In the first part of this series, we will examine some signature moves used by Khabib Nurmagomedov to dominate his opponents. This is a modified version of a previous post that was published prior to Khabib’s fights against Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier. This version includes several moves from these two fights and several additions to the original text.
Our main objective in the first two parts of this analysis is to help readers prepare for the third and final part: How to beat Khabib.
Nurmagomedov is one of the most dominant fighters in UFC history. The only fighter who can compare to him in terms of cage dominance is Jon Jones.
Dominant fighters like Nurmagomedov and Jones present a unique challenge to both coaches and analysts alike. Anyone can see the methods that they employ in order to crush their opponents but it is very difficult for most to suggest ways to beat them.
Before we elaborate on specific ways that can help opponents beat such a great fighter, it is important to analyze his game. Khabib’s game is as important as the games of the two other all-time MMA greats: Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones. In other words, an analysis of Nurmagomedov’s game is essential reading for fighters and coaches alike.
That being said, let’s start analyzing Khabib’s game. This first article will focus on the conceptual framework of his game, basic striking and his striking-to-takedowns combos. In part two we will focus on his wrestling takedown game, his cage pressuring methods and his ground-control generalship.
Related resources by the author:
Defeating the G.O.A.T: How to beat Jon Jones
Strikes to Takedowns: A breakdown of George St-Pierre’s game
I could start writing several paragraphs in an attempt to describe Khabib Nurmagomedov as an MMA fighter. On the other hand I could just use a single word.
That word is “RELENTLESS.” Several synonyms will also do: resilient, persistent, unstoppable. This has been a description of his career so far and provides a short summary of his work ethic inside the cage. This relentless pursuit of victory is what makes Khabib stand out besides his imperfections.
Performance vs. execution of individual techniques
Khabib is not a knockout artist, he seems clumsy and imperfect at times. I am also pretty sure that western-style wrestlers see many holes in his wrestling game.
“A lot of people say that [Khabib has good takedowns], but I don’t really necessarily think it’s his takedowns that are overly good. When I’m looking at his takedowns, they are simple,” UFC fighter Kevin Lee noted in an older interview.
Fighting efficiency, however, is more than using complex techniques or just the perfect execution of individual techniques. Fighting dominance is a combination of several fighting abilities.
Khabib employs an adequate use of all basic fighting abilities:
- Strategy (designing/implementing a well formulated game-plan)
- Technical ability (proper form, uses leverage, minimizes telegraphing)
- Physical fitness (cardio, explosiveness, speed, durability, changing gears, gripping strength for prolonged periods of time)
- Mental toughness and aggressive persistence (perseveres, turns the tables, goes for the kill/seizes opportunities)
No, Khabib’s game is not as simple as it looks
After watching all of Khabib’s fights in slow motion twice (like I always do for fight breakdowns), I noticed several simple patterns in his game, which will be analyzed below.
If they use linear thinking, analysts will come to the conclusion that Khabib just takes people down, holds them down and beats them up. This conclusion can be misleading.
By using non-linear thinking in our analysis, we will connect the dots and appreciate that there are multiple starting points from which Khabib initiates or enables sequences, in order to impose his will.
Yes, Khabib’s game is simple at first glance. But, like the simple parts of a machine, every screw, every part plays a role. It is the proper combination of the right parts that makes a great machine.
This has to do with the concept in holism, the idea that the total effectiveness of a group of things each interacting with one another is different or greater than their effectiveness when acting in isolation from one another. It is important to understand this concept because the parts of Khabib’s game interconnect to formulate a complex game with enhanced optionality. More on optionality below.
From a technique-based mentality to a wrestling one.
In traditional martial arts, it’s all about form, speed & explosiveness. In wrestling it is about taking the opponents into deep waters and drowning them. To do that, of course, you need to be able to survive into deep waters yourself.
This is an aspect of full contact and full resistance disciplines that traditional martial artists fail to understand.
In other words: Using “legal pain”
I am a big fan of the great American wrestler Wade Schalles. While representing Clarion University of Pennsylvania, he became a NCAA Division I champion in 1972 and 1973, winning the outstanding wrestler award in 1972. Schalles created unique wrestling manoeuvres and was known for pinning a large percentage of his opponents. He is an inductee of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
The video above describes how to use proper body positioning, disrupt breathing patterns, maximize the correct placement of body weight and move your opponent’s joints to their limits, thus causing pain/discomfort to demoralize opponents and drive them to the point of exhaustion. This is the only way you can beat experienced and stronger opponents and Khabib is a master in delivering legal pain.
