In our previous installment, we examined the skillset of former lightweight champion, Conor McGregor. Today we take a look at his opponent and the current premiere lightweight, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Nurmagomedov’s road to glory has been fraught with setbacks and uncertainty. After an impressive victory over Rafael dos Anjos in 2014, Nurmagomedov was sidelined with injury woes for the next two years. As he sat on the sidelines, he was forced to watch dos Anjos put together a dominant five-fight run en-route to capturing the lightweight title.
After amassing wins over Edson Barboza and Michael Johnson upon returning, Nurmagomedov was finally set to fight for the title, only there was a slight issue. McGregor had taken a hiatus from the sport after winning his belt, so the logical next step was to take the two top contenders at lightweight – Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson – and schedule their fight for an interim title.
UFC 223 marked both the fourth time Nurmagomedov and Ferguson were scheduled to fight and the fourth time their scheduled fight was canceled, after Ferguson pulled out with a knee injury. Instead, Nurmagomedov ended up winning the title over Al Iaquinta, who was questionably ranked at the bottom end of the top 15.
A victory over McGregor would allow Nurmagomedov to firmly establish himself as the top lightweight in the world and inject a much-needed sense of legitimacy into his reign as champion.
McGregor vs Nurmagomedov: A Khabib Nurmagomedov Primer
As the man with perhaps the most devastating, fearsome top game in Mixed Martial Arts today, Nurmagomedov knows where his bread is buttered. The majority of what Nurmagomedov does on the feet is designed to put his opponent in position to be taken down.
Once on top of his man, his entire game opens up. Nurmagomedov combines devastating ground striking with incredible positional grappling and guard-passing savvy. The most unique aspect of Nurmagomedov’s game is his unparalleled ability to switch tracks, seamlessly flowing between ground striking, folkstyle control positions, and a comprehensive tripod and knee-cut passing game.
While his top-game involves a progression of transitions and control positions resembling an endless flow-chart with counters prepared to deal with each and every reaction, his game on the feet is forced to deal with a bottleneck.
Although Nurmagomedov possesses some of the best chain wrestling in MMA, his initial shot is not particularly fast and his timing and setups are greatly lacking. A preference for operating at long range on the feet and discomfort in the pocket compounds this problem. Most of his shots are executed from far away and he lacks the programmed reactions in his striking to slip or duck under punches in order to hit reactive takedowns.
These issues create an inherent contradiction in his game – in order to take opponents down, Nurmagomedov must first get them to the cage to get in cleanly on the hips, but his striking skillset makes that difficult. Fortunately for Nurmagomedov, he’s developed several tactics to deal with the contradiction.
In his early career, Nurmagomedov would maintain distance until he found his own back on the cage, before catching an underhook in an exchange or ducking in on the hips to reverse his opponent toward the cage.
The problem with drawing opponents onto him this way is that it puts Nurmagomedov in an inferior position and largely relies on the actions of his opponent to open up the clinch. A more patient, thoughtful striker would perhaps be able to use throwaway strikes to pick at Nurmagomedov and avoid rushing into the clinch.
More recently, Nurmagomedov has been developing an effective pressure game. By moving forward and taking ground, he can proactively force his opponent’s back to the cage. Although Nurmagomedov relentlessly walked down Edson Barboza, who is particularly vulnerable to pressure, the best example of his pressure game as a delivery system for his grappling came in his fight with Michael Johnson
Nurmagomedov would give ground to avoid Johnson’s sharp, fast straight punches, before immediately resuming the forward pressure. He was able to walk the delicate line of backing up to avoid the offense of Johnson, while still maintaining a net gain in ground throughout most of the fight, before eventually pushing Johnson to the cage and taking him down.
While his pressure is effective, it is not perfect. It is very difficult to consistently pressure a sound outfighter when you must give ground to avoid his offense, as Rory MacDonald can attest after his frustrating loss at the hands of Stephen Thompson.
