Jack Slack's Prospect Watch - Batraz Agnaev
Light Heavyweight (FightMatrix #27, Tapology #121, RankingMMA #43)
You would be quite within your rights to be a bit deflated about the state of the light heavyweight division in mixed martial arts. Even the most optimistic of fight fans would have to admit that the 205 pound class is in a woeful state. A forty year old champion, a couple of perpetual contenders who fight rarely and knock off up and comers when they do, and aggressively unimpressive talents like Gian Villante teasing an entry into the UFC’s top fifteen: it’s a shit show. But the light heavyweight division was also the writer’s motivation to actually sit down and start scouting the talent out there on the world stage. An entire weightclass world wide couldn’t be this bad.
While there aren’t heaps of world class prospects out there in the extended MMA universe, there are still enough to get excited about. At 37 years old Mamed Khalidov is probably a little long in the tooth for the ‘prospect’ label—he is what he is and he’s been showing his worth outside of the UFC, the chances are he’s never going to the big leagues now—but in a few weeks time Khalidov faces the ultra promising Tomasz Narkun at KSW 42 and we will certainly be giving that bout some attention. There’s the fun twenty-five year old sometimes-heavyweight, Jiri Prochazka putting on decent scraps in Rizin. And of course the Russian scene has a couple of big men making their way into the upper end of the various online rankings. One of the more enigmatic lads on that list is our focus for today: Batraz Agnaev.
In our last Prospect Watch piece we were able to scour through hours of footage of Akhmed Aliev working his way through various organizations and highlight the tools that he showed over and over again. We can’t do that with Batraz Agnaev because he has had four professional fights and one amateur bout, and video is only readily available of three of them. So what is there to get excited over?
Agnaev made his professional debut in February 2015 against another debuting fighter, Lukasz Borowski. This took place on the undercard of M-1 Challenge 55. The sound is all out of balance on the video of this bout, with the commentators being barely audible over the small crowd and the coaches. Many of the cameramen aren’t even in position when the broadcast cuts to them, resulting in bizarre cut-aways from the fight. This prelim seemed as much to warm up for the broadcast as it was to showcase the fighters. Agnaev came out and blasted his man with a thudding jab, then they started swinging. Clearly Agnaev had a stern sprawl and some heavy hands but in the course of this quick stoppage Agnaev got his face bloodied up. So far, so average.
In his next fight Agnaev scored a TKO over another 1-0-0 fighter in three minutes, again on an M-1 undercard. This was when things hit the skids for the big Russian. He signed to compete in the United States with Global Proving Ground but lost two opponents and was unable to fight. Then he signed with ACB and was scheduled to meet the 10-5 Turkmen, Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov in a large step up in competition. That bout was supposed to happen in Vienna, but Agnaev couldn’t secure a visa and was once again forced out of a fight. By the time Agnaev got back into the cage at ACB 54 in March 2017, he had been out of action for almost two years and was a 2-0-0 fighter going up against the 17-3 Swede, Max Nunes.
Against Nunes, Agnaev showed some more of his wrestling power. Taken down by the experienced ground fighter, Agnaev sat up, put his hands to the mat and sprang to his feet—leaving Frank Mir incredulous on commentary.
Dragged down along the fence again, Agnaev immediately began to sit up but found his posting arm being passed beneath his back into that ‘one armed man’ position which Mario Sperry made famous in Jiu Jitsu competition but which has always been far more disastrous for the bottom man in MMA once the top man starts striking.
After that scrape, Agnaev saw the opportunity to sit up into Nunes and hit a half guard hip bump straight into top position.
But before Agnaev could try to pound his man out, Nunes got up and began to chase Agnaev’s hips. Once again that hundred kilo sprawl had Agnaev’s opponent kissing the mat. Agnaev grabbed a handful of a butt drag and stretched Nunes out underneath him, then began punching. To the surprise of everyone in attendance, Nunes found himself unable to defend and was left face down and knocked out. It was a strange bout, and a big win, but it still seemed like Agnaev was a rough diamond.
