Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov headlines UFC 229 this October 6, 2018 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
One sentence summary
David: Rocky IV: the Irish Edition
Phil: Striker vs grappler, great fighter and annoying fanbase edition
Record: Conor McGregor 21-3 | Khabib Nurmagomedov 26-0
Odds: Conor McGregor +165 | Khabib Nurmagomedov -175
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Two years later, and the man with the stupid black jokes but great punches is back. I watch Dana White’s McGregor vs. Mayweather press conference Gruden-faced intro at least once a week during bad weeks (like this week). So needless to say, I’m just a little bit happier. This is sports. Where politics has no place, nor has ever had a place...in...sports...anyway, nothing like watching graceful violence to get the blood pumping. And Conor is one of the most violent draws in the sport. The Mayweather fight was a fun, and I enjoyed previewing it with you. But I honestly hope that never happens again. Playtime is over. McGregor belongs in a cage (figuratively, of course, although technically literally), and I’m 100 percent here for this.
Phil: It’s hard to remember all this, but back when Khabib first came to the UFC, people were worried that he was a hype job, a can crusher. This was before the Dagestani wave, back when you looked at his record and saw a bunch of multisyllabic names that he dominated out in short order. Would he be able to make it past Kamal Shalorus, Iranian Wrestling Silver Medallist (citation needed) who had dick-kicked Jamie Varner to a draw? As it turned out, the answer was... er, yes. Like McGregor, Nurmagomedov was someone who picked up wins (most notably RDA) that have looked better over time, and with the exception of that Tibau fight, he’s dominated every opponent put in front of him. Unfortunately, time has also lent exposure to the fact that he isn’t just a comedy Russian with a funny accent, good put-downs and a cool hat. He is an extraordinarily serious and religious individual, from a place of casual violence. There are some serious cultural barriers at work here. Those aren’t likely to decrease once the crazy furor of the fight itself dies down.
David: Khabib is an interesting contender. On the surface, his profile is a little odd; aggressive wrestler who wins fights wrestling aggressively. It feels a little outdated, which is why the matchup feels so ‘classic’, for lack of a better word. But Khabib has proven himself more than worthy. He’s also proven himself problematic. Which makes him the ideal contender in the UFC’s mafioso-esque world. The best part is that Khabib is exactly the kind of fighter who will either make Conor look really good, or really bad. I don’t feel like there’s an in-between outcome, which is part of what makes the buildup so damn exciting.
Phil: Conor McGregor is back, and richer than ever. In the time since he’s been away, the UFC’s fortunes have been... mixed. They nailed a reasonable new TV deal, but PPV numbers have been tanking and they haven’t even had Jon Jones to bail them out. Attempts to get the lightweight division rolling in the interim were probably at least partially also an attempt to lure McGregor back into the octagon, which honestly probably only made things worse. McGregor’s enthusiasm-fuelled rampage which ended with him pitching the dolly into the bus did double duty in serving as excellent promotional material and providing some leverage to get him back in the cage. Whether it was to rehabilitate his image, or for the challenge, or because he just likes fighting and money, MMA’s biggest star is back.
What’s at stake?
David: Alas, a fight where this section doesn’t feel shoehorned, or just an opportunity to crack jokes (now that I’m reading your reply below: I stand corrected). Obviously, the fight has bigger stakes than usual. One of my favorite stakes is the slew of “Conor was overrated” hot takes that will undoubtedly come out if Conor loses. It’ll have some legs due to Conor’s inactivity, but it’ll be undercut by the same overnight legend status logic that fuels stuff like “Conor is the GOAT.” In other words, who cares. These are two of the world’s best fighters at the top of their game. This is the fight business (!). And the fight business doesn’t bring these around too often.
Phil: Due to the ridiculous style disparity at work, one aspect about this fight has to get repeated ad nauseam, and we’re going to have to reiterate it again: the fight is hard to pick, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be competitive. Whoever gets their game rolling first is likely to crush the other guy, which means that unfortunately, one of the two most annoying MMA fanbases around is going to be trumpeting about how (Conor / Khabib) doesn’t actually have any weaknesses, and is completely invincible. What happens to the fighters themselves is more interesting: how does Khabib deal with a loss, particularly a one-sided one? Can McGregor finagle himself an instant rematch, or does he chase weird money fights like Anderson Silva, GSP, and Logan Paul?
Where do they want it?
