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Muslim Salikhov In The UFC: The New Herald of Sanda?

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MUSLIM SALIKHOV IN THE UFC: THE NEW HERALD OF SANDA?

By: Matthew Lee

Written October 29th, 2019

“I fight Muay Thai, K-1, MMA, but Sanda is more difficult because you must be focus[ed].  Because every time [there is a] level change.  You can punch, you can kick, wrestling, everything.” —Muslim Salikhov, Mixed Martial Artist and Russian Sanda Champion

Abstract: Muslim Salikhov has recently secured his third win in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).  A true Sanda champion from Dagestan, Russia, he has gone into other styles and rule sets such as Muay Thai, K-1, Sambo and MMA (mixed martial arts), and has done well in all of them.  He is notable for beating Chinese Sanda athletes time and time again.  This write-up will serve as a breakdown of his most recent fight, an analysis of his skills, and what his success means as a true representative of Wushu Sanda.

On Saturday, October 26th, 2019, Russian Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting) champion and MMA (mixed martial arts) Welterweight Muslim Salikhov fought Laureano Staropoli in UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Fight Night: Maia vs. Askren.  Also known as UFC Fight Night 162 or UFC on ESPN+ 20), the event took place at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in in Kallang, Singapore.  It is interesting to note that the UFC has begun to market themselves in Singapore, where one of its main competitors, One FC, is most famous, while at the same time One FC is trying to reach out and hold events in America, one of the primary markets of the UFC (but this is another matter entirely).  Back to Muslim, the Dagestani fighter put another notch in his belt by winning a decision over Staropoli.  At the beginning of the week, I was asked to provide my analysis on this, and since I do take requests, especially since my writing is so infrequent nowadays, I thought I would give it a shot.

Unfortunately, I ended up missing this event live, as I usually do, since it was quite early in the morning where I was living (Eastern Time Zone, US & Canada), as opposed to at night over in Singapore (Singapore Standard Time), with a twelve hour difference between the two locations.  However, I was happy to hear that Muslim was continuing to win in the UFC.  When it was breaking news that Muslim Salikhov had signed with the UFC nearly two years ago, everyone in the Wushu community was no doubt excited and waiting with bated breath to see how he would do.  And though he lost his first fight to Alex Garcia in the UFC via rear naked choke submission, which was disappointing, and was quietly inactive for eight months due to an anti-doping violation, he quickly began racking up wins via KO (knockout) with punches against Ricky Rainey and Nordine Taleb.  It’s no secret that Muslim Salikhov comes from a background in Sanda, also known as Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), but very few people have touched on this.  Muslim is known for securing numerous wins over Chinese Sanda fighters (which is impressive, considering the majority of combat sports fights organized by Chinese fight organizations are seen as rigged or set up in favor of the Chinese fighters, unless you undeniably beat the mainland Chinese fighters, proving beyond a doubt that you are legitimately good), being one of the few non-Chinese to earn the professional Sanda championship title of Sanda Wang (散打王; sàndǎwáng, literally “Sanda King”) and multiple times World Wushu Championships gold medalist in Sanda (he has also been nicknamed the “King of Kung Fu”, which annoys me, but this is not his fault; this comes from one of the various professional Sanda championship titles he won in China—alas, the mistranslation and lack of promotion of the word “Wushu” in China strikes again).  This write-up will attempt to break down his success with respect to these roots, and what they mean as a representation for the possibilities of Sanda.

First, I will begin with a brief summary of what I saw in the fight.  The first round started out tame, with a couple one-off exchanges, and Muslim landing with spinning hook kicks and turning side kicks, and Staropoli attempting some of his own spinning attacks, but none really landing or following through.  The second round got off to a slightly faster start, with Staropoli throwing more strikes but again not landing much, while Muslim landed another hook kick and started catching kicks, succeeding with the second to lift and unbalance Staropoli falling backwards, and again with a third off of a low outer leg/thigh kick, and following up with some strikes from a more dominant (read: high ground) position, then teeing off with more aggressive strikes near the end of the round, including more turning side kicks and punches.  In the third and final round, Staropoli came out a little more aggressive with punches, but once again, not really connecting with the majority except for a few body shots, with Muslim landing more selective but sharper and more efficient shots, easily sprawling to defend a double leg takedown and countering an attempt at an outer leg reap, and landing flush with some more turning side kicks, and catching a head kick to once again unbalance Staropoli, and ending with a unanimous decision.

