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UFC 229 breakdown: How Khabib Nurmagomedov dominates his opponents

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Prizefighting is about drama, and the main event of UFC 229 has plenty of it. Even without his usual crowd to bolster his talking points, Conor McGregor took full advantage of the mic at September’s press conference. He called out Khabib Nurmagomedov’s manager Ali Abdelaziz for being a deadbeat dad; he criticized Nurmagomedov’s connections to Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, calling him a “lick-arse rat”; both men decried one another and their respective teams for their actions (or lack thereof) leading up to, during, and after McGregor’s infamous (or should we say “Notorious”) bus attack; McGregor even offered the Muslim Nurmagomedov a glass of his new whiskey (an official sponsor of UFC 229! Order yours today!), receiving an predictable and none-too-pleased refusal.

But no matter what takes place in the lead-up, the fight is the thing. Even the biggest drama show is nothing without culmination–payoff. As Nurmagomedov repeatedly reminded the former featherweight and lightweight champ, “Sixth October is most important . . . when cage close, we gonna see.”

When it comes to the fight itself, McGregor vs Nurmagomedov is undeniably one of the most fascinating matchups the sport of MMA will have ever seen. In many ways, it proposes the very questions this sport was originally intended to answer. Grappler versus striker; knockout puncher versus suffocating mauler. The fascination stems from the fact that both McGregor and Nurmagomedov are accustomed to overwhelming their opponents–not just beating them, but dominating them, from first bell to last, or whenever the finish may come.

As Nurmagomedov says, the ultimate question — who is better? — will have to wait until Saturday to be answered. Until then, my job is to make the matchup even more tantalizing, by exploring the ins and outs of two of MMA’s most irresistible fighting styles. This week, we will examine the games of both competitors. To truly grasp the stakes of this contest, we need to understand just how these men turn so many well-prepared opponents into victims.

First, Nurmagomedov.

Though he shows flashes of unexpected diversity on the feet, Khabib is a pressure fighter, first and foremost. In fact, he is such a recklessly aggressive striker that one might be tempted to call him a “brawler.” The difference lies in his intent. A brawl is never the goal—even when Khabib chose to strike with Al Iaquinta, he spent 20 minutes doing his best Muhammad Ali impression instead of slugging it out. Rather, Khabib wants to invite his opponents to a brawl, only to crash the party with his wrestling as soon as they RSVP.

Because we are examining the nature of his dominance, it might be interesting to start with an example in which everything seems to be going wrong for Khabib. He is not known for his striking, of course, and this is the phase of the fight in which he will be in constant danger against McGregor.

It is possible, however, to brave tactical dangers in pursuit of a strategic goal. When Nurmagomedov fought Michael Johnson, he faced a knockout puncher with a lightning quick left hand—not entirely dissimilar to McGregor, himself. Though he found himself in some trouble early (though not nearly as much as the commentary team believed, at the time), Nurmagomedov was relentless with the pressure, navigating his way through the storm on the feet en route to a comfortable cruise on the ground.

1. Khabib takes a bite of Johnson’s right hand in a wild exchange.

2. He retreats enough to get out of danger, and seconds later, he is pushing into range again.

3. A feint from Khabib.

4. Johnson throws out a measuring right hand, which Nurmagomedov parries.

5. Then the big left. Khabib pulls his guard tight, and gets out of range again.

6. And the process repeats. As soon as he is safe, Nurmagomedov comes forward again, probing with a jab.

7. Johnson, expecting a takedown, looks for a counter knee.

8. Nurmagomedov retreats again.

9. And bounds right back into attack mode again. Another pawing jab entry.

10. And another halfhearted knee from Johnson.

11. Johnson adds layers to his attack. Khabib lays back, getting away from a wild right hook.

12. Johnson lunges in with a left, but Nurmagomedov once again catches the shot on his guard.

13. An ugly hook forces Johnson to back off, this time.

14. Which is nothing if not an open invitation for another Dagestani assault.

15. Another feint from Nurmagomedov, this one a level change to suggest the takedown.

16. Johnson fires again, and Khabib pulls away.

17. This time, having gotten a read on his rapidly tiring opponent, Khabib isn’t even in position to have to block the left hand.

