Often praised for his prodding jab and piston of a straight right, Calvin Kattar has started to add a new wrinkle to his game by way of the elbow.
His boxing fundamentals carried Kattar to the main stage and provided him with an array of marquee victories but, once he hit the upper echelon of competition, those same boxing fundamentals were largely nullified. The elbow has become a part of his arsenal purely out of necessity but he has found new waves of success thanks to it.
Life Before The Elbow
When Kattar first arrived in the UFC, it didn't take long before fans started lauding him for his striking pedigree. Debuting against the veteran Andre Fili, Kattar cashed in as a sizable underdog (+300). Dictating the rhythm of the fight with his footwork and movement, Kattar coasted to victory with his pawing jab and lethal attacks to the body.
A few months later, again an underdog (+180), the world could ignore Kattar's striking no longer. After a back-and-forth war with then-undefeated Shane Burgos, Kattar feinted the jab and landed a straight right that rocked his opponent. Sensing impending victory, Kattar unleashed an onslaught of uppercuts that laid Burgos to rest.
Kattar hit his first stumbling block in April of that same year when he encountered Renato Moicano. The Brazilian chopped at Kattar's lead leg which worked to reduce some of his power but the most important facet of the fight was Moicano's insistence on pressing Kattar. In this fight, a blueprint was created for beating Kattar. If you can crash the distance and keep the fight at relatively close range, you negate his best tools: the jab and the long straight hands.
Kattar would suffer defeat at the hands of Moicano via decision and would bounce back with 1st round stoppages of Chris Fishgold and Ricardo Lamas, both of whom were unable to execute the plan Moicano had laid.
By the time Calvin Kattar earned his first main event spot in the UFC against Zabit Magomedsharipov, it was evident that for the remainder of his prime years he would be in and amongst the top of the featherweight division.
Zabit took the foundation that Moicano had laid out and ran with it. The fight was a humbling experience for Kattar who swung hard and missed often in the opening 10 minutes of the bout.
For the majority of the fight, Zabit kept a close range as opposed to his usual style which was one of long-range flamboyance.
When crashing the distance, Zabit employed a tidy outer leg trip to disrupt Kattar from landing his best strikes. Watch as he perfectly times Kattar's slip and uppercut attempt:
Due to Kattar's lack of a close-range striking arsenal, Zabit was able to crowd him and throw strikes at leisure without the fear of accumulating much damage. Zabit was often turtling into close range and frustrating Kattar's offensive rhythm. Just look at these two sequences in the first round, 30 seconds apart:
While Kattar would go on to handily win the 3rd round and expose Zabit's sketchy cardio, the fight overall highlighted that Kattar had very little of note when the fight was contested at close range.
There's no doubt that this was a key conversation between Kattar and his team at the New England Cartel because, after that fight, Kattar would develop an instinct to elbow that we had never before seen in his game.
Oh, we throwin' elbows now?
Kattar's bounce-back fight was against the all-brawling Jeremy Stephens - a guy known for getting in your face and landing nuclear punches. Stephens' pressure-heavy style certainly caused Kattar some issues early on which contributed to him losing the first round. In the second round, however, Kattar - who up until that point had shown zero proclivity for elbows while standing - feinted a straight punch and baited Stephens into slipping right into a devastating step-in elbow.
Kattar set the shot up perfectly, essentially folding an elbow behind one of his patented punches and catching Stephens by surprise. Not only was it one hell of a highlight reel knockout, but it was also Kattar's first career finish via elbow. He took half a year off after the Zabit fight and returned with a fully revamped style.
He went on to breeze past the ever-tough Dan Ige in a 5-round main event shortly after this fight. While he didn't register another crazy knockout win, Kattar handily tore through Ige with an array of long-range and close-range tools.
Much is made of Kattar's fight with Max Holloway in January 2021 - a fight where the Boston native absorbed more strikes to the head than any fighter in UFC history. It was a total beatdown from bell to bell and it's still a mystery to all how Kattar survived the entire 25 minutes.
Even amidst the greatness of Holloway, however, Kattar's striking evolution was still on full display. Despite absorbing life-altering damage, Kattar did land more significant strikes on Holloway than most of his opponents had up until that fight.
Whenever Holloway crowded Kattar up against the fence and unloaded a barrage of strikes, Kattar would retaliate with his elbows to back his opponent up and gain at least a modicum of respect. Though these elbows were mainly reactive and reflexive, it displayed a stark improvement from the Zabit fight where he was willingly backed up and incapable of landing anything to dissuade the Russian from continuing to strike in close proximity.
An earlier version of Kattar would have capitulated but it was small moments like these where he managed to force Holloway to reset due to the swinging elbows:
While it's far from impressive how he performed in that fight with Holloway, it still stands to highlight the changes Kattar had made to his striking and deployed even in a fight where he was fighting on pure instinct.
Kattar would end up taking an entire year off before a career-best performance against Giga Chikadze. The night where his elbowing prowess would become evident to the world of MMA.
The fight with Giga posed some interesting dangers for Kattar early on. Giga was never going to pressure Kattar like Zabit or Holloway did but his footwork and kicking game were tools with which he could disrupt Kattar's striking patterns.
If the fight had taken place a couple of years prior, Kattar probably would have played Giga's long-range game. Especially as that same range had always benefitted him most from an offensive standpoint. Katter, however, had clearly evolved as a striker. He acknowledged the dangers of Giga's game and decided to play the aggressor.
Halfway through the second round, Kattar started to let the elbows fly and wouldn't stop until the final second of the final round.
It all started with these two elbows as Giga looked to establish a longer range than Kattar would allow him to:
A minute later, Kattar slipped a punch and stamped a spinning back elbow across the chin of Giga. He pursued with another elbow and tucked an uppercut behind it. Kattar had found a devastating blend of boxing and Muay Thai:
As the fight continued, Kattar would land a variety of elbows: the step-in elbow, elbows over the top, counter elbows off Giga's strikes, and more spinning elbows.
In the Stephens fight, Kattar used the elbow offensively but only once. In the Holloway fight, his game was purely reflexive and defensive. The elbows were thrown simply to disrupt the pace of the fight. Against Giga, however, Kattar was chaining elbows as part of combinations. Here he goes to the body with a knee to force him to drop his guard and then cracks Giga over the top:
In the fourth round, he uses Giga's own momentum against him with a halting elbow that wobbles the Georgian:
In the final round, Kattar prods forward just swinging his elbows as fists. Pure reckless abandon in pursuit of the finish. Giga succumbs to the engulfing pressure and gets dropped late. Kattar, of course, follows up with even more elbows.
It's one of the most ruthless and violent performances of 2022 but behind it all is a method to the chaos Kattar created. He has gone from a fighter who was easily beatable if you negated the jab to a fighter who doesn't even need a jab to rearrange your face. By the end of the fight, Giga looked like he'd just gone 25 minutes with a can opener:
Kattar's boxing fundamentals will always be his bread and butter but the addition of other tools to his striking arsenal has made him one of the most dangerous hybrid pugilists in the sport of MMA. He takes on Josh Emmett in what is likely a title eliminator at UFC Austin this Saturday.