Looking at his performances up to this point, it’s extremely surprising that Calvin Kattar wasn’t especially sought out by the UFC; “The Boston Finisher” was a short-notice replacement for Doo Ho Choi at UFC 214, and has turned out to look more promising than the man he replaced. Currently ranked at #15 (with a KO over #13), Kattar has an opportunity to enter the top 10 with a win in his next outing; however, at UFC 238, Kattar faces one of the premier spoilers in the UFC.
Until 2017, Ricardo Lamas’ UFC losses had been to the absolute pinnacle of MMA; apart from fighters in pound-for-pound form (Jose Aldo, Max Holloway, Chad Mendes), no one could get past “The Bully”. Lamas’ losses to Josh Emmett and Mirsad Bektic made him less a top-5 gatekeeper and more a top-10 one; however, his mauling of Jason Knight and Darren Elkins showed that he’s still a genuine threat to a fighter who can’t totally shut him out. Kattar is one of the more polished threats he’ll have faced in recent years, but one that Lamas has the potential to batter all the same.
Ricardo Lamas has spent a great deal of time as the most underrated featherweight in the rankings; while he’s been overlooked a bit among the generational talents he often ends up facing, when the chips are down, Lamas has a habit of delivering. Multiple times, the next big thing has run into “The Bully” and gotten hopelessly thrashed, and there’s a decent chance that it happens again at UFC 238.
Lamas’ game isn’t particularly well put-together, but it keeps him in position to take advantage of openings like almost no one else; it’s a fairly unique way to go about things, it isn’t reliable against truly elite fighters, but it does enable Lamas to keep the gate in brutal fashion. On the outside, Lamas is capable but not remarkable; in his fight against Darren Elkins (whose lack of defense serves to make him something of an empty canvas for strikers to show their offense), the orthodox Lamas mostly used a committed jab, a switch-kick to the head, and a power leg kick, without a whole lot of variance between them (Lamas has a dipping power-jab that led to the finish against Dennis Bermudez, but it’s mostly a standalone strike). Past a nice reactive takedown late in the fight, Lamas didn’t have too many ways to punish Elkins’ wild overhand combinations; his primary defensive mechanism was moving back, which works but comes with drawbacks (that will become clearer when looking at his worst losses).
Lamas’ best individual asset is probably his top game, which is how he ultimately broke down Elkins and how he finished Erik Koch; even inside the guard, Lamas deals an insane amount of damage with his punches and elbows from the top. This flows well into the “opportunist” theme throughout his game; for example, Koch tried to take advantage of a slip from Lamas and ran himself into a takedown, which got him mutilated. It really only takes one mistake to end up in a bad position at the hands of Lamas, which is where he’s best (both in terms of strikes and submissions, as Bermudez and Swanson found). The best example of Lamas’ opportunism might be his win over Jason Knight; Knight found some space to get up to his feet off playing guard, and Lamas just swarmed him in the transition to find the finish.
In terms of weaknesses, the most defined thread among Lamas’ losses might be a defined pressure game; Lamas isn’t particularly well-schooled defensively, which leaves him at the mercy of technically sharper strikers when forced in close. Max Holloway and Jose Aldo both uncharacteristically took on a pressuring role against Lamas, which limited Lamas heavily and allowed both great offensive potency (Holloway with his boxing, Aldo with his characteristic dutchie). Chad Mendes also showed this vulnerability of Lamas; without the counterpunching to keep the Californian from pressing forward or the footwork on the outside to defuse the pressure, Lamas was quickly walked to the fence and knocked out.
Since his debut against the well-regarded Andre Fili, Calvin Kattar has put together three excellent showings in four fights; while a loss in April 2018 slowed him considerably, he got back on track with a beautiful performance against Chris Fishgold in October, and is back in the mix as an up-and-comer at 145. A win for Kattar would net him a crack at another top fighter, and would also create a genuine contender that the entire division would do well to keep an eye on.
