2020 has provided fans with many fights, more often than not delivering despite worldly shenanigans taking over for those stranger to the combative arts. While Weili Zhang’s war with Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Dustin Poirier’s nailbiting classic over Dan Hooker remains near the crown in terms of Fight of the Year, numerous other bouts have aged like a fine wine.
At UFC 246 in January, Conor McGregor made his first appearance in the Octagon since his 2018 battering from Khabib Nurmagomedov, where he needed a mere 46 seconds to finish the aging Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. Along with the main event, both Drew Dober and Roxanne Modafferi drew attention from spectators through unforeseen performances. But it was a pair of featherweights that stole the show for this writer.
In a fight that deserved to headline the ESPN prelims (at the very least), well-polished veteran Andre Fili met surging contender Sodiq Yusuff, the perfect representation of a new-age mixed martial artist. Expectations were high for those familiar with the two athletes, and over the course of 15 minutes, they produced a fun yet high-level fight with more skill than a subtle glance could offer.
Yusuff is just one of the numerous killers currently operating in featherweight’s waters, although is wildly disrespected by those that watch him. A big reason for this, thus far, is the lack of notable opponents faced throughout his UFC career; injuries prohibited him from a contest with Edson Barboza, and a general unwillingness to fight him from the division’s top 5 has only prolonged the waiting game. Due to these reasons, we last witnessed the crafty striker go to work at UFC 246.
When facing Team Alpha Male’s Fili, Yusuff would be forfeiting a height and reach advantage, something that is fundamental to the game of his opponent. This meant his gameplan would have to be air-tight.
The pair get off to a flyer, with Fili looking to pile on the pressure early and keep the opposition behind his jab. Yusuff is having none of it and circles left while throwing out the lead hook as a counter. As Yusuff begins his own attacking sequence, Fili too tries to land the counter-hook but instead eats a jab. He was able to avoid getting countered by sliding out or rage after throwing and keeping his head off the centreline, something Fili, on the other hand, has failed to do in the past.
Fili plants his feet to unleash a 1-2 punching combination which Sodiq counters with a right hook; the California-based fighter decides he is not done, throwing a hook of his own (which negates a follow-up hook from Yusuff) before circling away from the power side. A nice jab then catches Yusuff moving forwards, and a feint moments after draws a slight reaction.
Fili had no interest in being clipped by his opponent’s power shot, hence why he continually shifted right whenever possible. Yusuff made this task strenuous by cutting off the cage and forcing Fili to exchange.
As noted in the first clip, both men were searching to counter the jab with a lead hook, and Fili can be seen here doing just that. Yusuff, being the intelligent fighter he is, catches onto this and lays a trap; he throws a jab, this time anticipating the hook and ducking it before scoring an overhand right over the now-nonexistent guard.
Here is another example of Yusuff drawing the counter shot out of Fili, but punishing him before he has the chance to land it. He remained defensively aware while doing so, something which cannot be said for his counterpart.
It was clear within the first minute that Yusuff would be sticking to the high guard as this allowed him to block punches more effectively and better suits his game. I believe he also chose this as Fili does not have a dedicated kicking game, meaning he can afford to leave the legs and body slightly more exposed than usual.
Looking to mix up his offense after a somewhat unsuccessful first minute, Fili delivers a kick to the body that is partially blocked. He acknowledges that Yusuff likes to double up on his jab to force him toward the cage, prompting him to shoot for a takedown before fate becomes reality.
Yusuff was able to deny the shot with an underhook, accompanied by his strong hips and good balance; in all fairness, the attempt was quite a poor one so he never needed a solid base to defend it. What Fili did do well, though, was keep the right arm trapped as he muscled him against the fence, limiting his options.
After the two disengage from the clinch they exchange jabs, with Yusuff sustaining his subtle pressure along the way. Replicating his previous takedown effort, Fili changes levels after the jab and slides himself to the back of Yusuff, clasping his hands around the waist to secure control. A crowd-pleasing dump brings the fight to the ground, but it doesn’t take the Nigerian long to get back to his feet.
By turning into his opponent while getting up Yusuff is preparing to deny any attempts against the cage. Note how he places his hands on Fili’s tricep as a way to quickly find the double underhook—fortunately for him, circumstances never amounted to using them.
