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UFC 229: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor Toe-to-Toe Review – A complete analysis

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The main event we had all been waiting for: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor. Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dillon Danis. Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov. Conor McGregor vs. Zubaira Tukhugov. Conor McGregor vs. Islam Makhachev. Conor McGregor vs. Abubakar Nurmagomedov — UFC 229 at the T-Mobile Arena in Nevada.

One sentence summary

David: Gentlemen! We’re on live TV! Gentlemen! We’re on live TV!!

Phil: (David’s Note: Snake? Snake? Snaaaake!)

Result

Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Conor McGregor via Submission (neck crank) at 3:03 of Round 4

History / Recap of the Fight

David: I know my movie analogies are awful, but this match felt like the salvo of every Jason Bourne vs. Well-Dressed Assassin fight: just two evenly matched, world class dudes waiting to find that rolled up newspaper to make the difference. First off, the grappling is what made this fight more competitive than I thought on second watch. It wasn’t a complete shock; something I maintained in our preview by noting McGregor’s quietly excellent grappling — defensively he’s pretty good, but I didn’t think he’d look that good. Conor did well in multiple areas. When Conor was on his butt, he did a good job of maintaining control of his body using his hands and leg strength to post up, keeping Khabib from slithering forward into full body control/guard. He wasn’t afraid to snake his legs over to sneak in for a potential counter back take. Basically, Conor looked good offensively and defensively in otherwise precarious situations (kind of like how Danis training with Conor benefited Danis in the standup portion of his fight with Khabib). McGregor didn’t panic. He just kept his composure, and stayed patient with a 155-pound vanilla gorilla on top of him. Sure, his defense required some illegal behavior, but keeping Khabib from gripping with two hands was huge in forcing Nurmagomedov to work harder than he usually does.

Phil: As I mentioned with Connor Ruebusch on this week’s Heavy Hands, one of the pleasing things about this one was that it was actually an MMA fight. For all the wide stylistic disparities, we still got to see how each man functioned in the area which was outside their area of specialism. I’ve often felt that McGregor does not have a particularly deep grappling game, so much as he has a very finely honed sense of what is appropriate. This was evident in both his Mendes and Holloway fights: there wasn’t a wide repertoire of defensive or offensive options in his toolset, but he used them extremely well. This time, he sprawled on Khabib’s low single, he based on top of him, he tried to stand up and get away, and he defended the single leg. Then he got forced back to the death zone of the fence, and was taken down. Unlike pretty much all of Khabib’s opponents, he didn’t panic once the fight hit the mat, and instead tried to patiently wait for an opening to get back to his feet. Unfortunately for Conor, Khabib didn’t give it to him, and instead slowly and steadily inched his way into more and more dominant positions. It was a fascinating study in how hard it can be to leverage even relatively wide advantages in technique and athleticism against a determined, smart opponent, but also how those disparities make themselves clear over time.

David: The striking aspect shocked me the most. Part of it was stylistic — seeing what Conor’s striking looked like having to functionally counter the takedown at all times. In one sense, I liked what I saw. Conor adapted, focusing on bodywork with his front kicks and straight left. On the other hand, it forced him into a much more plodding role. There’s a reason why he was whiffing on those left hands and it’s because he was rarely stepping in; working from the outside to avoid easier entry for Khabib’s double leg.

The other part was Khabib’s tempo. I’ve never been fond of Khabib’s striking. But I think it’s just a mechanical blindspot on my part. I’ve used this analogy before. In hockey, Russian wingers (like Alex Ovechkin) love to play on their off wing; as in, they shoot right handed but prefer to approach the goalie from the left lane (and vice versa). With their Sambo influence, I think you see a similar phenomenon going on with Russian fighters, who use otherwise odd strikes like the casting punch — which to American audiences used to boxing looks like a mechanically deficient punch — but because fighters aren’t used to seeing punches led with the shoulder, it becomes just as functional as a traditional strike meant to maximize velocity. More than just using these punches to great effect, Khabib (IMO) looked noticeably quicker. These weren’t punches he was using as accessories to grappling. He was looking to beat Conor with punches. I don’t think Conor was rocked in the 2nd round, but I came away thinking Khabib more or less won the standup. I don’t even think that right hand was the best punch Khabib landed. In the 3rd, he landed a super crisp left hand that forced me to do a double take — that was Khabib Nurmagomedov, right? Not Oscar De La Hoya? The UFC’s fight motion highlights caught it in super-mo. Even slowed down, it’s quick.

Phil: I got in some trouble last week for saying that I didn’t think McGregor was a particularly fantastic athlete, and that Khabib is a great one, but at the risk of confirmation bias (and full disclosure, I’m no Nostradamus, seeing as I picked Conor to win anyway), this fight kind of showed that to be the case…? I think McGregor’s historical advantages have been that he was a ridiculously huge featherweight with a reach advantage over everyone he fought, and that he is a marvelously accurate puncher. Neither of these things are really in the realm of traditional athleticism. From a purely physical perspective, he simply does not have the gifts of other fighters at the top of this stacked weight class. He doesn’t have the insane strength of Kevin Lee, the endless cardio of Ferguson, or the speed of Nurmagomedov. His advantages are more intangible: timing and precision, and both looked to be badly thrown by just how blazingly quick Khabib is.

