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McGregor vs Nurmagomedov: A Tactical Preview

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The fate of MMA’s most interesting division hangs in the balance as lineal lightweight champion, Conor McGregor, takes on acting champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229.

Over the past week, we’ve thoroughly analyzed the skillsets of McGregor and Nurmagomedov and discussed the significance of the fight.  Nurmagomedov will attempt to create a sense of legitimacy surrounding his title reign by beating someone who can reasonably be described as “The Man” at lightweight, while McGregor looks to reestablish his vacated spot as the number one fighter in the division.

McGregor versus Nurmagomedov is a modern rendition of a classic – the quintessential striker versus grappler match-up.  Nurmagomedov has one likely path to victory, with a win condition that amounts to little more than “consistently find the takedown.”  Likewise, McGregor’s path to victory necessitates shutting down the larger portion of Nurmagomedov’s takedown attempts, if not all of them.

In many ways, the outcome seems almost bound to disappoint.  When we think of legendary fights which stand the test of time, we rarely think of the one-sided beatdowns, the technical clinics, and the patiently dominating performances; no, we think of momentum swings, back-and-forth action, and triumph in the face of adversity.  The main event of UFC 229 seems unlikely to provide those shifts in tone that create transcendent fights.

At first glance (as well as a second glance, and as many glances as you care to take), neither McGregor nor Nurmagomedov appear to have much to offer their opponent in his area of expertise.  The specialized nature of the combatants means that a Nurmagomedov win will likely take the form of a dominant smashing via ground striking and positional control, while a McGregor victory involves a high chance of Nurmagomedov being made to look silly on the feet.  It will take an incredible performance from both men to give the fight a competitive character, but McGregor and Nurmagomedov are known for nothing if not putting on incredible performances.

Without further ado, let’s dig into the meat of the match-up and see what McGregor and Nurmagomedov have to offer one another.

McGregor vs Nurmagomedov: A Tactical Preview

While the fight hinges on the ability of both men to dictate which phase the fight is contested in, cage-craft will likely prove the determining factor in whether or not we are treated to a primarily striking or grappling-oriented display.  As we noted in our Nurmagomedov Primer, Nurmagomedov relies on the cage to hit his takedowns.  It is rather unlikely that Nurmagomedov will have much success taking McGregor down in the open, so his victory hinges on whether or not he can consistently tie McGregor up against the fence.

Nurmagomedov’s skillset forces him into a conceptual bottleneck that is not present in McGregor’s skillset.  Against a striker the caliber of McGregor, the extent of Nurmagomedov’s game funnels into his clinch entries.  Nurmagomedov must achieve body-to-body contact with McGregor in order to start the only type of sequences likely to result in victory.  Holly Holm’s domination of Ronda Rousey showed us that the skillset of a grappler can be prevented at its onset if these nodal points of congestion necessary to get their game off the ground can be denied.

The limitations in the timing and setup on Nurmagomedov’s takedowns means that he will likely need to pressure to consistently execute his grappling, while McGregor has more options.  McGregor will likely look to pressure Nurmagomedov in order to take away the Dagestani’s most likely win conditions and further compound the effectiveness of his own offense, but he can beat Nurmagomedov off the back-foot if he is forced into that position.  If Nurmagomedov is able to secure a takedown, the bottleneck is reversed and his game opens up completely, but the fact that fights start on the feet gives McGregor an advantage in this department.

Styles Clash

The striking match-up may be as difficult for Nurmagomedov as the grappling match-up is for McGregor.  Although Nurmagomedov is outmatched simply in terms of skill, composure, and tactical depth on the feet, McGregor’s particular style makes his striking a nightmare matchup for Nurmagomedov’s.

In our Nurmagomedov Primer, we mentioned that Nurmagomedov typically resorts to extending his lead hand and folding beneath his rear elbow for defense, which affords him protection against looping strikes.  Nurmagomedov displayed a crafty defensive tactic in his most recent fight, as he consistently made Al Iaquinta punch into his shoulder by dipping beneath it or shoulder rolling.

The nature of McGregor’s southpaw stance means that his primary attack, the straight left, will bypass both Nurmagomedov’s lead shoulder and the chicken-winged elbow.  Nurmagomedov typically resorts to giving ground or pulling his head straight back in response to an opponent’s straight punches, which is not a sufficient defense mechanism against a weapon so accurate, powerful, and well-disguised.

