It's not controversial--or at least it shouldn't be--to say that Khabib Nurmagomedov more or less needs to hit takedowns to win in the upper echelons of MMA. Grappling is both the meat and potatoes of his game. In fact, the only relatively close bout of Nurmagomedov's UFC career was against Gleison Tibau, not a particularly elite opponent, but one experienced and strong enough to shut down his takedowns. Nurmagomedov still won, but it wasn't as easy as usual. One imagines the problem would be more dramatic against a more potent striker.
But if Khabib's takedowns and ground game are his meat and potatoes, then left and right fists are his knife and fork. Every round of every fight starts with both fighters standing. And against a fighter with Nurmagomedov's reputation, it would be a foolish opponent who didn't prepare at great length for his grappling prowess. So the striking serves as a delivery mechanism for the grappling, allowing Nurmagomedov to hide his entries, control the location of the fight, and manipulate the position of his opponent's body.
Though his technique isn't always pretty, the careful deliberation with which Nurmagomedov strings his attacks together is simply marvelous. It would look an awful lot like mind control if you couldn't analyze it and break his process down piece by piece. Which is what we're going to do now.
UP AND DOWN
If you know Khabib Nurmagomedov, you know one thing about his striking: he throws a lot of uppercuts. More than just about any other fighter in the UFC. And not just typical uppercuts. Right uppercuts, left uppercuts; leaping or with feet planted; set-up or thrown naked as a newborn baby. Khabib Nurmagomedov throws uppercut after uppercut at range, and even mixes in other upward strikes like flying knees and quick diagonal high kicks.
The purpose of all these upward attacks is to control the body position of the opponent. There are a few ways to avoid or block an uppercut, but there is one way to make it much worse: ducking. Of course, getting low also helps opponents to sprawl on takedown attempts, so Nurmagomedov makes the space below his opponent's chin as threatening as possible by constantly arcing strikes up through it.
Now if the opponent doesn't respond as intended--if he continues to duck down and sprawl despite the threat--then Nurmagomedov is more than happy to keep firing away, snapping his punches up into the opponent's chin as he ducks down into them. He spent more than a full round clacking awkward, leaping uppercuts and flying knees into the chin and chest of Pat Healy before finally finding a way to outwrestle the big man, but you probably recall best the lunging left that sent Thiago Tavares to the canvas in Khabib's third UFC fight.
Still, most elite fighters are keen to avoid turning these wild, looping punches into knockout blows, so they stay tall at range. And as Nurmagomedov becomes more comfortable and better at timing and setting up his entries, that means takedowns.
1. Nurmagomedov approaches Rafael Dos Anjos.
2. He leads with a slapping throwaway hook to draw RDA's hands up.
3. And follows with an uppercut that barely misses the mark.
4. A quick right hook as Khabib shifts into a southpaw stance cuffs Dos Anjos on the cheek.
5. Not that Dos Anjos is near the fence, Nurmagomedov presses his advantage. He feints a jab . . .
6. . . . and follows with a right uppercut that just misses the mark as Dos Anjos slips and counters.
7. Nevertheless, Nurmagomedov rolls under Dos Anjos' left hand . . .
8. . . . and slams into his hips, quickly getting his left hand behind Dos Anjos' load-bearing right knee.
9. With a pull and a bit of momentum, Nurmagomedov gets Dos Anjos down.
As mentioned above, the primary purpose of the uppercut is to punish a potential level change from the opponent. Since most takedowns would require Khabib's hips to be lower than those of his opponent, this makes it much easier for him to enter quickly into a shot with only a small level change.
As you can see, there is more to it, however. An uppercut is also an excellent blinding weapon. As the hand comes up across the face of the opponent, it obstructs his vision, giving Nurmagomedov a split-second more time to penetrate and execute his level change.
Many fighters also see an uppercut as a ripe counter opportunity. As the hand drops to load up the punch, a seasoned mixed martial artist will look to send a short shot right through the opening to Nurmagomedov's chin. With surprisingly deft footwork and head movement, however, Nurmagomedov is able to turn this risk into an opportunity. As soon as the opponent counters, his weight becomes committed to one leg, leaving him momentarily immobilized and susceptible to a hard shot. Above, Rafael Dos Anjos finds both legs in the Dagestani's embrace before he has a chance to redistribute his weight from the missed counter in Frame 7.
