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The Boston Finisher: A Look At Calvin Kattar

The Boston Finisher: A Look At Calvin Kattar

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The UFC generally has no shortage of prospects at the lower weight-classes, and many of the most promising enter the promotion with attention on them from the start; without a pedigree coming in, it’s fairly difficult to make a name in a division as strong as bantamweight or lightweight or featherweight. As such, top contenders at those weight classes tend not to be all that surprising; every fighter has their doubters, but given the betting odds, the public as a whole wasn’t shocked that someone like Petr Yan (off a successful stint at ACB) ended up top-5. It was almost inevitable; Justin Gaethje and Marlon Moraes spent time as favorites before their debuts against top-5 opponents, notoriously difficult fighters to look good against, because they were championship-caliber and everyone knew it.

Calvin Kattar took the opposite track; he entered the promotion genuinely unknown, and there’s a good chance that he’d never have made it to the UFC save for a bit of luck. As it turned out, a regional talent known as “The Boston Finisher” (on a six-fight decision streak when the UFC came knocking) had more upside than the man he was replacing and the man he was facing; where Doo Ho Choi and Andre Fili have struggled to gain or maintain a number with their name, Kattar has earned a spot soundly inside the top 15 with a fraction of their longevity in the UFC, and his performances have only grown more impressive.

Slated against highly touted Dagestani Zabit Magomedsharipov at UFC Moscow, Kattar has an opportunity to enter the top 5; if he can get it done, Kattar will possess a 5-1 record in the UFC and extend his winstreak to three (two over ranked talent). Should he come away the victor, the immediate title scene has a compelling challenge waiting in the wings: not just a uniquely skilled competitor, but one with the offensive potency and the grit and toughness to be dangerous to anyone.

Touching Fili

Kattar debuted in the UFC on two-weeks notice, to fill a spot on a super-card against the tough and broadly-competent Andre Fili; while Kattar didn’t face the best version of the Californian (the one he’s hitting now), he was still an experienced foe on the world stage. Entering the UFC as a very promising prospect, Fili crossed paths with a future all-time great early in his career; Max Holloway was coming up at the same time, and while Fili made a decent account of himself, he became the second victim of a historic thirteen-fight streak that included the greatest fighter of all time. Since that fight, Fili had alternated wins and losses leading up to UFC 214, and met Kattar off a win over the decently-regarded Hacran Dias.

As such, Kattar was a +300 underdog; the public justifiably had no idea who he was, and while Fili had gotten posterized by both Yair Rodriguez and Godofredo Pepey, the short-notice replacement seemed like little more than a layup so Fili could get paid. Instead, it became a shutout in the opposite direction; Kattar boxed the ears off Fili, and sealed every round near the end. 

Kattar essentially had two things to deal with in Fili, the jab and the southpaw-kicking game, and he generally did a better job with the first than the second. Fili found a bit of success working around the high-guard late in the fight as Kattar committed to pressuring, but Kattar skillfully shut down Fili’s attempts to jab or build off the jab. Part of it was just fundamentally sound defense, such as a high-guard and a good parry:

The more important part was his head movement, and how that linked to his counterpunching; Kattar didn’t let Fili get many jabs off for free, either landing the counter-jab:

Kattar jabs with Fili, winning the exchanges by dipping as he jabs.

Or the counter right-hand.

Fili looks to jab, and Kattar slips inside and comes back with a right-hand counter; even as Fili feints with his lead hand to cover the entry, Kattar intercepts him with the right hand, keeping him from building off it.

Here, Kattar attempts both of the jab-counters he showed consistently in this fight; dipping jab misses but the following jab shortchanges Fili’s, and as Fili looks again to probe with his lead hand, Kattar throws the right-hand counter and gets under Fili’s counter into a partially-connecting left hook.