Kattar’s biggest strength is an exceedingly clean tech-boxing skillset, one that hinges heavily on one of the most nuanced jabs one can find in MMA. The Fishgold fight was a good example of Kattar’s perfect fight (at least offensively); Kattar mixed an accurate and bruising jab with feints to keep Fishgold off a hair trigger on the counter, eventually started sneaking jabs in the middle of Fishgold’s blitzes to make him more hesitant to aggressively lead, and used the feint to read Fishgold’s reaction to the jab and set up the straight behind it. Kattar can jab on the lead or on the counter (for example, the dipping jab he used to punish Fili trying to jab with him), as a singular strike or as part of a combination (even doubling up at times to mix up the timing of the 1-2), as a probing flick or as a stiff power shot.
As he showed against Fishgold, he can win fights almost entirely on the strength of his jab; that said, Kattar does have more tricks up his sleeve. Kattar is a very good counterpuncher; while he doesn’t have an especially notable left hook (countering Fili at times with it and using it to close distance for the straight), he has a consistent pull-straight and his jab generally gives him a good gauge of distance to counter entries (for example, running Fishgold onto an uppercut). He also does some underrated shifting work; while he generally prefers to work from orthodox, Kattar found some success against Fili switching to southpaw, kicking from the rear leg to hide a switch back to orthodox, and throwing the 1-2 before Fili had noticed the change. Kattar is a sound outfighter who’s fairly difficult to pressure (laterally active on the outside and the aforementioned counters), and while he tends to favor a high guard (which got his body punched a lot by Shane Burgos), he’s generally defensively responsible; in terms of boxing in MMA, Kattar is one of the very best in most ways.
Like many MMA boxers do, Kattar has shown a consistent issue with attrition-kicking; he has great defensive boxing, but Burgos and Moicano had a good deal of success kicking Kattar’s lead leg as he was focused on defending punches. Moicano, in particular, found great success slowing down Kattar with his kicking game; Moicano could counter the jab with his leg kick, and as Kattar’s boxing became less effective, chain his leg kicks off pocket-combinations. It’s worth noting that Moicano is one of the soundest and most versatile kickers in the division (one who could also jab with Kattar with a good deal of success), so it’s unlikely that just anyone could beat Kattar with a leg-kick focus, but the liability is there if Lamas can exploit it.
Conclusions and Capping
Lamas doesn’t really have the compounding and systematic game of Moicano, which was what allowed him to pull away down the stretch against Kattar; that said, Lamas does bring a few tools that might trouble Kattar. The most obvious is the leg kick; Lamas is an active and powerful kicker, and Kattar has shown a tendency to eat them clean. That said, despite Chris Fishgold seeming to have the express intention of attacking Kattar’s lead leg, he didn’t get far; it seems to take reasonably crafty set-ups to land consistently on Kattar without getting jabbed up in the process (Moicano’s dedicated counter-kicking and his Dutch-style combinations into the kick), and Lamas mostly just kicks naked on the lead. The other tool is the takedown; Kattar hasn’t been tested too much as a wrestler/grappler, other than a brief exchange on the ground against Fishgold (who, while an imposing top player, isn’t as punishing as Lamas).
While the top game is the best route to a win against Kattar for Lamas, Kattar doesn’t really make takedowns easy; while Lamas was able to just run through Knight’s kick and intercept Elkins running forward, Kattar will likely have a lot more success dictating the standing exchanges than those two did. Fili isn’t a bad parallel in that sense, as a genuine reactive takedown threat who found no openings to take Kattar down, even when he started pressuring behind the jab. Overall, it’s difficult not to favor the more process-driven fighter in this contest; Lamas only needs a single opportunity, but Kattar’s incredible technical depth on the feet makes it difficult to see where he might find one through layers of feints and jabs (especially as the fight goes on and Kattar starts building off those threats). It isn’t a fight to cap very wide, that’s just the nature of Lamas in most cases; that said, Kattar probably gets the nod.
Prediction: Kattar via decision. This writer caps Kattar at -150.
Calvin Kattar vs. Ricardo Lamas is an upcoming bout on the UFC 238 fight card. The UFC 238 pay-per-view will be exclusively available via the