Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight kingpin, Khabib Nurmagomedov, will battle interim strap-hanger, Justin Gaethje, this Saturday (Oct. 24, 2020) at UFC 254 inside Flash Forum on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
What is there to say about Khabib’s dominance that hasn’t already been stated? He’s fast approaching the 30-0 milestone, and not only has the Dagestani combatant never come particularly close to losing, he’s seldom lost a round in the process. Opponents know what Nurmagomedov will do, yet they are consistently powerless to stop him. All that said, Gaethje does represent a different challenge for “The Eagle,” as he’s by far the most credentialed wrestler of Nurmagomedov’s career. Who can say if that will actually matter, but it’s at least an interesting angle ahead of the bout.
Let’s take a closer look at the champion’s skill set:
The sole point of Nurmagomedov’s kickboxing game is to set up the takedown. He may receive criticism for some occasionally clunky winging hooks, but when the threat of those strikes successfully raises the guard and allows him to shoot, it hardly matters.
Khabib constantly presents opponents with this problem, as it’s rather difficult to block both a potential punch and takedown at the same time. A choice must be made. Most foes are more willing to avoid the takedown early, which is how big punches slip through (GIF).
On the feet, Nurmagomedov’s goal is pressure, but he doesn’t always charge forward relentlessly like he did opposite Edson Barboza. In fact, if you watch that bout and compare it to his victory over Michael Johnson or Dustin Poirier, his approach differed based on their striking styles. Barboza is a far more dangerous kicker than puncher, which resulted in the ceaseless, run-straight-forward approach that jammed up many of Barboza’s kicks. Men like Poirier, Johnson, and McGregor are more dangerous with their hands, so Khabib was more cautious with his forward pressure as a result.
As for Nurmagomedov’s actual striking, it’s largely meat-and-potatoes. He walks his foe down with the jab and cross, keeping his hands high and slipping his way forward. Much of the time, Nurmagomedov will respond to whatever his opponent throws — assuming it doesn’t land fully — with a one-two combination, keeping on his opponent and always looking for a chance to level change. Against McGregor, he frustrated the counter puncher by simply remaining calm and flicking out jabs, refusing to bite on anything too significant.
Opposite Barboza, Nurmagomedov was far more active in throwing round kicks. They were hard kicks thrown well enough — if not amazingly set up — and it was smart tactic in kicking with the kicker.
In his last-second bout with Al Iaquinta, Nurmagomedov spent a decent portion of the second half of the fight striking with the New Yorker. Personally, I believe he did this for two reasons: to shut up some criticisms of his kickboxing, and because wrestling is hard work even when winning the takedown battle. Whatever the reason, Nurmagomedov completely picked Iaquinta apart. Mostly, Nurmagomedov worked the jab, countering Iaquinta’s low stance. Iaquinta was hunched over to stop the shot, but that allowed Nurmagomedov’s jab to shoot low from his waist directly into Iaquinta’s face (GIF). In addition, the Russian began switching to the left hook afterward, building off the established threat of the jab.
Aside from the basics, Nurmagomedov mixes in smart tactics to set up takedowns. He’ll level change into punches or mix a shovel hook into his offense (GIF), strategies designed to punish fighters for daring to defend his takedowns. Similarly, the flying knee works wonders for Nurmagomedov, not so much in landing and doing major damage, but it often convinces foes to square up and raise their guard. It’s really difficult for the defensive man to see a fighter flying forward behind the battering ram that is a knee without some type of reaction that exposes the hips.
There are some genuine concerns about how Nurmagomedov reacts to his opponent’s offense, as he can be guilty of backing straight up. In his bout with Poirier, however, Nurmagomedov showed that even while on the defensive and moving backwards, he still does a nice job of getting behind his shoulders and slipping away from strikes.
Nurmagomedov is a ridiculously credentialed Sambo athlete, as well as a Judo black belt and experienced freestyle wrestler. Look up his wiki page if you’d like the full details, but know that “The Eagle” has a lifetime of wrestling and grappling experience that allows him to dominate fights.
First and foremost, we have to talk about how Nurmagomedov actually scores the takedown. Against the average foe, Nurmagomedov will time an easy double-leg, ducking under and snatching the hips for an easy slam (GIF). Any time his opponent’s back is to the fence, the double leg is likely coming.
Against high-level competition, it’s usually more complicated than that, and timing the double so perfectly is more difficult. In such situations, Nurmagomedov is more willing to dive for a single-leg takedown. I mean dive quite literally, as Nurmagomedov is willing to take ugly shots in order to get a grip, recover good posture, and then finish the shot.
Nurmagomedov has several ways of transitioning into a finished takedown. Early on, foes did not quite understand just how good Nurmagomedov was from the back clinch, and they were willing to turn away and attempt to limp leg out of shots. There’s a reason why it’s rarely attempted now, as Nurmagomedov is an expert at suplexing, tripping, dragging and simply mugging fighters from that position.
