Author’s note: For part one of this article analyzing Conor McGregor’s game, please click here.
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: persistent, non-stop, never-ending, unstoppable. This has been his career so far and a short description of his work ethic inside the cage.
Khabib is not a knockout artist, he seems clumsy and imperfect. I am pretty sure that western-style wrestlers even see 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 a recent interview.
I admit that after watching all of Khabib’s fight in slow motion, like I always do for fight breakdowns, I noticed several simple patterns in his game, which will be analyzed below. Yes, Khabib’s game is simple. But simple is the way of masters.
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 is not perfect, but he refuses to give up mentally and his cardio is always there to compliment his heart and determination.
It is in Khabib’s imperfection that one starts to notice glimpses of a grappling genius. Khabib is not your typical sambo grappler or wrestler. He has a good bottom game and great submissions even from the bottom.
Like all overaggressive wrestlers who keep charging forward (like Daniel Cormier), Khabib can be taken down (Clip/Gif1 Clip/Gif2 Clip/Gif3). However, he will use any means necessary to get back on top and will often improvise in a way that reminds me a lot of Ben Askren. These improvisations often generate interesting grappling outcomes. For example, have you ever seen a sweep like the one below?
It is obvious that Khabib is a student of the game. His grappling is a combinations of tools that work for him and they are not just Sambo or wrestling techniques.Beside these two sports his other obvious influences are BJJ, Judo clinch throwns and Japanese MMA/Shooto top-control/ground-and-pound tactics (for example trapping his opponent’s legs in a leg triangle control).
I will not focus here on Khabib’s striking. His striking seems basic and he does make many 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.
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 many flaws: they know that if they over-commit to strikes, they will be taken down. This is not kickboxing. This is MMA.
MMA theory 101: the fear of the takedown limits the abilities of strikers and this fear inhibits their performance.
This only get worse when you get taken down repeatedly. Striking is an art based on reflexes and the flow of techniques and counters. Anxiety and fatigue can take a heavy toll both on reflexes and reaction time.
That being said, Khabib’s striking has been getting better due to his training in AKA. Here is an example 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 and overhand right. Dos Anjos is a good striker.
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.
Khabib’s striking is designed to provide takedown opportunities for him. Keeping good distance while mixing takedowns helps him avoid receiving damage 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 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 sprawl position.
Hunting opponents down, forcing them to run backwards
Khabib demoralized Edson Barboza and other opponents forcing them to fight will running backwards, a very difficult task. Here is an example: Clip/Gif
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.
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.
From the clinch
The clinch is a great way for Khabib to get takedowns. In this first example he uses an outside trip.
In the photos above you can see Rafael dos Anjos having established an underhook and trying to grab Khabib’s leg with the other hand. Khabib blocks him by getting wrist control and uses the whizzer to throw dos Anjos with a beautiful major outside foot reap throw.
Getting single and low single leg takedowns.
High crotch, single leg and low single leg takedowns are Khabib’s favorite way to get the fight to the ground. He is not much of a double leg takedown fighter.
Please note in the following sequences how he goes on both knees and hugs the foot to establish control of the foot. He finishes in different ways, depending on the opponent’s reaction.
Here Khabib uses the “running the pipe” finish.
Al Iaquinta was able to pull his foot out and stop the low single so this time Khabib lifts the foot up in order to finish the takedown.
Guillotines against Khabib are not a good idea
One of the best ways for Khabib to finish a takedown is when his opponent goes for guillotines. Here are two examples of him just passing or finishing the takedown and landing on the safe side (with his feet on the opposite side of the trapped head).
This second example is a great finish. Please examine how Khabib moves his right foot to the outside of his opponent’s left foot (photo 7) then grabs his hip on the back with his right hand (photo 8) and just pulls the left foot to finish the takedown.
Opponent sprawls, Khabib re-shoots
Sprawls are not enough to stop Khabib, he will either stand up or re-shoot and go deeper to get the takedown. Here is an example
Khabib loves lifting opponents and land them in the middle to the cage in order to finalize the takedown. This prevents his opponents from using the cage to stand back up.
Khabib is a great submission grappler. Watch the clip below:
This is an impressive transition from takedown defense to a throw to an armbar from the bottom. Khabib has submissions from his back and does not hesitate to go from top mount to a triangle from the bottom:
He is also great at getting armbars from the mount:
Please notice above how he combines strikes with proper posture and grip changes to force the armbar.
Khabib uses a series of grips to control opponents. He transitions from side control to the mount, to single hook control and to top turtle, while delivering punishment all the way.
