Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Calvin Kattar: Roundtable Discussion
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Now headlining UFC Moscow, Zabit Magomedsharipov is approaching star status in the UFC. This is largely due to the lore surrounding his native Dagestan, his flashy style, and a fairly comfortable win over ranked entity Jeremy Stephens.
While we at the Fight Site generally agree that Zabit’s skill-set has been blown out of proportion by the UFC hype-machine, he’s still an impressive rising contender and certainly offers an interesting combination of tools.
He’ll be facing site darling Calvin Kattar, a shining example of boxing fundamentals in MMA. The site’s MMA, wrestling and grappling analysts joined forces to attempt to analyze and predict this consequential featherweight matchup.
Danny Martin: I’ve written extensively on Zabit’s UFC career thus far, and while I’ve been fairly critical of the former ACB champion, it needs to be said; Zabit is a very solid fighter. Although Mark Henry and Joe Rogan’s claims that Zabit is the most technically peerless fighter in MMA are more than a bit overblown, the Russian is pretty well-rounded and composed in ways that serve him well at 145. My criticisms of Zabit largely center around the lack of depth in his striking, which still persists, but perhaps this is the wrong way to view Magomedsharipov. In reality, he is turning into one of the more domineering wrestlers at featherweight, bolstered tremendously by his length and wiry strength.
Calvin Kattar is definitively the B-side of this matchup, even though he largely appeals more to the hardcore fans (like the writers of this very website). While his loss to Moicano continues to age horribly, Kattar has managed to rebound well off of two first-round TKO finishes, something of a surprise given how decision-heavy his regional career was. A win here likely puts him in line for the winner of Holloway/Volkanovski (which would be glorious), but a loss probably locks Kattar out of contention for the foreseeable future. As a pro since 2007, Kattar has more years on him than most fans realize.
Sriram Muralidaran: Yep, that's all fair. I've taken a much closer look at Kattar than at Zabit, mostly because Kattar's plainly seemed a lot more interesting. In a word, his early career has been about as fearless as they get, and he fights with the poise and skill to justify that; it's gutsy to face a guy as experienced as Andre Fili on short-notice in his debut, or to face a terrifying and streaking Shane Burgos when most wouldn't have, but even more impressive to beat both decisively (and one in an underrated all-time great fight, one of my five favorite ever). Kattar is again showing his hunger for tough fights with Magomedsharipov; Zabit is poised to test areas of Kattar's game that haven't been tested yet, so Kattar pursuing him across the world onto his own home soil shows confidence in himself that's extremely rare. Perhaps he sees something that the oddsmakers don't. That said, Kattar's bout against Renato Moicano also turned him into a lesson on the perils of going right into the shark tank; Moicano is an understated yet monstrous matchup for nearly anyone, likely including Magomedsharipov, so the fearlessness that paid off so well with the Burgos booking suddenly exploded in Kattar's face.
Zabit hasn't had that problem, and the promotion seems to want him not to; his rise has been reasonable in a way most prospect rises aren't, so he's had plenty of opportunity to set himself up as an exciting hopeful by styling on sub-20 talent like Santiago and Davis. His step up wasn't an easy challenge, but not necessarily a difficult one; Jeremy Stephens is dangerous but extremely solvable, and still has more ranking value than someone like Moicano despite losing to him. To be entirely fair, some of Zabit's rise being that way was just the circumstances; Rodriguez falling out of their bout at UFC 228, Aldo and Mendes being above his station until they declined rapidly, fellow prospects like Volkanovski concurrently shooting up the rankings with an exponentially harder schedule. Whatever the case, though, it's safe to say Kattar is the most skilled challenge of Zabit's career so far, even if it's meant to be a winnable one. A three-round main event in Moscow is about as good as it gets for the Dagestani to make the jump to the next level while getting eyes on him.
Danny Martin: This is a bit of a concerning matchup for Calvin Kattar. It needs to be said that he isn’t much of an athlete. He has quick hands, swift feet, and a good chin, but he isn’t particularly large for the weight class nor is he a physical powerhouse inside. Chris Fishgold was able to take Kattar down briefly just by walking in on him, and he managed to attempt a guillotine as Kattar was building his base along the fence. It wasn’t until Kattar started landing his jab that Fishgold was undone.
The biggest analogue for Zabit here is Moicano, who beat the seven shades of hell out of Kattar and completely muted the Bostonian’s offense by final round. Zabit lacks the technical depth of Moicano, (most notably, the kick counters to the jab), but he is even longer and rangier than Renato. As I’ve pointed out in my Holes in the Armor articles, Zabit is a solid lateral mover, especially on the outside. Against Stephens, Zabit would feint in both directions, wait for Stephens to plant his feet, and then exit out the other side. There isn’t anything particularly unique or special about his footwork, but he’s a better outfighter than he gets credit for. Conversely, when Kattar feels his jab being shortchanged, he tends to resort to running combinations.