Yusuff doubles up on his jab to push the opponent toward the fence, knowing he won’t shift left into his power side. Fili switches to southpaw in order to kick the body (two previous attempts from the orthodox stance resulted in no success) that prompts Yusuff to press forwards with an overhand. After blocking this shot each man throws leather, both stunning the other for a short moment. Andre then hits a perfect double leg as Yusuff was regaining composure; perfect timing. There are two lovely things about this overall exchange:
- Rather than follow a regular pattern of left-right-left-right, “Super” Sodiq connects with a solid right hook after throwing the straight with his right hand. This punch momentarily staggers Fili.
- While eating this punch Fili too lands one of his own, sneaking a hook (albeit looking more like a hammerfist) into the chin. This has a delayed effect but causes Yusuff’s knees to buckle by the finish of the sequence.
Following the takedown Yusuff immediately walks to the cage and begins hand-fighting, looking to plot his escape. Instead, he settles on grabbing the kimura, which, in my opinion, has proven to be a win-win situation the majority of the time: either you score the submission or force the opposition into giving up the dominant position. Yusuff is able to take the fight to the mat and reverse Fili, ultimately getting in a mix between full guard/side control. Fili, with the help of Yusuff and the cage, is able to find full guard and escape the submission attempt.
Nothing too special here, but it’s cool how Yusuff keeps hold of Fili’s left hand to lean a clean ground and pound strike. For the remaining 35 seconds, he controlled the fight with his grappling and transitioning abilities.
Fili begins the second round from the southpaw position, looking to up the volume of his kicks and make the opposite man think twice about pressuring so often. He uses the lead hand to get a feel for the range and follows through with a cross, however, Yusuff beats him to it with a leg kick. It was a feint from Fili that prompted Yusuff to land the leg kick as he could only assume a body kick was coming.
Yusuff knocked Fili off balance but failed to control the head, following up with an overhand attempt. He continued to cut off the cage, thus forcing Fili to circle towards the power side.
A slight feint draws a reaction from Fili, who shifts backward and plants his feet to land the body kick (with maximized power). Yusuff again responds with a harsh attack to the inside leg, completely removing Fili from his feet. He then steps over the leg and proceeds to land ground and pound.
Sodiq plants his left forearm on the shoulder of Fili to keep him pinned down and unable to tie his hands or head up, thus allowing him to land strikes and remove the difficulty of transitions. He shifts left and finds the crucifix position for a moment before Fili explodes, getting his arm free. Sodiq gives him no space to work; he uses head positioning to further assert the dominant position and keep control.
Yusuff recognized that Fili was itching to get his feet near the cage in order to help escape or reverse position, therefore he moved his right arm under the leg (keeping control) and used the cage to push; playing it safe while mitigating the opportunity of escape.
Following this, Fili would continue to spend some time in the bottom position, however, would eventually find freedom for a moment as Yusuff abandoned his control of the leg. This wouldn’t last long at all as The Nigerian would pounce back on his prey within an instance. Using the knee on belly position, he would continue to pummel the face of Fili.
Fili would battle on, refusing to accept being in the bottom position. He used a good hip escape to force Yusuff to his feet, where he then actively sought to land the upkick—just his previous escape, Yusuff would allow him no time and once more gain the dominant position, this time throwing the legs aside and claiming side control.
Yusuff would pass into full mount per his corner’s instructions, holding the position for close to 20 seconds. Fili—as discussed earlier—likes to have his feet close or on the cage, using this to spring upwards and push Yusuff off. He was finally on his feet after a number of minutes.
Fili tests his range before stepping in with a jab, where he is met with an inside leg kick. He notices that Sodiq’s head is directly on the centreline and takes full advantage of this, showing a throwaway jab followed by a head kick. Sodiq and his top-notch reactions took over as he ducked the head kick and continued with his pressuring style.
A brief moment of hand-fighting is followed by a Yusuff jab, a punch that had allowed him to keep Fili’s back against the cage all night. Fili shoots the same reactive takedown as before, not wanting to be directly on the cage and open to extended combinations. As he changes levels, Fili pulls in the left leg to successfully complete the shot; he’s unable to keep command of the legs as Yusuff uses his left hand as a platform to slide them out (wrist control and wrapping the legs would’ve aided the Team Alpha Male standout here).
Yusuff intelligently claims a collar tie, for the time being, leaving Fili tentative but in a comfortable position.