As usual, congratulations to Muslim.  He once again put on a masterful display of striking and signature Sanda kick catches.  I was very happy to see him do the Wushu bow or salute when being announced at the beginning of the fight, and to hear him directly give credit to his background in Sanda, which is something very few fighters who have had experience in Sanda let alone Wushu do, stating when asked what techniques he wanted to employ in his post-fight interview, “…I am [a] Wushu Sanda fighter, so I am trying [to] do all Sanda stuff in…MMA.”  And on that note, let’s look at exactly what makes Muslim Salikhov so great as a fighter, and what his representation means for the potential and opportunities of Sanda.

Discipline in Position and Movement

Wing Chun (永春; Yǒngchūn, literally “eternal spring”) stylist and YouTuber Jin Young, with the YouTube channel formerly known as Chinaboxer, now “Developing Invisible Armour”, once had a video (which I cannot find anymore, leading me to believe that it has been taken down) where I recall he defined martial arts as, “the study of movement and position.”  This definition left an impression on me and is one I have come to refer to when defining martial arts myself, because regardless of what martial arts style or practice on does, whether the goal is for fighting or otherwise, they all involve the physical practice both movement and position, in some way, shape or form.  This definition can be twofold; first and most obvious, is the study of movement and position in relation to oneself.  Second, where if we apply the definition to combat purposes, the definition can be described as the study of movement and position in relation to another opponent.

I will touch first on the former part of this definition, position, in both senses, in relation to oneself and in relation to another opponent, starting with Muslim’s general fighting stance.  Muslim fights out of an orthodox stance with a fairly buttoned up guard, particularly with his rear/right arm tight and close to his ribs and his lead/left arm being more liberal and alive in its placement while testing out his opponent, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a boxer.  This resultant light-footedness from the boxer-like stance applies to position and movement in relation to his opponent, which allows him to transfer his bodyweight efficiently between both his legs for whatever movement he so desires or needs at the time, and push off the ground at a moment’s notice, thereby staying mobile both offensively and defensively with quick footwork.  Being otherwise heavy or flat-footed does not allow the same mobility, and thus does not allow the same benefits of a light-footed stance, hence why many fighters in combat sports favor such a stance, and why it is conventionally taught.  Many high-level MMA fighters such as former UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva, former kickboxing champion and current UFC Middleweight Champion Israel Adesanya and former WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting) Bantamweight Champion and former UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz, boxers such as Muhammad Ali and Prince Naseem Hamed, Muay Thai fighters such as Samart Payakaroon, Somluck Khamsing, Saenchai and Lerdsila (who all fall under the Muay Thai substyle of “Muay Fimeu” of technical fighters) have been known to abandon a guard or set stance and still outmatch their opponents easily, due to their mastery of the basics in their style.  However, Muslim is a fighter who remains disciplined in his structure, never straying too far from it.  This tight defense allows Muslim to conventionally stay relatively out of harm’s way, not allowing any holes or openings for his opponents to take advantage of, and frequently using footwork to get out of range of his opponents’ attacks.

