Zabit Magomedsharipov: Tempering Talent with Craft
Since joining UFC he's drawn comparisons to Jon Jones, but can he make the necessary adjustments like Jones did to reach his true potential?
Screen capture via YouTube/UFC
Zabit Magomedsharipov’s gangly frame stands astride two of MMA’s favorite fetishes. As a mystery man from Dagestan he appeals to the Russophiles in MMA who, for seemingly the last ten years, have been desperate to tell anyone who will listen that the Russians are about to march on the UFC and dominate every division. More importantly though, as a man who spends a good portion of any fight leaping through the air or spinning like a top, he appeals to the much larger demographic of MMA fans and casual outsiders who just love cool action movie shit.
What everyone is waiting on tenterhooks for is the moment Zabit fights a top-15 competitor. He is in the peculiar position of having become something like the Michael "Venom" Page of the UFC: clearly his talent is something remarkable, but we have yet to see him against names of any note in his division. Zabit has been given pride of place on the UFC 228 card with his fight leading straight into the two title fights that top the bill and he was originally supposed to fight the previous next-great-featherweight, Yair Rodriguez, but a Rodriguez injury forced him out of the match up and Brandon Davis was quickly found to replace him.
As a member of Mark Henry’s stable, naturally stories abound about Zabit murdering everyone in training, being the next great world champion, and destroying Conor McGregor if they fight. Many have likened watching Zabit’s first UFC efforts to the first UFC forays of the great and now disgraced Jon Jones and the similarities seem obvious. Like Jones, Zabit is an exciting grappler who is flourishing on the feet. He also does crazy highlight reel worthy things in every fight reminiscent of Jones’s spinning elbows and throws against Stephan Bonnar and others. And of course, like Jones, Zabit has an extremely long and gangly physique for his weight class. But like Jones in his run at the UFC light heavyweight title, Zabit is something of a wild man. It is likely that the coming years will see Zabit either hit a wall, or change how he fights to better emphasize where he excels and take away the opportunities he often needlessly gives opponents to get back in the fight.
A Flair for Combat
Like his countryman, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Zabit places great value on hand traps when the fight hits the mat. Pinning or holding one arm down has some application in pure grappling in specific circumstances but when striking is permitted almost any time one arm can be trapped—even momentarily—good blows can be landed. That could be for a split second, as when Fedor Emelianenko broke Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s grip by kneeling on his forearm and then socked him in the head:
Or a hand trap could be a more prolonged holding of position and punching until the opponent can exert enough energy to force a change of position. Nurmagomedov is most famous for catching a grip on his opponent’s wrist across their back as they attempt to sit up, then driving them back down on top of it. But Nurmagomedov also searches constantly for the most famous grounded hand trap—the mounted crucifix.
Against Sheymon Moraes, Magomedsharipov was able to take mount several times against the Brazilian but was unable to strike effectively as Moraes blocked him at the biceps or clung to him in clinches, preventing Zabit from creating the necessary distance. Magomedsharipov performed what is termed a “windshield wiper,” raising his right foot behind him and swiveling it across to cup Moraes’s right hip. This is generally considered the best technical means for dismounting and is something you don’t see all that much in MMA because many fighters would rather hold an ineffective mount than perform what is seen as a "retreat" to other top positions.
From there Magomedsharipov’s left knee would immediately sneak inside of Moraes’s right arm and pin it to the mat, allowing Magomedsharipov to land a couple of strikes and keep Moraes working. As Moraes bucked and squirmed, Magomedsharipov was able to straddle the arm and drop his hips.
Khabib Nurmagomedov uses a very similar transition, going to knee on belly and placing his other knee on the opponent’s neck (in the style of a young Minoru Suzuki) in order to elicit a response. As his opponent pushes the knee off the neck, Nurmagomedov sweeps his knee back inside of the arm and drives it to the floor, capturing the mounted crucifix.
There are a few cool techniques that can be copied from Khabib and Zabit for trapping arms, but it seems to rather be part of their overall philosophy. Whenever they can sit or kneel on an arm and get some free digs in with their fists, they do so until their opponent exerts the energy to change the position. Here’s a beautiful example: as Zabit fights his way up along the fence his opponent pursues a low single and winds up trying to keep the knee as Zabit attempts to limp leg out. Zabit back steps over his opponent’s head, trapping a crucifix and locking himself to his opponent at the shoulder and leg.
That being said, Khabib and Zabit are not all that similar spare their aggression on the ground. Unless there is something in the water in Dagestan making their fighters emphasize hand traps, it’s more just a coincidental focus between two high level grapplers.