Where Kattar had counters to the jab worked out in the literal first minute of the fight, Kattar’s answers to Fili’s southpaw game took a bit longer to implement. At first, it was the simple answer of switching stance himself; as Fili often went from orthodox to southpaw, Kattar mirrored him, taking away the angle Fili was seeking for the rear-leg kick. When Fili moved back, Kattar did so as well, but Kattar seemed a great deal more comfortable hiding his stance-changes and using it to set up other shots.

Kattar is in southpaw, and Fili has moved back to orthodox. Kattar uses the inside leg kick to hide the switch back to orthodox, and lands a clean right hand before Fili notices the change.

Kattar is in southpaw, and Fili has moved back to orthodox. Fili bites on Kattar feinting a linear kick, circling outside Kattar’s lead foot. As he does so, Kattar steps forward into orthodox, covering more distance than Fili was expecting with the left hook that followed. Then another attempt at the right-hand counter.

Kattar had a bit of success catching kicks into left-hooks, but on the whole, Fili’s kick-heavy game from southpaw genuinely troubled the boxer (which would foreshadow his only loss in the UFC); Fili would play the southpaw-straight off his kicks, and it left Kattar a bit less able to find his preferred counters. Instead of just switching with Fili each time, though, Kattar found ways to get offense off when his favored jab wasn’t always in play.

Kattar throws the straight to the body from both stances, one as Fili’s looking to give ground from the lead hook and another that he walks Fili right into (taking the classic open-stance angle, stepping outside Fili’s lead foot to shorten the straight’s path).

As round 3 began, Kattar started to counter Fili’s southpaw straight with a sort of inside-angle left hook; Fili steps outside Kattar’s left foot to shorten the path of his straight, and Kattar concedes the angle, using it to shorten the path of his lead hand (and getting his head offline as Fili throws the straight). Kattar seemed to pick up Fili’s timing excellently as the fight went on, eventually dropping Fili with his own straight as Fili looked to kick. 

Once those problems were solved, the fight was all Kattar, although it wasn’t as strong a performance as he’s shown since; the Fili win was more reliant on his counterpunching than his jab (which is what his other UFC performances have hinged on), and he spent more time in southpaw than he’s generally done since. That said, Kattar did end up dealing a beating to Fili, and seemed to have solved him by the end of the fight.

Eventually, Kattar did get his lead hand going; he used the jab and the lead hook to push Fili back and cover distance as Fili gave ground, and as Fili fired back counters, Kattar was already out of the way and ready to land his right hand.

 

A Hurricane Coming Through

Despite knowing what to expect out of Kattar (and “what to expect” being one of the sharper boxing skillsets in MMA), he was still a reasonably sized underdog in his next bout; that said, it wasn’t unwarranted at the time, because Kattar was facing one of the darkest horses that the division had. “Hurricane” Shane Burgos didn’t have the tenure nor the resume that Fili had in the promotion, but with the opponents that he’d been given, he’d passed with flying colors; not only had he been showing a wonderfully robust striking toolbox, he also pushed a torrid pace and seemed to be a star just waiting to break out. The promotion seemed to agree; Burgos vs. Kattar was right before the two title fights at UFC 220, ideally (for the promotion) as an adequate stage for the next big star to announce himself. The hometown underdog Kattar had other intentions.

A fight the level of Kattar vs. Burgos is exceedingly rare from two fighters as inexperienced at the world level as those two were; it wasn’t the sort of brutality that many expect from the best fights of all time, but it was one of the best boxing matches that the sport has seen, and a joy to watch from the perspective of good fighters doing smart things. Both men looked like contenders in waiting, and in retrospect, they were; Kattar’s slated for a top 5 bout, and Burgos is off two straight wins since his loss to Kattar (entering the rankings with a decision over Cub Swanson).

From the beginning of the fight, Burgos and Kattar proved thorny to deal with for the other; neither allowed the reads to come easy, as both tried to shut down the other’s jab with their counterpunching.

