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To catch an Eagle, Part 4: Beating Khabib’s striking game

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In the fourth part of this series we will provide several tips that can help fighters beat a dominant fighter like Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Author’s note: this was originally scheduled to be a single article, but due to space requirements, the grappling section will be posted in the next and final part.

In the first parts of this series we analyzed Khabib’s striking, wrestling/submission game and his tripod and ground control system.

Here are the links:

Pt 1: striking

Pt 2: wrestling & submission game

Pt 3: tripod & ground control system

It is now time to provide some ways to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov. This is by no means an article dismissing Khabib’s legacy. Quite the contrary: fighters that get a “how to beat” series by the author are active fighters that are GOAT candidates. The only other fighter that was featured in a “how to beat” series here on Bloody Elbow was Jon Jones.

That being said, let’s start analyzing.

How good fighters eventually lose

It is important to note that when seemingly unbeatable fighters get to (eventually) lose, it often happens due to an event that can be described as a “Black Swan”, an unpredictable outlier event. An example of this, is Anderson Silva, a Muay Thai fighter, breaking his leg when a former wrestler in Chris Weidman blocked his low kick.

After such a Black Swan event has taken place, sports writers and commentators alike, have the (natural) human tendency to find simplistic explanations for the outcome, retrospectively. MMA is full of Black Swan outcomes.

So yes, dominant fighters can lose when they get attacked by a devastating random or unpredictable action initiated by their opponents. This applies to striking even more than grappling. To quote Georges St-Pierre “striking is like flipping a coin.” Watch the Matt Serra fight and you will understand what he means. Grappling outcomes tend to be more predictable.

Sometimes, though, fighters lose because their opponents (and their coaches) have done their homework by studying fight footage and have designed and implemented a well formulated game plan in order to beat them. The more fighters get to compete, the more likely it is that somebody will find a way to beat them.

And then, there is a third route to victory. This route exists when Black Swans (unpredictable events) meet proper preparation and game-planning. Proper training, enhances the ability of fighters to thrive under unpredictable situations. It can be summarized in the (modified) phrase: “the smarter and harder I train, the luckier I get.” This is a combination of luck and preparation that can be described as being in a fluid state of mental and physical preparation, at the time when a Black Swan takes place. This is when the ability to identify opportunities meets the well-trained ability to seize them. To quote Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.”

A final reason why great fighters lose is a combination of age and injuries. The more you fight, the older you get and injuries tend to accumulate. Yes, experience is also gained when one fights for a long time but MMA is a young person’s sport.

These fight ending factors are important and need to be examined before we focus on Khabib as an individual fighter who has the ability to thrive under chaotic situations and come on top.

UFC 242: Khabib v Poirier Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The main challenge when studying Khabib’s game

In order to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov, fighters have to study situations where he was somewhat exposed. He still won those fights, which means opponents can only get small pieces of the puzzle that worked for different people and with different skills.

It seems like a contradiction to try to figure out how to beat a fighter by using tactics from fighters he already beat. That is why analyzing past fights is only part of solving the Gordian knot that is Khabib. To beat an unorthodox fighter, opponents may need to think outside the box and use unorthodox tactics themselves.

Nurmagomedov has great cardio and is a five round fighter. He stays busy and as is often said in boxing, he makes the investments in the early rounds and collects the interest later. His alternating grappling and striking exchanges make opponents extremely tired. Usually, if the fight makes it to the last round, Khabib’s opponents are exhausted from carrying his weight and thus can barely use their footwork and their defense. This breaks them mentally.

In every fight, Nurmagomedov gets busy early in order to:

  1. Win every round on the scorecards using high volume striking and grappling exchanges.
  2. Be the fresher fighter at the beginning of every round by controlling the pace of the fight.
  3. Try to finish the fight at every given opportunity while continuing to press the action in case of a failed attempt at a finish.
  4. Ensure complete and utter dominance.

The problem for his opponents is that Khabib goes from chaotic striking exchanges to a fight-ending-mode on the ground, in an unexpected fashion. An opponent may be trying to match him strike for strike, like in a point fighting match, then without warning, Nurmagomedov will go for a takedown and end the fight in a brutal dominating fashion.

Khabib takes opponents to a dark place during the championship rounds, if they allow him to lead the pace.