While this sequence was playing out, commentators and fans alike were watching with bated breath. Nurmagomedov had just been hit cleanly by one of the most fearsome punchers south of welterweight, and Johnson’s potent offense was firing on all cylinders. Why was Khabib staying so close, and repeatedly provoking the superior striker to attack?

If you don’t know what Khabib ultimately did to Michael Johnson, you’ll get a glimpse of his fate a little farther down—for now, I invite you to click the “GIF” link beneath this first example, and watch the extended sequence. Though every punch is a serious threat to Nurmagomedov, Johnson has no choice but to keep throwing. Every miss gives Khabib just a little better feel for Johnson’s timing. In comparison, Khabib hardly has to work at all. Feints are enough to get Johnson’s trigger finger to twitch, anxious as he is about giving up a potentially fight-ending takedown. Despite his early success, Johnson’s situation gradually shifts, until he is no longer thinking, “I can knock this guy out before he takes me down,” but rather, “I must knock him out before he takes me down.” Effective pressure fighters make sure their initiative is felt as well as seen.

What it means to McGregor: Lots of opportunities, none of them particularly safe. It is possible that Nurmagomedov chooses not to pressure McGregor. He often fights off the back foot, relying on agile feet and sharp eyes to avoid strikes—though, of course, his kickboxing technique leaves more than a few things to be desired. Pressure would seem like the way to trouble McGregor, however, following the blueprint laid out by Diaz and Mayweather.

For McGregor, this means facing a great many tough decisions—when to back out and reset, and when to fire, knowing that every committed strike is a window through which Nurmagomedov can shoot? Fortunately for the Irishman, he may be the fastest starter in all of MMA, something a few of his first-round victims could attest to, none more bitterly than Jose Aldo, the greatest featherweight of all time, whom McGregor knocked out cold in 13 seconds. Whatever happens, the battle for momentum in the first round will undoubtedly be one of the most crucial and thrilling portions of the fight.

These days, an MMA fighter with no real takedown defense is a rare thing.

Until Khabib appeared on the scene, the MMA metagame seemed to be moving away from grappling. The reason: by about 2010, a top 10 mixed martial artist who couldn’t stop a takedown was a genuine rarity. Just as the submission game began to fall out of favor after fighters developed a modicum of submission defense, takedowns started to seem less valuable as more and more fighters learned to sprawl, underhook, and disengage.

Unfortunately for the new school of sprawl-and-brawlers, Khabib Nurmagomedov is not, and never has been, the type to give up at the first sign of resistance.

1. Locked into a rear waist cinch, Khabib drives Abel Trujillo into the fence.

2. Keeping his head under Trujillo’s armpit (to avoid losing his back), he sidesteps to get his hips closer to Trujillo’s center of gravity.

3. Now the lift. Keeping his hands clasped tight, Nurmagomedov hauls Trujillo into the air. Abel smartly hooks his right leg around Khabib’s left, preventing a back arch.

4. After a brief struggle to remove the entangled leg, Khabib repositions himself for another lift.

5. Once again, Trujillo grapevines Nurmagomedov’s leg.

6. This time, however, Khabib isn’t looking for a back arch. He twists to his right, dumping Trujillo where an unoccupied right leg might have saved him.

7. An able wrestler, Trujillo quickly works to a referee position.

8. And hustles over to the fence. Nurmagomedov hustles to keep his waist cinch, and drives Trujillo into the fence again.