Razzle Dazzle and the Old Edson Barboza Problem
As much dazzle as Zabit Magomedsharipov has delivered in his three UFC performances, he hasn’t looked anything close to flawless. In fact one very notable and constant flaw—from his early fights until his most recent showing—has been his ringcraft. Magomedsharipov often seems unaware of where he is in the cage and consequently gets caught on the fence quite a lot.
Zabit’s go-to on the feet is to give ground, give ground, and then try to intercept his man with a strike as they step in. It used to be just an overhand or a left hook, but his boxing has found some variety over recent years. This is also the way he sets up the majority of his successful back kicks.
These intercepting back kicks are a favorite of the great MMA middleweight, Mamed Khalidov, and are a keystone of kickboxer Raymond Daniels’s game. By using the kick as a counter to the opponent’s forward movement, the kicker guarantees himself a target where most back kicks done on offenae (without smart use of the ring or cage boundary) often fall short. If the opponent doesn’t step in when you attempt an intercepting back kick it’s not a big deal, you just look silly for a second and resume fighting, rather than giving up your back and getting slammed on your head.
Of course to land an intercepting back kick means that the rotation must be done in place, this means that a jump is almost always necessary rather than pivoting on a standing leg. Some force is lost compared to a “Cung Le Express” style marching back kick done over six feet to build up momentum, but these intercepting kicks are likely more viable for the regular fighter who, no matter how hard they want to be, is not Cung Le. Notice that when Zabit lands he immediately runs in the opposite direction as his back is still exposed to the opponent after he has struck them with the kick.
That reliable back kick counter is thrown in amid plenty of Yair Rodriguez style spinning for the sake of spinning. For instance in this sequence against Shaymon Moraes:
A faked back kick into a jumping round kick (something which hasn’t worked in MMA since Michael Page did it to a man with two weeks of training in his debut), an attempted cross buttock, a throw by the whizzer, then a second attempt at the same throw, and Magomedsharipov ends up getting flattened and mounted. This is the downside of all out aggression from any position: you spend far less time in the safer positions in between and while you might overwhelm the opponent you might also throw yourself into a bad position if they can keep their cool.
It is worth noting that when that cross buttock/long range osotogari works, it is one of the most beautiful throws in all of combat sports. Zabit was able to draw Kyle Bochniak onto it and score an easy takedown straight into side control from it.
The fight with Bochniak showed us something of Zabit Magomedsharipov when everything didn’t just work out. In that fight Magomedsharipov was repeatedly put on the fence and hit by a head hunting, kick-less striker, and used takedowns to save himself the trouble on the feet.
One of the things you will notice about Zabit if you can ignore the flash is that in almost every fight he is run onto the fence, pressed against it, and then relies on turning his opponent around from this inferior position. It is impressive that he can routinely do it, but the more the skill gap closes between Zabit and the level of competition he is fighting, the more giving away superior positions is going to become a problem for him. Remember that it is poor ringcraft which has hamstrung the career of Zabit’s very talented stablemate, Edson Barboza since he began fighting truly elite opposition.
Notice that Zabit’s go-to defensive action is simply to push his hand in the opponent’s face and retreat on a straight line.
In the third round of the Bochniak fight, Magomedsharipov could be seen staring up at the clock every few seconds, failing on his takedown attempts, and backing onto the fence exhausted. Likely only Bochniak’s one-note headhunting saved Magomedsharipov from a very nasty third round. Over three rounds Bochniak threw over 150 strikes but these contained just one low kick and a handful of body shots.
A rare Bochniak body shot, goes entirely undefended.
Headhunting against a six foot featherweight seems daft enough, but Zabit’s lengthy stance exposes him to low kicks more than other fighters. Furthermore, his main defense to an opponent’s pressure is to stick his hand in their face and stiff arm them, something which opens up his body completely. Mike Santiago also had good success kicking Zabit’s body throughout their fight.
The talent is clearly present in Zabit Magomedsharipov and just like Jon Jones he might get all the way to a UFC title just winging it. Jones’s greatest showings, however, came once he began to drop the unnecessary flash and to strategically bring his advantages to lever. In his early UFC fights Jones simply overwhelmed opponents in exchanges, but as the UFC light heavyweight champion, Jones never even let his opponent into the fight. Magomedsharipov has sufficient skills in enough areas that he could make life incredibly hard for any of the top fighters in the world at his weight, but he may have to become more cautious about giving up bad ring and grappling positions to his opponents willy nilly if he hopes to fulfill the many fan and pundit predictions that he will become a great of the sport.