The featherweight division is home to some of the most talented and unique mixed martial artists in the world, and over the last few years, it has gifted us with a variety of truly volatile, unpredictable bouts. Having said that, regardless of the variety of weird, unorthodox, and fascinating styles the UFC’s roster might have, no fight ever makes me as excited as a good ol’ striker vs. grappler matchup.
There is just no better way, I believe, to showcase the space for creativity and self-expression that MMA provides than taking two dudes with styles in completely different extremes of the hypothetical spectrum, locking them in a cage, and just seeing what happens. Yes, there are general rules and tactics either specialists can implement to gain an edge, but once a good submission and knockout artist are within touching range of one another? All bets are off and anything can happen.
And at that, we are lucky the two men stepping into the cage are some of the most game that you can find in the UFC: One a long time veteran looking to break a bad streak, the other an up-and-comer hoping a good win here can help him secure a spot in the top fifteen of the division.
THE DEVASTATING STRIKING OF EDSON BARBOZA
I referred to Barboza as a veteran just now, but I don’t feel that does him justice. At nearly ten years with the UFC, Barboza has been fighting in the octagon for longer than any other member of the top fifteen, and in that time he’s consistently put on some of the most exciting performances possible… Sometimes to his detriment.
Barboza has won one of his last six matches, and while his losses have all been at the hands of top-level opposition (Nurmagomedov, Gaethje, and Felder, to mention a few), they still reasonably bring into question his ability to hang with the best of the best. It’s not that he’s getting old or that he’s devolved over time, but rather that his style has proven increasingly difficult to implement against the currently dominant wave of pressure fighters.
In spite of this, it’d be a mistake to count Barboza out, because as Dan Hooker so kindly reminded us last year, sometimes that one devastating strike is all it takes.
Barboza is a striking specialist in the truest sense of the term: Across twenty-three fights with the UFC, he’s made a documented fifteen takedown attempts and submitted exactly zero people, but has a highlight reel of knockouts that looks like something out of a Bruce Lee movie.
He’s mainly recognized for a varied arsenal of devastating kicks, from spinning back kicks to wheel kicks so sharp and fast they look like they could take someone’s head clean off. But while these weapons are flashy and fun, they’re far from what’s at the core of his arsenal; for that, we need to take a look at his switch and leg kicks.
Barboza’s leg kicks are one of his most reliable and damaging weapons, strongly resembling traditional cut kicks in Muay-Thai: Barboza’s knee goes past the opponent before his shin slams into their lower thigh with the full force of his body. In hitting with such force, he sacrifices a bit of his speed and range, although he makes up for this by baiting his opponents to step in before shooting.
The switch kick is the bread and butter of the Muay Thai. In order to execute it, the user takes a quick step in place to change their stance (the “switch”) before throwing a kick. This allows them to quickly turn their lead side into their rear side, and put more power into their attacks.
In an orthodox vs. orthodox matchup, kicking to the body can be difficult, since the rear leg is lined up with the opponent’s close side, meaning it’s most likely to hit their back or shoulder. Switching allows Barboza to catch his opponents off guard and target the softer parts of their body. In addition, since he usually falls back into orthodox after doing it, the risk of retaliation is minimal.
If their opponent is pressuring well and Barboza finds himself too unbalanced to throw a kick, then his boxing is nothing to scoff at either. Barboza’s one of the better counter punchers I’ve seen in MMA, with incredible accuracy, rhythm and, if Kevin Lee is to be believed, a mean left hook. While it might not be his go-to plan, his boxing makes it so that Barboza is always a threat on the feet.
To top it all off, he compliments all this with a solid clinch game and amazing takedown defense, which makes him a nightmare for all but the more seasoned wrestlers — and that’s good because he’s gonna need these to cope with…
THE SNAKE-LIKE GRAPPLING OF MAKWAN AMIRKHANI
Get it? Because he favors the anaconda choke?
Amirkhani might not have the name recognition or experience of Barboza (both have been active in MMA for about as long, but Amirkhani has only been with the UFC for five years and fought far less), but his run with the promotion is still pretty dang impressive: Across eight fights he’s managed to win six, three of those by submission and one by knockout. He’s a dangerous choke specialist with great control on the ground and a variety of ways to take down the opponent.
Still, before we touch on the takedowns, we have to talk about Amirkhani’s boxing. While he’s no Dawodu, he does show signs of great distance management and has proven in the past that he’s plenty capable of catching opponents off guard when they overextend to try and hit him. This is further aided by his southpaw stance, which a lot of his competition up to this point has struggled to deal with.
The boxing serves two purposes: It gets the aggressive opponent’s mind away from the single leg takedown, and it pushes the passive opponent towards the fence. Both of these situations perfectly set up for Amirkhani’s grappling.
Fence-walking is beyond a shadow of a doubt one of the best anti-wrestling techniques the sport of MMA has brought us, but the anti-fence-walking meta has developed to the point of sometimes making it look downright disadvantageous, and nowhere is this more true than with Amirkhan.
When his opponent against the fence, Amirkhan will usually shoot for a single. More often than not, the opponent is able to successfully stop this, but it matters little when it leaves a perfect opportunity to take a body lock. From there, it’s just a matter of either tripping them or somehow scrambling to get his hips under theirs, after which a throw is usually easily accessible.
Tripping the opponent from the fence is hardly new, but what’s impressive about Amirkhani is just how good he is at keeping them off the fence afterwards. While a lot of wrestlers are content in sitting their opponent down against the wall and landing ground and pound, Amirkhani actively tries to position himself in between his opponents and the wall, and will sometimes even use the wall to position himself for a choke.
That is, of course, assuming Amirkhani doesn’t fall into position straight out of a takedown. One of the benefits a fighter can find from specializing in a certain submission is that they become much more familiar with the process of transitioning into it, and as Amirkhani showed against Henry and Biel, he’s often one step ahead of his opponents when it comes to finding the choke.
This is the sort of high-speed pressure that could give a striking specialist trouble, although it’s doubtful how well it will hold up against a seasoned veteran like Barboza and his impressive takedown defense.
Makwan Amirkhani has the sort of style that could be dangerous for anyone in the lightweight division: All it takes is one mistake, one moment of slacking off or panicking and before you know it, you’ve got a flexor against your carotid artery and no oxygen in your brain. Mix that with his awkward striking game and you’ve got yourself a fighter plenty capable of making an upset.
Having said that, if Amirkhani beats Barboza it will be an upset. At this point in his career, I just don’t see him having the necessary tools to pressure Barboza while on the feet and without that, taking him down might prove too tall an order. Furthermore, Amirkhani’s striking defense relies a little bit too much on distance management and reflexes, which is a dangerous gamble when going up against a naturally explosive Muay Thai striker.
If Barboza doesn’t take it easy and point fight his way to a decision, I see him taking this by knockout in the third.
Also, be sure to check out the Overtime Heroics Forums page to join in on the discussion!