Nurmagomedov’s ugly striking form belies his craft on the feet. Despite being primarily a grappler to whom striking is largely an afterthought, he has never been embarrassed on the feet. Although he is wild and not particularly well-schooled in striking, he does possess a great deal of awareness, instinctual intelligence, and a keen eye for openings.
In his early career, Nurmagomedov relied a lot on leaping bursts, usually initiated with a lead uppercut. Instead of torquing his hips into the punch, Nurmagomedov would change levels and jump in the air, landing on the top of his fist like a ridge hand from traditional arts. The unusual trajectory of the punch and the low starting position of his lead hand provided a measure of concealment. Nurmagomedov was also able to convince opponents to duck into the punch through changing levels before leaping in.
As he’s matured, Nurmagomedov has developed tools that allow him to attack without such drastic over-commitment, though he still retains that wild streak.
Nurmagomedov displayed this new-found patience in his last fight, as he sat back and picked Al Iaquinta off with a jab. Nurmagomedov is no Max Holloway and he doesn’t possess the most versatile jab, but it was quick, sharp, and he feinted well to disguise it. By holding his lead hand by his hip and throwing it as a rising up-jab, Nurmagomedov removes its delivery from Iaquinta’s field of view and makes it harder to see coming. He also had success playing the jab off a leaping lead hook, as the same preliminary motion is used for each.
Where Nurmagomedov truly shines on the feet is landing strikes in transition. While acquiring high level striking and grappling skillsets requires a fighter to train with and learn from specialists in those individual arts, shifting phase between striking and grappling on the fly is a skill almost unique to MMA. Because MMA is such a new sport and training methodologies are a work in progress, phase shifting is often ignored in training. The lack of general skill in phase shifting provides a great opportunity for anyone experienced in it to capitalize on those liminal exchanges that consist neither of pure striking nor grappling, but both.
Nurmagomedov excels at striking when his opponent is focused on grappling and grappling when his opponent is focused on striking (the latter of which we will explore later). When his opponent is impeding his progress in a grappling exchange, he will switch up and use the reaction to his grappling to create openings for strikes. When his opponent underhooks or down-blocks to prevent a takedown, he will pull back and load up on a punch to the face, and frequently punches on clinch breaks when his opponent is unprepared to defend strikes.
Nurmagomedov’s defensive skill is a controversial subject. If you look at a discussion of his striking on any MMA forum, you’ll see one group who insists Nurmagomedov has all the defensive aptitude of a telephone pole, while another asserts that he’s actually the best defensive striker in the division based on a misunderstanding of how meaningful Fightmetric statistics are. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
It’s true that Nurmagomedov is not particularly well-schooled and has holes in his defense large enough to drive a Ford Escort through. It’s also true that he has a strong intuition and awareness of what he should be doing defensively. While the techniques are patchwork and messy, the intelligence, craft, and thought in his defense are nevertheless perceptible.
Nurmagomedov will extend his lead arm and fold under his elbows when opponents enter. This isn’t perfect technique by any means, and there are many openings still available, but it allows him to protect his chin from hooks and wide overhands. Nurmagomedov doesn’t yet have the programmed reactions or composure to reliably see and react to individual strikes, so resorting to a proactive option that limits the opponent’s openings makes sense.
Nurmagomedov typically reacts to his opponent’s jabs by giving ground, as the elevated forearms and elbows do not close openings down the middle well, but a lack of orthodox opponents who possess a strong lead hand has contributed to Nurmagomedov’s success with his high-elbow defense.
Nurmagomedov will proactively weave his head out after leaping in with a lead hook or uppercut. He need not see the punch coming, as he knows that his opponent will likely counter his entry with the right hand, thus his weave is a proactive measure to take away his opponent’s most likely course of action.