David: Khabib is a pressure fighter who brings layers to his fight game that allow him to function as more than a pressure fighter. Because we’re so good with heuristics, we’re often bad at real analysis (the royal we). A counter fighter can pressure just as a pressure fighter can counter. Khabib draws from a lot of different traits and abilities to walk down opponents. The threat of the takedown provokes certain reactions, but it’s Khabib’s ability to work a piecemeal striking game that allows him to pressure in phases. As someone who picked Barboza to beat him (go ahead and get your laughs out now), I never fully appreciated this aspect of Khabib’s game until then. Part of it is aesthetic; Khabib doesn’t look like a natural striker. He’ll wing wide looping shots with his head down, doesn’t jab as much as you’d want, and doesn’t show much in the way of head movement. But like someone who’s smart with money, he fights within his means, saving strikes and movements to cash in on the real prize; winning. There’s always a concerted effort by Khabib to focus his attack toward the goal of gripping his opponent for a clinch, or outright takedown. Once on the ground, I don’t think there’s a better fighter than Khabib on top. We’re past the point of defining jiu jitsu as the highest form of Maslow’s Octagon of Ground Needs. On top, Khabib’s strength turns run of the mill positioning into a vice; tightening the opponent’s life force (great movie) with raw positioning, leather, and tactics. There’s just no one like him.
Phil: Khabib is often characterized wholly as a pressure fighter, but I feel like this somewhat misses his ability to fight moving both forwards and backwards. In the Healy and RDA fights, he was able to fight off the back foot by drawing the pressuring fighters forward, then blasting them off their feet. We see a lot of his entries as being quick, almost powerless shots which he primarily uses to get his hands on his opponents, but it’s well worth remembering that he has a powerful double leg in his arsenal as well. In general the depth of his grappling game remains oddly underplayed: much like GSP, we see so much of his top control that the brief moments when he’s been on bottom position in fights have been forgotten. That being said, he fights for hooks, sweeps and gets back up (Tibau) or has a very typically Sambist sprint-grappling submission game (chaining together triangle, mount and mounted armbar in quick succession on Trujillo). He truly is a phenom once he has his hands on his opponent.
How he gets there is something of another question. He doesn’t have much of a reliable level change mixup, and instead tends to rely on his blazing speed to do a lot of the heavy lifting. He’s always moving his head on the entry, and is sneakily difficult to hit clean, but his shots are not typically very well disguised: mostly a leaping left hook or right uppercut. The ability to convert tiny grips into full takedown chains and a round full of unbreakable top control makes trying to counter those wild shots a terrifying proposition, however.
It’s hard not to think that his footwork and defense won’t come back to bite him at some point, though. It’s improved, as has his general comfort in striking exchanges, but he crosses his feet, leans out over his punches, and follows opponents around rather than cutting them off.
David: Despite looking like sworn enemies, I have no doubt that McGregor has fashioned some of his game after Pretty Boy Floyd. One of the things that makes Floyd one of the best in his era is the way he leads with his money punch. It’s why his right hand (the money) always lands: because it’s setup by a variety of different punches: jab, jab to the body, left hook, etc. McGregor excels with a similar philosophy. The straight left (the money) always lands because he sets it up with a right jab, left to the body, front kick, spinning back kick, etc. It’s also why countering him or launching preemptive strikes don’t work. He keeps his left chambered at all times. Eddie Alvarez and Chad Mendes were basically slaughtered by it, and had no answer (especially Eddie; at least Mendes scored some takedowns and sometimes caught him with a left hook). His boxing makes him an ideal pressure fighter: versatile moving forward, and just as adept moving back. Ideal is not synonymous with perfect, though. He gets hit a lot, but only because it’s a basic risk analysis; his chin is good enough that the risk of being caught outweigh the benefit of catching his opponent.
In this fight, the real issue will be how he handles Khabib’s top control. McGregor’s ground game is quietly...well, excellent. His wrestling is a little rote, but his strength overcomes some of the flaws that would otherwise stand out (someone like Pettis would be elite if he had Conor’s raw strength). But from a pure submission perspective, this is a fighter who mounted Max Holloway (himself underrated in this regard), and generally has some gifted survival-jitsu: twisting and rolling out of danger with speed and agility. I’ll expand on this in the insights section, but the general point remains — Conor is a quality mixed martial artist from the belly button on down (and above, of course).
Phil: For all his vaunted punching power and the mental games and all the other stuff which people yak on endlessly about McGregor, I think his most impressive gift is somewhat underplayed: he is the quickest starter I think we’ve ever seen in this sport. Almost everyone else needs some warming up time, particularly when they have games built around technique and accuracy, but McGregor is one of the few fighters to have a deep, complex game which functions at 100% efficiency right from the starting bell. Immediately, he forces his opponents into guessing situations which they’re just not ready for this early: get pushed back into the fence, or throw back. Face this snapping, arrhythmic left hand, or this front kick to this body, or this lead jab, or throw back. When they throw back, his opponents then get hurt very, very badly by that left hand.