Just as McGregor’s style takes away Nurmagomedov’s most reliable method of defense, it also takes away his primary attacks.  Nurmagomedov does most of his work on the feet with his lead hand, throwing quick jabs and leaping lead hooks or uppercuts.  The nature of southpaw-orthodox match-ups alters how the lead hand can be used.  While the jab is not nullified, it does become more difficult to land, as the lead hands clash and are often occupied fighting the opponent’s for dominance.  Consistently leveraging a jab against a southpaw requires a degree of craft that Nurmagomedov does not possess, as his lead hand was fairly inert against southpaw opponents Gleison Tibau, Rafael dos Anjos, and Michael Johnson.

Nurmagomedov’s difficulty leveraging his lead hand will be compounded by McGregor’s skill at hand-fighting.  McGregor uses the hand-fight to enforce his preferred distance, tying up his orthodox opponent’s lead hand in order to nullify their jab and force them to attack with the rear.  Unless Nurmagomedov is able to consistently pressure McGregor to the fence, he will likely have neither the proper distancing to land his jab, nor the ability to bypass McGregor’s own lead hand.  The hand-control also build frustration in opponents and encourages them to lash out, which may cause Nurmagomedov to lead with the rear-hand and over-extend, giving McGregor a reaction he wants to counter.

McGregor’s ability to draw and exploit reactions using convincing feints will allow him to take advantage of Nurmagomedov’s poorly-schooled defensive reactions.  As he lacks the comfort to see punches coming and react soundly to them, Nurmagomedov is often jumpy or flinchy on defense, which presents the opportunity to feint him out with slight, subtle motions used to disguise committed strikes.

Once the fight is on the mat, however, it is Nurmagomedov who possesses all the advantages.  Not much recent tape of McGregor’s bottom game exists – the last time he was put on his back for long stretches came against Chad Mendes in 2015.  Although McGregor has no doubt improved his grappling since the Mendes fight, his guard will almost certainly not be well-equipped to deal with one of the most fearsome top control artists in MMA today.

McGregor played closed guard against Mendes, extending his hips to create distance while picking away with elbows from the bottom.  When he saw an opportunity, he would post his hands on Mendes’ shoulders to create distance and look to kick off.

The Mendes fight presents several issues regarding McGregor’s ability to keep himself safe on the bottom against Nurmagomedov.  Mendes lacks a refined passing game and would concede space when McGregor brought his legs in between their bodies.  Nurmagomedov is one of the better passers in MMA and will quickly look to step over as soon as the opponent posts a foot on the hip.  Another issue is sheer size – McGregor was able to keep Mendes’ weight off him simply by extending his hips, but that is unlikely to work as well against a man of relatively equal height and greater mass.

Even if McGregor does succeed in tying Nurmagomedov up in closed guard, he will have to contend with an incredibly sharp passing game, the likes of which he’s never faced before.  Mendes was content to sit on his heels or post one leg on the mat and strike while McGregor attempted to create distance, allowing him to settle into his posts and kick off to stand up.  Nurmagomedov will look to stand to break the guard immediately and step over while denying McGregor the opportunity to establish strong posts.

We won’t focus too much on the positional grappling dynamics of this fight.  Nurmagomedov’s top control and ground striking game was extensively covered in our previous article and, given the small amount of recent footage we have of McGregor’s bottom game, a grappling-oriented fight will likely look like business as usual for Nurmagomedov.  Instead, we’ll focus primarily on what each man must do in order to impose their will and keep the fight in their preferred phase and range.

Potential Gameplans

The primary issue Nurmagomedov faces on the feet is that he must close distance to put himself in a position to win.  The fight will be won or lost for Nurmagomedov largely on the strength of his entries.  If he is able to consistently use his striking to create openings to secure an underhook or a grip around McGregor’s waist, victory seems almost assured.  If he cannot get close enough and create those openings, however, his game is unlikely to take off.

McGregor’s stance presents another problem, as the bladed, southpaw stance makes it more difficult for orthodox opponents to get in cleanly on a double leg.  Nurmagomedov relies on the ability to press opponents to the cage with his shot, but this will be more difficult against McGregor.

