For Khabib Nurmagomedov, the most difficult aspect of dominating world-class fighters in MMA’s strongest weight class has always been making the weight. His seemingly effortless victories over top lightweights have long been marred by withdrawals. Whether due to injury or a failed weight-cut. Although Nurmagomedov has had difficulty building momentum or sustaining interest–UFC 219 marked only his third fight in nearly four years–it’s always a special occasion when we get to see him compete in the octagon.
Many pundits (including this writer) pegged Edson Barboza as a tough stylistic matchup for Nurmagomedov. Barboza’s fluency with pivots and his urgency in breaking grips and circling out after stuffing takedowns posed problems for Nurmagomedov. Especially as the latter would need to back him up to the cage in order to work his wrestling.
Some openings in Nurmagomedov’s footwork were displayed on the feet, which a more composed out-fighter with sharper footwork moving backwards could take advantage of, but Nurmagomedov’s pressure proved too much for Barboza. Barboza continually found himself with his back to the cage, which is death against the Dagestani grappler. From there, it was only a matter of time before he hit the takedown and commenced the mauling.
Khabib’s Relentless Pressure
Barboza’s main problem in this fight came not through his failure to defend takedowns or work himself back to the feet, but through his willingness to back himself onto the cage. A fighter’s stance is his first and most important line of defense in any engagement. A strong stance should provide the balance to shift weight in any direction in order to move off or defend strikes, and the stability to absorb strikes that get through.
A strong stance is even more important when facing a pressure fighter like Nurmagomedov–one who intends to walk you down and doesn’t particularly care what you do to stop him. While maintaining a strong stance, an active presence or threat is presented to your opponent, letting him know that marching forward can lead to severe consequences.
Whenever a fighter takes himself out of his stance, he risks compromising his defense and increasing the damage he takes from those shots that get through. What’s worse however, is that stepping out of stance removes the threat of your own offense, sending your opponent the message that he can walk forward with impunity.
Barboza lands an inside leg kick and pivots out, but his stance collapses after that. As Nurmagomedov pressures, Barboza resorts to skipping around the perimeter of the Octagon, bringing his feet together with every step and compromising his balance. This kills the threat of his offense, allowing Nurmagomedov to freely walk him down without fear of reprisal. Failing to maintain a balanced stance also severely reduces Barboza’s ability to move his hips to block or slip, and Nurmagomedov’s strikes land even though they are sloppy and telegraphed.
Compare this sequence to Barboza’s frenzied skipping:
Jose Aldo takes short steps to adjust his positioning while maintaining a strong stance throughout. When Frankie Edgar rushes in to attack, Aldo slips outside his straight and pivots around him. Aldo’s feet hardly move at all, yet his positioning relative to his opponent changes far more drastically than Barboza’s.
Nurmagomedov made Barboza’s job more difficult with his own offense. Advancing behind an active jab, he consistently kept volume in Barboza’s face. Facing a consistent, ever-present threat from an advancing opponent further encouraged Barboza to back away and abandon his stance.
Nurmagomedov also made use of round kicks to corral his opponent, landing them as Barboza attempted to pivot or circle away. Round kicks are a great tool for pressure fighters, as sweeping strikes intercept an opponent’s movement and force them to briefly stand still, providing a great opportunity to follow up or push them onto the cage.
Although he possesses some of the best chain wrestling in MMA, Nurmagomedov’s initial penetration on his shot leaves something to be desired. Because of this, he’s at his most effective as a grappler after he backs his opponent onto the cage. The cage wall acts as a backstop, preventing his opponent from circling out. If he takes a sloppy shot and finds himself getting stuffed or pulled up into the clinch, he can simply run his man onto the cage and hold him there while he goes to work with his chain wrestling.
Barboza did an admirable job stuffing the takedowns and keeping himself safe against the cage. e was able to dig an underhook every time Nurmagomedov shot in, using it to lift up and pull the Dagestani off his hips. Barboza also did a good job fighting for head position, keeping his forehead in Nurmagomedov’s face to prevent the grappler from straightening his posture and exerting leverage. Although Nurmagomedov was able to smash in some punches while Barboza was maintaining head position.
When he was able to smash through Barboza’s defenses into the clinch, Barboza would overhook hard with one arm and prop the other hand under Nurmagomedov’s chin. To keep his posture up and prevent him from ducking in on the hips. He solidified this position by grabbing his opposite wrist with his overhooking hand. At one point, Nurmagomedov attempted to fight this grip and Barboza was able to take his back off the cage by shoving the head away and circling out.
Although Barboza was able to maintain an underhook with his back on the cage, preventing Nurmagomedov from prying his hips in with a double leg, Khabib had success using a body lock to kill Barboza’s ability to exert leverage with the underhook.
Nurmagomedov connects his hands behind Barboza’s back in a body lock, trapping Barboza’s underhook against his body and preventing him from cranking up on it. He steps between Barboza’s legs and uses his hip to block the far leg, attempting to take Barboza toward the underhook with his body lock, but Barboza resists it by using a whizzer grip. In defending the takedown, Barboza weights his right leg to prevent himself from being taken over it. This allows Nurmagomedov to capitalize with an inside trip on the now-unweighted left leg of Barboza. Nurmagomedov rips the leg from inside and uses a series of short hops to pull Barboza’s weight over the leg, tripping him to the ground.
