Jack Slack's Prospect Watch: Akhmed Aliev - 'The Butcher'

Jack Slack's Prospect Watch: Akhmed Aliev - 'The Butcher'

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Akhmed Aliev – The Butcher

Lightweight (FightMatrix #24, Tapology #72)

While the UFC owns the majority of the best fighters competing in most weightclasses in mixed martial arts there is no shortage of up and coming talent worldwide. In this series we hope to have a look at some of the more exciting names outside of the big leagues. There are plenty of reasons not to make it State side, after all, but the reader will quickly notice that a lot of the best names outside of the UFC and Bellator are Russian. Today we examine one such Eastern prospect, Akhmed Aliev.

Fight Nights Global (FNG) has quietly run over eighty events in Eastern Europe and Akhmed Aliev has quickly become one of their stars. Lightweight is not a division that is short on talent and FNG has their own champion, Magomedsaygid Alibekov. Independent rankings which include fighters from outside of the UFC and Bellator are in short supply but FightMatrix (which is ranked through the magic of maths) and Tapology both have Aliev significantly outranking the current FNG champ. He is also FightMatrix’s highest ranked lightweight outside of the big two promotions—a position he rocketed into after ‘defeating’ Diego Brandao in September. We will touch on that controversial bout later on but first let’s look at why Aliev might excite you.

Aliev is a first and foremost a savvy striker. Starting each fight in a high kickboxing stance, he will gradually uncoil into a wider base as he warms up and begins applying his jab. Aliev’s jab is decent—which is already pretty revolutionary in mixed martial arts—and he likes to set a couple of basic traps with it. He’ll jab at his opponent and try to skip up into the left high kick if they start parrying (a classic), and he’ll look to jab and give ground when the opponent retaliates, attempting to coax them onto a check hook. I can’t show you many good gifs of his check hook because he shows it constantly and it almost never connects—but it seems to serve as something of a deterrent to following him. Actually the one opponent it connected on was simultaneously his best regarded and wildest, Diego Brandao.

Aliev’s kicking game used to be held back by takedown concerns, but his lead leg looks dexterous and cunning when he lets it go. Occasionally he goes to an inside low kick which is fast enough that this writer would love to see more of it. Aliev seems able to get away with it but is struggling to build the confidence to use it. That caution is understandable though, the inside low kick is one which the opponent can drop right down on—Michael Bisping has been dragged down off it dozens of times throughout his career.

Meanwhile the left high kick is a constant feature in Aliev’s bouts, often thrown off a boxing combination. This works especially well when he throws a counter combination and ends with a high kick, as he did against Efrain Escudero.

A gorgeous pull right hand into counter combination ending in a high kick.

In recent fights, Aliev’s left round kick to the body has become one of his go-to weapons and really takes the wind out of fighters. Against Ivan Jorge he timed it nicely as Jorge opened up to punch—the Badr Hari and Donald Cerrone method.

Against Diego Brandao, Aliev retreated or slowly stepped into a southpaw stance before changing tempo to hammer in the kick under the peek-a-boo guard of the wild Brazilian. These kicks quickly drained Brandao.

Aliev spins for back kicks and wheel kicks in all of his fights. He can drive the idea into the ground sometimes but he’ll occasionally time them as the opponent is moving in and get a decent connection.

His combinations are one of the reasons that Aliev has caught my eye. When he throws punches he looks like an experienced boxer. He gets in range and stays in range to unleash three or four punches, and if his opponent presses in on him he gives ground with the check hook or angles off to break away. He doesn’t often load up, and he tracks his opponent’s head well. Aliev’s highlight reel (though he doesn’t knock a lot of guys out) is a short video essay on the importance of combination work in mixed martial arts. Against Ivan Jorge he had Jorge ducking and weaving, then continued the combination to nail him as he returned to standing. If you have spent your whole career fighting men who swing in two punches at a time, four or five in succession can be quite a change of pace.

Also visible above, and in many of his fights, is the upjab that Aliev loves. Dropping his lead hand low, he will come up from underneath the opponent. The nice thing about this is that it allows him to step in on his man with a ‘free underhook’ if they immediately duck in for a takedown, and can be changed into a powerful uppercut if they do so slowly.

Despite having twenty fights to his name and being 27 years old, Aliev has only recently begun to grow into his style. His 2015 match with David Khachatryan was one of the most tentative showings you will see inside the cage. But over the last two years Aliev has begun to open up more with his strikes, despite fighting stronger grapplers. In 2016 he starched Ivan Jorge, who was coming off a 2-2 run in the UFC, having just been arm triangled by Joe Duffy. Before that Duffy fight, Jorge hadn’t been finished since 2005. Efrain Escudero left the UFC on a decision loss to now top ten lightweight, Kevin Lee, picked up two victories outside of the big leagues, and then Aliev took a convincing decision from him.

Aliev is not anywhere close to perfect of course and it would be negligent to ignore his shortcomings. He gives ground for good distance and often forgets to break the line of attack. His willingness to give ground in hopes of finding that check hook could lead to him running onto the cage under the encouragement of a man with good feints or a conservative double jab.

He isn’t exactly the smoothest getting off the fence either.

When the clinch happens, Aliev—who we can probably assume with a fair degree of safety has some kind of judo or sambo experience—will look to hit a hip throw.