This comes with some caveats. This level of focus just can’t be maintained for 25 minutes. 7-8 seems to be about it. He can recover (Diaz II), but it’s never quite at that same insane level of laser focus. He’s also not the world’s most phenomenal defensive wrestler. He has a good sprawl, and tends to post and punch, shoving opponents down bodily by the neck as they change levels, but he doesn’t have the experience to deal with opponents who get in on a shot then shift angles. The flaws as much as the strengths make this a fascinating one: were McGregor a Whittaker, whose striking was complemented by a fantastic gas tank and bulletproof wrestling defense, he would be an easy pick. Similarly, were Khabib less defensively vulnerable, if he had a safer and better put-together entry game then he’d be a near-lock.
Insight from past fights
David: I’m looking at the grappling scrambles in McGregor’s bouts with Mendes and Diaz. Against Mendes — no slouch in terms of top control — McGregor was able to twist out of danger with success. Against Diaz — one of the best technical grapplers in the sport — Nate was able to immediately read Conor’s counter movement by sliding his forearm across Conor’s chest to prevent the rollout. Granted, Conor was tired and hurt at this point. Which begs the question: who is Khabib closer to? Mendes or Diaz?
I’d argue, neither. Khabib’s technique is not as refined as Nate’s from a purely technical view, but it’s also much more nuanced than Mendes (whose grappling is more wrestling-influenced, and lacks creativity). Basically, if Conor can rollout of danger, he can probably execute a gameplan long enough to catch Khabib with the perfect shot. If he can’t, the fight looks a lot closer to the Mendes portions of the fight where Mendes was able to cut through McGregor’s guard. Which makes this fight endlessly fascinating.
Phil: Neither of these guys have fought men who are remotely analogous to the man in front of him, with the possible (and not particularly useful) exception of Michael Johnson’s bout with Nurmagomedov. This fight seems to be a Rorschach inkblot for people to read stuff into: if you like Khabib, then he proved that he can have some trouble against a striker, then adjust and obliterate him. If you like Conor, then Khabib showed that he can be hit by left hands, and therefore has no chance.
One of the more interesting facts about it, though, is that one solution which people have found to McGregor’s pressure game is to put the double forearms up and walk him down. Once that left hand is thrown, McGregor needs to reset, and he is typically not that great at it. Mayweather and Diaz are not similar fighters, but they both figured that out in their bouts with him. However, Conor also knocked Poirier out by punching him behind the ear against a forearm guard, and Khabib was hurt by Johnson when he had the earmuffs on. It’s rarely as simple as it looks, basically.
David: Cardio. I’m not confident in either fighter’s ability to fight moving back. On the one hand, Conor just doesn’t have elite cardio; somewhat by design, as he initiates heavy exchanges from jump street. On the other, it’d be silly to question Khabib’s gas tank, but it’s not silly to question what happens to his footwork once the takedowns aren’t always there, and the punches are getting through.
Phil: I expect the mind games and the high stakes and whatnot to have zero effect on either man. None. They are just not those dudes.
David: I have no clue. I don’t feel like Khabib is gonna be put down with one shot right out the gate like Aldo. Which means he’s getting at least one takedown in the first round. And I think what he lacks in dynamite submissions like Diaz, he makes up for in technique, and strength. I see this bout looking like the portions of the fight Mendes had the advantage, just with less huffing and puffing from the grappler. I’m not at all confident in the pick. Conor’s counter left is the best in the business, which is the real key to the standup portion. But that’s what makes the matchup fun. The fight will be won on exploiting a major weakness. In those broad terms, whose weakness has more ways to be exploited? I could see an argument being made for Conor, but since I never pick Khabib, I’ll stop doubting him for one night. Khabib Nurmagomedov by Decision.
Phil: I think when this fight was first booked, I would have favoured Khabib. As time has moved on, I’ve shifted away from that a little. In part, I am just not sure how Khabib attacks safely. His pressure footwork is largely based around circling and chasing, and Conor was able to turn Diaz (a slower but more fundamentally sound fighter) onto shots. If Khabib tries the RDA / Healy approach and goes for counter takedowns, he likely puts himself into the fence, where Conor is simply too accurate and too offensively diverse to be able to hang out safely. I fear that whoever wins, it’s going to be fairly one-sided, but I deeply hope for something back and forth, something like the Mendes fight. With that in mind, and with some hope for a good fight and not a meme-friendly mauling either way Conor McGregor by TKO, round 3.