Agnaev’s most recent fight was easily his best and it is the reason that we are even considering him here. ACB matched Agnaev against the notorious UFC veteran, Thiago Silva. Silva was in the top end of the UFC’s division before his legendary temper saw him chasing his wife and Pablo Popovitch at gunpoint, after which the UFC understandably gave him his walking papers. There is no denying that Silva is in the twilight of his career—he was always a little chinny and over-aggressive, but now that his opponents know he can’t take a great shot they will often simply try to overpower him.
In Silva’s defence his technical kickboxing seems to have improved in leaps and bounds since the days when he chased after Lyoto Machida and Alexander Gustafsson, imploring them to stand and fight him, while taking unanswered blows to the face. The writer was surprised while ringside at GLORY’s most recent trip to New York, to see that Silva was on the card and that Mike (of Mike’s Gym fame) cornered him to a decent enough victory. Silva is still mean mugging, but he has added some nice low kicks, elbows and combination work to his arsenal.
After a couple of rough knockout losses following his release from the UFC, Silva seemed to be rebuilding himself well and came into the fight with Agnaev sporting a 19-5 record. He had worlds of experience on Agnaev and it was expected that he could bring it to lever somehow.
Through the first round, Agnaev attempted to walk Silva down and had Silva circling the cage frantically. But Agnaev’s lengthy stance exposed him to low kicks.
Agnaev would look to catch Silva along the fence and uncork the right hand as Silva circled out into it.
Giving ground when Silva lashed out, Agnaev looked for right hand counters which weren’t particularly pretty.
The reason we are even talking about Agnaev is the growth that he showed through that first round and into the second. This was a man who had overwhelmed all of his opponents quickly with his strength and power. He looked clumsy and unpolished but as the round progressed against Silva he settled down. By the end of the first round he was holding Silva’s feet to the fire along the fence for longer periods and he wasn’t stepping back so readily when Silva fired back.
As the second round commenced Agnaev seemed to be brimming with confidence. He came out and put together one of his first combinations of the fight as he trapped Silva along the fence again, nicely avoiding Silva’s return.
The most significant change, however, was that Silva could no longer land his low kicks. Agnaev was either checking them or withdrawing his lead leg and allowing Silva to perform a pirouette as the Russian moved back in. Agnaev even began using an inside low kick of his own.
At the mid point of the round Agnaev seemed to have complete confidence in his ringcraft and his power. Stepping in with a simple low-high, he jabbed Silva’s body and swung for his jaw with the right hand. Silva returned with a counter right elbow which caught Agnaev mid flow and saw him pause to check his brow for blood. But Agnaev didn’t step back. He kept the pressure on like a savvy veteran of three times as many fights—showing Silva the jab and keeping him worrying. Silva was puffing hard and his feet were in a side skip as he was almost flat to the fence between exchanges now. Agnaev stepped in again and clouted him with a right hand which sent the Brazilian into survival mode.
A confident, competent ring cutter with a thoughtful jab and good defensive instincts had stepped out of Agnaev’s body in the middle of the first round, but the moment that right hand landed it retreated and Agnaev the novice was let back into the fight. Swarming for the finish Agnaev gave no thought to picking his shots and thudded his hardest punches straight into Silva’s forearms. Frank Mir was once again astounded on commentary insisting that Agnaev was going to break his hand doing this. But the volume and pressure was too much for the wounded Silva and the fight was waved off as he fell to his hands and knees.
That bout took place in August 2017 and Batraz Agnaev hasn’t fought since. He had a second booking against Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov set for the 27th January 2018, but it was cancelled once again. His career path has been bizarre and that shows no signs of letting up but with victories over experienced, capable light heavyweights like Max Nunes and Thiago Silva he is clearly capable of facing better fighters than the 205 pound division outside of the UFC has to offer right now.
One of the few good things about Batraz Angaev’s cancelled bouts is that they show us he is willing to fight outside of Russia and outside of Eastern European promotions. With the number of great Eastern European prospects who never have the desire to head to the States, that is a bit of a relief. Obviously the UFC has the most interesting fights for Agnaev, but Bellator’s light heavyweight division is one of their best.