9. This time, he drops to wrap his arms around Trujillo’s hips, instead.

10. A quick turn nearly allows him to finish with a double leg.

11. But Trujillo’s balance saves him. He gives up his back again, to avoid the takedown.

12. But before he can think about fighting hands or getting some space for his hips, Khabib stretches out a leg.

13. Still driving into his opponent, Nurmagomedov hooks the leg bearing his weight.

14. And brings him down again.

The fight with Trujillo was one of Nurmagomedov’s most impressive displays. Abel wasn’t the best, but he could wrestle, and yet FightMetric was able to credit Nurmagomedov with 21 takedowns—two fewer than the number of strikes he landed in the bout. Though knowledgeable folks like the esteemed Coach Mike dispute the use of the word “takedown” in these statistics, the basic facts are that Nurmagomedov flung Trujillo around like an orca toying with a dead seal. No matter how often Trujillo got back to his feet (I believe it happened around 20 times), he could not free himself from Khabib’s iron grip, nor could he anticipate the dozens of ways in which he was capable of returning him to the ground.

My Heavy Hands co-host Phil Mackenzie may have ruffled a few feathers when he compared Nurmagomedov to Ronda Rousey, but we can certainly acknowledge the parallels. Rousey’s fights had the sense of inevitability about them. Recklessly aggressive, most of the women she fought simply couldn’t scare her off without getting caught up in a clinch, and one in the clinch, a takedown seemed like more of an eventuality than a mere possibility. Ronda’s judo hinged on her ability to force defensive reactions out of her opponent, and then capitalize on the new vulnerabilities created by that move. If another defensive move was made, a new attack could always follow. In wrestling, Judo, and Sambo, there is always a weak angle to threaten.

Both the breakneck aggression and multi-directional takedown game are key to Nurmagomedov’s most crushing victories. In this sequence, we can follow the flow chart in his mind. He tries to take Trujillo one way, then attacks again, expecting to counter the first defense. Nurmagomedov, even more so than Rousey, is not particular about the specific position. Rather, he is always willing to flit to another position or angle, so long as he maintains control of the situation. If his opponent is always reacting, he has ample opportunities to defy their expectations. He is very, very good at this. It doesn’t matter how many times you check your boarding pass; Dagestani Airlines has a way of taking you to unexpected destinations.

What it means to McGregor: Nothing good. The only people who have ever truly stifled Nurmagomedov’s wrestling game were Gleison Tibau, a mountain of muscle with 92 percent career takedown defense, and Pat Healy, who did eventually go for a short flight or two. McGregor is close to both in size, but in physical strength and wrestling skill, we can only assume he falls short.

McGregor, like all strikers who have faced Khabib, will have to focus on nipping every single takedown in the bud. This means maintaining distance, creating angles, and quickly shutting down shots without allowing Nurmagomedov to keep hold of him in any way. Once tied up, there will be no comfortable decisions. If McGregor pursues underhooks, Khabib will likely threaten to trip him. If he untangles his feet, he may give up a single leg. He could place that leg between Nurmagomedov’s, and suffer a superpowered crackdown, or to the outside, and get his remaining leg swept out from under him. No matter how well he defends, he will suffer the same attrition as all who wrestle with Nurmagomedov. If McGregor cannot avoid the clinch—or hurt Khabib quickly and assert control over the bout—the fight may slip away before he has a chance to enjoy any of it.

In wrestling, a pin occurs when one opponent has both shoulder blades on the floor. In a sport without submission holds (anymore, that is), a pin is as good as a tap. Throughout the sport’s development as a battlefield martial art, positions like this were sought after for the simple reason that, if the man on top is so inclined (and appropriately armed), even the most heavily armored opponent is ripe for the killing once he is put flat on his back. The wrestler just unsheathes his knife, finds a convenient gap near the throat, or under an armpit, and finishes his foe (or, if the unlucky guy is rich, asks politely for a ransom). There are plenty of pins in other arts, like Judo and Sambo, with the same historical reasoning in mind.

