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Wrestling breakdown: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier

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Breaking down what went wrong for the challenger Dustin Poirier in his UFC 242 title bout

MMA: UFC 242- Nurmagomedov vs Poirier Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I highlighted the wrestling entries and finishes of Khabib Nurmagomedov. In his previous two title bouts, Nurmagomedov had demonstrated something resembling a system for how he incorporates his wrestling into mixed martial arts. It’s been effective, but there were several predictable and problematic areas of his game that many analysts have been able to identify.

I gave little in the way of a prediction in terms of what Dustin Poirier would be able to accomplish at UFC 242. He has never truly shown a comprehensive approach for defending takedown attempts, and his tendency to prioritize capitalizing on shots with guillotine attempts was a cause for concern.

The best Poirier could do, in my opinion, was avoid giving Nurmagomedov the positions and scenarios in the cage where his takedown entries work best. In this article, we’ll be exploring how exactly Poirier failed to do so, and the technical mistakes that followed.

MMA: UFC 242- Nurmagomedov vs Poirier Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

How Khabib Nurmagomedov Defeated Dustin Poirier

From the opening moments of the fight, Khabib Nurmagomedov kept a considerable distance, and Poirier let him have it, only leading with long, naked kicking entries.

It’s hard to tell exactly why Poirier was so willing to stay in this range, but there are a couple of logical possibilities. The first is that he may have been concerned about Nurmagomedov’s diving single (covered in depth last week), which is performed typically from mid-range but is much easier to stuff and limp-leg out of when the distance isn’t quite right. The other reason is that Poirier could have been apprehensive about walking Nurmagomedov down, fearing a reactive shot that capitalized on his forward momentum.

There are issues with Poirier’s approach either way. Nurmagomedov usually shoots his diving single after creating a little space for himself, throwing a committed jab or combination to get his opponent to back up, feinting to get his opponent to plant or change their posture reactively, then shoot under the hands.

With this in mind, Poirier’s concern for the single isn’t logically warranted until he’s been backed off with strikes after pressuring, or after Nurmagomedov circles off the fence in the same situation. Poirier isn’t a fighter known for his pressuring footwork, but surely he’s no worse than Al Iaquinta, who was able to walk Nurmagomedov back to the cage with little difficulty. Sure, he’s eliminating a bit of risk by keeping that distance, but he’s also limiting his best weapon, counter combinations in the pocket.

As far as reactive takedowns are concerned, Khabib Nurmagomedov has shown that look literally once in his UFC career, against a sprinting Pat Healy. He is either shockingly uncomfortable shooting off his opponent’s charge, or he has ruled that out as an efficient option and is just disciplined with his shot selection.

Even when Poirier was leading with long naked kicks, Nurmagomedov caught only one, and did little to attempt to capitalize in terms of initiating grappling. There wasn’t much that Nurmagomedov actually did to dissuade Poirier from a more straightforward approach. From the start I would like to have seen Poirier pressuring with his footwork, drawing strikes from Nurmagomedov and countering.

MMA: UFC 242- Nurmagomedov vs Poirier Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Outfighting and Linear Retreats Spell Disaster

Perhaps it was bad intel from American Top Team, or maybe Dustin Poirier was just plain freaked out by the prospect of having to grapple with Nurmagomedov. The threat of wrestling can do strange things to consistently fearless and composed strikers like Poirier.

We’ll dive into some of the grappling-centric errors of Poirier and strengths of Nurmagomedov, but Dustin Poirier’s best shot went out the window when he sacrificed positioning.

Poirier’s commitment to playing a long game on the outside allowed Nurmagomedov to pressure without throwing a meaningful strike, early in the first round. Nurmagomedov was bothered enough by the outside kicking game to begin to close in on Poirier, who backed up to retain that distance. This was a major strategic blunder, Dustin Poirier has the craft to meet that forward pressure and clash, or to strike and step his way to an angle, circling his back to the center once again. Instead, Poirier allowed Nurmagomedov to put his back near the cage, where he could shoot with relative impunity.