The key to beating Khabib

A fighter who gets to survive a five round war against Khabib will only get his hand raised if he is able to push the pace and lead. He will have to mix takedowns or the threat of takedowns with effective, technically sound, offensive strikes. The best game-plan to beat Nurmagomedov in standing exchanges is to follow Georges St-Pierre’s blueprint of fight domination which is: fighting from a distance, threatening with takedowns and keeping opponents guessing by pressing the action. This type of game is not based on reacting or counter-striking but on taking initiatives. The author has analyzed GSP’s game in detail here.

It is now time to get more specific and provide several examples of situations and techniques that can be used to expose Khabib’s weaknesses.

Part 1: Beating Khabib in striking exchanges

Before we proceed with our breakdown, we must make clear that although Khabib does not use proper form in his striking (offensively or defensively), he is very explosive, vicious, fast and surprisingly accurate. This seems to be more due to his tenacity as a competitor, his natural sport-specific attributes and is not necessarily the product of technical training. Khabib also has a great chin.

Sambo striking is not as refined as boxing or Muay Thai but can be very effective when combined with takedowns.

Tip #1: Proper stance when fighting Khabib

The proper “base of operations” for all of Khabib’s future opponents should be a low stance that is able to combine proper use of the jab, the ability to sprawl and get underhooks. You can examine such a stance below as demonstrated by Kevin Lee and Al Iaquinta.

Khabib’s relentless game makes opponents fight tall and this compromises their ability to defend takedowns and strike with power by getting leverage from the ground.

Tip #2: Use offensive elbows and knees against Khabib

When fighting Khabib, the use of elbows and knees can make a ton of difference. Khabib has a solid chin and mostly defends by running backwards or ducking under. Elbows and knees can help break tough opponents like him and it is also difficult to see these strikes coming. Here are three examples of aggressively mixing elbows with punches:

Elbow Example #1

In this sequence Carlos Condit pressures Neil Magny against the cage and mixes things up with a beautiful combination: left hook, liver punch, right head grab to left upwards elbow, right elbow. This is a diverse set of moves and is effective because it is unpredictable.

Elbow Example #2

This is a simple but underutilized move. Julio Arce, from a southpaw stance, attacks with a right jab and, as Dan Ige crouches under, follows up with a left elbow. Spear and upwards elbows are a great alternative to uppercuts unless you are fighting a wrestler. Uppercuts work better against wrestlers as they can help you go for underhooks. Although illegal in boxing, boxers often use “disguised” elbows and headbutts to avoid or force clinches.

Knee Technique Example #1

Sergio Pettis lands a left jab. He follows with a second left hand but this time he lifts his left hand up, making Brandon Moreno believe that a second left jab is coming. This forces Moreno to duck under and enables Sergio to land a left knee. The best way to land strikes is to set them up with other attacks, fake or real. You can also mix feints and real attacks in order to keep your opponent guessing.

Knee Technique Example #2

Jessica Rose-Clark attacks with a jab, a fake right cross and a right low-kick. As Bec Rawlings attacks with a jab and a right cross, Jessica catches her with a switch left knee to the liver and a left hook.

Tip: Protect your head when going for a knee without controlling the opponent in a clinch.

Additional resources: Here are some videos to help you improve your left switch knees.

Knee Technique Example #3

Felipe Arantes uses great knee attacks against Josh Emmett. Here Emmett attacks with a jab and Arantes counters with a switch and a left knee while extending his guard up for safety. He concludes his attack with a left hand, right cross and a left high kick. A well-timed left knee can work wonders against incoming punches. I would prefer to attack with a right overhand after the knee, as Emmett crouches to block the knee and inevitably has to lift his head to get back into position which would make his face move towards the right hand.

Tip 3: Use knees to the head as Khabib charges forward.

As you can see in the two following sequences, both Tibau and Barboza were able to use right knees against a charging-forward Nurmagomedov. Gleison seemed to connect pretty well whereas Barboza missed with his attempt.

Tip 4: Use Conor’s Karate-style front kick.

I do not consider Conor McGregor to be a great kicker. I have to admit that I am biased as I love Thai-style kicks whereas Conor uses modified Karate-style kicks. That being said, I love his left straight snap kick to the belly. He was able to catch Khabib several times with this kick. Please notice that McGregor lands low and uses no telegraphing motion. This is not a Muay Thai style teep kick.