His favorite position is a single hook back take where Khabib is on top and a leg hook controls his opponent’s foot. He was able to rear-naked-choke Kamal Shalorus from this position:
Leg triangle from top position
A great way for Nurmagomedov to control opponents is to trap their legs in a leg triangle. Opponents try to push his feet to free themselves and this leaves their face completely unprotected from strikes.
Khabib loves pushing his forehead against his opponents jaw,. This exposes the head to strikes. In the photo above Khabib is about to start removing posts, either by pulling Barboza’s right arm or by lifting his right knee.
Grabbing the far arm post
Here Khabib grabs Barboza’s arm post while hooking Edson’s left leg and pressuring him against the cage. Nurmagomedov pulls the arm and his opponent is flat again
Leg triangle and far wrist control from the back
Notice how Khabib has a leg triangle control, grabs Barboza’s right elbow post with both his hands and flattens him again. He keeps Edson’s wrist trapped with his right hand from behind and starts delivering punishment. Barboza cannot defend from such a compromised position.
Wrist grab from the front
In the photo above, Khabib controls Barboza’s right wrist with his right hand from the front while applying forehead pressure. This enables him to punch Edson with his free hand.
Hiding the head under the armpit
A great way to deliver punches that the opponents cannot see coming is to place your head under their armpit. This limits their defending hand’s range of motion making it very difficult for them to defend. In the photo above Khabib also has wrist control from the back.
Khabib transitions to a top turtle ride and unleashes a series of punches. If the opponent tries to go to side control, Nurmagomedov will often keep one hook in as described above.
Finally, Khabib loves delivering punishment from the crucifix position:
Escaping Khabib’s takedowns
Khabib is not always successful in finishing takedowns. Al Iaquinta was able to push his head down and pull his foot out by kneeing towards the opposite side (photo 5 below).
Here is another example
In the video below you can watch Ben Askren teaching a similar escape:
Making opponents work to get up and getting them down again
If you have ever trained in wrestling, you know how much energy it takes to get up from the bottom. When you do manage to get up, you are often so exhausted that you cannot defend a second takedown.
People do not understand how energy-consuming is trying to establish posts while carrying your opponent’s weight, being trapped against the cage, getting punched in the face or having your spine twisted by a forehead pushing your chin to the side.
Getting back up does a fighter no good if he cannot stay up. Khabib will take him down again and this will make an opponent consume even more energy. You can often hear coaches tell their fighters “keep making the opponent work.”
This is Khabib’s true power. He breaks opponents mentally and physically by taking them to a dark place where blood, punishment and exhaustion makes them lose hope.
I am a big fan of Conor McGregor and I’ve been going back and forth with this. The fight is an intriguing clash of styles. As an analyst though, I have to go with facts:
- I have seen Conor break mentally and physically and I cannot say the same about Khabib.
- Conor has not fought in MMA since 12 November 2016. He had a boxing fight and was considering fighting in boxing again and that tells me he was not training for takedowns.
- Cage rust is a real thing.
- I watched Conor’s fight against Mendes. Everybody keeps making excuses for Conor, insisting that the Irishman took the fight in short notice when in fact it is the other way around. Mendes was on vacation and not in peak fighting shape. Conor was. Chad was still able to take McGregor down several times. Keep in mind that Mendes is way smaller than Khabib.
- Then again there is the lack of size difference. This is one of the rare times where Conor is not the bigger fighter. Although McGregor still has a reach advantage, Khabib is taller and big for the weight class.
- Conor is more explosive and accurate in his striking and has great reaction time, but Khabib has better cardio and is able to make opponents tired.
So here is my prediction:
Conor has a great chance of knocking Khabib out, especially in the beginning of the first two rounds. This is a possible outcome but not a probable one.
If that does not happen, I predict a decision victory or a stoppage win via strikes or submission for Khabib.
Chances of winning: Khabib 55% Conor 45%. I have to admit that I would like Conor to prove me wrong. Maybe Mystic Mac can do his magic one more time.
Note: This is be my last breakdown of UFC cards for the foreseeable future. Next articles will follow my original “Combat Course, lessons from the cage” format where I will focus on boxing, Dutch kickboxing, Muay Thai, BJJ and MMA specific techniques from smaller promotions. Feel free to request for specific techniques or fighters in the comments section below.
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 brown belt in BJJ under MMA veteran and BJJ world champion Wander Braga (the teacher of Gabriel Napao Gonzaga).