Poirier finally stood his ground, refusing to go all the way to the cage, but it was close enough where Nurmagomedov’s shot pinned him. In between rounds, to ATT’s credit, Mike Thomas Brown did warn Poirier about backing up, imploring him to hold center.

Hope

Not long into round two, after being backed up to the cage, Poirier once again stood his ground and returned fire, tagging Nurmagomedov.

The difference this time was that Nurmagomedov hesitated to shoot after backing Poirier up with his initial combination, he was in Poirier’s range and there to be hit when he attempted to pressure back in to finish the job. From there on it was constant pursuit.

In the post-fight press conference, Poirier noted that during his mad flurry, the only thing on his mind was the threat of the takedown. But as we pointed out in last week’s Khabib Nurmagomedov breakdown, reactive takedowns are not a tool of his. If Poirier missed out on the finish for fear of an element of Nurmagomedov’s game that does not exist, that’s a huge letdown from Poirier and/or ATT.

Despite this, things were looking up for Poirier until, due to either fatigue, a potential ankle injury, or just plain desperation, Poirier began to put himself wildly out of position on his combinations, giving Nurmagomedov an easy entry against the cage.

Poirier could have held position anywhere and forced Nurmagomedov to open up in his range, I suppose there is more certainty and predictability for a counter fighter when their back is to the cage. It’s not all that dissimilar to what we’ve seen time and time again from Tyron Woodley. Just like when Woodley fought a fighter who thrives when pinning his opponent against the cage, it was ill-advised.

That’s all for commentary on how Poirier approached this fight on the feet, let’s take a look at grappling-specific situations.

The First Takedown

In the first round, after successfully backing Poirier to the cage, Nurmagomedov shot a double, dropping to one knee and bending at the waist, keeping his back straight. Last week there was some criticism of Nurmagomedov’s form for select wrestling techniques, but he presses well and has solid posture on the double.

When defending double legs against the cage, it’s essential to have a wide base, even if your opponent gets their hands below your hips, it’s still incredibly difficult to crunch the legs together and work on a finish. Poirier took more of a side-on stance and began to dig with his right arm to the side Nurmagomedov’s head was on. This is a good start, creating space would keep Nurmagomedov’s head off Poirier’s hip, as well as give him room to straighten up Nurmagomedov with an underhook.

Two things went wrong.

First, Poirier was essentially inactive with his left hand. The angle of his stance didn’t give a lot of room to pummel but he could have whizzered on the attacking arm and pulled. He could have attempted to fight the wrist, at the very least. Poirier looked uncertain, never committing to any one action with that free hand.

With his right arm, he did successfully dig past Nurmagomedov’s face and under his arm. But instead of sliding in a strong underhook beneath the elbow, Poirier reached for the neck. If you watch it back, he was clearly going for the neck from the start.

There wasn’t a lot to work with in terms of predicting how Dustin Poirier would defend against Khabib Nurmagomedov’s wrestling attack, but one recurring image was Poirier pulling guard multiple times on guillotines against the doubles of Eddie Alvarez. More optimistic fans proposed that with against a more dangerous top player, Poirier would prioritize separation and avoid compromising his position with guillotines.

But there it was, less than two minutes into the first round.

What is the issue with going for a guillotine? In this circumstance, Poirier’s stance is side-on, he’s in no position to pull full guard with urgency, and with Nurmagomedov pressing against the cage, leaving little room, there isn’t space to fish for a standing choke. On top of that, given that Poirier was doing nothing about Nurmagomedov’s other arm, committing to the guillotine gave Nurmagomedov free use of both arms.

Of course, he used them. Nurmagomedov switched and locked hands for a head inside single, a position where he is consistently able to lift and trip out the base leg. Indeed Nurmagomedov stood with the leg, but there was no lift attempt and the finish did not materialize just then. Nurmagomedov reset in the clinch.

Poirier kept his side-on stance, finally utilizing an underhook...with both arms. For a short maneuver, many fighters can get away with this. You commit both arms to jack up the underhook and interrupt the shot, then you use your other arm for something else, you change the position. Poirier held.