Kattar isn’t much without his jab. Although we’ve lauded the Burgos fight before, Shane is also a uniquely favorable stylistic matchup for Calvin, since Burgos is pathologically devoted to coming forward. As such, Kattar was able to draw Burgos onto his jab and layer combinations from it. On the other hand, Moicano stayed at the absolute peak of his range, caught Kattar’s jab in his hand, and countered with either the low kicks or the left hook. When Kattar began second-guessing his distance, his jab disappeared and Moicano began taking angles on offense to continually batter the Bostonian. This begs the question: how does Kattar close down a rangey, mobile opponent who can intercept him with takedowns? Nothing about Kattar’s wins over Fishgold and Lamas has answered this question. It’s worth pointing out that Kattar’s step-in jab leaves his front leg exposed, and some of Zabit’s best takedown entries come from running the pipe on a single.
Sriram Muralidaran: That's true, but I think it's really easy to undersell how impressive it was that Moicano did what he did (between Kattar looking awful by the end and Moicano's rapid decline since at the hands of Aldo and Jung). That is to say, where Moicano is the closest analog to Zabit in Kattar's resume, he isn't really all that similar. Countering the jab of a great jabber like Kattar is a big ask, one Moicano handled masterfully, and even he had a dicey moment; early in the fight, Kattar was able to pull the check hook out (and cover distance) with the jab and shoot the straight clean down the middle, he just stopped doing that because he couldn't get jabs off for free. This is where it snowballed; Kattar got leg-kicked as a jab counter, stopped jabbing to close him down, and his desperate rear-hand leads and shifts let Renato just pivot away or check-hook.
If Zabit can't take away the jab the way Moicano did, I think Kattar can jab in just fine. Even if Kattar turns to those running combinations, I expect them to work better on Zabit than on Moicano (based on Bochniak's early success pushing Zabit back with sheer aggression, Moicano's the much better outfighter of the two), and there's no reason to do that anyway when Kattar can cover distance behind his jab as he did against Fili and early against Moicano. I expect it to look closer to his debut in that case, where Zabit trades landing a few kicks (where Zabit's game is far less structured and effective than Moicano's) for Kattar reading him with the jab and widening his edge inside, and Kattar has looked like a consequential hitter at the very least, so Zabit's in trouble if it plays out that way.
Kattar isn’t the relentless volume threat inside that Holloway is, but even genuinely excellent boxers like Burgos have folded under his assault; Kattar plays his attacks off each other extremely well, feints excellently to open up opportunities, and it all flows through a jab that can reasonably be considered one of the best in MMA (can be aimed at the head or the body, phenomenal at stringing them together with his attacks between feints and rhythm changes, and uses it all to get reads on his opponent’s defense). Zabit's a fine boxer with his own jab and left hook, but I have little difficulty seeing Kattar draw those out and work around them; the most likely scenario for Kattar being consistently able to pocket-fight is Zabit getting ruined, as someone far less adept in-close than Burgos. What I find more trouble seeing is Kattar holding off the wrestling.
Ed Gallo: Did someone say wrestling? I have absolutely no read on this fight, but I did a brief examination of Kattar’s worst wrestling look in the UFC (Fishgold) and compared it to how Zabit wrestled with Jeremy Stephens.
Many are immediately dismissing Kattar’s defensive wrestling because he was taken down by Chris Fishgold, who is obviously worse at MMA than Zabit Magomedsharipov. But looking at the clip, it was a very well-informed, athletic setup and shot by Fishgold. He put Kattar off his base with low kicks (triggering his PTSD, most likely) jabbed in to snap Kattar back into boxing mode and ducked under. Not only was his shot explosive and well-timed, Fishgold has decent finishing fundamentals, turning the corner hard to finish on a heavy-hipped Kattar.
On Zabit’s end, he’s far from an explosive shot artist, and his entries are much more reactive, as he invites the chase due to his outfighting. Leaning on the physical gifts he does have, Zabit takes his time on finishes, he’s not the type to blow through you on a shot. In those exchanges with Fishgold, Kattar looked strong to me. I don’t think he’s going to be easy to control in those intermediate positions on his butt or against the cage. It’s also worth noting that after Zabit’s first entry on Stephens, Jeremy wisened up. Stephens isn’t a particularly good wrestler in chains or anything, but he’s got a good first line of defense, as does Kattar in my opinion. That was enough to shuck off the attempts of Zabit once he recognized that look.