Moving onto his movements, again, both in relation to oneself and in relation to another opponent, Muslim has an entire arsenal of techniques, whether one-offs or in short combinations, that he can land on an opponent almost at will.  But perhaps most memorable are his spinning kicks, specifically his turning side kick, also popularly termed the spinning back kick.  Even when I was only beginning to know of and watch Muslim Salikhov, I quickly observed that the turning side kick was one of his signature weapons in his fights.  The speed of which he throws this kick is also astounding, considering he will often do this with no setup prior, with little to no tell straight from his fighting stance.  This is unlike former Strikeforce Middleweight, Sanshou champion and former UFC fighter Cung Le, who would step forward and across with his rear side, thus briefly switching stances for a split second, and complete a full 360º rotation/revolution before throwing his spinning back kick; this has worked for him at times, but has also been quickly avoided by his opponents who see it coming, due to the telegraphing step forward.  By contrast, Muslim’s kick is much quicker, and lands at a much more consistent rate, making it a reliable strike to count on in his arsenal.  He has even knocked out Ivan Jorge with this very kick and knocked out former UFC fighter Melvin Guillard with a spinning hook kick.

Another example is his rear/right hand uppercut.  The old school boxing hooks and uppercuts are punches that are very tight and close to the body, which is generally done at the infighting range, where fighters are up close against each other (read: Mike Tyson peek-a-boo boxing style); many fighters nowadays modify the hooks and uppercuts to extend their arms in order to hit targets at longer ranges, and while this gets the job done, the fact of the matter is that these are not pure textbook, old school boxing hooks and uppercuts.  Typically, the infighting range is not encouraged in Sanda, because this range is quickly replaced by wrestling.  The fighting techniques and ranges of Sanda are based on the types or categories of fighting techniques and ranges in Chinese martial arts: kicking (踢; tī), punching (打; dǎ), takedowns (摔; shuāi), and grappling (拿; ná), with Sanda under the sport of modern Wushu as regulated by the Wushu organizations only covers the first three out of four, with grappling, namely the practice of joint locking and manipulation techniques, prohibited for safety reasons.  Although uppercuts do happen while clinching up in Sanda, it is worth noting that no strikes during any manner of clinching or holding the opponent score any points—rather, these are done to avoid admonitions by the judges for technical fouls by passively holding the clinch.  As such, this is a very rare punch to see in Sanda, at least without the clinch, whereas Muslim will throw it with no clinching at all.  And he has consistently found a home for it often.  These examples display a mastery of controlling distance and range against an opponent, which shows that Muslim is indeed disciplined and a master of position and movement, not just in relation to oneself, but also in relation to another opponent.

This kind of mastery and discipline in position and movement is generally explained by one of two reasons: talent (and a little bit of being genetically gifted when it comes to the topic of physical activity and sports), or hard work.  Indeed, Muslim could be considered a prodigy not just of Sanda, but of fighting in general.  Most ignorant spectators would simply chalk it up to pure talent.  But there is a more logical explanation.  Instead, this can be attributed to Muslim’s training from Five Directions of the World, a Wushu school, dubbed the “Shaolin of Dagestan” headed and founded by Gusein Magomaev.  Living up to its namesake, the school is isolated where students will have no worldly distractions to lead them astray, and there is nothing to do except train and take classes.  Keep in mind that this is also Dagestan, a region that was already torn apart by war and where fighting is accepted as a way of life there, and the home of undefeated UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.  In this environment, where techniques are conditioned and drilled twice a day with laser focus, not unlike the training of professional Wushu teams, it is not hard to see how Muslim gained such a high level of skill in position and movement, with a textbook stance and an entire arsenal of perfected techniques to become such a great fighter.

Traditional forms-based martial arts value mastery and discipline of position and movement.  The only difference between them and Muslim is that Muslim uses and applies this against live, resisting opponents, and makes it work.  And to those that would say that Muslim is just one in a million that happened to be raised in Sanda, I content that, NO, Muslim is NOT the only one capable of this caliber of skill, as the results of his training clearly can and has been replicated.  Case in point, Zabit Magomedsharipov, fellow Dagestani and current UFC fighter hailing from the same Five Directions of the World school and Coach Gusein.  Although these fighters have moved on from the school to become successful MMA fighters, it is clear that they have roots in their training at the school, and to not acknowledge their roots in their training at the school, as a key factor to their success, would be ignorant.