In addition, Khabib never let himself become monotone enough to allow his speed to become less of a threat. Normally Conor is the diverse striker, but Khabib never settled on the jab, or the hook, or went back to the well too much with that overhand again. McGregor just didn’t know what was coming back at him.

David: Let’s talk about the submission. Jonathan Snowden stirred the pot a little (Snowden stirring the pot? Never! PS: Love ya, brother) by implying that Conor kind of “gave up” (my words, not his). Ben Thapa called it a mean figure four neck crank. I think both men are right not because I have special midichlorians (holy crap, google docs doesn’t red flag this for autocorrect?) to read Conor’s mind, but because all submissions demand some gradation of surrender. We’ve seen plenty of submissions that are technically applied, and fully locked that don’t up end up finishing the fight. Then there’s anyone who ever tapped to a Von Flue choke. In between, surrender can happen at the level of positioning — how many times have we seen fighters let their guard get passed almost too easy? It’s not that the fix is in, or fighter X is mentally weak. This is attrition, and attrition takes its toll on the decision making process. If Conor was resigned at any point, I think it happened when Khabib had full mount. Thing is; these pop psychology insights happen in every fight. I’d imagine that once you hear your jaw popping, psychology goes out the window.

Phil: At the risk of being controversial, I think there is something to Snowden’s take. Just a bit. I always remember this article from Esquire:

’The way even the most successful still covet, McGregor dreams of possessing the ultimate trapdoor, of mastering the decisive submission that would finish any opponent: the rear naked choke. He has never managed to apply it during a UFC fight. He talks about it the way any of us talks about an object of desire that eludes us.

”It’s the most dominant submission,” he says almost wistfully. It isn’t an arm or a knee bar or an ankle lock, each of which leaves its victim the opportunity to survive, however slight. And it isn’t a punch that can be slipped or countered. The rear naked choke is almost a metaphor for the consequences of our most calamitous mistakes. “You can do nothing to me, but I can do whatever the fuck I want to you,” McGregor says. “I have complete control.”’

So I’m not sure. A man who dreams of the RNC as the ultimate submission, yet has two recent losses to some variant on it on his record, while never being able to turn away from his striking for long enough to pick one up himself. Like you said, I want to avoid the easy pop-psych route, and I’m not saying he wanted out, or anything stupid like that. But there are some fighters who will rage and tear and fight until everything goes black, and I think there’s some thoughtful part of Conor which quietly says: I think we’re done here now.

F—t It, Let’s Talk About the Brawl

David: Dominic Cruz doing his level best Gus Johnson impression was fun but I believe the real star was Jon Anik. Unlike Joe Rogan, who was busy mourning the kerfuffle like he just bong ripped a tube of formaldehyde — Anik wasn’t dropping character until the DVD commentary. Calling Zubaira Tukhugov’s horseshit sucker punches (“OOOH”) like Logan Paul on a PPV was pantheon-level (copyright, Tomas Rios 2010) commentary.

Phil: The Flight of the Eagle was the first and most memorable part of the brawl. Plus, to credit Khabib, if you’re going to attack someone after a fight, you might as well make sure it’s someone who people don’t tend to like that much in the first place. Remember Fabricio Werdum’s front kick to Edmond Tarverdyan? Remember how people got super mad and demanded that Werdum leave the sacred sport of MMA forever? Me neither. Khabib’s friends were a little more repugnant, and the sight of them jumping on a tired, beaten McGregor was a touch gross. Coach Kavanagh had the right take.

What We Got Wrong

David: The stakes. I truly thought McGregor would either be the GOAT for winning (not me, but figured that would be the narrative from everyone else), or Khabib would. Now one guy has never successfully defended either one of his belts, and the other guy may never even step foot on US soil. That sounds overly dramatic, but I just want to point out that we had no idea that this fight would be for the Tony Ferguson belt.

Phil: I dismissed the mental games as just that, but the McGregor team really managed to get under Khabib and company’s skin. That being said, “getting in Khabib’s head” ended up being a non-starter when it came to actually, er, winning.

What We Got Right

David: I feel weird about Brendan Schaub knowing more than me, but that’s why Bloody Elbow pays us in bird feed (just kidding: thanks for paying for my Hyperloop Capsule Nate!).

Phil: The basic dynamics of the fight were no surprise. One guy got success early, and it snowballed from there. The entertainment, as expected, was in the little details.

Prognostication

David: Am I the only one who thinks Tony Ferguson beats both men? Yea he gets hit a lot and tries to Blanka roll out of trouble all the time, but I’m not sure I’d bet on McGregor to eat Tony’s punches late in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, and whatever voodoo allowed him to take just 6 months to recover from a torn LCL makes me think his funk movement will counter Khabib’s wrestling. Just a hunch though.

Phil: I feel like all three of these guys can beat each other on the right day, but the stylistic edges tend to favour Khabib over Conor, Conor over Ferguson, and Ferguson over Khabib. I think Ferguson’s activity and gas tank allow him to wear out Khabib over time, but his horrendous defensive lapses would get him eaten up by McGregor. For someone who gets dropped or hurt early in literally every fight, McGregor is not the guy you want to get dropped by (see also: Alvarez, E). Still, it remains to be seen how this whole thing shakes out. Are the brass cynical enough to give McGregor an immediate rematch? If not, how do they square the fact that his fights need to be the main event with their pathological need to have the headliners fight for a belt? Is 165 incoming after all? Poirier-Diaz winner or Ferguson Take 5 against Khabib? All open questions.




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