Logically, Nurmagomedov switched to a single on the unguarded side, retracted his then-underhooked arm and locked his hands, head inside once again. This time, he was able to lift and trip out the base leg.

UFC 242 Khabib v Poirier Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

Continued Troubles Against the Cage

In a similar scenario, Dustin Poirier is held against the cage once again, this time his feet are parallel and he has his shoulder facing Nurmagomedov.

Even for a few seconds, this is an awful position to be in, if you don’t have one or both arms of your opponent secured, you have absolutely no base to defend a shot with.

To his credit, Poirier turned in to get his back on the cage. On the other hand, he committed both arms to underhook the same side once again, if Nurmagomedov had dropped to a single, it would have been the same story as before.

Instead we got a bit of brilliance from Nurmagomedov, as Poirier turned toward him, putting weight on his left leg, Nurmagomedov timed the exact moment, when Poirier was still unstable, and tripped it out.

In the second round, Nurmagomedov pressed in from the clinch with Poirier’s feet parallel once again. Poirier made a habit in this fight of standing sideways against the cage, mostly by virtue of having cage-walked in that general position and Nurmagomedov pinning him once he rose up.

This time Nurmagomedov did change levels and drop to the leg, Poirier’s arms were free at the time and he went with both arms for the underhook on his strong side as usual. But, because he caught Nurmagomedov in transition, the near-underhooking arm effectively blocked the head of Nurmagomedov and stifled the shot.

Poirier was able to use that newfound space to underhook both arms on both sides, squaring his stance while still keeping his base wide. Finally!

Feeling the underhooks, Nurmagomedov began to posture back up, and Poirier couldn’t help himself, he tried to grab the neck and lock his hands. Thankfully, the attempt was denied and Poirier got back to his underhooks, straightening Nurmagomedov after subsequent level changes.

This was some of Poirier’s best work in the fight, from a grappling perspective.

He would eventually concede the takedown after losing control of Nurmagomedov’s left arm, while his opposite underhook had devolved into a more of a barrier between the two, not being used to attack the limbs of Nurmagomedov.

UFC lightweight champion Nurmagomedov defends his title Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

Other Various Tactics

Poirier showed a few other interesting looks that were clearly drilled for this fight.

One was a response to the threat of the bodylock against the cage, an old Nurmagomedov favorite that hadn’t shown itself for some time.

I believe that Poirier’s camp wanted to simplify their defensive grappling strategies for this fight. They clearly worked a ton in preparation for Nurmagomedov on his back, likely more from what you’d call “rear standing” in wrestling rather than a back mount with hooks in.

Poirier’s defense to the bodylock was pretty simple. Once Nurmagomedov got there, he squirmed and pummeled enough to make space, then turned. He gave up rear standing, essentially, because it was a more defensible position given his training.

This may seem like a really bad look, considering the manner in which Poirier was finished, but I like the sentiment from his camp. Do you try to train your fighter to defend competently in multiple scenarios, or do you get them as good as you can in one scenario and prepare them to default to it when they’re in trouble? It’s a risk either way, and it was probably the right decision for this version of Dustin Poirier.

Of course, while Poirier was attempting to fight hands, Nurmagomedov’s bodylock had become what you’d call a tight-waist, and he was able to step around the left leg of Poirier and drag him back down.

On the subject of rear standing, Poirier utilized what freestyle wrestlers call the “quad pod”, keeping his legs straight with a wide base and posting on both hands. In freestyle, a takedown isn’t complete until there’s control and a knee hits the ground, wrestlers often stonewall from this position, less often they have sneaky counters off their opponent’s breakdowns.

Poirier had drilled and prepared to his a switch, essentially sitting out and turning in to your opponent who has a rear standing or referee’s position, usually attacking a single leg. One of the most talented American wrestlers in both folk and freestyle, Cary Kolat, briefly breaks down a standing switch from rear standing:

The quad pod is somewhere in between standing and referee’s, so check out Kolat’s video on the classic switch as well:

Some common themes for switches are fighting the hands, creating motion and baiting movement from your opponent.