Granted, a weakness of Muslim is his grappling or ground game.  As previously mentioned, Muslim did lose his first fight in the UFC to Alex Garcia via rear naked choke submission.  He also previously lost to Kris Hocum via the same rear naked choke submission.  Although it is a given that any MMA fighter should train in all aspects of the game, including grappling, it is clear that this is historically Muslim’s weakness, whereas his striking is his strength, like his fellow Five Directions of the World alumni Zabit, whose one loss was to Igor Egorov via armbar submission (although Zabit is arguably more well-rounded, having applied a modified kneebar against Brandon Davis).  Similarly, Team Lakay, a Filipino MMA Team specializing in training fighters with Wushu backgrounds specializing in Sanda, such as former One FC Lightweight Champion Eduard Folayang, former One FC Bantamweight Champion Kevin Belingon and former One FC Strawweight Champion Joshua Pacio, have recently suffered losses that can be attributed to a lack of wrestling and grappling skills against higher level opponents; Eduard Folayang lost to former UFC Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez via rear naked choke submission, and Danny Kingad lost to former UFC Strawweight Champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson via decision, where the deciding factor was Demetrious dominating the wrestling scrambles.  This should serve as a lesson of observation on how Chinese style combat training methods, Sanda, Guoshu (国术; guóshù, traditional Chinese martial arts, literally “national art”) lei tai (擂台; lèitái, traditional Chinese martial arts full-contact fighting, literally “raised platform”) or Shuai Jiao (摔跤; shuāijiāo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling) or otherwise, lacks the scrambling skills of complete wrestling that freestyle wrestling has, and the grappling of BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu).

Also, objectively, it is worth pointing out that the kicking techniques may come from Taekwondo training, as the school is shown training students in Taekwondo and having Taekwondo trophies.  This also explains Muslim’s and Zabit’s affinity for such quick spinning kicks that land consistently (although Zabit can be said to have a comparatively greater affinity for kicks, as he has shown a greater variety of kicks, such as switching kicks, the ability to kick while retreating backwards from an attacking opponent, and the famous “Showtime Kick” where one runs and pushes off the wall into a jumping round kick like its namesake Anthony Pettis, who also trained in Taekwondo), very similar to Cung Le, who was also a popular representative of Sanda, then also called Sanshou at the time, which is another name for Sanda, but got his kicks from Taekwondo.  And although Chinese martial arts have round kicks and hook kicks as well, as does Karate, Muay Thai and its ancestor Muay Boran, Taekwondo is most well-known for specializing in kicking, particularly of the spinning variety.  It is also worth noting that although Gusein teaches Wushu, he has also previously trained and coached Karate.  It is reasonable to assume that this variety of disciplines contributes to such a mastery of position and movement in relation to oneself and another opponent, where the practice of Chinese styles by themselves may not have been as refined in such fighting skills.

The historical development of Sanda came out of a need by the Chinese to update their fighting and sparring methods, where there was little to none at the time, with the combined efforts of traditional Wushu experts and Soviet advisors.  Influence was taken from boxing, and a “kickboxing-like format” was used, with a mix of Shuai Jiao and perhaps a mix of Sambo, given the historical influence of Soviet advisors, which has its own roots in judo (an interesting detail to note, as Coach Gusein and his students are geographically closer to this source than the Chinese themselves).  Theoretically, Sanda also exists as a format to test the fighting ideas and martial techniques of Chinese martial arts in full-contact sparring today and can and has been adopted by practitioners of such various styles to do so.  However, since Sanda has influences outside Chinese methods, one does not necessarily need to have learned or practiced Wushu or Chinese martial arts to be successful in Sanda.  BUT, if anything, Muslim, like Cung, shows what is possible in Sanda because of this.  I have said multiple times before that Cung Le was perhaps the greatest example of this, as despite not being a Chinese martial artist, he showed techniques and methods that are not limited to a specific style or way of training, but rather the best of certain skill sets regardless of style, with a combination of kicks from Taekwondo and experience in collegiate wrestling, and thus shows how Sanda can be more than just a method of sparring for Chinese stylists.  So, would I say that Muslim is just as good an example as Cung?  No, I would say that he’s even better, as he not only has just as good if not superior technical prowess with his kicks, fires his kicks off even faster with little to no setup, and demonstrates good boxing; by good boxing, I don’t mean simply punching power, as this is just one aspect of fighting, but rather actual skill with the hands; not just punching power, but a combination of speed, timing, distance and reaction both against one’s opponent’s hands, and with one’s own.  Previously, I criticized Chinese Sanda athletes for their lack of boxing skills.  Although their boxing skills have since improved, Muslim was an exception to this observation even back then, making him stand out.  In fact, Muslim was even able to achieve what Cung could not—a gold medal at the World Wushu Championships, multiple times.  Although this is not to take away from Cung’s own achievements and skill level, when analyzing this comparison objectively, Muslim has displayed a more well-rounded skill set and arsenal of Sanda.  The combination of all these skills is a testament to Sanda’s greatest potential as a training method, as we can see through Muslim Salikhov’s example.