Kattar looks to establish his jab early, but Burgos slips to the inside to land his signature cross-counter; soon afterwards, Burgos grows more comfortable jabbing with Kattar, but Kattar finds the right-hand counter off a pull.

What gave Burgos trouble was a combination of a few things; first, as a pressuring swarmer, he was facing an opponent with excellent footwork on the outside, as well as very good striking defense. Burgos had trouble corralling Kattar in the first round while looking for shots to the head, as Kattar’s pivot and his awareness of his position in the cage looked phenomenal. 

A southpaw Kattar angles out by backstepping into orthodox as he slips the straight from Burgos, and catches the following flurry on his shoulders and arms. 

Kattar’s active and versatile jab also made a big difference in the early stages of this fight; not only was it exceedingly quick and genuinely bruising, the variation in the jab was among the best in the division (and in a division with Max Holloway and Jose Aldo, a top-tier jab is a difficult thing to stand out with). 

Kattar’s jab is not just variable in terms of target (as he shows with the changeup between the jab to the head and to the body) but also in terms of rhythm. Kattar makes use of two double-jabs in the second sequence, but they were fairly different; one was at a shorter interval, catching Burgos with the second one as he recovered from slipping the first, where the other was a bit more spread out.

The sort of disorientation this provided gave Kattar the opportunity to put the right hand behind the jab; Burgos’ defense (while underrated) is fairly reactive and this made him very susceptible to Kattar’s feints and rhythm changes. Also note the variation in the power of the jab; Kattar’s jab is often a fairly stern strike, but when he’s looking to chain combinations off them, he can make them less powerful to shorten the delivery time and change the rhythm of the 1-2.   

Even later in the fight against an aggressive Burgos who made good reads, Kattar had success jabbing and building off it; here he plays with the lead hook as a complement to the jab (drawing a bit of a crouch and catching Burgos as he popped back up), cross-counters Burgos’ jab, and feints and jabs at such a peculiar rhythm that Burgos struggles just to keep up defensively (much less look to counter). Not only is Kattar constantly faking step-ins as if he were to jab, the interval between his actual attacks is rarely the same from combination to combination. 

Of course, the best part of this fight was that it was so competitive; Kattar didn’t have unmitigated success with his jab nor his ringcraft. In fact, the narrative of round 2 was Burgos’ adjustment; he was able to back Kattar up more effectively by flurrying relentlessly to the body (which limited the effect of Kattar’s footwork as well as his strong high-guard). It was one of the few performances that truly raised the stock of both men; Burgos had obviously never faced a boxer like Kattar in the UFC, and Kattar gave him very serious trouble with his initial approach, but Burgos found a way to pull it from the brink. 

The skill of Kattar’s jab makes much of Burgos’ success in jabbing with him more impressive. Burgos was often able to get underneath Kattar’s jab to counter with his own, and here he’s able to feint out Kattar’s right-hand counter as well. 

Both men did a good deal of bodypunching; here, both throw their right hands (once as Kattar flashes a jab and draws Shane’s cross-counter), both men take their head offline and therefore neither lands, and Kattar gets the better of the exchanges by breaking with a left hook to the gut. However…

Burgos was the more committed bodypuncher by a big margin. He used those flurries to back Kattar up against the fence (as the bodywork somewhat blocked him from angling off) and build into shots to the head, and as a safer jab-counter that Kattar had trouble adjusting to.

 

The finish came early in the third round; Burgos had done a fantastic job adjusting to Kattar’s earlier tactics, but Kattar found the pivotal shot in an exchange not dissimilar to the ones in round 1 before those adjustments happened.

Kattar’s jab strikes again. Here, he uses a throwaway jab to get Burgos pulling back, before leaping in with a right hand that caught the New Yorker on his heels. Kattar follows up with two clean uppercuts as Burgos is on wobbly legs, and the fight is stopped soon afterwards. 

