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To catch an Eagle, part 5: Surviving Khabib’s grappling

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In the final part of this series we will analyze how fighters can counter Khabib’s devastating grappling game.

Last week, we analyzed how to beat Khabib’s striking game. In this (final) post we will analyze how to counter Khabib’s grappling.

Khabib has been a dominant fighter in the UFC and it’s not just because he is a very talented and well trained competitor.

Nurmagomedov is lucky in a sense, because the lightweight division is not dominated by wrestlers like at welterweight. Khabib has been fighting one striker after the other. In order to beat Khabib’s game you need wrestling, not just Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and certainly not just striking. I am not saying that he cannot get knocked out or submitted, but in order to counter his wrestling, one needs to employ high level counter-wrestling.

The importance of a wrestling and a counter-wrestling background.

We have a saying in Greece: “There is a difference between the eyes of the rabbit and the eyes of the owl”. This means that just because two individuals have the same tools at their disposal, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are as effective in using them.

Just because a BJJ coach teaches a beginner how to break the posture of another beginner that doesn’t mean that the same technique will work against a champion like Roger Gracie. On the other hand Roger, a legendary submission grappler, can use that same fundamental technique and break the posture of a high level black belt.

Effective techniques do exist but any such technique can only be as effective as the individual who is able to and knows how to apply it at the right moment. Timing, ability and talent have to coexist when competing at a high level.

In order to beat Khabib one has to have wrestling cardio (not striking cardio) and the ability to get off his back and out of bad positions for five rounds. In order to do so, it is important to have some kind of wrestling background.

The importance of simplicity

Khabib’s game is simple yet effective, and trainers should also train fighters to use simple tactics in order to beat him. There are no magic solutions. To beat a good fighter, you need to beat them consistently, sequence after sequence.

This is a fundamental concept in fighting. “Experts” often dismiss simple concepts in search of sophisticated ones that can impress their peers. It is important here to understand Occam’s razor or law of parsimony: “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity,” AKA “the simplest solution is most likely the right one.” When presented with competing hypotheses that make the same predictions, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions.

This is an important concept in fighting. Complex grappling techniques are difficult to apply at a high pace and especially when strikes are involved. I strongly believe that the seemingly simple and ‘obvious’ tips listed below can make a ton of difference when fighting a fighter like Nurmagomedov.

“In harms way”

In order to beat good fighters one should be able to put them “in harms way” while at the same time staying themselves out of harms way.

So ask yourself this: how can one put Khabib in harms way? Answer: it will probably not be via submissions from the bottom or by fighting him with your back against the cage.

Submission attempts can be effective against him, but he has been, so far, able to turn the tables and get on top. The most probable way to beat Khabib is in striking exchanges. But in order to do so, fighters need to be smart and stay away from his strengths.

Lessons to be learned from studying Khabib’s past fights

Those who study risk management in fighting must keep this in mind: it is often impossible to predict what will work but it is way easier to understand what can be disastrous. In other words it is easier for coaches to identify what will not work against naturally gifted opponents than what will work.

The problem is that talented fighters can sometimes survive against competitors with a higher level of technique using natural, sports-related attributes like strength, speed or stamina. A boxer that can take damage will take the punishment from a perfectly executed counter, close the distance and knock opponents out. When 5-round cardio is involved, the fighter with the better cardio, not necessarily the one with the higher level of technique, will probably win the fight.

What I am trying to say here is that all the tips provided below, cannot be easily applied against a durable and tested champion like Nurmagomedov. You need high level competitors to make these tips work.

Another problem is that these tips are mostly based on Khabib’s past performances. Just because something worked on Khabib in the past, that does not mean the same move will work all the time or ever again. These moves may or may not be indicative of bad habits or weaknesses. And keep in mind that great fighters improve all the time. On the other hand they also get worse due to injuries.

Great athletes are unique in that they make adjustments during fights in order to avoid failing again or at least manage to fail less often. When Conor McGregor fought Floyd Mayweather, he was able to catch Floyd with a couple of punches, and that is a big feather in his cap. But Mayweather is one of the greatest boxers all of time for a reason. Great fighters are antifragile, they can overcome surprises and make adjustments. So Floyd was able to adjust to Conor’s unorthodox style and thus beat him.