Ability to Quickly Read His Opponent

Discipline of position and movement, both in relation to oneself and another opponent, is not enough in a fight.  If one can only do this, it also leaves the fight up to chance to a certain extent, as this will only address understanding of oneself, but does not actively address understanding the opponent, and by extension how to effectively win the fight.  Simply being able to attack and defend well is only one matter in a fight.  Being able to read one’s opponent and exploit his openings and weaknesses, is another in determining the winner.  And of course, Muslim also has this.

As an example, I would like to cite another analysis of Muslim Salikhov by Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) practitioner, former Sanshou fighter and World Wushu Championships bronze medalist in Sanda, Wim Demeere, where he analyzes how Muslim knocked out Nordine Taleb in his previous fight:

As we can see from Wim’s analysis, Muslim was able to recognize and capitalize on Nordine Taleb’s lack of an active guard, balance and stability by crossing his legs while moving laterally (all things that are conventionally discouraged in fighting, for reasons such as the statement following), by timing and countering his opponent’s movement with a quick overhand right.  While this kind of KO is a very common occurrence in combat sports such as boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai and MMA, this is not a new occurrence for Muslim.  He has done this before, as he did in the previous fight with Rick Rainey.  Again, most ignorant spectators will chalk this up to chance, as a fight can be chaotic in nature.  But the fact that Muslim can knock out his opponents so consistently is no coincidence, and certainly not left up to mere chance, and it is because of this ability to evaluate and exploit his opponent’s weakness.  And it is this ability that can be described as the ability to quickly read his opponent, also called having a high fight IQ (intelligence quotient).

The mark of a great fighter is not simply the ability to perform under pressure, but also the ability to quickly analyze a tough situation and/or opponent and adapt accordingly.  When it comes to a KO or TKO (technical knockout), this is not merely a matter of strength or weakness and conditioning of the body (although this inevitably important for full-contact fight training, especially for those that are used to taking hits), but also, and arguably more importantly, structural weaknesses and a matter of finding it.  How can so many seemingly strong fighters still get knocked out?  By finding and targeting the opening or weakness they might have.  In a sense this goes back to discipline in position and movement, which as we established, Muslim has especially in his fighting stance, or conversely, a lack thereof in his opponents.  As established, Nordine Taleb’s lack of an active guard, balance and stability by crossing his legs while moving gave away a weak structure that, from a physics and biomechanics standpoint, meant that he was unprepared for the force of Muslim’s overhand right.  But more relevantly, this goes back to the ability to quickly read an opponent.  In a way, it is almost like a live audit, where a company is evaluated by an external entity, outside of the company’s control, for anything not up to standard.  And it is in this way, Muslim can audit his opponent, find the opening in his opponent and choose an appropriate weapon to breach their structure.  The saying goes that it is the strike “you don’t see coming” that knocks you out.  The previously mentioned Anderson Silva, Israel Adesanya, Dominick Cruz, Muhammad Ali, Somluck Khamsing, Saenchai, Lerdsila, as well as UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) Light Heavyweight Champion Jon “Bones” Jones and former UFC Strawweight Champion and current One FC fighter Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, are all examples of fighters who can make reads on their opponents extremely quickly.  And Muslim can be added to that list.  When he finds a weakness in his opponent, whether in position or in movement, he will exploit it and make them pay dearly for it (I notice that the tone and language in this statement is noticeably cruel as I write this, but such is the nature of a fight, where the goal is to actively hurt the opponent).  This is the reason for his consistent knockout victories, what makes him so dangerous as a fighter.  If someone like this with a Sanda background exists, imagine the possibility of how many other Sanda fighters like Muslim may exist, and how they can replicate the same success.  And as we have seen with Zabit, it clearly can and has been done.

