For all its faults, the light heavyweight division is consistently able to produce intrigue, whether that be through the competing athletes’ personas or fights themselves.
Look no further than champion Jan Blachowicz, who reached the summit of the sport despite his poor habit of blitzing forward unhinged – something that a seasoned pro, let alone a champion, should never be witnessed doing. Yet withal the humor is thrown around by fans, 205 is definitely worth discussing.
Those sitting atop the rankings – names such as Thiago Santos, Glover Teixeira, and Dominick Reyes – are all but unfamiliar with fans, each racking in a social media following of more than 150,000. Yet some ranked contenders find themselves less known, quietly exercising their role within the UFC.
Assess the UFC’s light heavyweight rankings and you’ll familiarise yourself with the name Misha Cirkunov, a Latvian-Canadian grappler who primarily floats within the No. 8 – No. 15 range. Far from a title opportunity but not a gatekeeper, the ageing Cirkunov has built up a decent amount of success under the bright lights, going 6-3 since his debut in 2015. He remains one of the divisions sleeping dogs; a skilled veteran that doesn’t bark, but can most certainly bite.
Currently scheduled to face Ryan Spann on March 13, we take a look at the tools he uses inside the Octagon.
To put it brashly, Misha Cirkunov (15-5) isn’t a time-waster. In fact, he’s a minimalist, aiming to spend the least amount of time possible in hand-to-hand combat. And as a simple striker with no athletic advantages, one-punch knockouts aren’t exactly a guarantee. This is where the takedown enters the picture – a maneuver that allows for his submission arsenal to flourish.
While not being the most dominant offensive wrestler, Cirkunov has a number of ways to quite literally drag the fight to the mat, with his go-to takedown coming from the body lock position.
Below is an example of Cirkunov in the body lock position with his hands securely fastened together.
Remaining on his 2018 victory over Patrick Cummins, Cirkunov is able to get him away from the cage while maintaining the body lock position.
Now, from this position in the clinch, he has a number of options. Driving Cummins against the fence is one, however, that isn’t his style of doing things; scoring a takedown is.
The 34-year-old uses the body lock as an entrance to the outside trip. This requires minimal power as you are using your opponent’s weight to complete the takedown.
He lands right into the mount and would go on to finish Cummins via-arm triangle moments later.
The outside trip is a major component in Cirkunov’s overall game, but it does have its flaws. In two of his UFC appearances – wins against hard hitters Ion Cutelaba and Jimmy Crute – the move backfired, with his adversary landing on top of him rather than the intended outcome. His superior jiu-jitsu was able to bail him out both times, but against more seasoned grapplers, this mistake would be costly. In spite of this, the outside trip remains more efficient than his secondary form of the takedown.
Primarily using it as a counter or reactive shot, Cirkunov’s secondary takedown is the double leg. His technique when doing so is not world class, but a successful takedown is a successful takedown, after all.
The double leg has the ability to wipe all momentum being mounted by the opposition, with this being the aim each time Misha Cirkunov uses it; more often than not it lands him in half guard, where he can then transition to mount or work towards the arm-triangle, his favored submission.
Against the aforementioned Cutelaba, Cirkunov uses a superman punch to close the distance and initiate the clinch, where he instantly seeks the takedown. Through sheer strength, he is able to dump Cutelaba to the mat and slip into half-guard.
Cirkunov uses the takedown reactively, timing it as Jimmy Crute steps forward with what would’ve been a powerful combination. He lands in half guard.
These two takedowns are what piece Misha’s game together; without them, he’d have no way of taking the fight to the floor at his choosing. This further emphasizes the importance of jiu-jitsu athletes needing a good offensive wrestling game in MMA, as grappling skills are virtually useless if you cannot force their introduction.
Forcing the tap
Now that we find ourselves on the mat with Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Cirkunov, the threat of submissions multiply. From anywhere at any time, the light heavyweight contender will attack, searching to end the fight with one of his suffocating chokeholds. And while these skills are top quality, setting up the submission plays as key a role as the final product itself.
Cirkunov maintains a heavy and suffocating top game, allowing no room for reversals or extra breaths. As touched on earlier, half-guard and side control are his positions of choosing as they authorize the arm-triangle; as well as this, the threat of being submitted himself decreases.
In the clip above, Cirkunov moves from half guard to side control. While he does this note how he keeps his head low, easing the process of transitioning. Head positioning while grappling is an area that MMA fighters are growing increasingly better at and makes for a smoother controlling period.
Cirkunov uses head pressure whenever he’s on top, fully understanding its capability and potential. And while he largely owns the grappling advantage when matched with the majority of the divisions ranked athletes, using this tool can help dominate those who may be threatening off their back.
This head pressure combined with his knack of ground and pound often leaves opposition drowning, aching for an escape, thus making them vulnerable.
When in pursuit of a submission Cirkunov can be relentless, using ground and pound to force transitions and work toward various other positions. This third-round arm-triangle choke of Cutelaba shows Cirkunov desperate to finish the contest, proving he has the skills to call an end to things.
The main bulk of this article has shown Misha Cirkunov introducing both takedowns and submissions at his own pace, yet that isn’t his sole way of forcing the tap. If one is brave enough to shoot on the Latvian – or in the poor Nikitia Krylov’s case, get dropped – he will actively pursue the neck.
As featured below and in his most recent performance against Crute, any casual attempt at a takedown ends in disaster.
You cannot fault Krylov, sporting the black trunks, for instinctively looking to land the single leg takedown whilst stunned. What you can do, however, is applaud Cirkunov for his quick and nasty arm-in guillotine. This victory would eventually bump him up to No. 8 in the rankings, a career-high.
Scarily underrated but not elite, Misha Cirkunov has, and always will have a troublesome time gaining respect from the MMA community. This is unfortunate, as his fights are often full of action, adversity, and finishes.
It’s unrealistic to assume that he will suddenly shoot up the rankings upon his return on March 13, but in a division ruled by athletes in the latter stages of their careers, anything is possible. Currently scheduled to face Spann in the co-main event of UFC Vegas 21, Cirkunov will be looking to remind both fans and pundits why he should never be counted out. Spann’s length may be an issue early, but within a round, the submission ace should have him figured out.
Protect ya neck, or Cirkunov will sleep you.