A game of grips and levers
One of Nurmagomedov’s main strengths is his superior gripping game. His game is not one of underhooks like most other wrestling-based fighters. He is mostly effective using constant body-lock control. Once he grabs the body and manages to connect his hands there seems to be no escape.
He can do so for extended periods of time because he relies on isometric power, connection, leverage and weight distribution to get the job done, not pure strength. Wrestling from a young age has also helped him develop this sport-specific attribute.
Mental Toughness and aggressive persistence.
Some time ago I was watching a video of Marcelo Garcia teaching a class and one of his students was complaining that he could not establish an underhook to pass his opponent’s guard. Marcelo replied: “Do you want to get an underhook? You need to fight for the underhook. Sometimes there is no easy way, no magical way! To get grips or underhooks a lot of times you have to fight for them”
Khabib compensates for his few imperfections and his failed attempts by refusing to give up mentally and his cardio is always there to compliment his heart and determination.
Optionality: Why options matter
Optionality: (finance, business) The value of additional optional investment opportunities available only after having made an initial investment. In other words, optionality is the sum value of all options created by a decision. Likely the biggest destroyer of optionality for is exit potential.
Using the term loosely in MMA analysis, we can use a similar approach to identify the value of moves and strategies. If a move can produce a single outcome it has no optionality. If it opens up a series of options, then the technique is useful in beating high level competition. Good opponents are not likely to get beat due to a single technique, no matter how effective.
Khabib’s game is based on such optionalities. He invests on positions and controls that have all the options available for him and very limited options for his opponent. One such control is his top tripod control which we will analyze in part 2.
In this part we will analyze a few examples of Khabib’s striking game. This is by no means a full analysis of his striking arsenal.
Khabib’s striking seems basic and he does make technical mistakes. The main problem is his sambo stance. In sambo and judo you have to stand up straight, with your head high to prevent lapel grabs and once fighters learn to fight that way from a young age, it is very difficult to change their stance later in their careers. This stance though, invites opponents to come charging towards him. Spoiler alert: it does not end well for them.
Running against an open door
A student of a Samurai swordsman noticed an opening in his teacher’s stance and attacked, only to find himself thrown to the ground. The student asked: “Master, how did you escape from such a compromising position?” The Samurai replied: “You went charging through an open door that was not even there.”
The story above illustrates why opponent’s cannot take advantage of Khabib’s striking flaws: they know that if they over-commit to strikes, they will be taken down. Unfortunately for them, this is not kickboxing. This is MMA.
Beating superior strikes: the fear of the takedown
Lead right hands can easily get countered. It is preferable to set them up with other strikes. MMA fighters, however, can catch the best strikers if they manage to establish the threat of the takedown. Once this happens, their opponents’ defense can get compromised as their attention is focused on two different tasks at the same time: sprawling and defending strikes. This is why Nurmagomedov was able to catch Conor McGregor in the sequence above (the speed of the punch also helped: Khabib is deceptively fast).
You can see in the middle photos that Conor momentarily looks down, not knowing what is coming his way. This is why mixing things up is the best way to fight in MMA.
MMA theory 101: the fear of the takedown limits the abilities of strikers and this fear inhibits their performance.
This only gets worse when a fighter gets taken down repeatedly. Striking is an art based on reflexes, flow of techniques and counters. Anxiety and fatigue can take a heavy toll both on reflexes and reaction times.
Whenever Khabib gets carried away in striking exchanges, his coach Javier Mendez yells at him “Father’s plan.” Khabib’s father does not approve of a striking based game.
“Everybody here knows how good Khabib’s stand up is. Because you guys have all seen it,” Mendez said. “But the real world doesn’t know how good it is because I don’t allow him to do it. And his father doesn’t allow him to do it.
“Like he said to me, ‘Coach, you keep saying father’s plan, father’s plan. When are you gonna let me stand?’ I go, ‘I don’t know, we’ll see.’”
