Shavkhat Rakhmonov has looked essentially unbeatable in his MMA run up to today. An amateur champion as a young athlete, a champion in a respected promotion prior to the UFC in M-1 Global, thus far a perfect 4-0 inside the octagon, and to top it off a 100% finishing rate.
Yet, it’s not the absolute offense that many of the other eastern European Sambo fighters have come to exemplify. He does not suffocate his opponents with wrestling pressure, he does not have a particularly special output when it comes to striking. Rakhmonov is a patient fighter, there are times when his striking does not look the swiftest, or he will get pressed up against the cage, but often unbeknownst to the average viewer and his opponents, he will put himself in these situations to set traps.
As Rakhmonov prepares to meet his highest-ranked and likely his most dangerous opponent Geoff Neal at UFC 285, it’s a perfect opportunity to dive deep into what makes Rakhmonov so different.
Rakhmonov has a wide range of striking abilities and skills. He is a good kicker and a good puncher, from all varying degrees of range. He has a postured stance with his base spread so as to not be particularly vulnerable to low kicks, but also keeps him mobile. Often Rakhmonov starts off his fights with a 0 risk factor, he will feint and move but very much avoid committing to anything or even taking the risk of throwing an unstudied counter. He will move away without a thought of maintaining enough range to make them pay, just to analyze the potential holes that are there for the next time. Likewise, he will throw just enough of his own strikes on the lead to get reads on how his opponents react in each of those situations, if he taps their lead leg with a low kick and they immediately look to throw the counter cross, that could very likely be their undoing later in the fight.
Once Rakhmonov is confident in his reads, he starts working his way through kicking range, primarily to the body with any malice, but will still land on the leg to give alternating looks and maintain control of range. He stands relatively upright, so committing to low kicks is something that he has to be particularly wary of, and does not do too often. When he goes to the body, his shifting lead body kick is a favorite as it allows him to lean away as he lands and keep that distance. He also likes to circle his opponent away from his power side and into his right leg turning sidekick.
Eventually opening up with punches behind his kicks and on counters from earlier reads, Rakhmonov slowly gains the ability to force his opponent backward. While he does rush, he only does so when he has forced his opponent onto the back foot, behind the black lines of the mat, and most importantly in a position where even if they do throw back, they’re off-balanced and the backward movement renders the strikes weak. The ramming knee to the body is one of his more consistent choices of weapon.
Wrestling on the Cage
There is a lot to be said about Shavkat Rakhmonov’s wrestling game. He is a master of sports in Combat Sambo, so he is well-versed in takedowns and control of all kinds. However, the largest part of his game that is unique to him is how he wrestled, not just on the fence but with his back to it. Unlike other dominant Sambo fighters, Rakhmonov is particularly willing to be put against the cage. This is because he has become a master of timing and weight reading and he has two diverging paths from here.
Many of his takedowns in the UFC have so far come from this position. If his opponent clinches up and engages in the greco-roman style upper body battle, at some point they will typically shorten their stance as they try to pull him off the cage in some sort of takedown or grind up into his chin with their head to win out the positioning battle. It’s with this shift of weight from driving into the hips to posturing, that Rakhmonov often hits his more judo-style takedowns, like Uchimatas and Ouchis. As the stance becomes shorter, and the weight rises, Rakhmonov will either kick inside and elevate the hips, or step around and corkscrew into an outside trip. The high momentum of this style of throwing does leave some fighters on their back as their opponents roll with the momentum but so far Rakhmonov has based out and maintained control pretty much every time.
If his opponents commit to a level change takedown on the cage, like a single leg or double leg penetration, the guillotine becomes the path. The cage, at some point, forces his opponents to release the drive into the hips. Once they have clasped behind the leg(s), they have to turn the corner or come up to finish. Rakhmonov’s timing in wrapping the neck inside that change of direction is key, and he has already done it twice in the UFC. Against Neil Magny, he was not clinched against the cage, but as Magny tried to sit up from the bottom position and reverse with a sort of double leg/body lock drive, Rakhmonov tied up as he came up and forward and completed the choke in his guard.
Standing Ground and Pound
Rakhmonov may be the very best ground-and-pound fighter when it comes to doing so from his feet. More than anyone in the UFC, he tends to choose a standing position more than not. What he does is base down in a sort of sumo squat position, essentially using just hip pressure to stack his opponent so they can’t get the feet on the hips or wrap up part of his upper body. From here he can punch with the full extent of his arms, and even if they do catch a wrist, at best they’ve stopped one arm for a moment or two. If or when they can shift back enough to get a leg inside, Rakhmonov will use a single knee cut it across. It is similar to if he was going towards a knee staple, but only just enough to move it out of the way and not actually to pin a leg down. His style of ground and pound in this way is dependent on him being too far to get a hold of and stick to. While this could result in them eventually getting enough space to scramble back to their feet, Rakhmonov never puts himself in any danger and gets the most out of each strike he drops down.
The Future of Welterweight
Rakhmonov has been hailed as a future champion in the welterweight division, high praise for such a stacked weight class. It’s not only his physical ability, and diverse technical skillset built by years of combat Sambo and amateur MMA but the tactical decision-making he is able to – and does make with such a foundation. To the naked eye, it is often difficult to see what he is doing, he will fly back from strikes that look nowhere near him but he is analyzing, he will get put on the fence but more than not it’s to his ultimate benefit and he won’t follow his dazed opponent to the mat, but why would he when he has mastered the art of standing ground and pound in a way few even consider. Five fights into any UFC career, it’s hard to say if someone will be a belt holder, but Rakhmonov is one of the few that have already garnered the confidence of a lot of fans, and he is most definitely one of the top prospects in any division.