Gökhan Saki’s Re-Introduction To MMA Is EXPLOSIVE
Gökhan Saki made his UFC debut on Saturday night, making it the second time the multiple time kickboxing champion has fought under MMA rules – and the first time he (and we) realized his potential.
Though his first foray into MMA didn’t go so well, that was thirteen years ago, long before he honed the skills necessary to perform in the sport. In his current form, we see a refined Saki, a more complete fighter who many, including Muay Thai Guy, expected far better things from in 2017. On Saturday, as expected, the Dutch-born Turk brought world-class striking to the Octagon, the likes of which MMA has never seen before, yet he looked quite different from the Saki that took GLORY and K-1 by storm.
Pitted against notoriously easy-to-hit Brazilian Muay Thai black belt Henrique Da Silva, one might accuse the UFC of giving Saki a favorable match-up. After all, what better way to build a hitting machine’s profile than feeding him a grappler with undeveloped strikes? It worked with Conor McGregor and now he is their biggest star and first two-division champion, despite only having been tested against one world-class wrestler.
That said, a purple belt in BJJ is certainly enough to threaten MMA newbies. Da Silva knew this and on multiple occasions tried to fight the sort of fight you need to shut down a strong striker. From the opening bell, Da Silva tried to force Saki backwards. By keeping him on the back foot and initiating clinches, Da Silva aimed to dirty box Saki and then take the fight to the ground. While it was a perfectly logical game plan, unfortunately for Da Silva, Gökhan Saki had drastically changed his approach to striking.
Re-Inventing Himself For The Octagon
Striking in mixed martial arts is heavily based on distancing. The reason being that it is far easier to avoid takedowns via making the wrestler shoot and fall short, than it is to stay close and constantly have to fight off takedowns and waste energy. This is the strategy that Robert Whittaker used to handily beat Jacare Souza and Yoel Romero, something that Saki clearly had in mind during his fight.
Despite being known for fighting on the front foot and firing off blistering hook combinations (frequently off of the same hand), against Da Silva, Saki was fleet-footed, moving in and out, looking not unlike a prime Mirko Cro Cop. Had Saki fought in the same way he did in GLORY, he undoubtedly would have been taken down and stopped on the ground.
Getting Cagey: Saki’s Understanding Of MMA
While Saki’s transformation from kick boxer to MMA striker is certainly impressive, he also showed a good understanding of how to avoid being taken down. When against the cage, he kept his base very wide and fought off his opponents hands. His centre of gravity being low, and his legs so far apart that Da Silva could only focus on one, meant it was fairly easy for him to slide out of the takedown attempts.
That being said the fight was not all smooth sailing for Saki, as the Muay Thai practitioner Da Silva caused him trouble in the clinch. While Gökhan Saki comes from a background in kickboxing, he is not a Muay Thai fighter and as such had trouble dealing with the knees and elbows that would have been easier to defend had he more training in the art of eight limbs.
While it’s true that Saki’s clinch game needs work, one interesting move from Saki was the takedown he scored from the clinch. While he didn’t follow up by fighting on the ground, it shows that he has enough knowledge to know that taking someone down means you can reset.
After being caught with several knees from the double collar tie, Saki was rocked. Then, near the end of the round, Saki was socked with an elbow and knee that visibly rocked him. Now, to fans new to Gökhan Saki, those shots probably looked more damaging than they actually were; he has been hit with more hard shots than most MMA fighters have ever thrown. It’s no fluke that Saki’s winning left hook KO came while he was rocked.
Lessons To Be Learned From A Debut
While I’d be hesitant to say that Gökhan Saki is going to walk away with the UFC light-heavy weight title anytime soon, his performance is being severely underrated. While some critics complain that the 0-1 MMA fighter was given an easy opponent (if a 12-3 opponent with UFC experience is your idea of easy), Saki showed some clear potential as a whole fighter.
He no longer comes forward with long combinations that risk him being taken down, opting instead for pot shots and counter punches. He understands how to defend against the cage. Training with “the best Turkish wrestlers” is certainly a good way to learn to grapple, and while it doesn’t mean he’ll be sprawling the best attempts from Daniel Cormier, it seems that he will at least be competitive in the mid levels of MMA.
The real journey for Saki will be learning to fight in the clinch. The clinch can be the make or break of a fighter; failing to defend adequately in the clinch can be a death sentence, as it can result in you being knocked out, taken down or even submitted depending on the savvy of your opponent.
When we talk about MMA, it’s easy to imagine that a world class kick boxer like Saki will be fine in the cage so long as he learns to sprawl. That’s naive, since there are even aspects of standup that a kick boxer will have to master in order to be successful. While Saki is already showing a good understanding of how to fight off the cage wall, it has now been exposed as a weakness for him and a fighter with better pressuring capabilities will certainly work to exploit this.
While it’s too soon to determine exactly how much success Gökhan Saki will have against the top competition, it seems he is a better MMA fighter than we first thought.
- Andrew Bryan is an actor, writer and martial artist based in the UK. He likes long walks on the beach, fighting technique, and history.