The Severe Spotlight: Ilia Topuria

Meritocracy is a historically well-travelled path in MMA. Tests that increase in their sincerity relative to the performance of the athlete in previous tests. Ilia Topuria faced the toughest test of his 145lb tenure on Saturday night in Bryce Mitchell and passed with an accredited distinction.

Round one began with a rude awakening for the foundational pillars of Bryce Mitchell’s standup arsenal, naked kicks. A game of naked kicks is a fine strategy should you have the grappling acumen of Mitchell, as you are not worried about an opponent catching a kick and using it to initiate grappling sequences. However, Topuria instead immediately used the naked kicks to enter the pocket and land two ferocious hooks. Marry that with a low kick with enough velocity to drop Mitchell to a crouch. The first grappling exchange comes 36 seconds in the opening stanza, Mitchell looks to find his way to Topuria’s hips. Here Topuria takes an impressive no-nonsense approach, throwing his enter weight behind the sprawl and down-block.

Topuria early employs a stutter level change feint to force Mitchell to back up. He has been caught with body shots, and the hooks from inside the pocket. His myriad of single shot kicks have thus far been ineffective, and the grappling exchange was stamped out like a young fire.

Mitchell certainly keeps Topuria honest, a lovely counter left hand, followed by a stampeding jab gives the Georgian a reference of danger inside the first minute. But the jab of Topuria also finds its mark. Topuria is forcing a dilemma on the feet. He is chasing Mitchell down, in a manner that isn’t conducive to being drawn onto a wrestling exchange, in the mid-range the same chasing is allowing jabs and right hands to land, when Mitchell chooses to step into the pocket, the thundering hooks are zapping the jaw of Mitchell faster than the strikes he is mustering. From a striking perspective, this is suffocation.

The head movement of Topuria is a sight to behold also, he overreaches on a right hand, and as he slithers out of the pocket, the shoulders are high, the hands still ready to down-block and he rolls his head over the protruding counters. Gorgeous work amid chaos.

The teep of Mitchell is a good one, but that alone is not enough to keep the wave of Georgian pressure off him. With two and a half minutes left, Mitchell lands a nice 1-2 and follows up with a head outside single. Driving Topuria to the cage he collects the leg, he attempts to run the pipe, only to create the space for the inside trip. Here we see the balance and spring of Topuria on full display – the same leg that was tripped is gathered underneath him and stretched to regain balance and pop him back up. Mitchell follows but not before Topuria swims his underhook and begins to circle off the fence, disengaging from the position. 0-3 on useful takedown attempts.

Four minutes deep and Topuria has had an answer for everything. The footwork has opened answers in every range, when pushing Mitchell back to the fence, Topuria has right hook answers for Mitchell’s circling. There are body jabs for when Mitchell is expecting a shot to the head, there is a seasoning of low kicks.

The single blemish on the round comes with a minute and change left, Mitchell finds himself in the pocket, on an outside angle and Topuria defending. He drops on an outside single and immediately drives Topuria over that leg. Topuria drops to a hip before getting an outside foot frame on the knee of Mitchell and bouncing back up, attempting to win the hip and head height battle. Mitchell, however, collects the inside leg with a grapevine, takes his left hand to the right hip of Topuria and steers him fantastically back to the mat. Topuria in the transition looks to explode to inside space, which Mitchell kills by going head over head and into a bodylock grip set. Topuria works from half guard back to full guard and rides the round out there.

Topuria starts the second round with a vengeance, landing early and often. A jab, step out to bait Mitchell in and a right hook left hand swashes Mitchell’s head side to side like a small ship in a storm. Naturally, Mitchell is keen to ground the fight, and return to a familiar situation to the end of the first. Topuria notices the shot coming, sprawls his hips away and cuts a gorgeous angle, using his left underhook to drag up Mitchell from his hips and remove himself from the entanglement. An uppercut helps Mitchell to his feet as he is greeted with a right hand for good measure.

Two more Mitchell attempts to ground the fight are stuffed, and whilst, as expected he is tough and gritty and still moving forward landing damage, the belief that he will be able to culminate a substantial takedown and consolidate the position for long enough to begin to turn the tide is waning, visibly. His nose is leaking, his breath effected. The body shots accumulating with the effort expenditure on failed takedowns. He is unable to earn the respect from Topuria when standing, and there is still three minutes and forty-seven seconds of fighting in this second round.

A spark of confidence emanates from him as he lands a lovely five punch combination ended with a head kick.  That confidence disperses as he is dropped to the canvas for the first time in his career. This combination can only be described as Matrix esc. Mitchell lands a left hand as Topuria is rolling to the outside for an uppercut, he follows that with a left hook, the core torque building as the final shoulder switch see’s him crush Mitchell with a right hand.

Topuria dives on a front headlock as Mitchell attempts to recover, latching onto a guillotine and turning Mitchell to his back, Mitchell recovers half guard. Topuria hops to the far side, threatening back takes. Mitchell acknowledges the threat and begins to build to a turtle. Topuria bounces multiple shots off the side of Mitchells head as reward.

Mitchell does rise to his feet and return to brief safety landing some nice teeps and some nice shots in the process. Topuria shortly after catches him with an uppercut on the way into a takedown and “big brothers” him to the mat. Taking a near side overhook, far side underhook, Mitchell tries to turn in, the wrestler’s reaction to side control. Topuria goes searching for the head and arm on the far side, two knees in the hip space. Mitchell manages to turn in, Topuria slams a sprawl on his head and turns the corner to take the back. Mitchell reacts by again trying to build his back to the cage. Topuria again offers a dilemma, he has the grapevine hook and is looking for the back, but as Mitchell makes the correct defence to stop the back take – Topuria snakes his right arm under the armpit and wraps the head and arm choke. Again, dragging Mitchell to the mat, Topuria cuts the angle, sprawls, driving Mitchell’s head up into the fence at the same time as drawing his elbow into the clavicle, Mitchell is forced to tap.

A masterful performance from Topuria.

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