Merab Dvalishvili’s face lights up when I ask him how many takedowns he can amass over a 25-minute fight.
Generally happy and quick to smile, the Georgian bantamweight gets noticeably excited when our conversation shifts to his relentless style and the massive takedown numbers he’s amassed during the course of his eight-fight winning streak.
“Usually I can hit a lot, but against Petr Yan, I’m not sure,” he said, grinning ear-to-ear, but giving respect to the former bantamweight titleholder he’ll share the Octagon with in Saturday’s incredibly compelling main event. “I will try for as many as I can get, but I cannot guarantee.
“I will try, but if it doesn’t work, I’m gonna keep it standing,” continued Dvalishvili, who currently sits at No. 3 in the divisional rankings, one stop behind Yan. “This is mixed martial arts and I’m ready for everything but, of course, I believe I can take him down and break him.
“But we’ll see,” he added. “I’m focused on the win, not takedowns, even though I have 63 takedowns in my UFC career.”
Every UFC Takedown By Merab Dvalishvili
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Every UFC Takedown By Merab Dvalishvili
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Dvalishvili knows the exact number because watching him rag-doll opponents inside the Octagon, you can see how much joy he derives from breaking the poor souls forced to share the cage with him.
Even more than his wrestling, Dvalishvili’s greatest weapon during this unexpected ascent into title contention has been his relentless, suffocating pace. While some wrestlers and grapplers hunt for takedowns, focused on keeping their opponents stapled to the canvas once they hit the ground, Dvalishvili almost revels in their getting back up, because it just means he gets to deposit them to the canvas again.
And then when you walk back to your corner between rounds thinking to yourself, “Okay, this guy has got to be starting to get tired,” there is the compact bundle of energy smiling in the corner, showing no signs of fatigue and ready to race back into the center of the Octagon and resume lifting you into the air and putting you on the canvas, again and again and again.
While the takedowns are what stand out in his highlight reel, it’s the fact that he’s indefatigable and gives his opponents no time to breathe that really makes Dvalishvili dangerous.
In his most recent outing against Jose Aldo, the aptly named “Machine” didn’t register a single takedown, yet he neutralized the Brazilian legend for 15 minutes, smothering him along the fence and forcing him to showcase his otherworldly takedown defense.
It may not be aesthetically pleasing or popular with the “Put him in a body bag!” set, but it’s highly effective, and deploying that approach against Aldo carried Dvalishvili to the place he’s at now, even if securing the victory came with a little bit of heartache, as well.
“That was amazing but, at the same time, it was a little bit hard for me because of what he told me after the fight,” recounted Dvalishvili, who stands as the final opponent for the former featherweight kingpin in his legendary MMA career, as Aldo announced his retirement shortly after the contest. “(He told me) that was his last chance to fight for the title, and now he was going to retire.
“My heart broke. I have so much respect for Jose Aldo, and if he beat me, I wouldn’t be mad, I won’t be sad because God bless him and it’s good for his career.
“I beat him in a fight and when he told me, that was hard for me,” he reiterated. “Of course this was the biggest fight for me — I beat a former champion, a great fighter in Jose Aldo, my eighth win. Every fight in UFC is huge, big victory, and winning against Jose Aldo was amazing.”
Where his clash with Aldo at UFC 278 last summer was a thrilling personal highlight, Saturday’s showdown with Yan is a matchup with a former champion that could propel him into a championship opportunity of his own.
“This is a big opportunity for me; I’ve been working hard for this,” he said of his clash with Yan, who enters on a two-fight skid and having lost three of his last four, including a pair of championship bouts to Dvalishvili’s best friend and chief training partner, Aljamain Sterling. “Now there are just a couple days left and I have to show up.
“This means everything for me — I’m fighting former champion Petr Yan. He’s a great fighter, we all know, and a dangerous fighter for me, but I have to prove to everyone and make my people happy, my team.”
Despite his lack of recent positive results, no one, Dvalishvili very much included, sees Yan as anything other than one of the very best bantamweights on the planet.
“Usually after three rounds, I’m not even tired, but now with Petr, I think it will be tough because he always comes back in the fourth and fifth rounds even stronger; we all saw that with Aljo and with Sandhagen,” he said of his Russian opponent. “He’s been fighting five rounds many times — against Jose Aldo, and he has two fights with ‘Tiger’ Magomedov in ACA, as well.
“This guy is good, I know,” he added with a smirk and a laugh. “I respect him and I’m not accepting this will be easy and I can make him tired. I have to prepare because he always brings it. Five rounds? He’s been there, and this is my first time. Everything I do with him, I have to do hard — I have to throw hard and wrestle hard.
“It’s going to be a good fight.”
If he’s successful, it could create a unprecedented situation at the top of the bantamweight division, as Dvalishvili and Sterling have no interest in facing one another — not even for the title — and the current champion has stated he would happily vacate the title and relocate to the featherweight division if it meant his teammate got the opportunity to fight for and claim championship gold for himself.
As much as he deeply appreciates Sterling’s support and declared intentions should that situation arise, Dvalishvili isn’t thinking about any of that now.
He’s thinking about Petr Yan on Saturday night exclusively, and while he would have been okay losing at any previous point in his journey to this weekend’s main event, he admitted that coming up short here would leave him shattered.
“It means everything, man,” he said of Sterling’s friendship, support, and willingness to leave the bantamweight title for him. “We are best friends and we always support each other. Aljo is a nice guy, and a good guy; a lot of people don’t know this.
“But first, I have to win this fight, and this fight means more than a title fight for me. I said before, if I lost to Jose Aldo or Marlon Moraes, Cody Stamann or Casey Kenney, it’s no problem, but if I lose to Petr Yan, this is a big problem; I will be depressed.”
While he smiled and joked about having to jump off a bridge if things don’t work out in his favor this weekend, it’s clear how much this one means to him, just like when he perked up as we talked about takedowns.
Sometimes a fight is just a fight.
Other times, it’s so much more, and this is one of those times for Merab Dvalishvili.
UFC Fight Night: Yan vs Dvalishvili took place live from The Theater At Virgin Hotels Las Vegas on March 11, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive all the action at UFC Fight Pass!