Seamless Transition into Takedowns 

This is absolutely Sanda’s specialization.  When it comes to learning how to fight in general, you could learn to punch better in boxing (in fact, learn boxing; seriously, it’s very educational in understanding the aforementioned benefits of speed, timing, distance and reaction both against one’s opponent’s hands, and with one’s own).  You could even arguably learn how to kick better in Taekwondo, as we have suggested in the example of Taekwondo training at Five Directions of the World, and Muay Thai.  When it comes to the most complete striking art with the most power, Muay Thai has been established as the best.  In the 41st episode of The Skipping Church podcast with Shane Fleeman and former US Sanda Team member Cory Johnson, “‘Our Northern Friend’ with Mark Lorenzo”, where Cory briefly discusses Sanda with the eponymous Mark Lorenzo, a former Guoshu lei tai and Sanda champion, and nationally and internationally certified Sanda judge under the USAWKF (United States of America Wushu Kungfu Federation) and IWuF (International Wushu Federation), respectively, Cory states, “…Sanda’s a[n] open sport, like, you don’t even have to be good at striking to do it.  Y-You know what I mean?  It’s like MMA.”  And of course, you could also learn to be a more complete wrestler in Shuai Jiao, but more extensively in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.  So why learn Sanda?  What does Sanda have that these other styles do not?  The answer is the combination of striking and wrestling standing up, and the skill developed transitioning from one range to the other.

I can’t count how many times I have said when watching a UFC fight, “If [insert fighter losing a striking battle here] knew Sanda, it would be a gamechanger.”  We have seen in Tyron Woodley’s first fight with Stephen Thompson, that Tyron was temporarily able to even out Stephen’s advantage of superior reach and threat of long range Karate kicks, by catching a kick and taking Stephen down, so it is clear that kick catches can clearly even out the striking game, especially when the opponent has the advantage in striking.  And such examples as Muslim Salikhov, Zabit Magomedsharipov and Cung Le are a testament to that.  The difference here is that the latter examples are Sanda fighters, and as Sanda fighters, the ability to transition from striking to wrestling is something they’re significantly better at.  In fact, this proves that Sanda can serve as a great counter style to virtually any kicking style out there, be it Taekwondo, Karate, or dare I say it, even Muay Thai to a certain extent.

