At a division like featherweight, where getting a crack at the rankings generally takes work against genuinely good unranked fighters, it’s rare that a ranked fighter is an unknown quantity; however, for the most part, it’s tough to know what to make of Josh Emmett. While he has two excellent knockout wins in Michael Johnson and Ricardo Lamas, neither has shown much of a sustained process that would make him a truly elite fighter; while his fight against Mirsad Bektic could definitely go the same way, it’s an opportunity for Emmett to showcase his game in a way that his (albeit thunderous) moments of success against Lamas, Stephens, and Johnson didn’t.
Order UFC 284
Alexander Volkanovski and Islam Makhachev, the top two pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC, will clash at UFC 284 on Feb. 11. Order the PPV now to watch the champion vs. champion fight live on Saturday.
Considering his reputation as a top prospect at featherweight, Mirsad Bektic has been oddly hot-and-cold; not only has he found trouble making it to the cage (with his fight in Sacramento off a yearlong layoff, and fighting once in 2016 and 2017), he hasn’t looked to improve much as a prospect between his fights. That said, even if he doesn’t improve from this point, the current iteration of Bektic is still a true threat to the top, and only a singularly improbable comeback from Darren Elkins has kept him from an undefeated record. A win over Emmett would put him into the top 10, and a convincing one could net him a top 5 opponent next.
The threat Emmett brings is fairly self-explanatory, given the manner of his best wins; Emmett is one of the scariest punchers at 145-pounds, and while he doesn’t bring much nuance to that approach, there’s enough that (in addition to his athleticism) he can put truly solid fighters down for the count. While Emmett’s first crack at a contender (Ricardo Lamas, in December 2017) was little more than finding a warm body on short-notice, Emmett made the most of it and knocked the veteran stiff; if he can defeat Bektic, he’ll be hard to deny as a scary contender himself.
Emmett’s last three fights have showcased a twitchy and blitzing style, one that makes great use of his speed on the front foot and his punching power. Emmett doesn’t go for many takedowns, but he feints level changes fairly often, building off it for the overhand right and his hooking flurries (where he essentially just rushes forward alternating hands). Emmett mostly works on the lead, but he’s decent on the counter; his biggest moment against Stephens came when he parried the uppercut and came back with a short right hook. In general, Emmett concedes the backfoot, which allows him to walk his opponent onto his flurries, and he’s decently mobile on the outside. Emmett’s process isn’t particularly deep or even reliable, but his unique power at 145 and his explosiveness give him a fighting chance even when he’s demonstrably at a striking disadvantage.
On the downside, Emmett’s relatively shallow approach has been figured out (to some degree) in his last two fights. Emmett doesn’t have a whole lot of variance to his approach; almost everything Emmett throws is a fairly wide full-power strike or a flurry, which meant that a fighter like Michael Johnson could feint entries or use throwaway punches to draw those and counter them. Both Stephens and Johnson also showed some vulnerabilities for Emmett in the pocket; while being there with Emmett carries high risk, Stephens was able to land consistently when he decided to just plant and swing (and eventually read Emmett leading with the overhand, to duck and counter as Emmett backed out), and Johnson was often able to land a combination and angle out before Emmett’s wider counter could find the mark. It’s rare to find a pure-puncher at FW with the success that Emmett’s had, but it’s also rare to find one the caliber of Emmett.
In contrast to Emmett, Bektic was a title-track prospect fairly early, to the point where he was a prohibitive (-700 range) favorite against a tested and tough journeyman in Darren Elkins. Ignoring the end of that fight, Bektic justified those odds, devastating Elkins through the first two rounds, but it turned into a typical prospect loss by the end; while Elkins’ comeback was of the sort that simply doesn’t happen most times that fight plays out, the fact remains that Bektic let him back into the fight with a few tactical errors and a pace issue. Those things are fairly routine for developing fighters, but even with his most recent win over Ricardo Lamas, they were still there; the Emmett fight isn’t just a springboard into the top 10, but also ideally a stage to show some improvements he’s made over an injury layoff.
Bektic is at his best in contact with his opponent, whether it be in the clinch or on top; while his most damaging performance to this point (against Elkins) was largely Bektic pinning him down from half-guard or side control and absolutely thrashing him, Bektic’s best win (against Lamas) was largely one of securing control in the clinch and working from there. Bektic is a very good athlete who’s usually at an advantage in raw strength, and this was mostly where the win over Lamas hinged; both spent a great deal of time in close, and Bektic was able to hold Lamas against the fence and land strikes there (Bektic doesn’t have a particularly deep clinch game, but it’s good enough to work against opponents who can’t match him athletically). Bektic is a very good wrestler, he can shoot reactively and chain from the clinch, and he can work to find submissions (Doane) as well as just lay down punishment.
Most of Bektic’s weakness technically comes as a striker, where he’s aggressive but not particularly good. Bektic relies a lot on pressure to pursue his clinch/top game, but his pressure is hampered a bit by not having much systematic defense or a counterpunching game; if a fighter runs towards him, Bektic has to either shoot or back off, so his pressure isn’t as effective as it could be. Bektic’s tools on the feet are mostly limited to closing in with the 1-2, and while his jab is mechanically fine, he doesn’t build off it much (and he’s a fairly fast puncher in the pocket, but not particularly deep there either). Essentially, his strengths begin and end with his wrestling and his top game. Bektic has a bit of a cardio problem even when given his perfect fight (spending all of the Lamas fight in the clinch and still letting Lamas back into the fight late), but past that, wrestling with Bektic tends to be unwise.
Conclusions and Capping
Bektic might have more upside than Emmett overall, but the fight seems perilous for him. Bektic’s lack of real defense and his predictable distance-covering make him a decent mark for Emmett’s forward bursts; while Bektic could change levels in the middle of them, Bektic isn’t strong enough in the pocket to be able to consistently avoid those punches to shoot, and a few counters early would likely make Bektic wary to pressure Emmett (and that would cause issues in pursuing the clinch).
Bektic doesn’t really have the counterpunching to dissuade Emmett from his bursts, and he likely doesn’t have the durability to survive them (Emmett is a genuinely monstrous puncher, where Bektic has been hurt badly by short shots from both Elkins and Chas Skelly), so if he can’t get the takedown, he’s playing with fire. Bektic likely beats Emmett up if it gets to the ground (Emmett can wrestle but all indications are that Bektic rules the ground), but his third-round inertia carries obvious implications against a fighter who has proven to carry his power late into a fight, especially considering the urgency Emmett showed late in the Johnson fight as he lost the first two rounds.
It’s entirely possible that Bektic just dominates Emmett with a broader skillset and a sounder process, but he can’t mitigate enough of Emmett’s knockout risk to be able to pick him.
Prediction: Emmett via KO1. This writer caps Emmett at -140.
Long-time MMA fan. Catch my (incomplete) betting history at betmma.tips/sriramsays.