The Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix is the most exciting piece of matchmaking going on in MMA right now, and easily the best tournament line up since perhaps the DREAM 2008 Lightweight Grand Prix. It kicks off on Saturday with old rivals Andrey Koreshkov and Douglas Lima meeting for a rubber match and—while the fight has been completely relegated from the poster in favor of the geriatric fourth meeting between Wanderlei Silva and Quinton Jackson—this is a bout brimming with what ifs and repercussions.
A Clash at the Most Fundamental Levels
Koreshkov and Lima present two completely different styles of striker. Lima’s stance is short and he fights squared onto his opponent. Koreshkov fights more side-on, from a longer stance. Were there a create-a-fighter screen for striking styles the first two options would be sliders marked “stance length” and “angle of body.” The stance is the beginning of everything and these two factors dictate a fighter’s offensive options and defensive liabilities.
(Left) Douglas Lima’s shorter stance, notice that his hips are more on top of his feet. (Right) Koreshkov’s longer stance is more side on and his center of gravity is carried between his feet.
The longer, more bladed stance is a more mobile in-and-out platform. Any traditional outfighter in boxing that you study will use a long, bladed stance like a fencer at least while they are working on the outside. To get in and out you need a foot behind your center of mass to drive in off, and a foot in front of your center of gravity to catch you and rebound you out of range again. To see this principle at its most extreme you need only look at point-style karateka like Lyoto Machida and Kyoji Horiguchi as they burst in huge distances across the mat.
But more than that, the bladed, side-on stance shortens the movement necessary for turning attacks. Watch a more square fighter like Dennis Siver attempt a back kick and they will have to hide a preliminary step across themselves. More bladed fighters can hide their back kick more effectively and perform them straight out of the stance. Koreshkov, being the protege of Alexander Schlemenko, is constantly spinning—most often to little or no effect.
Koreshkov’s recent back kick knockout actually departs from his usual habit of just spinning for a wheel kick whenever he feels like it. This time he backed his man towards the fence—used that barrier as an assurance that retreat was off the table—and attacked the body with a turning side kick.
Having the lead foot out ahead of you is necessary to all classical scientific boxing, but it almost leaves a fighter ultra susceptible to that leg being attacked. That is where this match-up has played out across two fights already. Douglas Lima is one of the hardest, quickest low kickers in the welterweight division and he has had his opponents hobbling in almost all of his recent fights.
For Koreshkov to effectively attack Lima with his hands, he has to plant his lead foot in range to be punted—there’s no way around it.
Just the other month Renato Moicano brutalized Calvin Kattar’s lead leg whenever he stepped in to strike, and Kattar was left trying to find a way to attack with his hands without planting his leg first in the middle of a fight—reaching out ahead of himself and tripping over each time. Needless to say Kattar couldn’t revolutionize the science of striking on a moment’s notice. To box you have to plant that foot in range to be kicked, but to kick you have to anchor yourself in place by getting onto one leg: this is the constant battle between kicker and puncher.
Through the seven rounds that Andre Koreshkov and Douglas Lima have matched wits, it might be said that Lima has brought out the best in Koreshkov. Perhaps not from an entertainment standpoint—most fans would rather Koreshkov fought as recklessly as Schlemenko—but in terms of seeing what Koreshkov can do when at a physical disadvantage, the Lima fights make for a great study.
Lima is a thunderous hitter and Koreshkov has fought at his best in the moments that he understands that he wants no part of that. Fighting out of that short, high stance, Lima will either drive himself forward into a deep step to throw single shots on offense, or drop into a deeper stance to counter any perceived threat with a check hook when he’s on the back foot. That check hook is nightmarish—sharp and tight enough to beat Paul Daley to the mark, and Paul Daley is Mr. Left Hook in MMA’s welterweight division.
Koreshkov’s successes in the first fight came from combining probing jabs and feints with effective wrestling. Lima came in expecting a kickboxer and was put to his rump numerous times over the five rounds as a result. Notice here that the flicking non-committal jab draws severe counters which Koreshkov is not actually close enough to absorb.
This is why feinting is the single most important facet of fighting a counter striker: it either makes them take their finger off the trigger a little to spare swinging wild at air—forcing them to react in smaller windows and increasing the chances of sneaking through a good lead, or places the feinting fighter in position to follow up when the counter fighter misses a swing.
By staying just out of reach of the check hook and inviting Lima to return fire, Koreshkov could draw Lima into a longer stance and open him up for takedown attempts. Every time Lima extended his stance and opened up with his hands to come back at Koreshkov, the Russian would reach down and hit a snatch single or high crotch.
