While everyone is buzzing about the main event at UFC 253 and the possibilities in a matchup between two of the most talented and promising middleweights we’ve seen in this era of MMA, I’d like to deviate our attention from the hypetrain for just a moment and turn it towards one of the less talked about fights in the undercard; a matchup with very little in the way of beef, or drama, or bombastic personalities; an unlikely encounter between a fan-favorite prospect years in the making and a former top contender eager to prove that he’s still got what’s needed to take the featherweight division by storm.
“MEAN” HAKEEM DAWODU
Dawodu is immediately recognisable for two main reasons: The first is his amazing nickname, which rolls of the tongue so easily that it almost feels wrong to refer to him by his last name as opposed to as “Mean Hakeem”, but the second and most important one is his sharp, clean striking, which a knowing observer might be able to trace back to traditional Muay Thai training. As one would expect from a fighter with his background, Dawodu heavily incorporates leg kicks and clinchwork into his fighting, but I was surprised while analyzing his matches to also find a striker with a surprisingly varied and effective punch selection.
In my last article, I talked about Darren Stewart and using the jab, and I mentioned briefly how underutilized of a tool that is in MMA. I was happy to find that Dawodu also has a jab, one which he uses to relative success, but that happiness couldn’t compare to my absolute elation when I saw him consistently and effectively throwing left hooks to the body.
The left hook to the body is not only one of the most powerful tools a striker can add to their arsenal, but the telltale sign of a good boxer. A hook to the body almost always requires the person throwing it to open themselves up and as such cannot be thrown without preparation: In order to use it, your opponent needs to be primed into giving you an opening — so it’s an indication of his speed and accuracy that Dawodu usually starts landing them in overabundance after the first round, once his opponents are too worried about getting hit by a jab or straight to worry about countering when he lowers his left hand.
This leads into our next point, because besides having fantastic striking technique, Dawodu is also blessed with amazing hand speed, great reflexes and an outstanding 73” reach at 5’8”, which makes his ability to control the range downright oppressive. Dawodu is impressingly proficient at the pullback counter, a technique popularized over the last few years by boxer Floyd Mayweather Junior. The pullback is incredibly hard to use, since it requires you to be right at the edge of your opponent’s range and confident in your ability to move away from their strike at the last second, but if you can do it efficiently? It can make people too scared to even throw punches at you.
This isn’t to say that Dawadou’s reliance on the pullback hasn’t sometimes come back to bite him in the ass. Keenly, his only career loss against Danny Henry came after he got caught with a devastating right hand, which knocked him down and led into the submission that put him to sleep. Julio Arce was also able to capitalize on this, although too late on their fight to get the win, throwing jabs into long rear straights that either caught Hakeem when he was already at the edge of his effective mobile range, or ducking and going to the body.
Dawodu is also remarkable because of his ground game, keenly in that he doesn’t seem to have one. His fight against Kyle Bochniak saw him repeatedly scrambling back to his feet or using the wall walk to escape takedowns, while in his fight against Arce he only ever used the guard for long enough to shrimp away and get back to striking.
His takedown defense and ability to stand back up are impressive for sure, but his lack of any significant offense on the ground could prove to be a problem if he were to encounter a truly experienced, powerful wrestler. Which it so happens…
ZUBAIRA “WARRIOR” TUKHUGOV
While Tukhugov might be a bit underwhelming in the nickname department, he certainly makes up for it in his backstory.
Part of Khabib’s close circle, he was on an eight fight winning streak until 2016, wherein he lost a controversial split decision to Renato Carneiro. While it seemed to many like a small hitch in what was otherwise to be a dominant and illustrious run, it all fell apart when he was banned from competition for two years by USADA after testing positive for ostarine.
This was compounded by his involvement in the infamous UFC 229 post-fight brawl, in which he reportedly attacked McGregor’s cornerman, Dillon Danis, thereby being awarded an extra one-year ban from competing, which was retroactively reduced by 34 days, allowing him to come back into competition late into 2019. And while Tukhugov has admittedly not looked as dangerous as he once did over the two fights he’s had since his three year hiatus, what he showed us in his fights against Lerone Murphy and Kevin Aguilar is that he’s still not to be underestimated.
As one would expect from an American Kickboxing Academy trainee and a training partner of Khabib’s, Tukhugov is a dominant wrestler, although where he differs from this is on how he chooses to take his opponents to the ground. While most wrestlers opt to have a few strikes with which to defend themselves or surprise their opponents before taking them down to the ground, Tukhugov’s boxing is a core part of his fighting style, and he often forsakes going for takedowns altogether in favor of good ol’ swanging and banging.
And while I wouldn’t call Tukhugov’s striking elegant in the same way that Dawodu’s is, he makes up for this in his incredible explosiveness, ability to cover distance and terrifying power. Tukhugov has that innate ability seen once every hundred fighters to put someone on their butt with a single punch, which he did in the first round of his matches against Murphy (who survived, had not been knocked out before and hasn’t been since) and Aguilar (who’s last knockout loss had been six years prior).
A lot of Tukhugov’s “takedowns” come simply from hitting his opponents so hard that they collapse, after which he is able to either ground-and-pound them into submission or, if they manage to effectively nullify his striking, control them to win the round on the cards. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t go for takedowns, however: He mainly sets these ups either by getting his opponents backing up and faking a lunging punch into a trip, or by luring them into an exchange only to weave under a punch and go for the hips.
Once on the ground, Tukhugov is a master at keeping his hips above his opponents and controlling the wrists to prevent them from posting, all while landing the occasional ground and pound. In his fight against Murphy, we also saw him using trips to prevent his opponent from walking the wall, which is by now one of Khabib’s trademarks and makes him all that much harder to get off the ground against.
All in all, this makes for a grappler that is able to greatly punish his opponents off of a single mistake, which under the right circumstances, could be a nightmare for a striker that usually gets better as the fight goes, such as Dawodu.
UFC 253 – THE MATCHUP
Any striker vs. grappler matchup could be cynically summarized as “can the striker keep the fight on the feet/can the grappler take him down?” However, I think this particular matchup can be made interesting by Tukhugov’s reliance on striking to set up his grappling. If Dawodu is able to impose his own boxing and get Tukhugov backing up, he might be able to alleviate the threat of the takedown somewhat, or at least prevent it for long enough to take rounds.
On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum however, the possibility also exists for Tukhugov to land something big that gives him an advantage while on the feet. While Dawodu’s defense is usually all around solid, he has demonstrated in the past that he is hittable, which could spell doom for him against someone with the demonstrable power of Tukhugov. Dawodu will have to be very cognizant of his defensive habits towards the fight in order to make his striking truly shine through.
Regardless of who overcomes in the end, this is quite possibly the most important match either fighter has had at this point in their careers; if Dawodu wins, he eliminates one of the biggest question marks surrounding his style, which would (in my eyes) make him a real threat to just about anyone in the division; if Tukhugov wins, it continues the momentum of his comeback, which he needs right now if he wants to be considered to be a top contender again anytime soon. I think it’ll be very interesting to see how they both evolve through this fight, and how their careers develop moving forward.
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