Sadly, modern referees tend to check MMA fighters for rondel daggers and tantos before allowing them into the cage, so grapplers like Khabib do not have the luxury of finishing the job with a single decisive blow. As a result, the classic pins are not quite as effective. Many pinning positions do not grant the grappler on top enough leverage to land punishing strikes. Instead, Nurmagomedov’s ground game centers on the idea of creating “pins” that grant him enough space to generate real power, enough control to strike repeatedly, and a free hand with which to do so.

Positions like the mounted crucifix fulfill this need perfectly, and Nurmagomedov makes excellent use of that position. Likewise for the low leg-mount he employs when his opponent is taken down near the fence–that one actually frees both of his arms to strike and apply pressure to the trapped foe. For this section, however, we will look at a move which has become an irreplaceable staple of the Khabib’s ground game, a veritable trademark, and one which exemplifies just how much trouble an opponent is in once he gets them down.

1. In a sort of loose quarter mount, Nurmagomedov drives the downed Michael Johnson toward the fence.

2. Once there, Nurmagomedov quickly slips into full mount.

3. Almost simultaneously, he gets two-on-one control of Johnson’s right arm. Note that Khabib pins his wrist to the ground with his left hand, while the right grapevines under Johnson’s armpit and controls the forearm from behind.

4. With this powerful control of Johnson’s bottom arm, Nurmagomedov needs only to drive forward to break him down, killing any hope of Johnson working back to his feet.

5. Johnson tries to roll toward the fence to free his arm, but Khabib catches his leg with a hook. Johnson reaches to control Khabib’s free wrist.

6. But he simply cannot move. Khabib’s leg keeps him from bellying down, but the grapevine grip makes playing half guard an impossibiliy.

7. All Johnson can do is try vainly to protect his head with only one arm.

If Khabib’s striking is defined by pressure, it still cannot compare to the amount of pressure built into positions like this. Fighters are always most vulnerable in transition—here, Nurmagomedov has essentially trapped Johnson in the space between two playable positions. If he could turtle, he might give up his back, but a scramble could go either way—Nurmagomedov’s left leg prevents that. Likewise, if he could turn into Khabib, he might at least be able to control his posture and hunt for some escape—but with one arm all but chained to the fence, that option is closed, as well. A little posture would make things easier, but every straining effort to prop himself up on his elbow only invites Khabib to go two-on-one and break him down again. And then more punches. I encourage you to watch the GIF to see more than this image shows, but even that can’t give you the sound of Khabib’s blows traveling through Johnson’s skull into the plywood.And because Johnson is stuck firmly in place, Khabib has ample room and time to wind up and place his shots carefully, but not gently.

Nurmagomedov often prefers to grapple out of a standing or semi-standing position. Keeping at least one foot planted on the ground allows him exceptional mobility and control. The common term “floating” doesn’t seem to fit the sheer brutality of Nurmagomedov’s positional grappling, but all the same, his technique allows him to switch effortlessly from agile transitions to crushing pressure.

What it means to McGregor: Is “death” too strong of a word? In truth, McGregor has shown some glimpses of real grappling acuity. The nifty X-guard sweep he hit on Nate Diaz stands out, for example, as does the methodical BJJ lesson he gave Max Holloway—and on one good knee, no less. Another knee injury can excuse some of the lackluster guard work McGregor showed against Chad Mendes, himself as good a wrestler as Nurmagomedov, though their styles are not particularly similar. In the end, however, if McGregor is capable of avoiding or escaping Nurmagomedov’s specialized pins, most will have a hard time believing it until they see it.

Again, the task for McGregor seems to be avoiding anything resembling a prolonged grappling exchange, either standing or on the feet. The more he can exploit Nurmagomedov’s defensive liabilities standing, the easier it will become to enforce a healthy respect for his striking range, and shut Khabib out of the clinch outright, cutting him off from the ground altogether.

Check back tomorrow for part two, in which we will examine the keys to McGregor’s own dominance, and the unique problems he poses to Khabib.

For more on this fight and the rest of UFC 229, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. And tune into the same Youtube channel this Saturday for live analysis of the main card.


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