To summarize, just because fighters have a couple of good moments against great opponents that doesn’t mean that they get to beat them. Unless of course we have the occurrence of a black swan event, and these are not that rare in a complex sport like MMA where you slip left when you should have moved right and you get knocked out or submitted.

How to survive Khabib’s grappling in 19 tips.

There are 25 photo sequences listed below in 19 tips. In order to save space and time all descriptions are shorter than usual. All sequences have at least one photo including the time and number of the round. This is done in order to enable you to study the clips on Fight Pass.

This post will conclude with the author’s short prediction regarding the three fighters who have the tools needed in order to beat Khabib .

So let’s get started.

Tip #1: Be ready to sprawl from a distance.

If you sprawl in order to stop Khabib’s takedown attempts, you need to do so from a distance. Here is Al Iaquinta with a successful defense. Please notice how Al uses his hands (photo 3) to push Khabib’s shoulders away. Of course, this is is an ideal scenario and is easier said than done.

Tip #2: When sprawling, be prepared to avoid uppercuts.

Even if you manage to sprawl effectively, please be aware that Khabib has the ability to go back to his feet very fast and catch opponents with uppercuts. Kamal Shalorus found out the hard way a couple of times.

Example #1

Example #2

Tip #3: Learn to escape Khabib’s back control in order to avoid slams and his tripod game.

Khabib’s opponents need to be able to counter Khabib’s bear hug (back control by locking hands around the waist). A simple yet effective technique is Cain Velasquez’s counter when he fought Brock Lesnar. Here is the sequence.

Notice how in photo 2, Cain breaks Lesnar’s grip pushing downwards, starts running away using left wrist control (photo 4) and his right elbow (photo 5) in order to cut the corner and face Brock.

Here is a very informative instructional:

Tip #4: Use Granby rolls

Abel Trujilo was successful in escaping Khabib’s back control using modified Granby rolls. He was able to do so several times.

Example #1

Example #2

Example #3

Here is a highlight of Granby rolls and various kinds of modified rolls that are often used in MMA in order to escape slams and back takes:

Here are two basic tutorials:

And below are two extended ones:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fABRN8aDG2g

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CWO02mLQAs

Tip #5: Al Iaquinta’s “kick-out” single-leg defense

Khabib loves going for low single leg takedowns and a “kick-out” is the the only counter that seems to be successful in countering them. In the sequences below, please notice how Al keeps pushing Khabib’s head to check the distance and keep his balance. In order to do this correctly, turn your knee and move as if you are kneeing an opponent behind you.

Here is another sequence:

Below, you can watch a basic instructional of this move:

Here is another variation:

Tip # 6: Wrestling switches are not that effective against Khabib

Wrestling switches can be very effective counters but have not worked on Khabib so far. Nurmagomedov just doesn’t let go and the cage does not allow for a full range of movement. Dustin Poirier tried several times and failed miserably. Here is a sequence:

In the video below, it is suggested that Dustin would have been successful if he had kept solid control of the foot. There is some basis to that, but controlling a wrestler’s thigh with your hand is easier said than done. You can also notice that the cage made it difficult for Dustin to drop Khabib on his back and this prevented Poirier from getting top position. The bounce helped Khabib land on his side and get back to his knees. That being said, this video provides great information on switches:

Here is a take that explains the role of the fence and how Khabib’s gripping game makes a ton of difference:

Tip #7: Do not try to pressure Khabib against the cage.

If Khabib retreats with his back against the cage, do not fall into the trap of trying to pressure him against the cage. Khabib is too slick and will reverse the position. Just land strikes and keep your distance because a takedown is coming. Here is an example:

Tip #8: Be ready to get underhooks and fight using a low guard and uppercut follow-ups.

Khabib often uses the overhand right to close the distance and grab the waist or the legs. Here is Gleison Tibau avoiding Khabib’s change of levels by using an underhook after a right hand:

Using an uppercut as a second punch can also help you get random underhooks.