Nurmagomedov did the same thing later in the fight, but with an outside trip instead of an inside trip.
Here Nurmagomedov is in on Barboza’s hips, but an underhook prevents him from pulling Barboza directly off the cage. Instead he pulls the Brazilian’s left hip of the cage, taking an angle toward his right side. From there, he sweeps out Barboza’s foot and circles back to hit a takedown.
Note Nurmagomedov’s footwork on his sweep. He catches Barboza’s ankle with the inside of his sole, before dragging it out slightly. Then stepping the sweeping foot down outside it, and immediately pivoting to square up to Barboza. He doesn’t drag Barboza’s foot out far enough to take him down with that alone. As doing so would take Nurmagomedov’s own foot past his center of gravity. Instead he sweeps the foot just far enough to break Barboza’s balance and force him to post with his right hand, giving up his underhook so that he can pressure the hips down with his double leg.
Once Barboza is resting on a post with his hand on the edge of his feet, Nurmagomedov lifts slightly and rotates his torso to pull Barboza’s lower body out. Before dropping his knee in between the legs to kill the post.
Crushing Top Control
As always, once Nurmagomedov got on top of Barboza, the fight was essentially over. Nurmagomedov prefers to break the guard and pass standing, using ground-and-pound to aid his passing game. In theory this leaves space for the man on bottom to build frames, threaten upkicks, and get back to his feet. But good luck building strong frames on Nurmagomedov. Just as on the feet, he applies relentless pressure once his opponents are on their back. Crushing and redirecting their frames and slicing up the guards and faces of his opponents.
Barboza attempts to frame Nurmagomedov away with a shin shield and a foot on his hip, but his pressure keeps him flat on his back while the Dagestani lands devastating ground-and-pound. Barboza is eventually able to square up to him and get both feet on the hips, but as soon as he tries to kick away to create space, Nurmagomedov simply redirects the kick with his left arm, bypassing the frame. From there Barboza attempts to cross his left leg over to regain his lost frame, but Nurmagomedov shrugs it off and folds it over to stack him.
Here Nurmagomedov stands up from side control in order to land ground-and-pound. As he stands up, he keeps his near-side hip in tight, controlling Barboza’s right leg in a leg-drag position. With his shin trapped, preventing him from framing with his right leg, Barboza crosses his left leg over Nurmagomedov’s head in an attempt to create space. Instead, Nurmagomedov immediately drops his weight on the leg, and with it Barboza’s body, folding him up and smashing through his guard into a leg mount.
Once Nurmagomedov has his legs triangled around Barboza’s in a leg mount, the only way out is for Barboza to back his hips out or turn to expose his back. Barboza attempts to frame on Nurmagomedov’s neck with his left hand to back his hips out, but he controls his wrist and strips the frame off. This forces Barboza to frame on Nurmagomedov’s leg to escape, giving him a few free whacks at his face while he does so. As if this couldn’t get any worse for Barboza, Nurmagomedov immediately back steps over his butterfly guard, trapping his shin. Before cutting his left leg in to hold the shin in place, while he back steps again with his right leg. Creating space to step right into mount.
Breaking them Down
Perhaps even more impressive than Nurmagomedov’s inimitable top pressure is his ability to kill his opponent’s attempts to get back to their feet. As he does most of his work with his opponent’s back to the cage, he naturally has to fend off plenty of attempts to post out and wall-walk–here his opponents attempt to use the cage to support their ascent. The key to defeating these attempts is controlling the post.
All attempts to stand up must start with a post. You can try it for yourself. Lie on your back and attempt to stand up without posting a hand or a foot on the ground. Now imagine every time you posted that hand or foot, an angry Dagestani bear of a man slapped the post away before punching you in the face many times. This is Nurmagomedov’s strategy in a nutshell. A post on the ground provides the initial building blocks of working back to the feet, allowing one to build up a strong base. By aggressively fighting posts, Nurmagomedov huffs, and he puffs, and he blows his opponent’s house down before they can even lay the foundation.
Nurmagomedov has a leg mount with his legs pinched together over Barboza’s. Barboza frames on the knee and backs his hips out. As he scoots his hips back, he frames with his left arm to keep him off while he builds up his base with a post on his right arm. While Barboza turns to recover his base, Nurmagomedov squeezes Barboza’s knees together with his arms and steps over into a leg mount. Note how Nurmagomedov’s left leg briefly comes off the mat when he steps over to give him space to triangle his legs together. With his legs triangled, Barboza’s legs are flattened out and he’s unable to post them on the ground to stand up.
As we covered earlier, to escape the leg mount you must back your hips out or expose your back, and Barboza starts backing his hips out. Unfortunately for him, this gives Nurmagomedov the space he needs to land punches. He frames on Barboza’s neck and lands a series of hellacious uppercuts. Once Barboza’s focus is drawn to preventing his face from being turned into mincemeat, Nurmagomedov stands up and frames on Barboza’s face to shove him back to the mat, all while continuing the beatdown.