If this were simply striking, the opponent hitting back would be enough to make it a fight.  It is notable that Chinese Sanda athletes such as Wei Shoulei, who fought in a Shooto (修斗; called Shoot Boxing in the West) match with the famous 2007 K-1 World Max Champion Andy Souwer and dominated early with kick catches and takedowns against the famous K-1 but was gassed out, fatigued and embarrassingly ran away from Souwer to lose a decision, and most recently Meng Qinghao and Zhang Kaiyin in Glory, have had limited to no success in their fights.  However, in MMA, the rate of success is not so varied.  By contrast, Muslim, Zabit and Cung have all utilized kick catches to neutralize their opponents’ kicks and sweep them, taking them down to the ground.  These repeated successes echo the words of Mark Lorenzo, who from my interview with him in “From A Platform Judge’s Point of View: An Interview with Mark Lorenzo About Sanda”, answered when I asked him about some unique fighting benefits to Sanda, “I think the couple things that you see in Sanda—the kick catches, catching the kick—really, the people that are good at it, and I’m not even gonna say I’m one of ’em, at all—the people that are the best at it and really get it to a high-level, it is the fastest, most precision, kick catches of any style.  You know, it can just hang with anybody.  They’re so fast, so effective, to snatch a leg and drop someone, which can be really great for neutralizing people.  You know, you’ve seen some of the matchups, I mean Thai fighters are so brutal with their power, and if you were to fight them, I would think that any MMA guy out there in the world, the first thing that you would wanna do is when that round kick starts coming out and coming out, is get a hold of it and get them on the ground, any way you can.  So, I think Sanda’s got some great movements for that.”  This shows that Sanda fighters can and have done well in MMA, given the added emphasis of wrestling to basic kickboxing, as opposed to pure striking/kickboxing style matches.  If you’re a striker, being evenly matched in striking is one thing.  But having an opponent who can neutralize your strikes with takedowns can make you think twice about your striking strategy.  Facing an opponent whose striking is not only technically superior, as many of Muslim and Zabit’s opponents have found, with the added threat of takedowns neutralizing your strikes, must be an absolute nightmare.

It is the combination of all these three elements—discipline in position and movement, the ability to quickly read his opponent, and last but certainly not least, his seamless transition into takedowns—that makes Muslim Salikhov the successful and phenomenal fighter that he is.  And the fact that he comes from a Sanda background demonstrates how all this can be possible from training Sanda.  To this day, Sanda is not nearly as promoted nor as respected as the more popular Muay Thai.  Part of this is because of the lack of huge numbers successful champions who have crossed over and proven its effectiveness on the big stage, such as professional kickboxing and MMA circuits.  The first of Bloody Elbow’s two-part feature that analyzed the flaws of Chinese martial arts styles, including Sanda, and their lack of success in fighting, “Shuai Jiao: Finding China’s martial arts renaissance in a 4,000-year-old wrestling system” by chrismassari, stated, “There have been a handful of notable Sanshou-based MMA fighters such as UFC and Strikeforce veteran Cung Le, or Filipino champions like Eduard Folayang and Kevin Belingon, but the success of a few outliers is not going to win the hearts and minds in a systems’ ability”.  I hate to admit it, but chrismassari is right.  If we are to truly evaluate the effectiveness of any given fighting style, system or training method, a few outliers are not enough to prove said effectiveness.  Before, Cung Le was Sanda’s most popular representative, and arguably its most successful due to be the most famous name to come up whenever there was a discussion with Sanda.  But now, with more individuals such as the aforementioned Eduard Folayang, Kevin Belingon, Joshua Pacio, Danny Kingad, Zabit Magomedsharipov, and the newly crowned UFC Strawweight Champion and first Chinese UFC Champion Zhang Weili, Sanda is slowly spreading awareness of its effectiveness, and has Chinese martial arts back into the world of full-contact sparring and serious fighting again, for those that do their research, and by extension, Wushu.  And Muslim Salikhov, being an undisputed World Champion, is at the top of that list of representatives.

Unfortunately, some fans such as myself lament that, like Cung Le, Muslim was already too old by the time he came into the UFC, at the age of 35 (though this is not as bad as Cung, who came into the UFC already in his 40s).  Though Muslim Salikhov getting a title shot may be out of the question, it is still a joy to see that fighters with a Sanda background can and have done well in MMA to this day.  And in the Wushu community, Muslim has been widely recognized as the best in Sanda.

When asked who he would like to fight next, Muslim stated he would like to fight Li Jingliang.  From a spectator standpoint, this fight makes sense.  Both fighters come from a Sanda background, and, while not necessarily a new sight, it would be interesting to see such a matchup at the highest level on a worldwide platform recognize by a mainstream audience.  Whatever happens next, many in the Wushu community support Muslim, and are anxious to see how he continues to represent our fighting discipline of Sanda!  加油了!

Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at matthewlee@jiayoowushu.com.