Arguably the single biggest mixed martial arts bout in history has finally got a confirmed date. On October 6th, “Sin City” will play host to a lightweight grudge match between the so far un-rivalled champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov and the sports biggest household name: Conor McGregor.
Both men are masters of their specific crafts. Khabib an elite level Combat Sambo and grappling expert, whilst McGregor is a swift counter striker with a piston for a left hand.
Embroiled in legal affairs since April 2018 relating to the bus attack at UFC 223, McGregor’s stock has failed to take a hit, in fact almost surging as a result of the media coverage. With the biggest stage in combat sports hosting the highly anticipated clash, expect Khabib vs. McGregor to smash the organisation’s PPV records (with or without ethical promotion.)
So, with the classic striker versus grappler matchup officially booked, I take a look at how both Khabib should approach this contest in search of success.
Dagestan favourite, Khabib, has obvious strengths. They have so far been unstoppable in his ten Octagon walks. A naturally aggressive and tenacious Sambo specialist, Nurmagomedov has steamrolled each and every one of his opponents on his long path to UFC gold. He can shoot from distance and latch onto an ankle, grab either side of a high crotch single leg, or execute throws, trips and body locks from the fence due to his smothering game.
Where “The Eagle” really excels though, is after he initially has you on your back. Khabib often triangles his opponents leg in half-guard and uses head pressure to establish posture. From there, he can transition to side control or full mount – the most feared position to find yourself. Khabib throws hammers from the top with his naturally heavy hands and constant attacks to both the torso and head of his opponent visibly zaps their energy and resilience within minutes.
Examples of crushing pressure can be found against the likes of strikers Michael Johnson. Johnson, a much faster striker than many at 155lbs, tagged Khabib in the opening round of their UFC 205 meeting but couldn’t close the show. Nurmagomedov recovered and after clearing the cobwebs, he closed the distance and secured a takedown. Within minutes, Johnson seemed bewildered with Khabib’s pressure and smothering top game. Dominance was furthermore personified with his mid-fight conversation with Dana White, but when he slapped a Kimura on Johnson and then verbally explained to his opponent he should tap or his arm would be broken.
Next up came Muay Thai practitioner Edson Barboza. Khabib displayed a similar shut down over three rounds, incredible if you think about Edson’s assassin-like striking and stellar takedown defence up until UFC 219. After failing with a number of low ankle picks, Khabib reverted to his fence attempts, scooping and planting Barboza much more frequently. Head pressure created the opportunity to land strikes to the now clock watching Brazilian, who never looked like escaping from Nurmagomedov’s clutches. Edson managed a patented wheel kick attempt in the third, but Khabib marched through without so much as an expression change before landing yet another takedown.
Khabib is undeniably the most extensive and talented wrestler McGregor has been matched with since his professional bow ten years ago. Both Mendes and Alvarez are wrestlers in the traditional sense, but Khabib hails from a Judo and Sambo background. Mendes managed to land multiple takedowns, albeit to a compromised McGregor who injured his ACL while rolling with Owen Roddy prior to UFC 189, while Alvarez failed to score a single one after he was dinged early and often in the opening round of the pair’s UFC 205 headliner.
Khabib’s pressure is sure to be more smothering than that of Chad’s, who elected to remain in full guard and throw slashing elbows rather than pass and mount, something that Nurmagomedov is an absolute expert at.
Needless to say, Khabib’s wrestling is a massive factor in this fight, whether successful or unsuccessful. We saw first hand in his most recent Octagon appearance against short notice replacement, Al Iaquinta.
However, his tendency to walk forward with his chin high and exposed will be a dangerous habit when paired with a slick, powerful boxer such as McGregor. Khabib’s striking was questioned firmly throughout the final two or so rounds with Iaquinta, as he worked off a lunging jab while looking to cover the distance. A real lack of angle cutting or creative striking was also on display with Khabib winging anything else other than a technical jab.
Khabib’s keys to success:
- Shooting from the right distance.
- Actively transitioning to prevent Conor from gaining a scramble opportunity.
- Utilise the cage and fence.
- Avoid lunging with a jab and backing away with his chin in the air.
- Be wary of Conor’s impeccable distance control and ability to counter a miss timed shot with a lead uppercut.