The horrifying wrestling and improved striking of Khabib Nurmagomedov was on full display Saturday night at UFC 223.
Leading into the bout, Khabib was scheduled to face interim champion Tony Ferguson, then featherweight champion Max Holloway, then former champion Anthony Pettis, finally meeting streaking contender Al Iaquinta.
Fans have seen Nurmagomedov smash opponent after opponent, earning a 30-24 scorecard against fearsome striker Edson Barboza. Unflappable on the feet, and unstoppable on the ground, Khabib Nurmagomedov has reached a near-mythological status in MMA.
Perhaps that is why UFC commentator Joe Rogan, along with some fans, felt betrayed by a different kind of performance.
Al Survives the Nightmare Realm
More than once in the booth on Saturday, Rogan quoted podcast guest David Goggins, calling Nurmagomedov “uncommon amongst uncommon men.” When the fight against the late replacement Iaquinta began, there was tension in the air.
Al kept his distance, waiting on Nurmagomedov to enter his range to land one life-changing counter punch. Historically defensively irresponsible, Khabib chose not to follow his usual strategy of walking forward with a high guard to grab a hold of his opponent.
Instead, we saw outside single leg shots with no setup. Iaquinta was actually able to limp-leg out of the first attempt. However, Khabib was persistent and gained top position. We saw Khabib hold dominant positions, landing ground and pound and putting Iaquinta in danger repeatedly. A Serra-Longo product, Al was able to stay in the fight with conservative, tight defense.
After two rounds of repeated takedowns and ground-mauling, Khabib changed strategy.
Casual Dominance from Khabib
The third and fourth rounds produced a very different kind of Khabib Nurmagomedov fight. The overwhelming grappler chose to outfight, keeping his hands low. Khabib employed a snapping jab to bloody the face of Iaquinta and stifle almost every counter opportunity.
While his jerk-back head movement was reminiscent of teammate Daniel Cormier, Khabib was able to avoid any real damage from Iaquinta, the better striker on paper.
In the fifth round, Khabib shot a couple of single legs, used the same finish he had success with all night, and applied a late face crank to seal the round.
When the scorecards were announced, it was one of the most one-sided title bouts in UFC history.
— Mike Fridley (@mikefridley) April 8, 2018
Throughout this fight, Joe Rogan and the commentary team seem to have suffered from some challenger bias. The odds were so great, that any perceived success by Iaquinta was blown out of proportion.
At one point in the second half of the fight, Rogan started to claim that this was not a championship performance out of Nurmagomedov. The flaws in his striking, and that he wasn’t completely demolishing Al, were greatly disappointing to him. This criticism continued until, seemingly on a whim, Khabib exploded in a blitz of strikes and took Iaquinta back down to end the bout.
Holy shit KHABIB just went BEAST MODE and lit Al up on the feet, landed a flying knee, then took him down. Lawwwdddd. #UFC223
— FloCombat (@FloCombat) April 8, 2018
When you put a fighter on a pedestal, it can be damaging to the ego when they don’t meet the expectation you’ve set. Respect to Joe Rogan and his career, but his complete flip from “Khabib is the greatest” to “this is not a champion” reeks of a defensive cover.
After the Barboza mauling, Khabib told the world he didn’t need to finish the fight. He wanted to go the distance, he enjoys this. Al Iaquinta is extremely tough. He posed an interesting stylistic matchup, despite the short notice. His boxing is technical, he carries a lot of power and is more than capable with his grappling. However, he had almost zero success. It was a complete shutout.
Khabib completely dominated a rankable fighter with no time to prepare for him specifically. He cruised. Spent two rounds jabbing him. Don't want to hear about how he was "exposed" or isn't that good. And don't minimize Al. #UFC223
— MMASucka (@MMASucka) April 8, 2018