It’s a fight that didn’t get much recognition apart from the analysts, but Kattar/Burgos stands up with the best of 2018 and arguably the best three-round fights ever; where most fights showcasing adaptability are often one-sided after a point, Kattar and Burgos both reacted to what the other brought in very intelligent and sensible ways until one found a finish. Kattar became the 1 in Burgos’ otherwise spotless record, and that’s a win that has already appreciated; Kattar would next face a very different sort of challenge.

Remember That Name

When he was booked against Calvin Kattar, Renato “Moicano” Carneiro was off an underrated banger of his own; while he didn’t come out on top, Moicano’s bout against future top contender Brian Ortega left him looking like a better fighter than when he went in. Moicano’s win over Jeremy Stephens (then #5) was convincing, but not the sort that made people clamor for his name up with the likes of Holloway and Aldo; the Ortega fight changed that, as nearly 3 full rounds of Moicano going toe-to-toe in-close with another man happy to do the same with him. Moicano’s return eight months after that bout wasn’t meant to be an easy one; Kattar had all the momentum in the world, and the odds were dead-even despite Moicano having the biggest-named win between the two of them. Scheduled before the title fights at the uniquely shambolic UFC 223, Moicano/Kattar was arguably the most interesting fight on the card by the time the event came to pass. 

There’s no mistaking Kattar’s sole loss in the UFC as a close fight; Moicano was in the best form of his career, he looked incredible in nearly every sense, and he took away the options of Kattar in every phase. However, misconceptions do arise about the skills that it took to do what Moicano did; Kattar hasn’t ever been adept in terms of kick-defense, but Moicano is also one of the best offensive-kickers MMA has. The fight definitely displayed blindspots in Kattar’s skillset, but there’s a decent case for Moicano being the only one who beats him that way; Moicano ruthlessly exploited the flaws he found in Kattar’s game, but it didn’t necessarily betray a low ceiling for Kattar. 

While the beginnings of the fight showed inklings of what would trouble Kattar throughout, it originally looked like Moicano’s relative weakness as a pocket-boxer would cost him in this bout; it took Kattar less than a minute-and-a-half to land a big shot, exploiting one of Moicano’s most reliable tendencies.

Kattar eats a leg kick, but lands the first stern shot of the fight. Kattar checks Moicano’s lead hand before entering with the jab; Moicano looks for the check-hook, Kattar beats it with the straight as he takes his head the other way. Short flurry follows, Moicano remains safe and lands a jab to keep Kattar from staying on him aggressively. 

Kattar’s jab was going to be a problem for Moicano, that much was obvious before the fight, and Kattar proved it during. Therefore, Moicano went about taking the initiative away from the Bostonian. This could be with his own sharp jab:

But also by taking the jab away with the counter low-kick as Kattar stepped in.

As Kattar puts weight on his lead leg to throw his left hand (both as a jab and as a lead hook), Moicano knocks it out from underneath him. This is deceptively tough to do, with Kattar’s jab hidden behind layers of feints, which speaks to Moicano’s skill as a striker. 

 As the first round continued, Kattar looked to catch Moicano with the rear hand instead; leading with the straight, or shifting forward as he threw, since Moicano had such a good read on his jab. This led him right into the check hook and the counter combinations off it that he used the jab to frustrate earlier; he couldn’t jab anymore to pull the counter out, so his committed attacks played right into Moicano’s hands. 

Moicano’s check-hook meets Kattar as he steps in. Even if it misses, Moicano chains it into flurries as Kattar looks to exit. Moicano’s form isn’t nearly as tight as Kattar’s on the inside, he’s often fine to just hit the guard, but he makes up for it with craft that Kattar could never really overcome. 

As the rounds progressed, the situation only worsened. Moicano ramped up the leg work fiercely; with Kattar’s lead leg gone, Kattar wasn’t much of a counter threat, and the mobility to give ground to defend the leg kicks was long since gone. Moicano still worked them on the counter, but after a point, there wasn’t much danger to just throwing one from the outside when he felt like it. 