McGregor is most vulnerable to takedowns as he throws his rear hand.  The hips naturally square while his feet stay rooted, allowing an orthodox opponent to get in cleanly on a double leg, and McGregor often overextends which intensifies this effect.  We’ve covered why Nurmagomedov likely does not have the timing nor sound defensive ability to score reactive takedowns as McGregor punches, but Nurmagomedov can proactively draw the straight and shoot with the assumption that McGregor will follow through.

McGregor’s primary counter, the inside-angle straight, causes him to key in on his opponent’s rear hand.  Lunging in and overextending on a rear straight is exactly the action McGregor wants his opponents to take and he’s very sensitive to this opening.  This sensitivity means that opponents can potentially draw him into taking a hop-step back and loading up on the counter left by showing the straight from a long distance.

Nurmagomedov might take advantage of this opening by throwing his rear hand and immediately shifting forward to duck in on the hips.  The forward shift solves the problem of stance, as Nurmagomedov is immediately positioned to shoot a clean double leg.  If he is able to draw the counter, he can shoot smoothly under McGregor’s left hand and catch him while the hips are square.  Even if McGregor simply backs up, shifting forward would allow Nurmagomedov to close that extra distance and give him a better chance of pushing McGregor to the cage.

In our primer on McGregor, we examined how opponents have consistently been able to get inside his range using body shots, which naturally take the head off the center line and make it difficult to land the counter straight.  Body shots could be a crucial tool in the arsenal of Nurmagomedov, who will spend his time on the feet attempting to get inside on McGregor.  Leading with a combination of body hooks while closing distance would put Nurmagomedov in position to enter the clinch or shoot, while reducing the chance that he eats a counter.

Body shots flow perfectly into grappling exchanges.  The finishing position of a hook to the body leaves the attacker’s hand just a short distance from catching an underhook and can easily be turned into one.  The level change involved in body punches also sets up a shot, disguising the attacker’s intentions while positioning them underneath the opponent’s hips.

Another potential area of success for Nurmagomedov is attacking in transitions.  McGregor uses frames to prevent his opponents from closing distance on takedown attempts, but these frames leave him in punching range with his hands extended.  Although Mendes is prevented from getting chest-to-chest in the above clip, he still lands several punches.

Nurmagomedov might try out the old Randleman special, showing a level change to convince an opponent to dip down and drop or extend their hands, before going upstairs with a hook or uppercut.  Nurmagomedov has already demonstrated proficiency in using his opponents’ defense of his takedown to land strikes, so there’s reason to believe he could capitalize on McGregor’s attempts to frame off or sprawl.

McGregor is similarly vulnerable on clinch breaks and when standing up from the ground.  If Nurmagomedov is able to surprise us and give McGregor something to think about on the feet, it will likely come from these liminal exchanges between striking and grappling.

Finally, it may be a good idea for Nurmagomedov to play with leg kicks.  McGregor’s rear-hand heavy offense means that he will constantly be shifting weight onto the front foot, and a well-placed inside leg kick can disturb the base of a puncher and make him hesitate to step in.

Eddie Alvarez had some success punting McGregor’s lead hand early in their fight, before McGregor adjusted to check the kicks.

Leg kicks need not decrease in efficacy when opponents actively check them however, as the can be used to set up takedowns:

Attempting to check a leg kick leaves a fighter rooted in place with one leg off the ground and an unstable base.  If McGregor picks up his leg to check the kicks, Nurmagomedov can start feinting them and stepping into double and single legs.  Of course, leg kicks can leave you open to counters if not setup or timed properly, so Nurmagomedov would need to look out for McGregor’s counter straight if he cannot destabilize his base with the kicks.

The most important concept for McGregor is extending the distance.  If Nurmagomedov is close enough to hug him, he is in serious danger of being taken down.  If McGregor can keep Nurmagomedov at arm’s length, he will be in control of the initiative.

McGregor’s active use of linear kicks is a perfect tool to create distance against a grappler.  While Nurmagomedov stepped inside the round kicks of Edson Barboza and crowded him, linear kicks create a barrier to an opponent’s forward movement.  To bypass linear kicks, you must move laterally rather than directly forward, which is not a strong suit for Nurmagomedov.

It’s been a while since the low-line side kick featured prominently in one of McGregor’s bouts, but this would be the perfect time to bring it back.  The kick serves to jam the lead leg and prevent opponents from stepping in without needing heavy commitment.  A front kick can be parried aside to expose the back, but setting up a takedown off a low-line side kick requires some crafty footwork.