Another method Nurmagomedov uses to mitigate the damage he takes in exchanges is simply shoving his opponents away. He often ends his blitzes and leaps by posting on his opponent’s shoulder or face and shoving while he exits. By pushing away, Nurmagomedov destabilizes his opponent’s base, takes him out of his stance, and prevents him from setting his feet to return punches. Nurmagomedov will also occasionally use this destabilization to land his own strikes. While pushing may not seem to be the height of “technical striking,” using slight shoves to disrupt balance is a favorite tactic of master kickboxer, Giorgio Petrosyan.
The newly-developed jab Nurmagomedov displayed in the Iaquinta fight adds another measure of protection to his game, as the extended arm naturally covers his chin, and a slight dip can leave counters falling on the shoulder. He even managed to pull off a few neat shoulder rolls.
Although Nurmagomedov possesses defensive savvy, there are a number of fundamental flaws in his defense. The largest and most immediately apparent of these flaws is his footwork. Nurmagomedov relies on giving ground to defend most strikes, but he does so by retreating in a straight line.
The problem with backing straight up is twofold. First, it allows an opponent to close distance and land simply by moving forward fast enough. Second, it ensures that the defender will run himself onto the cage quickly. Nurmagomedov can’t effectively pivot or circle laterally without breaking his stance, and is forced to rapidly retreat when opponents get aggressive. This is especially troubling as Nurmagomedov relies on pressure to score takedowns. Nurmagomedov can be quickly thrown off his pressure and made to back-track rapidly. A strong reactive takedown would go a long way toward dissuading opponents from closing distance, but Nurmagomedov lacks the timing to hit them reliably on opponents who can maintain their stance while advancing.
Nurmagomedov’s habit of extending his arms and flaring his elbows ensures that body shots are ripe for the taking. Anyone who has tried to hit Nurmagomedov in the body has found success with it and he does very little to defend or punish the body shots.
While the wildness of Nurmagomedov’s style leaves him open, it also works in his favor in certain situations. By creating messy exchanges, he can draw reactions from his opponent and often convince them to join him in throwing caution to the wind. Once his opponents are focused on defending or countering his flurries, he’ll happily duck in on the hips to hit a takedown.
Rafael dos Anjos is forced into the cage by Khabib’s leaping strikes, before immediately giving up his hips when he attempts to swing back.
There’s Something in the Water
Like most of the Dagestani fighters that seem to be kicking around in MMA, Nurmagomedov possesses a relentless style of wrestling. Nurmagomedov attacks the upper body as well as the legs, seamlessly transitioning between takedowns as openings become available. The basic principle behind chain-wrestling is that an opponent’s defense to a given takedown exposes certain openings, which can be capitalized on by switching to another takedown. Nurmagomedov possesses some of the strongest chain-wrestling in MMA.
Nurmagomedov used a single leg cut-back as his go-to takedown in his early career. While it was strong enough to get him into the UFC, a lack of strong setups for the single leg forced him to shoot from far outside, which lead to issues once he started facing stronger wrestlers. Gleison Tibau famously held Nurmagomedov to zero takedown completions in their fight, primarily by catching an underhook and pulling Nurmagomedov up into the clinch whenever he shot.
Since the Tibau fight, Nurmagomedov has adjusted his wrestling game, developing a devastating clinch game with strong upper-body takedowns to deal with opponents who can reliably use an underhook.
In his current form, Nurmagomedov primarily uses his shots not to finish takedowns, but as a starting point to push his opponents onto the cage. The cage acts as a backstop, preventing them from creating distance and allowing Nurmagomedov to get close to their hips, where he can work his incredible chain wrestling. Shooting his opponents to the cage also limits the degree to which Nurmagomedov needs to pressure, as he can reliably stick opponents on the cage with a shot once he has his feet near the black line of the central octagon.
Once Nurmagomedov has his man on the cage, he will usually come up into the clinch and work his upper body takedowns. Instead of trying to force the single leg through an opponent’s underhook, Nurmagomedov will use a body lock to nullify the underhook.