Moicano also built on a brief success he found in round 1, with Dutch-style punching into kicks; Moicano could draw Kattar’s high guard or retreat, and kick his body or leg as he exited. As Kattar’s footwork deteriorated from the punishment to his leg, it only became easier; Kattar either stood and covered up too long, or his exits were too slow to take any sting off the kick. 

At times, Moicano was even able to chain the flurries off his counters; here, he doubles on the check hook as Kattar comes forward, and follows him with the kick as Kattar backs out. 

Moicano started finding a big uppercut in round 3, using it not only as a genuinely hurting blow but also as an entry into the combo ending with the kick. 

By the time the fight ended, the attrition was simply too much, and Moicano had all the reads he could possibly need; Kattar couldn’t sit down on any of his shots with the leg damage, nor could he set anything up when his jab had been nulled rounds earlier, so Moicano just had to wait for Kattar to do something and then drown him in volume until he felt like stopping.

What the Moicano fight showed of Kattar (past just insane toughness to make it to a decision) was that he didn’t really have a backup plan if his jab wasn’t viable; his game builds on itself, but when Moicano denied the foundation, there wasn’t anywhere for him to go. There are specific reads that Kattar’s subsequent opponents have made from the Moicano fight, but they haven’t been all that successful, because they didn’t have Moicano’s specific skillset (his counters to the jab, his footwork on the outside, and his compounding attrition game); Andre Fili already showed that trading kicks for punches from Kattar is a losing battle, and that isn’t what Moicano did. That said, the burden was on Kattar in his next two fights to prove that the Moicano bout was just a bump in the road, and not something that would define him moving forward.  

The Comeback

Kattar’s subsequent bouts ended in under a round each, and Kattar has once again found himself on the brink of top contendership; in Moncton and Chicago, Kattar looked excellent, and while the problems that existed against Moicano were (to a point) still there, it was harder than advertised to take advantage of them when Kattar had his jab in play. 

First up was Chris Fishgold; a British grappler making his debut from Cage Warriors, Fishgold was an aggressive and unpolished banger on the feet. He had the power and the confidence to immediately force the issue, and force it he did; Fishgold came out throwing huge leg kicks and looking for takedowns, and as soon as Kattar got back to his feet, Fishgold was on him throwing everything he had.

Kattar ate at least one huge shot, punished for jabbing to try to get the aggressive Liverpudlian off of him, but most of Fishgold’s shots afterwards did little-to-no damage; Kattar is constantly moving his head as he keeps the high guard, specifically reacting to what Fishgold is throwing, and most of this exchange turned out a waste of energy for Fishgold because of it. 

As Kattar returned to space, he got to doing what he does best; a hyperreactive Fishgold was gunning for the counter he found the first time, and Kattar started feinting to draw those reactions out. 

Kattar is feinting constantly; stepping in with intention, lowering his stance as if he’s getting ready to fire the jab, extending his lead arm. Fishgold is reacting to every single motion, and Kattar is still taking defensive motions as Fishgold threatens to bite hard on Kattar twitching.

 

Kattar starts to land the jab; Fishgold’s slips look quite one-note and he’s reacting at all the wrong times, and the offbeat jabs are catching him clean. 

The end came soon after Kattar started to make those reads; Fishgold had outpaced himself trying to overwhelm the better boxer, he was reacting constantly to nothing (exhausting himself further), and he couldn’t get anywhere with the leg kicks. 

Fishgold lands a leg kick as Kattor pivots out, but not much comes of it. Kattar feints the jab, then jabs for real; Fishgold had shown his hand in regards to his defense, Kattar knew where his head would be on the jab, and the follow-up right lands behind the ear. 