Head and arm, underhook, whizzer, he doesn’t mind. But he’ll labour his opponent into the air and if they hop over his hip and stay on their feet he will try to throw punches and break the clinch. Unfortunately it’s not like feather light touch of Fedor Emelianenko who would feel the slightest resistance on his hip motion and return with a monstrous uppercut or hook, Aliev’s opponent often realizes he’s changing direction sooner than he does. A flair for the dramatic sells fights, and big throws are good in the eyes of the judges, but I worry that often these are hiding a lack of more fundamental exits from the clinch. It’s a lot harder to hip throw someone if you’re mushed into the cage, and the throw only came when Efrain Escudero relieved some pressure and allowed Aliev to step off the fence.

In his most recent and infamous bout, Aliev met former UFC featherweight and current headcase, Diego Brandao. Brandao feinted and pressured him onto the fence very effectively in the opening round and it looked like Aliev might be about to have his ringcraft exploited. But as if to make you ask again whether Brandao is a good fighter or somehow lucked into many of his victories, Brandao would lose patience even when he had Aliev trapped along the fence.

We mentioned Aliev being a little too keen to spin on occasion. Against Efrain Escudero he span right into giving Escudero his back.

But against Brandao, Aliev spun more often than ever and it actually seemed to alleviate some of the pressure. Likely because a heel caught Brandao in the bread basket in the early going.

Brandao’s wild man striking style clearly caught Aliev off guard as Aliev gave ground to check hook and found Brandao running straight through, in no stance, to hammer him as he leaned away. Brandao came close to finishing Aliev but Aliev rallied well.

The body kicks began to slow Brandao, just as his failed rushes did—amazingly he didn’t seem to learn anything from gassing himself out in under a minute against Dustin Poirier. Aliev began to connect with his hands and score takedowns on a wheezing Brandao. In the second round Brandao complained of being headbutted in guard, to which Aliev headbutted him again and rattled off a combination as Brandao was talking to the ref. Brandao then upkicked Aliev in the throat and climbed out of the cage. Yes, Aliev was in the wrong, but Brandao seemed a bit too eager to quit after he had tired and lost his early momentum.

Akhmed Aliev might not be the next world beater, but the recent opponents he has faced have all been unforgiving cuts from the UFC. Escudero, Jorge and Brandao stacked up just fine in the UFC’s various divisions when he faced them, and his skills stacked up convincingly against each. His fights can make frustrating viewing—particularly those from 2015 and earlier—but over the last two years Aliev has become a more confident and exciting striker in the cage.

Fantasy Matchmaker

Putting on our matchmaker hats: there are a number of decent lightweights in the UFC whom Aliev could give a great scrap to. Fun first fights would be those which pit his striking heavy style against a more grappling oriented fighter. Aliev’s worst areas would get tested and he would get the chance to shine on the feet. That is, after all, what most watch the fights for to begin with. Leonardo Santos (FightMatrix #26, Tapology #31, RankingMMA #19) might be interesting—a grappler who gained some confidence with a surprising knockout over Kevin Lee in 2015 and has only fought once since, but who is well regarded within the UFC.

Of course a more capable, or at least confident, striker might actually lead to a more interesting showing from Aliev. Jim Miller (FightMatrix #27, Tapology #23, Ranking MMA #18) gets gamer every fight but is definitely in the twilight of his career. Joe Lauzon (FightMatrix #48, Tapology #32, RankingMMA #39) still carries great name power and fan appeal due to his almost guarantee of a finish. But he is still very dangerous and perhaps a little too good on the ground and adaptable. If one really felt like pushing Aliev’s chances, Charles Oliveira (FightMatrix #20, Tapology #20, RankingMMA #21) might be a decent shot as he is a confident striker but fairly meat-and-potatoes, as well as a little chinny and prone to fading, though the amount Aliev shows his back and runs himself onto the fence might spell disaster against the Brazilian backpack.

Almost anyone in the UFC’s official top fifteen seems like a death sentence, but Anthony Pettis (UFC #13, FightMatrix #11, Tapology #16, RankingMMA #10) has been looking increasingly tentative and gun shy in recent years. Aliev has been great at stepping in on the counter off his opponents’ kicks and there are really only two scenarios when he opens up confidently with his hands. The first is when an opponent gets in his face and has him fighting for his life, and the second is when they sit well back and clearly won’t hurt him. It’s the kind of match that the UFC could certainly benefit from having on a main card because it has the chance of revitalizing Pettis against an opponent who isn’t a stone cold killer, but could also announce the arrival of an exciting new lightweight prospect.

The worst mid-division match ups for him would seem to be the stronger wrestlers of the division because of that sloppy ringcraft, largely untested takedown defence and unknown bottom game. Pitting him against a Nik Lentz (FightMatrix #30 , Tapology #25, RankingMMA #25) or Will Brooks (FightMatrix #44, Tapology #26, RankingMMA #31) would probably lead to a good old fashioned grinding and a complete dismissal of his abilities by many UFC fans right off the bat. The absolute dumbest thing you could do with him—spare throwing him in against the top fifteen—would be to pair him up with Rustam Khabilov (FightMatrix #19, Tapology #18, RankingMMA #26). Not only are the two Russian names going to immediately make most fans’ eyes glaze over, you’re putting a frustratingly cautious striker in with a tentative, fence sitting counter wrestler who will dive for the hips the first moment that Aliev opens up.

There's a good chance Akhmed Aliev is never provided the motivation to leave the Eastern European scene, and certainly Fight Nights Global will try to get a belt on him soon after the publicity he received in the wake of the Diego Brandao controversy. Whether he makes it to the UFC, or keeps doing his thing over in Europe, there are enough good lightweights traveling around the globe right now that he shouldn't be stuck for challenges.

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