McGregor’s sharp front kicks should also help him extend the distance and chip away at Nurmagomedov’s gas tank.  While Nurmagomedov should have a cardio advantage, repeated front kicks to the body may equalize their gas tanks.  There is some danger of front kicks exposing takedowns, but they are difficult to catch due to the quick delivery and small surface area of impact.

Along with kicking the body, punching the body could be a useful tactic for McGregor.  As we’ve explained, Nurmagomedov’s extended-hands defense leaves him wide open to body shots.  A long straight to the body would serve to extend the distance by impeding Nurmagomedov’s forward movement.  It also affords McGregor a measure of protection against the level change, both by threatening to land on Nurmagomedov’s face should he shoot in, and by dropping McGregor’s own level and making him better equipped to deal with the shot.

Establishing a straight to the body would also serve to help McGregor back Nurmagomedov up.  Head strikes can be slipped and forced to roll off the guard, while the body is much harder to defend as it remains stationary.  Nurmagomedov’s only reliable defense to body shots is backing up, and McGregor can force this reaction consistently if he can establish the body punches as a threat.  Once he has Nurmagomedov on the cage, the hook behind the elbow opens up as well.

Another tactic that could be useful in dissuading the level change is upward-arching strikes.  Ducking in on the hips involves momentarily putting the head in danger if the takedown is not set up well.  Intercepting strikes such as this Jose Aldo uppercut are incredibly difficult to time and land clean, but if they do land, the carry devastating force due to the collision made when an opponent ducks into them.

McGregor has displayed a lovely counter uppercut that could be useful in countering the level change.  Even if he cannot time Nurmagomedov ducking into it, threatening the uppercut in open space could dissuade the level change and make Nurmagomedov hesitant to duck in on the hips.

While round kicks are often an invitation to shoot a takedown when thrown at a wrestler, head kicks are a bit of an exception.  Whereas body kicks and leg kicks can ride up the body and be caught easily, catching a head kick requires a great deal of craft and a specialized skill that most strikers in MMA don’t possess.  Another advantage of head kicks is that they disincentivize the level change and force opponents upright to defend them, which takes the wrestler out of his preferred posture.

McGregor would do well to employ his southpaw double attack against Nurmagomedov, playing the rear straight and head kick off one another.  While it could invite Nurmagomedov to time it and shoot in on the rear leg if overused, a few select head kicks thrown at opportune times can exponentially increase the effectiveness and concealment of McGregor’s straight, and punish Nurmagomedov for changing levels or attempting to slip.

Although the jab has traditionally been an afterthought for McGregor, he displayed an improved lead hand in his fight with Floyd Mayweather.  Taking a year off to focus solely on boxing has allowed McGregor to further refine his hands and we shouldn’t be surprised to see a sharper puncher against Nurmagomedov.

While McGregor has never relied heavily on his jab, it could play an important role against Nurmagomedov.  The southpaw-orthodox match-up combined with Nurmagomedov’s relatively poor defense means that he’s likely to respond to McGregor’s offense by backing up.  If McGregor backs Nurmagomedov off with the straight, there is an opportunity for Nurmagomedov to press forward and take back that ground as he recovers.  If McGregor can consistently work his jab and keep it buzzing in Nurmagomedov’s face, he can keep him on the back-foot without allowing him room to advance and set up his power punches.

From a wrestling perspective, the single most important thing McGregor can do when he’s on the cage is to actively and urgently fight grips.  If Nurmagomedov gets a tight lock around his hips or waist, he’s almost certainly going for a ride, but he can mitigate that chance by treating the lock itself with the same urgency as he would the lift.

Nurmagomedov has historically had a much harder time hitting takedowns on opponents who were able to fight his grips.  Both Pat Healy and Rafael dos Anjos were often able to control Nurmagomedov’s left hand and prevent him from getting strong grips on the double.  If he cannot achieve a lock, Nurmagomedov is forced to take a single leg, which is lower percentage as the opponent can use the cage for extra balance while he pushes the head away or strips the grip.

dos Anjos was able to force a break in the clinch several times through the use of a strong collar tie.  The tight elbow prevents Nurmagomedov from sliding his arm into an underhook and creates space, preventing him from getting chest-to-chest.  Dos Anjos was able to use his collar tie to create enough distance to circle out, while framing Nurmagomedov’s neck and face away to keep him from turning to follow.

