UFC 282 Fighter to Watch: Ilia Topuria

Talented, undefeated Georgian Ilia Topuria finally makes his second start of 2022, returning to featherweight for what should be an epic encounter with fellow rising star Bryce Mitchell on Saturday’s pay-per-view main card

Name: Ilia Topuria
Nickname: El Matador
Record: 12-0 overall, 4-0 UFC
Division: Featherweight
Team: Climent Club
Opponent: Bryce Mitchell (15-1 overall, 6-0 UFC)

How We Got Here

Topuria made his promotional debut just over two years ago, jumping into a short-notice opportunity opposite Youssef Zalal and promptly halting the Factory X man’s initial run of success to begin his UFC career. He made a relatively quick turnaround following that initial appearance, returning less than two months later and registering a first-round knockout win over Damon Jackson that really made people sit up and take notice of the talented new featherweight arrival.

It would be seven months before we saw the undefeated standout again, but it proved to be worth the wait, as Topuria waltzed into UFC 264, paid very little attention to Ryan Hall as he did Ryan Hall things, and knocked out the Brazilian jiu jitsu wizard with a series of heavy punches late in the opening round.

After another break, he was slated to start the year off with a massive fight against fellow unbeaten ascending talent Movsar Evloev, but then the Russian was forced out with an injury and replaced by Charles Jourdain. The day before the fight, Topuria was pulled from the card due to medical issues during his weight cut and the bout was scrapped.

In March, he turned up at lightweight in London, facing off against Jai Herbert, and after getting knocked down in the opening stanza, Topuria rallied to finish “The Black Country Banger” in the second, extending his perfect run to start his career to an even dozen.

He was expected to face Edson Barboza at the end of October, but a month prior to the contest, the Brazilian veteran was forced out with a knee injury, resulting in Topuria’s return being pushed back to this weekend in an even more appetizing and compelling pairing with Mitchell.

What There Is To Like

Let’s start with the quick version, and then break down a couple of these into more detail after:

  • 25 years old (turns 26 in January)
  • Still undefeated after facing solid UFC competition
  • Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt with legit chops on the ground
  • Crisp, clean striking with power in both hands
  • Adaptive fighting style
  • Has an edge, prickliness to him
  • Knows who he is as a competitor

People will look at the win over Jai Herbert and likely shrug it off a little because Herbert has struggled in the UFC, but that’s a really good win and a really important performance. Not only did Topuria deal with getting smacked early in the fight, but he made the right adjustments in that opening stanza and was able to find a finish early in the second… and that was up a division too, giving up a considerable amount of height and reach.

The last two bullet points there work really well in concert with one another because I tend to like fighters that have a little carry themselves with a little bit of a “you’re not on my level” vibe and that’s definitely the case with Topuria.

If you gave me the choice between someone that was somewhat cocky and a little brash or someone that skewed humble and quick to dismiss praise, I’m taking the former every time because I want that person that has no issue acknowledging the skills and abilities they bring to the table. It can get tricky when you drink too much of your own Kool-Aid, but having a little sip from time-to-time is okay because you’ve done the work to get to this level, to develop these skills, and if you’re not confident in speaking about them, are you going to be confident throwing them once the action gets hot and heavy?

Remaining Questions

So there are a couple things that are going to remain question marks for Topuria until the time comes when they just aren’t any more.

The biggest one right now is whether or not he can consistently make the 145-pound weight limit? I know that sounds like a big stretch given that he’s missed once in his UFC career, but he also missed the bantamweight mark back in the day, which cost him the Cage Warriors belt, and it makes me wonder if he’s one of these guys that could really benefit from shifting his lifestyle and everyday weight to something more manageable so that his cuts aren’t nearly as bad.

As impressive as his performance against Herbert was in March, it was clear from that fight that Topuria is best suited to be a featherweight, and if he’s unable to regularly hit the mark and is forced up to ’55 full time, his ceiling comes down a considerable amount.

Kelvin Gastelum used to always say, “I can be great at middleweight; I can be champion at welterweight.” Not only did I believe that was true for KG back in the day, but I think the same applies for Topuria right now — he can have a lot of success at lightweight, especially if he moves there permanently and adapts to being there, but he can be a world champion at featherweight; he just has to make sure he gets his weight situation dialled all the way in.

The only other question that remains with Topuria is whether he can maintain this run of success and continue being as effective as he is further up the divisional ladder?

It’s one thing to get the better of guys like Zalal, and Jackson, and Hall — a prospect, a seasoned vet, and a tricky, ranked talent — but it’s different to be facing another ascending, hungry fighter like Mitchell or Evloev or one of the more seasoned names in the Top 10.

Those matchups are the ones that will really show us where Topuria stands and how far he can take things, but it’s all a process, and it has to be completed one step at a time.

Why This Fight Is Important

Saturday’s matchup with Mitchell is the next step.

The Arkansas native is undefeated in the UFC and 15-1 overall. I know that’s not what it says on his Wikipedia page, Tapology page, or Sherdog profile, but his loss to Brad Katona on TUF counts against his professional record, just as most TUF results actually count towards peoples’ records — we just didn’t bother counting them at some point along the way and now things are all akimbo when it comes to the records of TUF alums.

Anyway…

Mitchell is an intriguing emerging talent in his own right, coming off a very good win over Barboza in March, and with a style that can make him a menace for anyone that isn’t able to defend takedowns and grapple for long periods of time. He’s a couple spots ahead of Topuria in the rankings at the moment — Mitchell is No. 9, Topuria is No. 14 — and this is simply the next test the Georgian fighter who resides in Spain has to pass in order to keep progressing up the divisional ranks.

What really intrigues me the most about this fight is that it’s the first time we’re going to see Topuria in there against someone with a more traditional wrestling and grappling approach. Sure, he’s beaten Ryan Hall, but Mitchell isn’t likely to be looking for Imanari rolls and leg attacks at all times, meaning we’ll get to see how more of Topuria’s timing when it comes to traditional takedown defense… or if he’s comfortable going to the canvas with “Thug Nasty.”

As much as I liked the pairing with Evloev in January, I was admittedly happy that it didn’t happen because I think he and Topuria are both capable of being Top 5 fixtures and I’d like to see that fight when there are a few more stakes involved. This one feels more like the right kind of test to me, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out this weekend.

E. Spencer Kyte is a veteran MMA content creator based in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He's written for numerous outlets, including FOX Sports and The Province, British Columbia's leading newspaper, and has been a freelance contributor to the UFC website for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @spencerkyte.