A standout striker in a division chock-full of concussive bruisers, Tiger Muay Thai’s Rafael “Ataman” Fiziev makes his first main event appearance this Saturday (July 9, 2022) opposite former Lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos, inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Fiziev has steadily established himself as a genuine contender following a disastrous UFC debut loss to Magomed Mustafaev, racking up five consecutive victories and three post-fight bonuses along the way. This is without question his stiffest opponent to date, however, one who will test every aspect of his dazzling game like no one before. The big question around any kicking specialist is how he or she will handle pressure, which dos Anjos promises to deliver in spades.
Let’s dig into Fiziev’s arsenal …
Even if you’ve never seen Fiziev ply his trade in the cage, his kickboxing record and position as Muay Thai coach at Tiger Muay Thai should give you an idea of how dangerous he is on the feet.
Though his “Matrix” style of dodging kicks and occasional predilection for spinning and flying techniques make headlines, Fiziev’s hands and lead leg are his best weapons. His switch kick is lightning-quick and can be thrown in seemingly any position, whether used as a counter or to punctuate a boxing combination. He can use it to rack up damage to the body and leg at an alarming pace, and its constant presence serves as a deterrent to those trying to build momentum or punish overextension.
On the attack, he mixes up his head and body attack alongside the switch kicks, as seen in the body shot-overhand right-left hook series that felled Renato Moicano. The reflexes and awareness of range that allow him to sway underneath head kicks also allow him to unleash brutal counters. Indeed, he’s very adept at leaning just out of range and using the momentum to power up his return fire, which served him extremely well his last time out against the swarming offense of Brad Riddell. He’s also got a really nice little trick of using the switch kick to draw a counter, which he’ll answer with punches.
He constantly switches stance, though it seems more a means of misdirection and occasional one-off strike than any desire for a protracted fight in southpaw. The finishing sequence against Riddell saw him smoothly go back and forth until Riddell committed to a direction, at which point Fiziev met him with a wheel kick.
The only time Fiziev is consistently vulnerable is as he’s throwing. As quick, mobile and schooled as he is with his footwork, his feet and upper body are often stationary when he commits to a combination, and if his timing’s off when he answers punches with switch kicks, he’s stuck in punching range on one leg. Bobby Green gave him more trouble than anyone since Mustafaev by refusing to respect his power and punching with him as opposed to taking turns.
Whether it was because of Green’s taunting or some cardio troubles, Fiziev also seemed to lose crispness as the fight went on, loading up on flurries that lacked his usual variety and precision.
Still, when you hit as hard as Fiziev and have so many ways to punish people for trying to force you onto the back foot, things tend to work out alright.
Fiziev’s takedown defense is sitting pretty at 95 percent, largely due to Alex White’s abysmal 0-for-11 performance when they met in Oct. 2019. Besides generally strong hips and good reaction time, he does an excellent job of breaking his opponent’s grip when they attempt to tie up, often adding an elbow on the break as punctuation.
Riddell was the first to get him down, and he did so by shooting in the middle of one of Fiziev’s combinations and exploiting that tendency to stand flat-footed. Fiziev used the whizzer to get to all fours and disengage before Riddell could get anything going on top, and the next time Riddell timed a combination and changed levels, Fiziev was ready and waiting to fight his hands and get free.
Thanks to that aforementioned wrestling defense, Fiziev has yet to utilize Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the Octagon. The only times he’s been on his back where when Mustafaev knocked his lights out and when Riddell dragged him down, and Fiziev immediately got back to his feet against the latter. If he ends up having to use it on Saturday, it’ll be for the first time.
What makes this fight so interesting is that dos Anjos is both the best wrestler Fiziev has faced in his young mixed martial arts (MMA) career and an adept pressure fighter. If anyone can smother Fiziev’s kicks, bully him to the fence, and grind the life out of him, it’s “RDA.” At the same time, dos Anjos has some noteworthy holes in his striking defense that Fiziev’s combinations could blow wide open. There’s a lot of intrigue here, and it’ll likely come down to who can seize the momentum first.
Patrick L. Stumberg is a mixed martial arts (MMA) and boxing analyst with more than 10 years of experience. He has been officiating amateur boxing in South Texas since 2017, while also receiving certification as an MMA official.
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