Tip #9: During takedown defense, push the head away with your hand and your elbow to get underhooks.

In the sequence below, notice how Gleison Tibau is able to constantly push Khabib’s head out of position. In photos 4-6 he is able to push the head away with his forearm and get an underhook:

Tip #10: With your back against the cage, avoid the tripod, try to stay face to face.

When fighting Nurmagomedov, fighters turn their back in order to catch a breath or avoid getting suplexed but this is not a good tactic. Generally, Khabib’s opponents are more successful when fighting face to face trying to get underhooks, neck ties and overhooks. So, fighters should keep trying to to face him and advance position in order to escape. In the photos below, Dustin Poirier is able to reverse the position (although he voluntarily turns his back again a few seconds later).

This is the alternative:

Khabib’s tripod control

Spoiler alert for fighters: You are probably not getting out of this and you are losing the round. And no, the referee will not save you.

Tip #11: Use underhooks and exit right in order to escape

You need lasting grappling strength in order to do this effectively but nevertheless, keep digging for underhooks. Underhooks are an effective way to defend against Khabib’s pressure and defend the legs. And exiting towards your right has a higher ratio of success against him, based on his previous fights.

Tip #12 Use single neck ties when you cannot get good overhooks.

Try to put the elbow between your chest and Khabib’s chest, get the tie and attack with knees whenever you get some hip space. This is the tactic that Rafael dos Anjos uses in the photos bellow, that enables him to escape using a neck tie. I was able to find several successful applications of this.

Here is another example:

Tip #13 Underhook Khabib’s forehead/face

If you cannot get underhooks, with your back against the fence, then lift Khabib’s chin up by under-hooking his forehead or face with your arm. Grabbing and lifting the chin up (photo 3 below) will also help.

Sometimes, just a neck/face push with the palm can help get the job done:

Tip #14: If you can’t get an underhook use an elbow/forearm frame against Khabib’s head

This frame, in combination with an overhook can help alleviate the pressure. You need to frame correctly or Khabib will just push the elbow and get behind.

Tip #15: Knee strikes are effective

Knees from opponents with their back against the cage seem to bother Khabib and although he is able to hide his discomfort, it is easy to tell as he often chooses to disengage for no obvious reason. This is such an example below with Conor McGregor.

Tip #16: Use sweeps or submissions to create space, get an underhook and stand up.

Unless you are a great grappler like Demian Maia, do not grapple from the bottom in order to get sweeps or submissions. Khabib is a very talented grappler and this is MMA, not BJJ. It is better to try to grapple with the goal to stand up and disengage. Here is Rafael dos Anjos underhooking a leg, letting go, posting and transitioning to an underhook with his other hand. This enables him to stand back-up.

Tip #17: Use guillotines to get on top or disengage. Do not try to force a submission.

Guillotines are not very effective on Khabib. It is better to use them to get on top or, even better, get back up. In the photos below you can see that Poirier had the option to stand up or get the mount position but he chose to fall back down and paid for it.

Although I prefer that fighters stand up, here are some videos explaining how to finish the guillotine:

Here is Lachlan Giles, a great submission grappler:

Tip #18: Threaten with takedowns.

Because of Khabib’s seemingly simple striking game, fighters keep employing a striking-based game against him and thus, never threaten him with takedowns. Yes, getting takedowns on Khabib is no easy task but it has been done in the past.

So far, the only takedowns that have been successful against him are Gleison Tibau’s running knee taps and Abel Trujillo’s double leg takedown.

When it comes to takedowns, a good tactic is to take him down and disengage. Keep in mind that Nurmagomedov is great at scrabbles and is usually able to come back on top.

See examples of the three takedowns below.

Gleison Tibau’s takedown #1

Running knee taps can be used when you fail to get underhooks (the proper way to get knee tap takedowns) or when you fake front overhand punches. Notice in photo 3 below that Tibau loses the underhook so he comes with his hand over the top pushing Khabib’s head with his forearm, taps the knee while running forward, and gets the takedown.