Note: I use this kick in mittwork sessions and I catch everyone as it is difficult to see the kick coming.

Tip 5: Use left round kicks

Khabib is vulnerable to left round kicks. This includes the inside left kick and the left kick to the body. On the other hand, he is able to block left high kicks pretty well.

The reason that the lower left kicks are the weapons of choice here, is because Khabib has the tendency of dropping his hands low in an attempt to catch the foot. This leaves the door open for opponents to attack with superman punches or right hands. We should also remind our readers that left kicks to the liver are fight-ending moves. You can see some examples below. Look at Khabib’s hands:

In the following photos, Edson Barboza connects with a left kick to the liver but fails to do damage. Sometimes, it takes a couple of inches in order to land a strike at the right spot and get the job done.

Tip 6: Threaten with left kicks and land superman punches

Once the threat of the left front or round kick has been established, whenever opponents see the left foot moving, they tend to lower their guard, and this leaves them open to superman punches. Below you can see how Georges St-Pierre applies such a punch. You can also notice that after the superman punch lands, Matt Serra launches a right hand but Georges is able to duck under and land a right low kick.

Tip 7: Use left uppercuts, left elbows, knees or kicks to follow-up right hands.

In the next sequence, Dustin Poirier lands a right hand and follows-up with a left hook. Khabib is able to duck under the incoming hook.

Nurmagomedov usually leans back in order to avoid punches and this enables him to escape follow-up hooks by retreating or ducking under. Due to that, I believe that left uppercuts can be more effective and they can also prevent takedowns if executed correctly. This is because the arm remains low and can be used as an underhook to prevent a takedown.

Left-upwards elbows, left middle kicks and knees can also get the job done. Any attack that can catch Khabib as he is ducking under will do.

Tip 8: Use body punches instead of attacking the head.

Khabib, like many other fighters who are lucky enough to have a solid chin, does not like getting hit by body punches. These punches are a good way to make him retreat. McGregor and others were successful in attacking Nurmagomedov’s body several times. A straight right hand to the stomach from a southpaw stance seems to be very effective as you can see in the three photos below.

How do I know that Khabib does not like getting hit to the body? Like Conor, Khabib either pauses when opponents attack his body or he shoots for a takedown. Another thing you must notice is how low Khabib drops his hands when he gets punched in the body.

A jab to the body can also be a good option. You can see below how Barboza is able to land a jab to Khabib’s belly. Khabib’s “stand-tall” Sambo stance enables this.

Body punches have a certain effect on fighters. Opponents seem to be fine when the strikes land until they get past a limit of damage taken. This is when their ability to fight gets compromised. As mentioned above, old-school boxing trainers would often say that with body punches, “you invest early and collect interest in the later rounds”. Worst case scenario, body punches that land, count as strikes landed and help a fighter win rounds.

Another benefit is, that during these punches, the punching hands are low enough in order to get underhooks. Please remember that Khabib shoots for takedowns hard when he is being pressured.

As you can see in the sequence below, Khabib’s defense is not as effective when it comes to body punches. He is pretty efficient in slipping or ducking-under head punches but fighters can land left and right combos on his ribs without encountering too much resistance from him.

Tip 9: Attack when he moves backwards with his back against the cage

In photos 1-3 above you can see how Khabib moves to his left with his chin-up when he is pressured with his back against the cage.

In the following photos you can see how an opponent can land on Nurmagomedov with a right hook to the body (photos 4-6) or a right hook to the head (photos 7-9). Khabib is able to get away with this style of defense because he can retreat fast. This does not mean that a good boxer will not be able to time this pattern of movenent.

An opponent should preferably go for the right body shot as this is the target that is easier to land on Khabib and this will make him drop his hands.

As an example of this, in the sequence below, Conor tried to catch Khabib and barely missed.

Tip 10: Countering Khabib’s lead left hook

Khabib likes to attack with a lead left hand. This is a move that is easy to counter, but Khabib hides it behind his takedown attempts. This means that opponents often think he is trying to shoot for a takedown and don’t expect a hook coming their way instead.

