Five Steps to Victory for Artem Lobov against Alex Caceres

On Saturday 7th April we have an interesting matchup between two crossroads fighters, on one side we have mercurial talent and longtime featherweight veteran Alex Caceres and on the other side you have mixed martial arts journeyman Artem Lobov. This fight is important, not because it shapes the division, nor because it determines a challenger for the crown; this is a fight between two tough and talented fighters whose uneven performances in the octagon have left many asking if they are worthy of the opportunities they have received in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and continued employment by the promotion.

Today I am going to take a look at Alex Caceres, defining his game, strengths and approach to explain what has kept him largely effective during his tenure in the Ultimate Fighting Championship; once I have established who and how he is as a fighter, I will discuss the five steps Lobov will need to take emerge from the octagon victorious.

Caceres at age twenty nine is a fully formed fighter, having spent more than half of his ten year career in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Caceres has grown from an inexperienced and one dimensional athlete with some tricks into a well-rounded veteran with a defined and deep set of tools that are bolstered by his very good, but not elite, athleticism which is exhibited through his rare combination of length, height, mobility, agility, reaction time, quickness and durability.

Caceres is actually a grappler at heart, that being his first and most consistent area of skill, as he has always had and has further refined a very active guard. A guard that he uses in a creative and efficient manner as a way to finish fights, chaining submissions together one after the other. Or he uses it as a defensive/countermeasure to limit opponent’s ability to attack by threatening sweeps or creating scrambles that allow him counter their attacks by gaining superior position for his special brand of ground and pound or transitioning to the back to control or finish opponents with submissions.

As dangerous as Caceres has been on the ground two things hindered him from being able to routinely show off his depth and versatility there, the first was his limited and largely ineffective wrestling or stand up grappling. This happens to be the biggest area of growth, as he has developed an effective series of trips and throws, as a lead or counter from the clinch and he has developed a competent defensive wrestling game. Both things allow him some control over where, when and how a fight reaches the ground which benefits his game in two ways, the first is he can get takedowns which allow him to work from a superior position on the ground, the second is that he isn’t forced to work from an inferior position on the ground and more importantly he can confidently and aggressively attack on the feet because he now is capable of defending takedowns.

The final aspect of his game we will explore is his standup. Alex used to be much more of an attribute fighter, leaning heavily on his length, athleticism, reach to protect him defensively and to allow him success offensively. Now the seasoned southpaw striker works a long range game highlighted by a wide range and consistent flow of round kicks which he uses to attack the legs, head and body of opponents. This aspect of his game is buoyed by his light and active footwork which allows him to maintain distance by circling and turning an opponent or extend it by fighting off the back foot, drawing opponents in.

As a secondary measure Caceres has developed a timely and efficient combination punching game which allows him to dissuade opponents from applying continuous pressure to take away his kicks or force him to the fence, much like his long range kicking game, his punching game is supported by the sharp angles he cuts for entries and exits. These allow him to initiate exchanges with his hands, pushing opponents back and punctuating his combinations with kicks. It also allows him to get off the centerline when an opponent attempts to open up offensively, while simultaneously putting him in position to counter cleanly. This creates opportunities for Alex to look for openings in his opponent’s defense by manipulating position and distance through movement, and by using his overlooked but highly effective head movement Alex is able to pick his spots to return fire by baiting his opponents, controlling when and how they strike as a result.

Now that we have an overview of the technical, physical and strategic tools that define and direct Caceres as a fighter, we are going to take a look at the steps Artem needs to take to take away what he does best, exploit what he does worst and assure victory.

1) Artem cannot eschew the kicking game, regardless of the threat of takedowns. By conceding the kicking range completely Lobov limits his ability to apply pressure, to counter aggressively, to navigate distance or to be sound defensively. Artem isn’t a particularly explosive, nor does he have a particularly long reach; not kicking doubles his work as he has to travel further to get into position to make his hands a factor, often reaching/overextending.

This allows opponents to rack up points with straight punches, long jabs and a variety of kicks like in his fights with Fili and Swanson. Caceres is more than capable of repeating the feat. Lobov needs to attack the legs with kicks, like he did early versus Cub and use them to cut off attempts Alex may make to out position Lobov by circling him, turning him and then lighting him up which was done repeatedly by Swanson and Fili. A consistent kicking game will allow Artem to take some of the spring out of Caceres step, limit his mobility through damage to legs or being redirected with kicks to the legs or body. It also extends his range, forcing Alex to be more careful in regards to how and when he attacks.