Were Agnaev to make the jump to the UFC today almost every match would test something that we don’t know about him. Watching Fracisco Barroso (FightMatrix #50, Tapology #28, RankingMMA #39) and Gian Villante (FightMatrix #29, Tapology #18, RankingMMA #19) scrap the other night, either could make a compelling bout with Agnaev. Agnaev’s newfound pressure on the feet and his thudding right hand—combined with a willigness to throw which Villante just didn’t have at many points in the Barroso bout—might make Agnaev seem a rough match up for Barroso and give him a good chance at a stoppage. Villante is a powerful kicker and stops a takedown well, so a bout between he and Agnaev would probably be led by the question of how well Agnaev could keep Villante on the back foot and prevent him from kicking.
For some old school UFC matchmaking—where contenders kill off contenders and nobody is safe—Agnaev could be put in against Dominick Reyes (FightMatrix #35, Tapology #25, RankingMMA #23), one of the most exciting light heavyweights to make his way to the UFC in recent years. With both having so few fights and making short work of many of their opponents both have a lot of question marks, but Agnaev’s right hand happy style and his lack of a decent left hook, or urgency in recovering from his right, would make the writer worry about matching him against a southpaw with a fast left straight and a great left body kick. Reyes, like many who excel with that southpaw double attack, seems to like some space to work on the feet though. Jeremy Kimball’s bum-rush-and-stick-to-him strategy showed that to a degree—if Agnaev could keep Reyes on the back foot and next to the fence he could potentially turn it into target practice instead of an awkward wrestling match.
To guarantee fireworks, Ion Cutelaba (FightMatrix #55, Tapology #31, RankingMMA N/A) might be a good shout. Agnaev can clearly take a shot but preparing to face that kind of puncher might actually force him to think a bit more about how open he leaves himself after unleashing that right. Jared Cannonier (FightMatrix #52, Tapology #23, RankingMMA #20) would love fighting Agnaev for the first round or so with his solid counter boxing and good left hook, but his output has consistently been a problem and his gas tank compounds this. For a quick smash and grab the UFC could throw Agnaev in with the famously chinny and hittable Paul Craig (FightMatrix #70, Tapology #32, RankingMMA #47) or Henrique De Silva (FightMatrix #110, Tapology #47, RankingMMA N/A).
Outside of the UFC, Bellator’s top guys seem a push too far. Ryan Bader (FightMatrix #3, Tapology #5, RankingMMA #3) might struggle to take a shot but he’s got passable striking, world class MMA wrestling, and a good enough gas tank to make Agnaev regret his exploding up from the mat each time he gets put there. Phil Davis (FightMatrix #4, Tapology #8, RankingMMA #4) has also been showing wonderful grappling against men mid-stand up or wall walk. If Max Nunes can trap your hand behind your back, Davis will look for that wrist constantly for fifteen minutes. Rampage Jackson (FightMatrix #30 HW somehow, Tapology #74 HW, RankingMMA N/A) would certainly get a stand and bang fight out of Agnaev, who also seems like a mark for the left hook, so that could at least be fun to put together.
Pushing the Envelope
In terms of ‘pushing the envelope’ match-ups—where we consider the highest possible ranked opponent who seems like a good stylistic match up for Agnaev—perhaps Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua (FightMatrix #8, Tapology #9, RankingMMA #9). Rua has climbed back into the top ten by seeing off young prospects with a savvier, if more restrained, striking style. On the feet Agnaev could definitely struggle and he has seemed reluctant to use his wrestling offensive, but one of Rua’s great pitfalls has always been that he is very offensively minded in the clinch, working beautiful trips and knees, but has a bit of a blind spot for his opponent’s takedown attempts. In Bellator, Liam McGeary’s (FightMatrix #16, Tapology #17, RankingMMA #18) striking relies entirely on his length and has few defensive concerns—his ground game also consists entirely of throwing up submissions from the bottom and he rarely looks for takedowns. That is a bout that seems like it could be winnable with either good ring craft and a counter right hand, a bit of wall and stall, or smothering wrestling.
Either way this is very blue sky thinking. Let’s not break out the UFC’s punch measuring machine and declare Agnaev to be the Scariest Man on Earth just yet. A loss in his next bout would bump Agnaev down to an 80% winning rate already. But the exciting thing about Agnaev is that he seems to improve so much between fights, which is extremely encouraging because he winds up missing out on so many. Don’t bet the house on Agnaev becoming a top ten light heavyweight and pile your hopes upon the gigantic Russian’s shoulders… but know that he is out there and that when he fights it is worth watching.