Tibau’s running knee tap takedown #2

Here is Erik Paulson explaining the running knee tap:

Trujillo’s double leg takedown.

Abel Trujillo is able to throw a right hand in order to close the distance, duck under a left hook and blast Khabib with a double leg takedown. Khabib has the tendency to close his eyes when he is defending against punches. Watch the clip in slow motion and you will notice this yourself.

Note: Even if you fail to finish taking opponents down, being ready to sprawl and get underhooks diminishes most fighters’ ability to strike effectively. This is the secret behind Georges St-Pierre’s game as analyzed here

Tip #19: Do not break mentally

Most of Khabib’s opponents start fighting hard during the first couple of rounds. When they eventually realize that their preparation was not good enough and that they can’t escape from Khabib’s control, they break mentally. This is due to Khabib’s application of the “legal pain” concept.

Legal pain

I am a big fan of the great American wrestler Wade Schalles. While representing Clarion University of Pennsylvania, he became a NCAA Division I champion in 1972 and 1973, winning the outstanding wrestler award in 1972.

Schalles’ legal pain concept describes how constantly using proper body positioning, disrupting breathing patterns, applying correct placement of body weight and moving your opponent’s joints to their limits, thus causing pain/discomfort can demoralize opponents and drive them to the point of exhaustion. This be described as delivering legal pain/discomfort, and is the only way that you can beat experienced and stronger opponents. Khabib is a master in delivering legal pain.

Here is how this works: all opponents fight for some reason, whether it is money, fame, pride, to make their coaches proud etc. However, when a combination of exhaustion, bleeding, inability to catch a breath and a sense of being trapped hits these fighters for an extended period of time or several times in a row, then self preservation takes control.

Self-preservation is a set of behaviors that ensures the survival of an organism. It is universal among all living organisms. Pain and fear are integral parts of this mechanism. Pain motivates the individual to withdraw from damaging situations, to protect a damaged body part while it heals, and to avoid similar experiences in the future.

When self preservation starts taking control, then fighters start to think that money is not as important or that they can make their coaches proud the next time. This thought of “a next time” is when fighters tend to find excuses to give up and then they just break mentally.

When opponents are training to fight Khabib, they need to prepare themselves to fight with courage and that is easier said than done. They need to understand that Khabib is beatable. All fighters are. Some need more pressure than others, that’s all. This is the most important tip if you are a fighter: do not let Khabib break you mentally.

Conclusion: Who can beat Khabib?

Here are the author’s top three picks of active fighters that can get the job done:

  1. Tony Ferguson is a fighter who has the ability needed to beat Khabib. His main strengths are his superior cardio, durability in scrambles and his excellent Jiu Jitsu. Tony does not get intimidated so I do not see him breaking mentally. That being said, Tony has poor takedown defense for a fighter with a successful collegiate wrestling career, and does not really mix takedowns in his game. He also has a lot of scar tissue and accumulated injuries and those can be a problem. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t see him beating Khabib fighting off his back and Tony does not really follow game plans, but on the other hand he thrives under chaotic situations. Prediction: 55% Khabib in a hard fought fight. I am rooting for Tony because I am a fan but I don’t see him winning. That being said I can’t wait to see them fight.
  2. Justin Gaethje is another fighter who does not back down and has the ability to beat Khabib standing. However, he is also a former wrestler who does not use his wrestling and a fighter who doesn’t follow gameplans and gets in firefights. Prediction: 60% Khabib although I can see Justin catching him with strikes and winning the fight.
  3. Kevin Lee is one of the most complete fighters in the UFC roster when it comes to technique. He has great wrestling, is good enough in submissions, great boxing and his kicks are getting better. But unlike the former two I have seen Kevin break mentally, his cardio is often lacking due to bad weight-cuts and I don’t see him winning a five round fight. Prediction: 70% Khabib, but Kevin can be unexpectedly good at times and I can see ways that he can prove me wrong.

Then again the author is not good at predictions.

That will be all for now. In our next post we will finalize our multi-part Mike Tyson series. See you soon. Study harder, train smarter and achieve more in MMA.

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).