At the end of the clip above, Barboza is left with two posts–his right hand and left foot are all connected to the mat–while Nurmagomedov is tripoded over him with his head pressuring into Barboza’s face. Nurmagomedov will break his base down further from here.
As soon as Barboza starts using his posts to attempt to get up on his right knee and create a third post, Nurmagomedov goes to work breaking his base. Nurmagomedov’s right hand wraps around Barboza’s waist, while his left hand attacks the knee. He pulls the knee out while circling to his right, preventing Barboza from getting up on his knee.
Next he attacks the post on Barboza’s left foot by sliding his knee in behind Barboza’s leg and and scooting his body over until the leg is removed from the mat. Now that he’s removed all the posts on the left side of Barboza’s body, he can break him down completely. He continues circling toward his left, using his head in Barboza’s chest to push him down as he circles. Barboza’s post on his right arm does nothing to help him here, as he has no post on his left side to resist Nurmagomedov’s momentum.
Finally, Nurmagomedov raises his hips high, tripoding over Barboza’s body. He uses his upper body to keep Barboza pinned to the mat while he walks over Barboza’s butterfly guard straight into mount. Demian Maia couldn’t have done it better himself.
Here Nurmagomedov is in a similar position–tripoded over Barboza while he posts in an attempt to stand up. Nurmagomedov wraps his arm around Barboza’s neck and circles to his right, threatening a bulldog choke. Barboza is forced to turn into Nurmagomedov to avoid the choke, weakening his base, and he uses his left leg to hook Barboza’s calf and drag him back to the mat.
The simplest method Nurmagomedov uses to fight his opponents posts is inside wrist control. From a leg mount or a cross body ride, Nurmagomedov will reach across with his left arm to grab his opponent’s wrist as they post, then pull it in and feed it to his right hand behind their back. From there, he’ll put his weight on their upper body to collapse the post, and his ties on the leg keep them from defending it. If he can’t get the inside wrist, he’ll just pull the post out with his left hand.
Barboza attempted to fight the inside wrist control first by linking his hands together to prevent Nurmagomedov from pulling his arm in, then by fighting Nurmagomedov’s grip with his hand. He would posture up, slam in a few shots, then dig his forehead into Barboza’s face and use it as leverage to bring the arm closer and secure the wrist.
These tactics make attempting to stand up against Nurmagomedov an incredibly frustrating, often futile experience. Nurmagomedov is constantly dashing the hopes of his opponents by killing their base just as they begin to build it. Add to that his devastating ground and pound, and it’s easy to see why so many of his opponents assume a defeated posture and temperament after the first round. After experiencing Nurmagomedov’s control, they know.
Odds and Ends
Nurmagomedov demonstrated some unique top control tactics in this fight that are worth a look.
At one point, Nurmagomedov broke Barboza down with inside wrist control and stepped over his legs as if to mount, but thought better of it and instead moved back down Barboza’s body. Instead, he triangled his legs together around the top leg. With Barboza’s back on the cage and his body turned sideways, this isolated the top leg with the triangle and pinned Barboza’s bottom hip to the ground with Nurmagomedov’s shin. With the inside wrist control preventing Barboza from posting on his hand, Nurmagomedov was free to go to work with ground and pound.
From half guard, Nurmagomedov triangled his legs together and threw his right instep over Barboza’s, putting him in a lockdown position, but from the top instead of the bottom as it’s usually done. Barboza had begun turning away from Nurmagomedov in an attempt to get up on his forearm and build his base, but he was forced to turn into Nurmagomedov and flatten himself out to escape the lockdown.
Nurmagomedov used the single leg mount to great effect throughout the fight to break Barboza down, or as a control position to land punches. He would sit on one of Barboza’s knees and triangle his legs together, trapping that leg. His head pressing into Barboza’s face solidified the position and kept Barboza from turning into him.
When Barboza tried to turn away to take his hips out of Nurmagomedov’s control, he would grip his ankle to keep him in place while he dealt more punishment.
The UFC’s lightweight division is perhaps the best example of the belt’s declining value. The champion, Conor McGregor, seems uncertain about whether or not he wants to continue fighting. While he decides, the best lightweights in the world fight over an interim belt. Officially 1-0 at lightweight, having recently traded wins and losses with Nate Diaz, McGregor is entirely undeserving of a shot at Nurmagomedov if going off record alone, while interim champ, Tony Ferguson, is currently riding a ten-fight win streak.
Another crack at the Ferguson matchup seems to be the obvious step for both the UFC and Nurmagomedov. Unfortunately, that fight has been scheduled three times already, but injuries and weight-related issues have prevented it coming to fruition.
After completely dismantling an elite fighter in Barboza, it’s clear that Nurmagomedov’s next fight must be for some kind of superlative. Whether for an “official” title belt should McGregor deign to fight him, or simply an interim and unofficial title of best lightweight on the planet if the Ferguson fight finally happens.
For further reading on Nurmagomedov’s game, check out Sonny Brown’s excellent film studies. Also worth a look are BJJScout’s studies on Ben Askren, who uses similar takedown and top control tactics to Nurmagomedov.
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