2) Lobov is a counter puncher at heart, either drawing out attacks or countering by applying pressure and forcing them to strike to create space to get away or by standing right in front of opponents daring them to throw so he can fire back. Artem favors settling in on his feet so he can counter with low volume but maximum power, to a certain degree it’s effective as Lobov’s durability and timing is top shelf. It’s ineffective largely due to his lack of one punch power in the UFC and his lack of athleticism and explosiveness, which results in a low number of shots landed and a lack of fight changing impact when they do land. Artem can still work a counter game, but he is going to have to do so in combination so that he can a) score points, b) do damage through attrition and c) holster his opponents ability or willingness to lead for fear of being caught with a number of shots instead of just worrying about the one. Whether it’s punching combinations or punch kick combinations, when he counters it has to be threes and fours, not just ones and twos. This will allow him to pressure Caceres to the fence, make him work defensively and get him inside his prodigious reach.

3) Stop headhunting. Being a short reach, low explosion, forward moving fighter makes it very hard to get meaningful offense off as you are often outmaneuvered, out worked as a result of physical limitations. Being predictable only heightens the impact those shortcomings have on your offensive efficiency and effectiveness, as your opponent can more easily block, slip/duck or counter one dimensional offense. On top of that it becomes almost impossible to build any momentum when you can’t find a rhythm offensively and you can’t find one if you’re swinging and missing or reaching and getting countered. Lobov needs to look to counter to the body and begin or end punching combinations with body shots. Caceres is a long mobile fighter, it will be hard to get to his head, but the body will be there all night long and once you have sapped his gas tank the volume, mobility and explosiveness advantage disappears. This will make it easier to pressure, to counter and to make the fight more of a test of will and physicality, rather than a test of skill and physical ability.

4) Artem cannot be one dimensional in how he attacks Caceres. He has to make this a complete mixed martial arts game. He can’t eschew wrestling or grappling for fear of submission, once again it’s conceding a range and once an opponent knows a range of the fight is not a threat it only frees him up offensively because he only has to concern himself with one thing. Whereas Artem in this case has to worry about three things, Caceres is dangerous on the ground; but the threat of the takedown will open up striking opportunities and completion of a takedown will allow Lobov to score points and possibly win rounds on control. There is a risk of being submitted, but Cub Swanson and Ryan Hall are overall better grapplers/wrestlers than Caceres and Artem was able to survive, escape some fairly tough spots on the ground against them. So he should be able to repeat or improve on that versus Caceres, plus working from a superior controlling position is better than working from his back where he has been soundly outworked and punished. Takedowns are key, especially takedowns by the fence.

5) Get back up – Lobov has not won one extended grappling exchange during his time in the UFC, no reason to think he does now. He needs to defend, control and then get back to his feet or get to a superior position, guard work and submissions aren’t a strength of his game especially from neutral or inferior positions. Lobov needs to create scrambles to get top position or create scrambles and escape.

Bonus: Jab. The jab is a line of defense, a form of offense and a setup for more impactful offense, given Lobov’s lack of foot speed and explosiveness it is beyond amazing that he hasn’t developed or used an active and varied jab as a bridge from kicking range to boxing range, a way to set up combinations, draw out strikes to counter and to provide safe passageway when exiting from boxing range to kicking range. Lobov paws, but an active, versatile jab would be of great assistance to Lobov in any fight especially this one.

Lobov has the seasoning, durability and familiarity with top end competition to put himself in position to win this fight, that has been the case in the majority of his fights in the UFC; what he hasn’t had is the situational awareness to stick with or make adjustments necessary to take full advantage of the position his attributes, heart and experience put him in.

It’s not as simple as countering kicks, or landing clean shots. It’s about limiting Caceres ability to do the things he wants and needs to do to win the fight by making him work, making him uncomfortable and keeping him off balance. He is going to have to fight like an experienced, measured and disciplined mixed martial arts fighter. Not a one dimensional brawler or power puncher and put Caceres in spots where the fight is less about his athletic and technical skills and more about his will power and physicality. Saturday night Lobov has a chance to start the climb up in the division and ultimately the organization or continue his slow descent out of both.