Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Edson Barboza this December 30, 2017 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada.
One sentence summary:
David: Honey, I shrunk future Pete Williams vs. future Mark Coleman.
Phil: Old-school MMA with a next-gen coat of paint, as we get as pure a "grappler vs striker" matchup as you're likely to see, with Edson Barboza taking on [insert late notice replacement here]
Record: Khabib Nurmagomedov 24-0 Edson Barboza 19-4
Odds: Khabib Nurmagomedov -280 Edson Barboza +255
History / Introduction to Both Fighters
David: Khabib has garnered a well-earned reputation of tough-as-nails grappler with a Diaz-like machismo that UFC fans (and writers) love. It’s the perfect throwback style to compliment his throwback demeanor. He’s also been on the shelf a lot, which we like a lot less. Still, his place in the division’s hierarchy is legit, and the only thing keeping him away from a title shot is inactivity. This is a better fight for him than it lets on from the surface because his inactivity warrants questions about his efficiency against different styles, and Barboza presents plenty of violent challenges.
Phil: Khabib was the first real standout of a new wave of Dagestani / Russian / Caucasus prospects. It's difficult to think of who bridged the gap between Khabib and Fedor in terms of the western audience, but since then it's been a steady tide of fighters who have ranged from OK to truly stellar. If Khabib has been a throwback in terms of his fighting style, I think he's also a throwback in terms of his mystique. The relative infrequency of his fights have help to cast him as a boogeyman who comes down from the hills, smashes someone, then retreats back, with no-one the wiser as to who (if anyone) could possibly beat him.
David: Edson is a lot like Charles Oliveira - a hyped prospect whose losses we accepted as part of the learning curve. But whereas Oliveira was thrown to the wolves, Barboza turned out to be a wolf among other better wolves. We know what he’s good at, and flawed at. Somewhere along the way he didn’t harmonize his deficiencies with his leg axe assets, but he took that valuable experience and turned it into something useful. He’s exactly the kind of fighter capable of surprising us thanks to his talents, which makes this fight simultaneously predictable and well, unpredictable.
Phil: Barboza's career trajectory has gone in a very different direction. Whereas Nurmagomedov's hype has been insulated by infrequent fights and (debatably) favourable stylistic matchups, Barboza has been through the blender. Losses to Varner, Cerrone, Johnson and Ferguson seemed to put a cap on how high Barboza could possibly go. Yet for all his setbacks, Barboza just kept plugging away. His hands became more threatening, his footwork improved, and his grace under fire went from a major liability to being one of the most composed fighters in the division. He's a tribute to just sticking to it, trying one's hardest, and believing in the efficiency of a given approach. Oh, and being an absolutely ridiculous athlete with blazing speed and shockingly good cardio. That helps a lot, too.
What's at stake?
David: Not a title shot. Unless McGregor fights Pacquiao and continues his run of non-title defenses. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate the traffic and another potential appearance on the Financial Times’ twitter feed, but still - this fight warrants title shot implications, but is just another stopgap towards it for the winner.
Phil: I thought about it, and it made me sad. Apparently Dana is "confident" that Conor will be available to fight Ferguson sometime in the summer of 2018. In the regular world, the winner of this fight would get a title shot, but I suspect that instead we get something like Khabib/Alvarez, or Poirier/Barboza.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Khabib is an interesting fighter. He is brimming with confidence, and has a tremendous analytical mind for the sport. This is a very good combination of traits to have, particularly when coupled with top-shelf athleticism. The first piece of the puzzle which he has to solve is how to close distance, and he does so behind an array of feints and leaping strikes, all of which bear some resemblance to his shot. Here, Khabib shares something with the other innovative pure grappler in the UFC, Demian Maia: his shot is not tremendously powerful, instead sacrificing drive for speed. The traditional way to beat shots in the UFC is to pivot, turn, push down and step out, forcing the attacker to be carried past by their own momentum. By cutting down on his own inertia, Khabib is free to instead focus on hand-fighting and chain wrestling as he chases the bodylock, single-leg or re-shoots into a double leg. He is masterful at misdirection and moving one way to suddenly shift another and dump the other man.
Once on top, he is relentless: instead of holding onto a position, he instead focuses on a single piece which will checkmate the opponent in the next phase of their get-up: holding onto a wrist, or cinching up a seatbelt or waistlock. They try to escape, they go back down, rinse and repeat, all the while getting mercilessly bludgeoned. The concern for Khabib is obviously his striking. Regardless of how smart someone is, how good their instincts, or how blazing quick they are, something like Khabib's favoured "leaping uppercut / takedown" is a tremendously high-risk manoeuvre. He mitigates his deficiencies at range with constant head movement, a high guard and parries, all enabled by his excellent reflexes, but striking is just not his forte.
David: You mention the comparisons to Maia, which I think is apt (in different ways of course). Like Maia, Khabib lacks the raw athleticism to close the distance. As armchair analysts, it’s easier to identify what’s there (athleticism, speed, power, etc) than what’s not (technique, drive, sequencing, etc). Khabib doesn’t lack obvious physical traits - in top control, these physical traits are well displayed - but part of that is due to style; he just doesn’t need to sprint for gap control. But his brilliance is intimately linked to one specific space. On the ground, you won’t find many fighters like Khabib. He blends technique, urgency, and creativity into one wholesome asphyxiatory attack.