Kattar’s most recent fight was supposed to be a more difficult one; Ricardo Lamas had lost to Josh Emmett and Mirsad Bektic, but he’d historically been a spoiler for prospects like no one else. When the UFC wanted Jason Knight and Erik Koch to make a name off him, Lamas had beaten them down in a way that genuinely could have ruined both. A fairly rounded opportunist, Lamas possessed a good power jab and a right low kick, as well as a strong reactive takedown arsenal and brutal strikes from on top; in his previous fight, he’d battered Darren Elkins to a third-round stoppage. Kattar entered the favorite, but Lamas was a live dog in theory, with the specific tools to give Kattar some trouble. As it turned out, only in theory. 

Lamas did look to kick legs a bit, but didn’t have the setups or the timing of Moicano; he didn’t kick on the counter or at the end of combinations, just huge and naked, so Kattar was able to drop back fairly easily and let them fall short. A few landed, but Lamas didn’t land nearly as frequently as he would’ve had to.

As Lamas got a bit more predictable, Kattar did check a leg kick, and followed with a sharp jab that sent Lamas stumbling backwards.  

Insofar as takedown defense, while he did get taken down by Fishgold against the fence, Lamas’ attempt here was defused by just Kattar’s footwork; Kattar frames on him as he breaks the line of attack, and Lamas doesn’t even get close to his legs. 

Besides those adjustments, the usual Kattar was there; the jabbing and feinting, of course, as well as strong shots to the body:

EIther straight to the gut as a jab, or using the jab to drag their hands up and land the straight below it. Note Lamas’ reaction to the jab feint in the final sequence; his hands drift out to look to parry the jab…

...and Kattar exploits it for the finish. Feints to draw Lamas’ hands out, lands a left hook behind it and a right hand, and Lamas is done. 

Like the Fishgold fight, the Lamas bout didn’t say a ton (despite being the biggest name on his CV to date); however, it did show that the answer to Kattar wasn’t as simple as “kicks”. Beating Kattar on the feet means being able to box with him as well, and there’s no shortcut to it. 

Zabit

Originally booked as another hometown showing for Kattar, some bizarre circumstances have led to Kattar going into the exact opposite; Boston’s boxer now faces the Russian Zabit Magomedsharipov in Moscow. Further changes to the card have resulted in the bout headlining, albeit remaining three rounds; Kattar gets his first main event on November 9, arguably against his biggest test thus far in the UFC, on enemy soil in a bout that could define his career.

Zabit took the more traditional lower-division top-prospect path, which is “be very impressive outside the UFC”; his ACB title and his long Dagestani surname were enough to be advertised as the next big thing at 145, and his performances have (mostly) backed it.  Off a win over the tough gatekeeper Jeremy Stephens, Zabit doesn’t look untouchable, but he looks fairly difficult to beat; excellent wrestling and grappling, with a decent striking toolbox as well. Zabit’s game on the feet is somewhat the opposite of Kattar’s; where Kattar does everything with purpose, using the same few strikes but with a great deal of variation in implementation, Magomedsharipov’s hallmark is a jab and left hook shrouded by flashy maneuvers intended purely to disorientate. If the bout stays as a striking one, it could be characterized as a battle between breadth and depth.

Zabit’s boxing isn’t nearly as well-developed as Kattar’s, and while he kicks, it isn’t the systematized approach of someone like Moicano; that said, there’s a decent chance that he wins the fight. While Kattar has faced better strikers than Magomedsharipov (Moicano and Burgos), his wrestling and grappling haven’t been tested too many times, and Zabit most likely will be a test of how Kattar deals with an active takedown-artist who has a great top game and an athletic advantage. However, if Kattar can defeat Dagestan’s best hope for the future, the division has one of the most compelling fights in MMA within reach; the champion at 145, Max Holloway, is also a spectacular jabber with spectacular footwork, and a Holloway/Kattar fight has the potential to be among the highest-skilled ever. Regardless of how his next fight goes, though, if his previous contests are any indication, there’s a lot to look forward to from the Boston Finisher; a surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one.

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