All of this lessens the need for Nurmagomedov to shoot deep, low double legs with dramatic level changes. Not only are Nurmagomedov's relatively subtle level changes quicker and easier to execute off of striking combinations, but they protect him from any uppercuts or knees the opponent might use as a counter. The higher he stays while still efficiently completing his takedown, the safer he is.
GROUND AND POUND
Striking sets up Khabib's takedowns at range, but it also plays into his clinch and mat work. Much like UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz, Nurmagomedov uses strikes to facilitate his wrestling transitions. Rather than chopping a posted arm to break down his opponent, Nurmagomedov will strike the face, forcing the opponent to break himself down in order to block. Rather than scrambling to reestablish a takedown after the opponent has started to slip out, Nurmagomedov will stand up first and greet his opponent on the way up with a salvo of punches.
When Nurmagomedov fought Pat Healy, he used some brilliant striking to help him outwrestle the much larger opponent.
1. Nurmagomedov has Healy pressed against the fence, both hands connected around Healy's waist.
2. As Nurmagomedov begins dragging him forward, Healy fights the mat return by planting his right foot and taking a wide stance.
3. Nurmagomedov quickly pivots around Healy and changes the direction of his pressure, buckling Healy's left leg with a short knee . . .
4. . . . and sitting him down against the fence.
5. Now Healy posts his right hand and manages to sneak his other elbow under Khabib's left arm.
6. No sooner does Healy escape the waist cinch, however . . .
7. . . . than Nurmagomedov smashes him in the mouth with a left hand.
8. Healy struggles back to his feet, but Nurmagomedov lands several clean, hard strikes in the process.
This tactic, like the uppercuts at range, has something of a double utility. If Healy had a normal human's sense of self-preservation, he would have likely raised his left hand to protect his face while the right was posted, clearing the path for Khabib to get the full waist cinch once again. But since he's Pat Healy, he simply takes the punches and works to his feet, blocking Khabib's body lock with his elbow rather than blocking his fists. Either way, Nurmagomedov gets something he wants.
If nothing else, sequences like this demonstrate what a natural mixed martial artist Nurmagomedov is. It's worth noting that, just prior to the first frame above, Nurmagomedov had tried to take Healy's back before transitioning to the ride. He is never so attached to a single position or phase of attack that he misses an opportunity to score with another, and keep himself in control of the action. Though a pressure fighter, Nurmagomedov is more than happy to take the easy route, quickly snatching up whatever openings his opponent gives him.
And before we wrap up, a quick bonus that doesn't involve striking at all. When Nurmagomedov fought Rafael Dos Anjos at UFC on Fox 11, the Brazilian spent two rounds struggling from his back. By the time the third frame rolled around, Dos Anjos was determined to get a takedown of his own, if only to dent Nurmagomedov's confidence a little. Instead, he ended up stuck under Nurmagomedov's sprawl against the fence, and then this happened.
1. Vying to finish his takedown, Dos Anjos fishes for Nurmagomedov's ankle.
2. Nurmagomedov controls the threatening wrist.
3. Dos Anjos works his feet forward, preparing to wrench Nurmagomedov's hips away from the fence.
4. But this also brings his legs into Khabib's reach. Khabib quickly strips Dos Anjos' hand from his ankle . . .
5. . . . and wraps his right leg around Dos Anjos' before the Brazilian can move it out of the way.
6. With a tight overhook and wrist control, Nurmagomedov commits his weight forward and throws Dos Anjos over his leg.
7. Dos Anjos back slams into the canvas, and Nurmagomedov lands in side control.
Prospective opponents of Khabib Nurmagomedov, keep sequences like this in mind. The man is not only an excellent phase shifter and an underrated striker, but a truly transcendental fighter. Somehow, Nurmagomedov always seems one step ahead of his opponent, ready to counter the next move before his adversary even thinks to make it. Combined with his balance, strength, and vast pool of skill, this makes Nurmagomedov one of the very best talents in the sport today. Provided he can successfully shake off two years' ring rust at UFC Tampa, Nurmagomedov seems a shoe-in for a shot at the title.
More and more these days MMA seems like a striker's sport, but Khabib Nurmagomedov turns that notion on its head. This is neither a striker's nor a grappler's sport. It's both at once, and much more.
It's mixed martial arts.
For a more in-depth look at Khabib's wrestling and grappling, check out the latest Heavy Hands, featuring MMA FIghting's Luke Thomas.