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To catch an Eagle, Part 3: Khabib Nurmagomedov’s tripod & ground control system

In the third part of this series, we examine Khabib’s crushing top game.

In the first part of this series, we focused on Khabib Nurmagomedov’s striking game that enables him to establish a grappling connection and take the fight to the ground. In the second part, we analyzed his pure takedown game and provided some examples of his submission grappling arsenal.

Our main objective in the first three parts of this analysis is to help readers prepare for the fourth and final part: How to beat Khabib.

That being said it’s time to analyze Khabib’s devastating game when pressuring opponents against the cage and when delivering punishment from the tripod or the top position.

Pt. 1: Conceptual framework

Khabib Nurmagomedov’s top game against the cage is based on dominating his opponents by putting them in three positions: the referee’s position/turtle, the tripod and the sitting guard.

This game consists of Khabib applying top pressure by:

A. Using his weight by proper placement of hips/head and leaning forward.

B. Dragging opponents down, hanging on them with gut wrench or low deep waist control.

Here is Khabib, in his own words:

“My plan is to make him flat, make him tired and make him give up.”

- Khabib Nurmagomedov

It is important here to remember two key concepts/terms that were analyzed in the previous two parts of this series: “optionality” and “technical webs”.

Technical Webs

A technical web is a situation during the fight that is very difficult to escape from. It is different from a position in that a web can be a combination of positions. The BJJ mount combined with back control is such a technical web. When trying to escape from the mount, you can get your back taken and when you try to escape from back control you can end up in bottom mount position. When fighting a fighter with a well formulated game, you can get trapped in a never-ending loop, especially when strikes are involved.

Such technical webs are Khabib’s tripod and sitting guard domination games. All individual parts of Khabib’s game interconnect to formulate a complex system of action with enhanced optionality.

Optionality: Why options matter

Optionality: (finance, business) The value of additional optional investment opportunities available only after having made an initial investment. In other words, optionality is the sum value of all new options created by a decision. Likely, the biggest destroyer of optionality is exit potential.

Using the term loosely in MMA analysis, we can use a similar approach to identify the value of moves and strategies. If a move can produce a single outcome, it has no optionality. If it opens up a series of options, then the technique is useful in beating high level competition. Good opponents are not likely to get beat by a single technique, no matter how effective.

Khabib’s game is based on such optionalities. He invests on positions and controls that have all the options available for him and very limited options for his opponent. As you will see in the his top pressure game below, even if he ends up losing the position, Khabib will still be on his feet and in good shape. Gravity does all the work. Even if his opponent manages to escape, he will be exhausted. Khabib will try to take him down again and it will just be easier next time around.

The importance of the cage

Keep in mind that although there are many wrestling counters that can be used to escape the referee’s position or the tripod, most of them cannot be applied in MMA as the cage compromises a fighter’s mobility from the bottom. In other words, Khabib’s opponents are trapped between him and the cage. Another important point is that, in wrestling, the top wrestler cannot lock hands from the top referee’s position, so some escapes do not work on Khabib who is able to connect his hands continuously while applying his superior gripping game.

Fighting against gravity, removing posts and letting opponents build back up.

The problem for the bottom fighters is that they carry Khabib’s weight all the time. In reality, every attempt to stand up using their hands is like doing pushups with Khabib on their back. The Eagle uses leverage to keep his hands locked/connected and can stay there all day if need be. Each successful attempt by his opponents to post an arm ends with Khabib removing a post, breaking them down and forcing them to build back up. This is an exhausting experience.

You can watch below, how the top wrestler can apply pressure:

Using punches and knees to force opponents to remove posts from the ground.

There are two things fighters can do if they are trying to stand up from the turtle or tripod positions: post their arms on the floor or defend strikes. They cannot do both. If Khabib’s opponents have a good base, thus not allowing him to move them, Nurmagomedov punches them. Their head is defenseless because their arms are used for posting and they get hit with punches that they don’t see coming. Opponents are forced to defend and this compromises their base. As a result, Khabib puts them back down.

Pt. 2: Basic positions

Referee Position

Here is the referee’s position:

In the video below you can watch a good way to keep applying pressure from top referee’s position:

Tripod control

Here is the tripod position:

Finally click on the link below to watch wrestling legend Cary Kolat showing several ways to beat the tripod:

Now that we have a conceptual understanding and identified important positions that make Khabib’s game so effective it is time to get more specific.

Pt. 3: A quick overview of Khabib’s top game against the cage

Khabib’s game plan explained in seven photos

  1. Push opponents against the cage:

2. Connect the hands from the back or the side:

3. Make them bend a knee:

UFC; MMA; mixed martial artist; fighter Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

4. Or force them to put the hands down (tripod):

5. Or make them put the hands and at least one knee down. Notice how Khabib is dragging his opponent down and to the side:

6. Put one hook in and try to get the tap.

Khabib Nurmagomedov v Dustin Poirier: UFC Lightweight Championship Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

7. Do so until their only option is to sit down with their back against the cage.

UFC 229: Khabib v McGregor Photo by Hans Gutknecht/Digital First Media/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

8. Repeat all above, transitioning from one position to the other in a never ending loop until you get them to tap or make them lose a decision.