Although he was entering the third and final frame two rounds down, Andre Fili believed it was one round apiece. Thankfully for him he did anything but slow his own pace and output, however, there are numerous examples of fighters doing so believing they are in fact ahead on the scorecards; a simple solution such as open scoring would rectify this, but in the world of MMA, even the most simple of things are turned complicated.
Possibly one of my favorite sequences of the fight, as it shows the tactics of Yusuff and adjustments of Fili.
Yusuff had been countering punches with low kicks, as can be seen above. To add, he had been countering Fili’s kicks with punches of his own, with a big feint from Fili displaying this. After drawing a reaction out of him at the 4:27 mark, he moves backward and uses the same feint, this time attaching a southpaw cross behind it, knowing Yusuff’s chin will be on a silver platter.
Fili’s left hand, whether it be from southpaw or orthodox, had an accurate line of fire. Knowing he could land it, he switched to orthodox while backed up (more comfortable as it’s his natural stance) and scored a counter-jab. His efforts remained as he switched back to southpaw and snuck a crafty cross through the guard.
Two over-emphasized feints along with a change of rhythm allowed for Fili to land the straight left, and it was now his turn to back Yusuff up. While the body kick missed the mark, his straight punches were enough to push Yusuff back and search for a way out.
Looking to force openings to land meaningful punches, Fili resorted to using the jab and lead hand, something that Yusuff caught onto straight away. He countered a hook with one of his own, avoiding the follow-up punch by stepping (and ducking) to his right. Another spell of hand-fighting resulted in Sodiq’s jab winning the encounter.
The previous clip showed Andre being tagged by a hook after putting forward a jab. This time around, conscious that his jab would be countered by the same punch, he raised his hands close to the chin as a defensive measure and hit a counter, finding home with the left hand while avoiding being hit himself.
Yusuff cooly hits the cross-counter he had been looking for since the beginning of the third round. Though he had eaten a fair few straights, his defense was still in-tact.
Fili continued to lead, use feints and the odd extended combination to press his opponent towards the cage. When he had him there, though, singular shots proved to be more effective than combinations as Yusuff’s countering expertise came into play.
Towards the end of the clip, you will see Fili making the most out of his feint, using it to freeze Yusuff in his tracks and quickly break rhythm with his left hand.
His head kick may have been blocked, but Andre Fili was thinking past that. A feint with his legs immediately after the body kick had captured Yusuff’s focus, and as he was preparing to punch (as mentioned earlier; he responds to kicks with punches), Fili tagged him with the cross.
Fili was doing a great job of mixing between feinting before the cross or throwing it bare, leaving Yusuff up in the air as to what he was being met with; his wild counters were more often than not ineffective, but he wasn’t willing to be a defensive target only. He would switch between sliding out of range and replaying the right hook as a response, a punch that his opponent would anticipate for the remainder of the fight.
While it was still competitive, the round was doubtlessly swaying in the former’s favor, yet he would still need a finish to walk away as the victor.
An exaggerated feint forces Sodiq backward—where he had spent the majority of the final round—and he jabs to create space for himself. Fili doesn’t oblige and pushes onwards, slipping a predicted jab and coming back with a strike of his own. Neither man lands, with Sodiq showing the better defensive adjustments by taking his head completely off the centreline.
Fili finished with a lazy takedown attempt but despite it not physically doing anything, it put the thought in Yusuff’s mind; he would keep his hands slightly lower as a Fili level change could come at any time.
As the fight was in its final stretch, Yusuff remained on his bike, not wanting to be caught stationary against the cage with strikes or a takedown attempt. The cage around him was being cut off very well by Fili, who needed just a split-second of stillness from his opposite man to initiate a takedown.
Ultimately, Yusuff walked away with the unanimous decision win with a score of 29-28 on all three judges scorecards, moving him to a respected 11-1: four of those victories coming within the Octagon.
Fili, on the other hand, fell to 20-7 but has since rebounded with a win over Charles Jourdain and defeat to Bryce Mitchell, respectively. Just like his contest with Yusuff, these too were highly entertaining scraps that lived up to the hype and then some.
It may not be Fight of the Year material, but that doesn’t take away the fact that Fili vs Yusuff is a fun and important matchup, showcasing the remarkable level of talent the UFC’s featherweight division has to offer. It was not a coming-out party for Yusuff per se, but it presented him the chance to display his skills on one of the year’s biggest cards.
The (young yet) battle-tested veteran versus an up and coming prospect is a story as old as fighting itself, and one that will continue to play a part in the sport for years to come.