevate Makhachev over hill. But being the great grappler Makhachev that he is, he doesn’t allow Tsarukyan to sweep him straight over. (3) Tsarukyan grabs the overhook on the right side and will shrimp his hips to his right and create the space to (4) get to his hands and knees and eventually build his way up.
Next on the list is the low kicks. Alexander Volkanovski absolutely battered Max Holloway, Korean Zombie and Brian Ortega with low kicks. He uses it to slow down his opponent and make life miserable. I believe the low kick, not at the thigh, but the low calf kick will be a major key to success for Volkanovski. He likes to utilize the both the Thai style low kick as well as an inside low kick in addition to some other wrinkles he throws like the odd teep and oblique kick.
In a step up low kick, the (1) first step is to step up into range with the rear foot, which is similar to the side kick in sanda. With the rear foot brought forward, Volkanovski is now in range to (2) smash the leg of Ortega with his front leg. This kick has a lower damage output than the Thai style of low kick but it is quicker, less telegraphed and lower which makes the kick harder to catch and dump. For the Thai style, you need to be in range and there’s not much step in like the lead leg low kick. (3) The important part of this kick is twisting on the lead foot and flicking your hips around with the kick. (4) When it lands, the hips are turned over and the legs are crushed. While this kick is more damaging, the execution of the kick is longer due to the amount of space the leg needs to travel.
Alexander Volkanovski utilizes both and wrecking the knees of Makhachev will be an important aspect in the path to victory. He does like the body kick and the step up body kick will be risky but would target the liver of Makhachev which could cripple the Russians cardio. Volkanovski likes the step up low kick to touch and slowly damage the legs of his opponent and impair their mobility and will rely on the Thai style kick to really dig into the knees. Volkanovski will do well to keep this approach against Makhachev, keeping the step up low kick his main weapon of attack with his legs.
Lastly, Volkanovski needs to hit the body safely. Throwing a kick to the body will only result in him getting his leg caught like Makhachev likes to do so often and taken down. When Volkanovski is in a clinch, he needs to hammer the body with punches and knees. Incidentally this is also something Makhachev utilizes quite well. His opponents are often too worried about defending the oncoming knees that they forget they can knee themselves.
All in all, Alexander Volkanovski has a tough mountain to climb when he takes on Islam Makhachev. He will struggle at times but should he win, it’s only glory for him from here on. But this mountain is at the heart of the combat sports world, at the heart of Dagestan. It’s treacherous, dangerous even. But those who wanted to be great never did so by staying in their comfort zone and if there’s one thing Volkanovski likes to do, it’s be out of his comfort zone.