There is, however, a noticeable improvement in Khabib’s striking. People keep criticizing Khabib for the Al Iaquinta fight, but it was obvious to me that Nurmagomedov was pacing himself for a five-round fight and working on his boxing. The performance was still as dominant as it gets. Here is an example of great striking against Rafael dos Anjos:
In the photos above, Dos Anjos throws a left hand from a southpaw stance and Khabib ducks under and comes back on top with an overhand right. Dos Anjos is a pretty good striker and Khabib was still able to counter him.
Another example can be seen in the sequence below:
In this example, Conor McGregor launches a pretty fast right jab and somehow Khabib is able to make him (barely) miss and come on top with a left hook. Khabib does not use proper form here: he does not pull back and use his shoulder to protect his chin as he makes Conor miss. The counter, however, was able to get the job done.
Here is another example showcasing Khabib’s speed:
In the sequence above, Khabib launches a fake jab to the body and then connects with an overhand right followed by several more punches. Landing overhand rights on Conor is no easy task.
Khabib’s striking is designed to provide takedown opportunities for him. Keeping good distance while mixing takedowns helps him avoid receiving damage and establish control and that is the only thing that matters.
Khabib often uses lead uppercuts to close the distance. He initiates these punches in a way that looks like he is going for the takedown. This can cause two reactions:
- His opponent will drop levels to defend for a takedown and get hit with the uppercut.
- His opponent will pull his head up to avoid the punch and this opens the door for Khabib to get the clinch or a takedown.
Initiating brawls: right uppercut to a takedown
Another way for Khabib to get the takedown is to initiate a striking brawl while charging forward. He usually throws a right uppercut to force his opponent to stand tall and this allows Khabib to change levels and go for a takedown.
Failed takedowns to uppercuts
When Khabib shoots and fails to get the takedown he has the ability to get back on his feet very fast. He usually attacks with uppercuts as his opponent struggles to get up from a sprawling position.
Hunting opponents down, forcing them to run backwards
Khabib demoralized Edson Barboza and other opponents forcing them to fight while running backwards, which is a very difficult task. Most strikers need to set-up proper distance in order to launch effective attacks. Not to mention that running backwards is exhausting.
Closing the distance with flying knees
In addition to hunting down opponents, thus forcing them to retreat, Khabib likes to close the distance with a scissor-flying-knee. This attack is, again, designed to force his opponents to lift their head up and limits their ability to sprawl. The knee attack also forces them to retreat with their back against the cage.
Breaking momentum using takedowns
In the photos above, Dustin Poirier semi-connects with a lead left hand and follows up with a right hook that misses. Khabib pauses for a second and shoots for a double leg takedown.
Nurmagomedov’s takedowns prevent opponents from establishing a rhythm and gain momentum.
Trapping opponent’s lead hand to a takedown
In this sequence Conor is in his usual southpaw stance and extends his right hand. Khabib extends his left hand, checks Conor’s hand, pushing it to the side and shoots under for a takedown.
Double leg takedown against charging opponents
In case you are wondering why opponents do not try to force Khabib to move backwards himself, the reason is that they know that he will just duck under and go for the double. And believe me, if a fighter survives the mauling for the first time, he’s been to a dark place and will not want to go there again.
In this example Pat Healy is pressuring Khabib, forcing him to retreat and attacks with a right hand to the body, followed by a left hook. Khabib ducks under, gets double underhooks and connect his hands. Healy tries to push him away with his elbow but Nurmagomedov slides to his back and pushes him down towards the cage.
Tip: in my boxing mittwork, I teach several counters to get the clinch from boxing roll-unders. It is a great way to establish grappling connection.
That will be all for now. In our next post we will continue with Khabib’s grappling game.
For a list of my previous technique breakdowns on Bloody Elbow, check out this link.
About the Author: Kostas Fantaousakis is a researcher of fighting concepts, tactics, and techniques, and a state-certified MMA, grappling, and wrestling coach in Greece. He teaches his unique Speedforce MMA mittwork system © which combines strikes, takedowns, knees, and elbows applied in the Continuous Feedback © mittwork system of the Mayweather family. Kostas is a black belt in BJJ under MMA veteran and BJJ world champion Wander Braga (the teacher of Gabriel Napao Gonzaga).