Dustin Poirier attempted two switches against Khabib Nurmagomedov.

There were a few problems. One, he didn’t create motion first, Nurmagomedov saw the first switch coming and was already circling away. It doesn’t help whatsoever that Nurmagomedov had the tight-waist or bodylock, making it extremely difficult for Poirier to get hip separation and fully turn in.

On both attempts, Poirier’s explosive switching momentum ended with Nurmagomedov’s legs hitting the cage, where he was able to stabilize and walk right back in. Frankly, Poirier wasn’t in a very good position to pull that off, small improvements could have been more urgency in securing his posting hand on the single, but it’s much easier said than done.

More of the Same

All of these details would be irrelevant if Khabib Nurmagomedov couldn’t get to his entries in the first place. Each time, it was a matter of Dustin Poirier’s back being against the cage.

In round two, Poirier’s punching form took him out of his stance against the cage, completely compromising his base.

Late in round two, even when he could create separation, Poirier didn’t have it in him anymore to strike Nurmagomedov back to the center, he stayed put. When Nurmagomedov did throw, Poirier covered up and leaned back, leaving his hips exposed.

It was the same story in round three, Poirier gave far too much respect to Nurmagomedov’s striking entries and conceded tremendous amounts of space while covering up. At that point, he was likely broken down physically and psychologically.

That final guillotine attempt against the cage was actually the one I excuse. Nurmagomedov already had his entry and Poirier’s base was narrow, he was getting taken down either way.

MMA: UFC 242- Nurmagomedov vs Poirier Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Closing Thoughts

This article was pretty hard on Dustin Poirier. I enjoyed his resurgence and run to the title so thoroughly, it’s nearly impossible not to root for the Diamond. I knew coming into this matchup that he wasn’t necessarily supposed to be “the guy” stylistically to beat Nurmagomedov. However, I felt his presence and tactics on the feet could be enough to deny Nurmagomedov the situations that served him best. It was soul-crushing to watch error after error. Strategically, Poirier was never really in the fight.

On the other hand, I have not given nearly enough praise to Khabib Nurmagomedov. Hopefully these articles prove how crucial it is to make the correct decisions, and quickly, against the lightweight champion. This is not a fighter you can afford to make many mistakes against. He is far from perfect, but in executing his existing skill set, he has dominated.

What’s next? Tony Ferguson has earned a shot at the title. Ferguson is a fighter I can trust to pressure in earnest...eventually. “El Cucuy” is notoriously a slow starter, many see his crafty guard keeping the fight competitive in the likely occasion that he is taken down early. Personally, I’m not confident in Ferguson’s ability to offer many threats from his guard, the only elite top player he’s truly troubled from that position is Kevin Lee, who found his way to mount almost immediately in the first round of their interim title bout. If Nurmagomedov can control the pace and take his time like he did against Poirier, I’m not positive Ferguson’s weapons ever truly make an impact.

My current pick to unseat Nurmagomedov is Justin Gaethje. A fearless pressure fighter and brawler, Gaethje is the type to hedge his bets and constantly take ground, punting the legs of Nurmagomedov and throwing heat after the champion’s striking entries are slipped or bounce off his high guard. An under the radar analyst in Josh Yandle wrote a terrific breakdown of the nuances of Gaethje’s defense.

The obvious plus to Gaethje is his folkstyle wrestling background, he was a Division 1 All-American at Northern Colorado in an extremely tough 157-pound weight class. In MMA, Gaethje hasn’t been immune to wrestling, being taken down reactively a few times in World Series of Fighting. However, his ability to fight hands from rear standing, scramble up, and granby roll, give me a lot of confidence that he’ll be able to escape Nurmagomedov’s grasp before any serious control is established.

Others like the chances of the rising Gregor Gillespie. While he needs a bit more seasoning, I could see a Gillespie wrestling breakdown coming your way in the near future.