As usual in MMA, Stephens could more comfortably predict those shot entries as he started to gain the upper hand on the feet, mostly due to Zabit tiring. It could be rough going in Round 1 for Kattar, but I don’t think he’s dead in the water when faced with these types of wrestling situations. The matchup on the feet will determine everything, in my opinion. If Kattar is about to pick his spot in the cage and keep Zabit from having his distance, he’ll have less room to draw Kattar onto his singles or doubles. On that same note, if Kattar is having his way standing, Zabit will probably gas sooner, and the finish will become available.
I’m picking Kattar by Round 3 TKO, after losing a round and a half.
Sriram Muralidaran: That gives me a lot of confidence, honestly, if Kattar gets through the first few attempts safely. The bigger problem I see is Zabit being a strong top-player with a great game against the fence; Fishgold (from what I know) is a somewhat-defined guillotine hunter, which comes with a good bit of tradeoff in terms of top control, where Zabit doesn't play the same way. There's a decent chance that Kattar just looks inert in extended sequences despite a cursory getup game, especially against someone as athletic and well-versed as Zabit on top.
That said, Ed, you've given me all the reason I needed to pick Kattar here. He'd do much better with a longer fight in my opinion, he's a strong body-puncher and Zabit visibly loses some enthusiasm down the stretch as is, but I don't apply as many of the lessons from the Moicano fight to this as Danny does. I think Moicano and Zabit are fundamentally dissimilar despite their somewhat-similar frames, and what troubled Kattar was unique depth in Moicano's kicking and counterpunching that Zabit's game simply doesn't have. I have no trouble seeing Zabit winning, but I don't think he's a particularly difficult matchup for Calvin on the feet without being able to mercilessly punish the jab the way Moicano did, and I'll cede to the expert on the wrestling. Kattar's striking doesn't lend itself to easy takedown entries in most circumstances, either; he's aggressive moving forward but keeps a stance and even a strong reactive takedown artist in Lamas had trouble reading Kattar's offense when he couldn't keep up in pure striking. My best guess is that Kattar finds his way inside past Zabit's disjointed kicking game and counterpunching (helped by his ridiculously great jab and bodyshots that wear on the Russian) and chops Zabit up when he's exhausted. Kattar by late TKO.
Danny Martin: I don’t see it. Kattar has been somewhat fortunate that his last two opponents have been both static and plodding. Even Burgos seems incapable of fighting off the backfoot. Zabit doesn’t have the offensive depth of Moicano, but he’s more mobile in the pocket and (perhaps controversially) more comfortable under fire. If Kattar can survive Zabit’s sinuous grappling on the mat & if he can double down on his body jab and build off it, he can win this, but that’s asking a lot. Kattar targets the body more than he triturates it. This is still only a three-round fight, and Zabit’s ability to insulate himself from exchanges with length and wrestling should be in effect here. I just don’t believe in Kattar’s ability to track down rangier opponents without putting himself out of position in the process. Anyone looks like a good striker against Lamas and Fishgold, but Kattar looked genuinely impotent against Moicano. When Kattar can’t get his jab rolling, I don’t trust him to win fights, and frankly, Zabit appears to have the higher ceiling. The pick is an easy Zabit via submission.
Ben Kohn: Not going to lie, I was sadly unable to watch tape. I decided last minute to compete at the NY Open next week Sunday so training took priority. All that being said, the guys above have laid out the dynamics of the fight as clearly as possible. Three rounds in Moscow favors Zabit tremendously. He’s got good-to-really good wrestling (depending on who you ask), his top game is excellent, size and reach on Kattar, who’s major struggle in his UFC has been against someone who used it effectively, and really good movement on the outside to potentially frustrate Kattar.
What falls in Kattar’s favor here is really on the technical side of things, at least on the feet. He’s a far more polished striker than Zabit is and seems to have felt a lot more comfortable throwing with power in his recent run. His boxing is top of the food chain, he has among the most educated jabs in the sport, is a dedicated body puncher, and his toughness and cardio are elite. The problem I foresee, along with the others, is he is not an especially good pressure fighter, and would be much happier fighting someone who’s meeting him in the pocket. That and the wrestling of course. I’m not putting too much into him getting taken down by Fishgold, as the shot was really well done (and Kattar was able to get right back up as well, guillotine not-withstanding). I think he will be more wary of it against Zabit.
The issue is, will the threat of Zabit’s takedowns deter Kattar from forcing a higher pace that we know Zabit just cannot maintain? Zabit is already known to slow down past the halfway point, and while he’s remained undefeated, and can fight tired, it’s definitely a hole in his game. If Kattar is aggressive out of the gate, and isn’t deterred by Zabit’s movement or wrestling (and doesn’t get fucked up on the ground of course) I see him pulling this fight out and jumping into the deep end of the division. This is how I see it going. Kattar seems to have turned a corner and with Zabit’s issues having been on display against lesser fighters, I think Kattar pulls it out. Calvin Kattar by Unanimous Decision