Khabib swings hard, there is no economy of motion in his technique so he often gets out of position. Gleison Tibau was somewhat successful in countering the left hand. Here are two examples

Counter #1: Straight left from a southpaw stance

Counter #2: Right hand over the top

Khabib was able to duck under this one. A follow up left uppercut could get the job done.

An orthodox opponent can just roll-under and come up with a right hand or a takedown.

Here is a basic instructional on countering the left hook from an orthodox stance:

I also recommend using elbow counters and foot sweeps as in the video below:

As we examined above, body punches are always a very good option when fighting Khabib. Here is a great instructional video using left hooks to the body in order to counter left hooks:

Tip 11: Duck under Khabib’s left hook as he is moving to his left.

Let’s combine the two scenarios above. If Khabib throws a left hook AND is moving to his left with his back against the cage, a good boxer can roll under the hook and catch him with a right hook from a semi-southpaw position.

A good clip to study is Quinton Jackson’s KO of Chuck Liddell back in UFC 71:

Tip 12: Countering Khabib’s lead overhand rights.

Khabib loves throwing lead overhand rights and he leaves himself wide open after the punch.

Many fighters tried to (unsuccessfully) capitalize on this.

Here is southpaw Conor McGregor trying to come over the top and barely missing with a left overhand.

Below is southpaw Gleison Tibau with a right hook and left cross. Tibau is able to connect in this specific example:

Here is an example from an orthodox-stance with Al Iaquinta. Khabib (barely) misses with a right and Al is able to counter with a right hand of his own.

In conclusion I feel that a good boxer can catch Khabib after an overhand right. A right kick may also be an alternative way to do it. I have provided an extensive analysis of the overhand right and a large number of counters here and here.

In order to demonstrate how to use knees and elbows when countering overhand rights here are two examples:

Countering with an elbow

In this classic sequence, Mark Munoz launches an overhand right as Chris Weidman crouches and catches him with a crushing overhand elbow. This is one of the most devastating counters to an overhand right I have ever seen. The good thing with this counter is that if the elbow fails to connect, the takedown is right there for the taking.

Keep in mind that, in Thailand, if you attack with an elbow you will get attacked with an elbow yourself so your opposite hand should be in place, preferably your forehead to absorb the blow. Also, in Thai boxing, elbows are considered to be blades, and knees are hammers. Elbows are more useful in cutting opponents than delivering knockouts. Knees on the other hand are great knockout tools. In self defense, however, elbows are not as effective as advertised when used by smaller individuals.

Countering with a knee

In this counter Daan Duijs lands a right shin kick (or knee) to the head of Marciano Lantinga. Please notice that the overhand right lands on Duijs’ left forearm. Keeping your left hand up when you launch a right knee is always a good idea. Clip via Caposa (@Grabaka_Hitman) on Twitter

Tip 13: Countering Khabib’s lead uppercuts

As I mentioned in the previous parts of this series, Khabib uses lead left and right uppercuts in order to close the distance. This forces opponents to pull their chin up high in order to avoid the punch and enables Nurmagomedov to shoot underneath for a takedown.

Here are some counters that were somewhat successful against him.

In the clip below, Pat Healy pulls back and catches Khabib with a left hook that lands with the forehand and makes him lose balance. A right uppercut or a right kick/knee (not a right straight hand) would be a great follow up attack.

In the example below against Kamal Shalorus please notice in photo 2 how much Khabib telegraphs the move by pulling his hand back and in photo 3, how high the uppercut goes. Kamal is able to land a right hand in this sequence.

Here is Kamal again countering the right uppercut with a left hook and a right hand:

Finally, in the following clip, Khabib attacks with a lead left uppercut and is countered with a left hook and a right hand. Kamal is not a polished striker and that is why Khabib is able to survive his counter-punches.

Khabib has, of course, improved a lot in his striking since his UFC debut against Kamal Shalorus back in UFC on FX: Guillard vs. Miller but he still has wild moments of striking and a good opponent should be able to catch him.

Here is a basic instructional on how to counter the right uppercut from an orthodox stance:

Another option is to counter the right uppercut with a left kick to the body.

In the following sequence Rafael dos Anjos is in a southpaw stance and Khabib closes the distance with a jab followed by a right uppercut. Dos Anjos connects with a left kick to the body.

That will be all for now. In our next post we will continue with several ways that opponents can use in order to survive Khabib’s devastating grappling game.

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).