Nurmagomedov clamps his hands together behind his opponent’s back and squeezes tightly. The opponent’s underhook is pinned to his ribs, and he is left unable to exert leverage on it. Once Nurmagomedov has a tight body lock, he will step outside the underhook-side leg and block it for an outside trip, or trip the opposite leg out from inside if his opponent offers resistance.
Along with tripping out the legs, Nurmagomedov will lift opponents straight up from the body lock. The first sequence is truly incredible: Nurmagomedov picks dos Anjos up and attempts an inside trip on the right leg. When he fails that, he keeps dos Anjos in the air and swings him around while bringing his right leg forward to block dos Anjos’ left from planting, before tipping him over it with his upper body. Truly one of the most ridiculous takedowns I’ve ever seen in MMA.
The upper body takedowns and leg shots work together to create a multi-layered threat. When opponents are defending the single leg, they have to worry about Nurmagomedov coming up on an underhook, while opponents defending his upper body takedowns need to be wary that they don’t allow him grips for the single leg.
Nurmagomedov possesses a comprehensive mat return game complete with various trips, throws, and footsweeps. Not only does this aspect of his game add another threat to his clinch, as he can sneak toward the back on an underhook if an opponent isn’t diligent with their whizzer, but it also prevents opponents from feeling comfortable getting back to their feet. Abel Trujillo built his base up and stood up approximately one thousand times in his fight with Nurmagomedov, only to immediately get dragged back down almost every single time without even achieving separation.
Crushing Top Control
Although Nurmagomedov is known for his habit of thoroughly demolishing anyone he gets on top of, it’s only within the last two years that he’s developed the tools to consistently execute this brutal ground striking. In his earlier fights, he would often get tied up in guard and prevented from dealing a high degree of damage. While those fights still resulted in dominant decisions, a few key adjustments have allowed Nurmagomedov to devastate his opponents with ferocious ground striking.
The most important adjustment Nurmagomedov has made recently is that he now refuses to concede full guard. Full guard is a relatively poor position to deal damage from, as the guard players hips lie directly between himself and the opponent, which allows him to regulate the opponent’s posture and momentum through extension and contraction, as well as using the hands to break posture.
Despite famously wearing a shirt disparaging the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Nurmagomedov possesses an incredibly sound passing game. When he finds himself in closed guard, Nurmagomedov will posture up almost immediately. He will either stand outside the guard to control the legs and strike, or raise his hips into a tripod to keep his opponent’s back flat while breaking the guard, before stepping into a headquarters position and knee-cutting through their half-guard.
Nurmagomedov makes short work of butterfly guards as well. He typically passes by collapsing a hip to exert pressure on the hook while backstepping with the other leg to remove the far-side hook. Once he has a leg trapped, he will elevate his hips and push the near-side leg with his arm to prevent his opponent from recomposing guard, before circling into side control or stepping over into mount.
Nurmagomedov’s proficiency in ground striking is almost completely unique in MMA. Just as we discussed in regards to Nurmagomedov’s transitional striking, ground striking and positional control go hand-in-hand. The best time to pass is when an opponent is worried about your strikes, while openings to land strikes come much easier as the opponent attempts to prevent you from consolidating position.
The relationship between ground striking and control means that a top control artist should generally aim to be proficient in both, but it also creates divergent games based on intention. Georges St-Pierre represents perhaps the best example in MMA of ground striking used primarily in service of positional control:
In the above video, I mention the hypothetical “GSP-Fedor Index” which differentiates ground striking based on whether it is used as an end in itself or as a means to positional control. Nurmagomedov represents the opposite side of the spectrum from St-Pierre, as he uses his passing game and positional control primarily to create opportunities for devastating strikes.