The more common approach now is to avoid that at all costs and try to defend against the fence. Nurmagomedov has many answers for that position as well, but Barboza was able to dig and underhook and spin his foe a couple of times. Securing the underhook first is key to stopping his shot, as using an overhook to stop the double-leg — common practice in mixed martial arts (MMA) — is a bad idea.
Nurmagomedov is perfectly happy to give up on a shot and transition into the upper body clinch. He may not be able to secure a body lock right away, but Nurmagomedov will dig his underhook — the one his opponent gave up by using an overhook to stop the shot — very deep. Between the deep underhook and head position — he always has his forehead driving into the jaw — the Dagestani is in great situation.
From that position, Nurmagomedov’s usual go-to is to attempt a body lock or at least get close to one, get his hip in, and attempt to muscle his foe over that hip. If they resist by widening their base, Nurmagomedov will suddenly change directions with an inside trip instead. At any point, Nurmagomedov can use that underhook to drop back down into a single-leg, which can quickly become a double-leg against the fence.
Another great finishing strategy is Nurmagomedov is to elevate the single leg. The single leg against the fence is typically a strong position for the defending man, who can lean along the cage while peppering the offensive wrestler with punches and elbows. Nurmagomedov negates this by raising the thigh to his hip and stepping deep, bringing his hips into his opponent. This allows him to lift his opponent up enough to affect balance, at which point he’ll look to trip.
Once on top, Nurmagomedov’s control is extraordinary. There’s some great details in his game, but the big picture here is that Nurmagomedov is constantly triangling the legs or controlling a double-wrist ride. Triangling the legs is a simply enough concept: the bottom man cannot stand up if both of his legs are extended. From that position, Nurmagomedov can wear on his opponent and mix in punches, something he’s especially good at.
The double-wrist ride or two-on-one control from turtle is one of the most dominant forms of control available. Usually, Nurmagomedov looks to latch onto the two-on-one immediately after slamming his opponent to the mat, using that moment of impact to lock into position before his opponent can defend.
Once the arm is trapped, Nurmagomedov will work on breaking his opponent down flat to the mat, which is exhausting work for his foe. Whenever his foe begins working to stand, Nurmagomedv will yank him back to the mat. If he stands all the way up, Nurmagomedov still has a ton of options to return him to the mat.
All the while, Nurmagomedov can briefly release the two-on-one with one hand and slam home punches. Usually, his foe has to cover up under the ground strikes, but Nurmagomedov can also transition back to the double-wrist ride if his foe moves to stand.
There’s also a special element of brutality to Nurmagomedov’s ground and pound. He’ll utilize classic ground striking techniques like throwing the leg by into a punch, but Nurmagomedov has truly mastered getting every extra bit of thud into each strike. For example, it’s rare to see uppercuts on the mat, yet Nurmagomedov smashes Barboza’s skull with uppercuts while his head was trapped along the fence in an attempt wall-walk.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of his game, 10 of Nurmagomedov’s victories come via tapout. While some of this finishes are more the result of his brutal ground strikes than anything else — see his attempts to snatch a rear naked choke or arm triangle out of nowhere against a dazed foe — there’s also some crafty technique involved.
Nurmagomedov’s leg triangle commonly leads to guard passes as well, and once around the guard, Nurmagomedov has another pretty signature chain of techniques. From side control, he’ll pretty immediately begin looking for the crucifix. It can be a fight-finishing technique, but even if his foe manages to release the arm, it’s another few free punches while they try to wriggle free. Nurmagomedov will also look to trap the arm from half guard, which may not be a finishing position, but any free ground shot is a damaging blow that breaks his opponent a bit more.
The rear-naked choke has produced several of Nurmagomedov’s most recent wins, and it’s not hard to understand how that fights into his game. The leg triangle often forces his opponents to turn away, exposing the back, and the two-on-one can force the same position. Plus, after a couple minutes in either position, the bottom man is less explosive. He’s broken down, tired, and frustrated — an easy victim to a quick grasp of the neck (GIF).
Interestingly, Nurmagomedov has four triangle wins on his record, which doesn’t really fit the mold of top position mauler. He’s shown quick hips from the mount and back, throwing up the hold with a great deal of confidence.
Opposite Abel Trujillo, Nurmagomedov briefly wound up on his back twice during scrambles. In both situations, he immediately went for the triangle. The first time, Nurmagomedov wound up nearly locking up an armbar instead.
Trujillo managed to survive and maintain top position, so Nurmagomedov used butterfly hooks into a stand up and arm drag to reverse him. In the second example, Nurmagomedov successfully locked up the triangle and nearly finished Trujillo, but “Killa’s” broad shoulders allowed him to survive until the end of the round.
Nurmagomedov has already proven himself the most accomplished Lightweight of all time. Justin Gaethje would be a huge win to add to his resume, one that significantly improves his claim as overall great. Plus, it’s another step closer to 30-0, which may end up Nurmagomedov’s final milestone.
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Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.