As the pieces of Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov were inching into place, much noise was made about a UFC event in Russia. The chatter intensified as the UFC allowed its fighters to be seen wearing Akhmat MMA shirts, the company owned by Chechnyan strongman and Putin friend, Ramzan Kadyrov. It's taken a while, but between ACB, FNG, M-1 Global and its many, many other MMA promotions, Russia is becoming a recognized force in the fight game.
If you thought you would be getting Conor vs. Khabib in Russia, though, you have been duped even more harshly than those gullible folks who hoped the UFC might finally book Croke Park for a McGregor fight. Fighting is a pay-per-view business and the only time zone that matters is in the United States. There’s no shame in wanting it though—what could be more exciting (particularly for a fight journalist) than a modern Rumble in Jungle, deep in the heart of the former USSR? But once that sigh of disappointment is out of the way, a look down the UFC’s first Russian offering reveals some pretty intriguing match ups and some very good fighters who might slip under the radar simply due to the absence of McGregor–Nurmagomedov.
Returning to action for the first time since September 2017, Mairbek Taisumov is a fighter who rarely disappoints in the cage but finds a way to keep letting fans down with his inactivity. While there will be a Russian flag next to his name on the pre-fight graphic, Taisumov might be called a citizen of the world. He was born in Grozny, fights out of Vienna, trains at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, and goes on excursions to Turkey to visit their wrestling team. But the only thing you need to know about Taisumov if you’re on the fence about watching him fight is that he’s wickedly fast and he quickly ended the night for the last two men he fought in exactly the same way: by walking them onto his right hand.
Continuing a theme of Russian bangers, Petr Yan returns to action just a couple of months removed from his UFC debut. A hot prospect for ACB, Yan split a pair of good bouts with Magomed Magomedov there before being welcomed to the UFC by walking meme, Teruto Ishihara. Ishihara—who lives on his solid counter left hand and a decent double leg takedown when he’s worried—was forced to sprint around the cage under Yan’s pressure.
If it was your first time seeing Yan, he might have looked a little limited in the beginning: spending a half minute circling the cage and then stepping in on a basic one-two and missing. But all of a sudden Yan began opening up in combination and using that step-up lead leg round kick which is so important for shorter fighters hoping to burst in on opponents. Trapping Ishihara against the fence, he smoked the Team Alpha Male representative and announced his arrival in the division.
The "local" boys seem to have been placed in fairly favorable match ups on this card, because patriotism is still the most easily manipulated force in combat sports, and perhaps the most obvious example of that is 18-0 knockout artist, Alexey Kunchenko being welcomed to the UFC by the waning Thiago Alves. But Kunchenko’s match up contrasts harshly with the welcoming party that the UFC have selected for Ukranian karateka, Nikita Krylov.
Krylov is easily the most intriguing fighter on this card. When "The Miner" was let go from the UFC in 2017 most fans were left baffled. The light heavyweight division is the weakest in men’s MMA right now and is desperately short on young prospects—Krylov along with a couple of others offered a glimmer of hope for the division’s future but when his contract came up, the UFC let him go back to the Russian circuit. Since then Krylov has taken four fights, all of them against non-threats like a thoroughly washed up Emanuel Newton and a never-was-all-that-good Fabio Maldonado.
Another sad loss for Maldonado.
Yet Krylov returns to the UFC against Jan Błachowicz, currently ranked No. 4 on the UFC’s rankings. Krylov might have all the promise in the world but he has never beaten anyone even close to being top-five ranked when he fought them. Krylov’s biggest fights were against Ovince Saint Preux back in 2014 and Misha Cirkunov immediately before Krylov’s departure in December 2016, and in both of those fights the big lad from Ukraine blew it.
What makes Krylov fascinating is that he is one of the light heavyweight division’s very few skilled kickers, coming from a Kyokushin karate background. If you aren’t getting bogged down in the flowery details of forms and lineage, there are really only two types of karate—knockdown and point style. Point style karate tends to produce crafty in-and-out strikers like the Machida brothers and Kyoji Horiguchi. Knockdown styles tends to produce grizzled toughmen who place a great deal of value on attrition striking to the body and legs, and develop the kicking dexterity to high kick from almost chest-to-chest.
Krylov is the perfect representative of knockdown style karate in MMA, throwing a constant array of low kicks, front kicks, triangle kicks and high kicks, and it has carried him to a staggering 24 finishes in 24 victories. Like a young Alistair Overeem, Krylov has never seen a decision and that is largely due to the pace that he drives. In his best showings, Krylov gets to kicking the legs and body early, and keeps at it until the opponent's guard sags long enough for one of his constant attempts to land a high kick pays off. All the classic Kyokushin looks are there—the sankaku-geri or "triangle kick," a front kick that arcs up on a diagonal under the elbow:
The question mark kick, Brazilian kick, or mach mawashi-geri, is a feature in all of his bouts, though it only actually works for him because he sets it up so well with body kicks.
As Krylov has struggled so much with the few elite light heavyweights he has met this could seem a step too far, dumping him in with a top-five ranked opponent after time off fighting effectively nobodies. Perhaps, but it also offers him a great opportunity to break through into the upper echelons of the division in a match up which might favor him in some areas. Jan Błachowicz is a very awkward striker—relying heavily on his hands and on timing counter swings. By attempting to check hook Alexander Gustafsson every time he stepped in, Błachowicz forced the light heavyweight division’s prettiest boxer to wrestle instead. But Błachowicz own defense and footwork aren’t especially sharp and the majority of Krylov’s offense comes in from beyond the range of Błachowicz's jab and counter swings. Furthermore, longer Błachowicz bouts have turned into open mouth wheezing affairs and while Błachowicz has the huge experience advantage of actually having gone to the decision before, the pace that Krylov drives might bring him into his clumsy late fight state somewhat faster than normal.
Krylov’s boxing is largely ones and twos, which works great out at the mid-range, spliced in with his deceptively close-in high kicks, but gets him into trouble when he starts chasing knockouts and over committing. As Błachowicz's timing has looked pretty sharp in recent years, Krylov’s Rock'em Sock'em Robots boxing style could see him run onto Błachowicz's blows. Furthermore the downside of kicking so frequently is that sooner or later the opponent will probably bundle you to the mat off a kick, and the mat has been where most of Krylov’s problems have happened. It is difficult to reap the benefits of high volume and a torrid pace, while also being cautious so as to not expose oneself to the grappling game.
In any case, the main event of Mark Hunt vs Alexey Oleinik should provide either a Hunt knockout or another bizarre Oleinik submission. Krylov vs Błachowicz is the fight to watch for, and Taisumov, Yan, and Kunchenko are all there too—though you should take their victories (if they get them) with a grain of salt based on the matchmaking. It is no Gennady Golovkin versus Canelo Alvarez, but then what else is going to be able to compete with that this weekend?