Once he’s passed the full guard, Nurmagomedov will posture up to land strikes. He doesn’t worry too much about staying tight and controlling his opponent with a cross-face, instead preferring to build up his base in order to get more weight transfer and distance into his strikes, increasing their force. This style allows his opponents space to move underneath him, but also causes Nurmagomedov’s strikes to do a high degree of damage.
When he postures up, Nurmagomedov will often post on the opponent’s head to force it into the mat. This makes positioning his strikes easier by measuring distance and allowing him to feel where the target is, but it also buys him more time to strike. He cannot keep his opponent in that position forever, as there’s too much space beneath him, but by controlling the head, he delays his opponent’s escape.
While Nurmagomedov prioritizes striking over maintaining position, that doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to sacrifice his positional dominance in order to deal damage. His relentless flurry of ground and pound allows opponents the space to move, but it also focuses that movement into areas that are not always the most beneficial for them. It’s easy to perform a hip-escape under ideal conditions, but recomposing guard becomes a much more difficult and messy endeavor when you’re forced to do it through a blizzard of strikes raining down on your face.
Nurmagomedov posts on the head and postures up to land strikes on Michael Johnson. His posture gives Johnson the space the recompose guard, but Johnson is so focused on protecting himself from the storm of punches that he fails to consolidate his guard. Before Johnson can close the guard and control Nurmagomedov’s posture, Nurmagomedov tripods up, steps over into headquarters, and attempts to knee-cut through the half-guard. The sequence ends exactly where it began, with Nurmagomedov postured over Johnson and pounding his face in.
Here’s another example of Nurmagomedov’s ability to immediately negate his opponents progress in recomposing guard. He postures up from side control to land strikes, keeping his hip in tight to trap Edson Barboza’s right leg. Unable to slide the right leg out to recompose guard, Barboza is forced to cross his left leg over in hopes of achieving a post to create distance and stop the strikes from coming. Instead, Nurmagomedov blocks the leg with his left arm and collapses his weight on top of it, securing a folding pass.
One of Nurmagomedov’s favorite positions on top is a knee ride. He’ll go to knee-on-belly with the far leg posted on the ground, or double up on it and put the other knee on the face. This position provides a base for Nurmagomedov to put power into his strikes, which traditional side control lacks. It is also a more volatile position than side control as it affords the opponent space to move, but their movement serves to funnel them into Nurmagomedov’s riding game, as the only easy way out is to turn over and expose the back. Nurmagomedov also does an excellent job transitioning between knee rides and the mounted crucifix.
Nurmagomedov is constantly looking for the mounted crucifix once he passes the guard, trapping the near-side arm between his legs. This position keeps the opponent’s back flat on the mat, while isolating their arms with the leg and head so they cannot effectively block the strikes. Nurmagomedov uses the mounted crucifix to land attritional strikes, as posturing up would allow escape, and to set up submissions, such as his Kimura against Michael Johnson.
It is important to note that the control positions Nurmagomedov cycles through are not disparate. He has an intricate, skillful series of transitions, counters, and re-counters through which he blends each of them together, but we lack the necessary time to go through each in depth. Each of these positions represents a crucial tool in his toolbox, but it is Nurmagomedov’s intelligence and craft that allows him to select the right one for the job and seamlessly flow between them in order to deny his opponent’s attempts at escaping.
Ride ’em Cowboy
The presence of the cage in MMA alters grappling exchanges in interesting ways. Traditional positions such as guard and half-guard become less valuable, as the cage impedes the ability of the man on top to progress and control his opponent. As MMA has evolved, folkstyle riding tactics have become increasingly prominent in cage-adjacent grappling.
Tito Ortiz was one of the early innovators in this regard and one of the first to figure out that he could kill his opponents’ ability to move their hips by sticking them up against the cage while pounding on them. This discovery kicked off an arms race that continues today, as strikers eventually figured out how to use the cage to stand up. While being flat on one’s back against the cage is dangerous, the cage can also act as a third leg, allowing the fighter on bottom to use its support while wall-walking back to the feet.