It’s now time to take a quick look at some options from all positions.

Pt. 4: Pushing opponents against the cage (side, tripod, referee position)

The cage is the final destination for most of Khabib’s takedown attempts. If the opponent is able to resist, Khabib will go to low singles as analyzed in the previous part or for low waist control as explained in the examples below.

Once Khabib gets the opponents against the cage, his main priority is to force them to put their hands or knee(s) on the floor. He can do so by controlling the hip with a single-hand low-waist control or by connecting his hands.

We will now provide several examples of Khabib fighting opponents with their sides against the cage. We must note that opponents turn to their sides in order to avoid takedowns.

Double leg takedowns

A double leg takedown is always available when an opponent is with his back, or in this case his side, against the cage and does not have underhooks. In order to counter this, Al Iaquinta in the photos below, tries to go for a switch. Unfortunately for him, switches do not work on Khabib. Dustin Poirier also failed in his switch attempts several times. Khabib’s gripping game is just too strong. He doesn’t let go and his balance enables him to stay on top.

Lift single leg and sweep the other leg

When Khabib can’t finish the single, he just sweeps the other leg.

Back arch throw.

If his opponent tries to stand up, Khabib goes for a back arch throw. Nurmagomedov falls to his side when performing this throw, thus landing his opponent on his shoulder forcing him to turtle.

Here is a similar instructional video. Please click on link, as embeds are disabled for this video:

Freestyle 5 Point Throws: Duck Under Belly to Back Opponent Tripods Throw

Inside hook takedown

Outside hook takedown

Using the knee to block his opponent’s shin and break his balance forward.

In photo 3 below, Khabib uses his knee to put pressure on his opponent’s shin, thus preventing him from adjusting his post. This breaks his balance.

Pulling opponents backwards to take the back

Alternately, Khabib uses his shin to block the opponent’s lower leg and drags him down. In this example, as Conor McGregor sits down, Khabib puts his hooks in:

Pulling opponents to the side

Another option is to unbalance his opponents by pulling them backwards and to the side, following a circular trajectory. He did this repeatedly against Dos Anjos:

Getting a single hook in

Khabib loves getting a leg ride/single hook in. From this position he will either get a tap or force opponents to sit down in order to avoid the choke.

Khabib was able to rear-naked-choke Kamal Shalorus and others from this position:

Getting both hooks in.

Top turtle ground and pound.

In the photo above Khabib transitions to a top turtle ride and unleashes a series of punches. If the opponent tries to go to side control, Nurmagomedov will often remove one hook as described above. This enables him to stay on top.

Pt 5. Attacking the sitting position

Leg triangle from top position

A great way for Nurmagomedov to control opponents is to trap their legs in a leg triangle. Opponents try to push his feet to free themselves and this leaves their face completely unprotected from strikes.

Head-on-chin push

Khabib loves pushing his forehead against his opponents jaw,. This exposes the head to strikes. In the photo above Khabib is about to start removing posts, either by pulling Barboza’s right arm or by lifting Edson’s right knee.

Grabbing the far arm post

Here Khabib grabs Barboza’s arm post while hooking Edson’s left leg and pressuring him against the cage. Nurmagomedov pulls the arm and his opponent is flat again

Leg triangle and far wrist control from the back

Notice how Khabib has a leg triangle control, grabs Barboza’s right elbow post with both his hands and flattens him again. He keeps Edson’s wrist trapped with his right hand from behind and starts delivering punishment. Khabib’s head is also applying pressure. Barboza cannot defend from such a compromised position.

Wrist grab from the front

In this sequence, Khabib controls Barboza’s right wrist with his right hand from the front while applying forehead pressure. This enables him to punch Edson with his free hand.

Hiding the head under the armpit

A great way to deliver punches that the opponents cannot see coming is to place your head under their armpit. This limits their defending hand’s range of motion making it very difficult for them to defend. In the photo above Khabib also has wrist control from the back, thus preventing Michael Johnson from building back up.

Body-lock trapping opponent’s arm

In this final example, Khabib is able to connect his hands, thus trapping Poirier’s arm and pushes him down.

Final words: “Let’s wrestle. Your wrestling is zero, your grappling is zero. I am going to maul you.” Here is Khabib explaining to Conor McGregor what will happen in their fight :

That will be all for now. In our next post we will continue with some effective ways to counter Khabib’s game and suggest ways to beat him. Spoiler alert: technique alone will probably not get the job done.

For a list of my previous technique breakdowns on Bloody Elbow, check out this link.

About the Author: Kostas Fantaousakis is a researcher of fighting concepts, tactics, and techniques, and a state-certified MMA, grappling, and wrestling coach in Greece. He teaches his unique Speedforce MMA mittwork system © which combines strikes, takedowns, knees, and elbows applied in the Continuous Feedback © mittwork system of the Mayweather family. Kostas is a black belt in BJJ under MMA veteran and BJJ world champion Wander Braga (the teacher of Gabriel Napao Gonzaga).