Unlike Maia, part of the key to all of this is, paradoxically, Khabib’s striking. His striking is unrefined to the naked eye. Granted, it’s unrefined to the discerning eye too IMO. He hasn’t been properly tested on the feet (to his credit), but it’s not hard to imagine a fighter with better punch selection not taking advantage of his punch entries. That’ll be the key factor in this bout, but to the extent that there’s a method to his fist madness - it’s that his strikes compliment his clinch entries. He swings with the intention of drawing out counters, landing when he needs to, and keeping himself in expert positioning so that when he does clinch, his arms, head, and legs are already set up for just the right grip. Unlike most grapplers, he has an uncanny ability to switch grips, positioning, and posture on the fly to drive opponents onto the canvas. In that way, his grappling is a little unconventional because once he’s in the clinch, he transforms into more a judoka, with his constant reaps (for trips) and hip leverage (for good old fashioned pancaking).
Phil: Edson Barboza is a long-running study in the benefit of striking fundamentals, and the integration of student and coach. His improvements over the course of his UFC have been steady and tangible, a true credit to Mark Henry and the team at Almeida Jiu-Jitsu. Barboza is justifiably famous for his kicks, but the bread and butter of his approach has increasingly been his hands, as he works a tight jab and left hook. His combination punching has improved, including a lovely and underrated liver shot, and his defensive head movement and short, tight footwork has allowed him to hold his ground and drive opponents out of his space, where before he might have panicked and abandoned his defense.
I would probably describe Barboza as a rote fighter, but in a relatively positive way. He can still occasionally look a bit puzzled, as though he's not sure what to do in a given situation, but this happens far less frequently than it used to. Plus, there are benefits: needing to know what is the best option in a given situation is something which can be risky, but it also means that there is less risk of the fighter attempting to improvise their way out of a situation with something silly. Instead, Barboza is free to adapt within the framework of a high-end technical game, knowing when he should rely on his fundamentals and when he is free to open up.
David: Barboza is similar in some ways to Khabib - just the striking version. Both fight in the hyperspace of offering variations in an otherwise rudimentary approach to a single preference. Barboza has grown with his striking. Before, he would just slam leg kicks Pete Williams style into his opponent until his coaches could yell ‘timber!’, and compliment his attack template with his quick hands. He always had a slick, piercing right hand. But lately he’s been able to vary his punches with a more active jab, and I still maintain that the rapid development of his left hook is what led to his win over Anthony Pettis. Part of what makes Barboza effectively violent is that he doesn’t attack in one place. He’s constantly resetting, circling out, and pivoting to maintain his positioning. His attack is fairly predictable, which is why he’s been effectively pressured in previous bouts - he wasn’t blown out based on mechanics per se; opponents simply targeted his habits. As he’s refined his habits, though never straying from his general patterns, he’s become a better fighter.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: In the past, I've sometimes felt like Barboza bites a bit *too* hard on takedown attempts. He's so phenomenally good at stopping them that I feel like he could have more confidence in his ability to stop them later. Instead, he tends to attack them early, and he can bite much too hard on feints. Varner got him with the ol' fake double leg into overhand, and Danny Castillo sneaked a clever stepping left hook into his entry which had Barboza on wobbly legs. My untested theory is that Barboza has trained a lot with Frankie Edgar and thus has developed a justifiable fear of being on bottom.
David: You can see how biting down so readily on takedown attempts can benefit Barboza short term. He’ll be fresh, and able to pivot out (in theory) with speed and strength while keeping an attack Khabib won’t easily counter or evade. However, Khabib is particularly good with his feints. Barboza is a strong striker, but he’s not the kind of one-hitter-quitter that can make the most of first round opportunities. In fact, he only has one round-one TKO in the UFC via punches.
David: Khabib’s injuries I guess, and general inactivity. These are pretty useless, however, as a full training camp, regardless of time off, is preparation enough. And Khabib has brilliant cardio naturally. So yea - I’m just filling space here.
Phil: Khabib has made weight, so that's at least one thing checked off the list of "things which could go wrong before he steps in the cage."
David: Barboza checks off a lot of boxes on the “Khabib’s exposed!” list (not that I’d believe this even in a loss): good movement, agility, piercing hitter, reach, and won’t for a second entertain a ground fight. It’s the kind of fight that, if Khabib lost, he would lose badly in. But he’s not a pure enough power puncher to punish Khabib for his shortcomings on the feet. Khabib has some aggressive tendencies to punish too. But once the bout goes into the second round, that life bar will go from yellow-to-red quickly. I totally agree with you about Khabib. But Barboza is both a good upset candidate and not - he has a limited timeframe to be dynamic, but Barboza has only ever been successful when he’s comfortably working on a clock as opposed to being pressured on it. Khabib Nurmagomedov by TKO (punches in crucifix position), round 2.
Phil: As much as I enjoy watching him work, I'm still not entirely sold on Khabib's game. I'm just not that convinced that power wrestling and winging hooks really gets it done in this day and age, but this remains a fascinating matchup for all that. Barboza has shown some very specific frailties in terms of basic physical durability and a vulnerability to takedown feints which Khabib could take advantage of. However, Barboza is also one of the few people in the UFC lightweight division as fast as Khabib, and if he strands Nurmagomedov at distance for any significant period of time, Khabib will be getting chewed up. This is perhaps a philosophical pick more than a confident read on the fight, but Edson Barboza by unanimous decision.