Nurmagomedov’s team, American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), is one of the primary innovators raising the tide for a new generation of grapplers. Along with Ben Askren, AKA has developed strategies to prevent opponents from using the cage to stand up and take advantage of their attempts at escape.
In his earlier fights, Nurmagomedov’s primary tactic for preventing opponents from standing out of his rides was to drive their weight back onto their hands. When his opponent posts on the mat and elevates their hips to build a base, Nurmagomedov crowds their legs and drives their weight past their post, collapsing their base.
When opponents attempted to bring their legs in close and essentially squat their way up without the support of a tripod, Nurmagomedov would kick their leg out or drag them back past their center of gravity.
While driving weight onto the hands and kicking legs out allowed Nurmagomedov to effectively keep opponents on the ground and control them, these tactics made it difficult for him to deal damage. When riding an opponent’s back against the cage, Nurmagomedov’s hands were constantly occupied body-locking and thwarting his attempts to stand up.
Since returning from his two-year hiatus in 2016, Nurmagomedov has revamped his riding game. He still uses the previous tactics, but he’s also developed a new positional game using first-move-stoppers that allow him to control his opponent with his lower body, while his hands remain free to pound their face in.
The most outwardly brutal of these positions is inside wrist control. When opponents attempt to post out on their bottom arm to build a base, Nurmagomedov will lace his cage-side arm around their back and pull out their wrist. This not only collapses their base, leaving them squished on the mat with Nurmagomedov on top, but it also removes their bottom hand as a defensive tool, allowing Nurmagomedov to posture up and land impactful strikes on a compromised opponent. Note also how Nurmagomedov first controls the wrist with his far-side hand in order to drag it toward him so he can reach it around the back.
If Nurmagomedov’s opponent attempts to wall-walk back to the feet using the cage for support, he will progress to a leg mount. Nurmagomedov steps over both legs, before drawing his own legs together and locking them in a figure-four. In order to build up a base and stand, the legs need to be directly underneath you, but this lock keeps the opponent’s legs pressed together and stretched out. With the legs extended and pinned, it’s impossible to build a base without first addressing the leg mount.
For most fighters who use the leg mount, it is somewhat of a stalling tactic, as it is difficult to posture up and create space for strikes without allowing an opponent to escape. Nurmagomedov, however, is capable of consistently dealing damage from the position.
Nurmagomedov will post on the face to keep his opponent in place while he postures up and lands strikes. He was able to use this post to break Michael Johnson’s posture completely and force him down to the mat while tying up his legs. Against Edson Barboza, who nearly succeeded in withdrawing his legs, Nurmagomedov simply stood up, framed on his face, and shoved him back down.
When opponents attempt to build a base by posting on a leg, Nurmagomedov moves to a cross-body ride. Lacing the leg allows Nurmagomedov to keep his weight on the opponent and stall their ascent while freeing up his hand to strike. Nurmagomedov can also break his opponent’s posture from this position, drawing the leg in tight and controlling the far-hand to collapse the opponent’s posts.
With a victory over McGregor, the lineal champion, there will be no doubt that Nurmagomedov is truly the number one lightweight in the world.
In order to defeat McGregor, Nurmagomedov’s ringcraft will need to be sharp. Due to his weak reactive takedowns, the Dagestani grappling ace will likely attempt to toe the tenuous line between maintaining enough pressure to force McGregor’s back to the fence and running into his sharp counters. Look for Nurmagomedov to approach McGregor in a similar manner to the Michael Johnson fight, in which he maintained consistent forward pressure, while also staying far enough outside to give ground when the need arose.
The recent improvements in Nurmagomedov’s striking seem largely geared around fighting orthodox opponents, so it will be interesting to see how he approaches the southpaw McGregor. Get back here on Friday as we examine the match-up in greater depth and speculate on potential strategic and tactical approaches for both Nurmagomedov and McGregor.