There are lots of opinions on the high crotch. The great John Smith and many others believe the high crotch is above all else a set up to sterner takedowns: you take the high crotch and you switch to the double leg. Treating the high crotch as a form of single leg takedown with its own finishes has also found success in MMA—see Jake Shields and “the daddest man on the planet,” Daniel Cormier—but unless the opponent is kept off balance at all times there is always the danger of him grabbing a handful of buttock and dragging himself around to the back. In hitting the high crotch and cracking Lima down to the mat, Koreshkov seemed to always be playing with fire.
Lima’s response to the takedowns was incredibly nonchalant, however. Instead of desperately fighting off takedown attempts he flopped to guard and began playing a double overhooks butterfly game. Double overhooks is a very hard position to operate a butterfly sweeping game from, but fighters who can regularly do it well—like Lima and Joe Lauzon—always have something of an ace up their sleeve when they hit the mat. Constantly looking to throw his hips out and slip in a butterfly hook, Lima was able to take Koreshkov over and into bottom position multiple times through the bout.
Chasing that second sweep after a failed first attempt is often the difference between a good butterfly player and a mediocre one.
The problem was that rather than try to get up and desperately shake Koreshkov off his leg, or hammer Koreshkov with those semi-legal Travis Browne elbows as he clung to it, Lima opted to try and attack submissions from the front headlock and as Koreshkov tenaciously pursued the leg the Russian was always able to take top position again.
When the rematch rolled around, Koreshkov immediately hit the takedown again. This time Lima once again used the double overhooks from butterfly guard and attempted to sweep. This time Lima used the opening to stand up and drag Koreshkov into a proper clinch, before moving him to the fence and stalling until the referee broke them. It was the same technique but applied in a more tactically appropriate way.
This time around, Koreshkov made the mistake of getting sloppy. After two rounds of picking at Lima with potshots along the fence and then dropping in on the Brazilian’s hips to avoid counters, Koreshkov lost his mind in the third round and decided to swing haymakers. That check hook that he had avoided so well for six and a half rounds immediately found the mark and put the Russian to sleep.
The overwhelming trend with rubber matches is that the man who won the second goes on to win the third. This is often because of how ages and developments match up. With Koreshkov vs. Lima III, the third match remains very unpredictable because while Lima was looking trickier—aware of the high crotch on his counter attacks, using his sweeps to get up rather than to look for home runs—he still spent the entire second round stuck on the bottom and failed to nail Koreshkov with a good punch until the Russian made the daft decision to step in and throw uppercuts from behind him.
For Koreshkov success hinges on his ability to defuse that check hook and stay away from the low kicks. He can do this by probing with the jab and showing lots of feints as he did in the first two fights. But Koreshkov’s jab is often just there for show, if he could actually feint and then come with the legitimate jab (as Georges St-Pierre and Robert Whittaker have done countless times in the cage) he would be able to put the fear of the lead into Lima much more effectively.
No one could watch the first two fights and think that Koreshkov was doing good damage with his work. The opportunities are there: Lima is constantly backing himself onto the fence. While throwing the right hand and ducking in on a takedown is an excellent way to stay safe, Koreshkov never really connected well on his rights. If Koreshkov instead went to the body with right straights before tying up, he could actually put some strain on the massive Lima’s gas tank as the rounds progress rather than just thumping his guard or the top of his head.
Take that wheel kick that Koreshkov attempted a dozen times over the two fights and landed on zero occasions, switch it out with the back kick from Koreshkov’s last fight whenever Lima is standing on the fence and you have a real reason for Lima to be worried. Koreshkov was able to get to Lima’s body with kicks in their second fight, but left himself in range for the standard return low kick—coming off worse in the exchanges. If Koreshkov instead mixed a long right front kick to the body in with his jabs and right straights, he would be able to score hard body kicks and force Lima out of range for a return.
For Lima, urgency in coming off the mat is paramount. Relying on Koreshkov dropping his hands and swinging wild for the second time in three fights is probably not the best strategy to come in with. Where Lima was having surprising success was with his jab. It is a piston-like single shot which is driven by a lunge into a longer stance, but it snapped Koreshkov’s head back over a dozen times in their previous bouts.
The problem was that Lima would cover up, then return, and these predictable call and-response trades set up Koreshkov’s level change onto the takedown attempts. Lima could look to jab with Koreshkov, dipping to his right side and firing the jab at the same time as Koreshkov steps in, and he could be able to put some timidity into Koreshkov’s jab. You cannot be timid and feint and jab convincingly at the same time—making Koreshkov reluctant to jab would slow his work out in the open and allow Lima some time to stroll around hunting for his bread and butter: the low kicks.
It could be a barn burner, but you are more likely to see a measured, technical contest with a good chance of Koreshkov getting starched if he makes a mistake. Don’t get your hopes up for an all out war but in terms of high level technical match ups between top notch finishers, it doesn’t get much better than this match up.