We know that attempting to fight Nurmagomedov off by pummeling is almost a futile prospect once he’s got his favored right underhook.  Nurmagomedov will clamp a body-lock around his opponent’s underhook in over/under to nullify it before dumping them on the ground.  If Nurmagomedov can be denied his right underhook on initial penetration, it might cut off the flowchart of takedowns near its beginning.

Gleison Tibau had plenty of success catching an underhook on Nurmagomedov’s right side as Nurmagomedov shot or entered the clinch, but there are a few concerns over McGregor’s ability to replicate that success.  The Tibau fight came early in Nurmagomedov’s career, when he did not yet have access to his incredibly diverse and systematic arsenal of upper-body takedowns.  Tibau’s incredible size and strength also played a large role in preventing Nurmagomedov from achieving dominant upper-body positioning or pinching the underhook down and single-legging through it.  McGregor lacks that same strength and faces the additional disadvantage of fighting Nurmagomedov after he’s filled out and added mass onto his frame.

If Nurmagomedov achieves his right underhook, it’s likely better off for McGregor not to bother with pummeling in on his right side due to Nurmagomedov’s ability to body-lock through the underhook.  Instead, while overhooking arm commits to a whizzer, his other arm should be alternately trying to disturb Nurmagomedov’s control with a collar tie or frame and fighting off grips when Nurmagomedov changes levels and attacks the legs.

Nurmagomedov has had some success attacking a single leg from far outside and it’s conceivable that he could threaten McGregor with it, though his lack of comfort in close and a lack of setups means he’s at a disadvantage shooting takedowns in the open.  McGregor’s southpaw stance means that Nurmagomedov won’t have to shoot across his body to grab hold of the leg, but there are several factors that will make the single leg difficult for Nurmagomedov.

Against Iaquinta, Nurmagomedov hit a low single early in the fight, but failed to secure it again once Iaquinta adjusted.  The takedown was set up with a rather unconvincing jab feint.  Iaquinta gives a reaction to the feint that is not entirely sound, reaching out both hands to meet it.  He tries to back his hips away as if to sprawl when Nurmagomedov changes levels, but only tries to limp-leg out after Nurmagomedov has a grip on the leg.  When defending subsequent shots, Iaquinta would take only a short step back and start the limp-leg immediately, which prevented Nurmagomedov from settling into a grip.

McGregor likely will not give Nurmagomedov an exploitable reaction to an unconvincing jab feint, due both to his composure and to his proficiency in hand-fighting.  McGregor’s distance control will also be a problem in regards to hitting the low single, as Nurmagomedov has struggled with shooting from too far away against opponents who lack McGregor’s ability to quickly slide out of range.

While McGregor is likely in dire trouble if Nurmagomedov drags him to the mat, there may be a way in which he can mitigate the damage.  Playing a traditional Jiu Jitsu-inspired bottom game against Nurmagomedov seems futile for McGregor.  Attempting to recompose guard will likely just lead to McGregor taking damage in the transition and being quickly passed soon after.

It might be a better idea for McGregor to treat the fight almost as a wrestling match and belly down when Nurmagomedov passes his guard.  Though Nurmagomedov possesses an excellent riding game, turning into a turtle position would allow him to tripod up and build his base while attempting to hand-fight and clear Nurmagomedov’s grips.

Iaquinta took much less damage against Nurmagomedov than his previous few opponents, and he largely looked to wrestle his way up.  When Nurmagomedov attempted to secure wrist rides from back control, Iaquinta would turn and go belly up, which freed up his hands to fight Nurmagomedov’s grips.  He managed to escape the bottom and frustrate Nurmagomedov’s attempts at ground striking several times through these methods.

Although the lightweight championship is on the line, the clash between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov is about legacy.  The winner will achieve a career-defining victory over one of the most highly-touted opponents in MMA history.  Both McGregor and Nurmagomedov are known for having near unbreakable wills.  Although the fight seems likely to result in a one-sided drubbing, each man possesses the ability to shift the momentum of a fight in an instant.

Check back in after UFC 229, where we will probably break down McGregor versus Anthony Pettis, after Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson are both forced out of their fights with last-minute injuries.

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Ryan discovered the sport of MMA in 2009 and quickly rushed out to join the first gym he could find. That discovery soon blossomed into a life-long passion. His aim is to spread the love and knowledge for the sport he's acquired along the way.

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