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UFC 229: Khabib v McGregor

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Wrestling for MMA: Khabib Nurmagomedov

Investigating the wrestling habits and tactics used by Khabib Nurmagomedov in his lightweight title bouts

Photo by Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

As the owner of the most prolific top game in mixed martial arts today, Khabib Nurmagomedov has been analyzed ad nauseam.

Frequent topics of discussion have included: his underhook game against the cage, bodylock attack, figure-four on the legs to mount, cross-wrist ride from turtle and bar-arm trap, and to some extent his stacked assault from guard.

Ryan Wagner broke down the strengths and weaknesses of every aspect of Nurmagomedov’s game prior to his fight with Conor McGregor. If you’re looking to learn all you can on the champion, there is no better place to start.

In the article that follows, I will focus largely on action from neutral - takedowns. The interplay between striking and wrestling on the feet is what will determine Khabib Nurmagomedov’s continued success or lead to his first loss.

This may read as a critique, so I feel it may be necessary to first acknowledge that Khabib Nurmagomedov is an incredible fighter with a truly unique skill set. That being sad, every fighter has strengths and weaknesses, and it’s always appropriate to discuss them.

UFC 223: Nurmagomedov v Iaquinta Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

Wrestling for MMA: Khabib Nurmagomedov

The two basic concepts we’ll be identifying are how Nurmagomedov gets to the legs, and how he typically proceeds from there.

In previous “Wrestling for MMA” articles, a consistent tool identified has been the reactive shot. Shooting on your opponent when their hands are high and their hips are moving forward into you is ideal for almost any wrestler.

However, especially lately, this has not been a feature of Nurmagomedov’s game.

It’s not as if his last two opponents have been unwillingly to come forward throwing, either.

Al Iaquinta marched forward and loaded up with his rear hand, albeit from a low stance.

Conor McGregor pressured Nurmagomedov to the fence from the very start.

Given that fighters are not targeting the body of Nurmagomedov nearly as much as they should, most of the strikes thrown are high and give up the hips of the attacker. But, for whatever reason, Khabib Nurmagomedov is not comfortable changing levels and shooting off active advancement in this way.

Nurmagomedov instead allows himself to be pressured into the cage, typically evades the ensuing attacks, then either circles off or flashes a mean-looking striking entry to scare off his opponent.

It’s once he has the mid-range distance back, and he’s the one on the lead, Nurmagomedov prefers to shoot.

Takedown Entries

Another key wrestling for MMA concept is how to disguise your entries. Do you throw meaningful strikes that look like the beginning of your takedown entries? Do your takedown entries resemble strikes you’ve conditioned your opponent to react to?

If the answer is yes, it becomes incredibly difficult for your opponent to read attacks, the threat of the takedown can be used to land those “disguise strikes”, and vice versa.

While it’s a bit of a “tell” for Nurmagomedov, he consistently tenses up and plants before attempting most meaningful maneuvers. You really only see different body language when Nurmagomedov is jabbing.

Here he is feinting a combination against Al Iaquinta. As I continue to provide examples of Nurmagomedov in action, pay attention to how each striking or takedown entry begins.

While they’re not pretty to look at or elegant in any sense, Nurmagomedov’s entries do keep his opponents guessing and lead to successful offense. When Nurmagomedov lowered his stance and dropped an overhand on Conor McGregor, most fans were able to point out that McGregor had dropped his hands, expecting the takedown.

UFC 223: Nurmagomedov v Iaquinta Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

A Diving Single

It’s probably accurate to classify what Khabib Nurmagomedov does as a low single, but I’m a snob and will not be calling it that. The ideal John Smith low single happens from a much closer range than what we usually see from Nurmagomedov, and typically involves a level change in place, then the darting shot straight to the lead leg. Nurmagomedov is dive-bombing on a more diagonal path, taking a long penetration step toward his opponent with his arms reaching out.

Because Nurmagomedov often finishes his penetration step on both knees with his head on the leg, a position similar to the arrival point of the low single, that it has been identified as such. However, Nurmagomedov often ends up with his stance square from his knees, making it difficult to step forward with his trail leg and base back up off his shot.

Check out the man himself demonstrating a few variations on his patented low single.

It’s a testament to Nurmagomedov’s athleticism and grappling chops that he is able to convert so many shots from what are objectively bad positions. We’ll address those conversions in a minute.

Here are most of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s shot entries against Al Iaquinta.

In the first clip, Nurmagomedov jabs to back up Iaquinta, then takes the aforementioned long, reaching penetration step toward Iaquinta’s lead leg. Iaquinta back-steps and Nurmagomedov whiffs on the entry, mostly a byproduct of range. In both the first and second clips, you can see that Nurmagomedov is flicking out his lead hand. Iaquinta had an infamously difficult time dealing with jabbing in this fight, and part of his reaction was to plant his feet and raise his guard. So, from a closer range, Nurmagomedov flicks the lead hand as he explodes into his penetration step, Iaquinta becomes static and Nurmagomedov is able to get a bite on the leg. The same dynamic plays out in the third clip.

Then, we see the major issue with Nurmagomedov’s shot of choice. Nurmagomedov’s attack allows him to get a grip low on the leg, but from there it’s urgent that he climbs up and gets to a stronger position, either on the leg, securing a seatbelt, or perhaps standing with the leg. If he doesn’t, it’s fairly intuitive to push down on the head and limp-leg out.

Here’s a quick, goofy video instructional on how to limp-leg out of singles.

Alternatively, you can watch Jose Aldo fight wrestlers.

Even a more polished takedown artist like Frankie Edgar was deeply troubled by this defense throughout his career.

The major drawback to Nurmagomedov shooting himself onto both knees with his head down to begin those diving single exchanges is that it takes more time for him to get to a secure position or to base back up to stand with the leg.

When the entries happened in open space, away from the cage, Iaquinta was able to turn and limp-leg out more often than not.

The other obvious con to Nurmagomedov exploding into dive-bombing singles and forcing himself to fight off his knees is that it’s exhausting. Nurmagomedov is in excellent shape and can really push himself, considering how demanding his style is, but the man has limits.

It’s a style that Nurmagomedov has learned he simply cannot keep up with non-stop, leading to his “taking breaks”, spending long periods of time jabbing with Al Iaquinta or conceding to strike with Conor McGregor in the third round after a couple of failed shot attempts.

Blitz and Double

If you’ve watched Khabib Nurmagomedov’s highlight reel, you’ve likely seen him sprinting forward with strikes, throwing a flying knee, then immediately landing into a level change for a double against the cage.

A shockingly high percentage of MMA fighters can only evade linearly, so bull-rushing forward is very often a reliable tactic to drive your opponent to the cage. For years, this was Nurmagomedov’s primary approach for getting to grappling positions. As he’s matured, and recognized the counter threat of fighters like McGregor, Nurmagomedov has saved the blitz for more opportune moments.

After being denied the diving single against Al Iaquinta, Nurmagomedov looked to his blitz.

Iaquinta had success jabbing to interrupt momentum, and even straight arm shoving Nurmagomedov to avoid being trapped on the cage. But eventually, Nurmagomedov gave Iaquinta good enough reason to cover up, and his hips were open.

Against McGregor, Nurmagomedov went to his double much more often, as a fatigued McGregor was standing up straight far more often than Iaquinta did.

Consistently rushing forward with strikes would be incredibly dangerous against a counter puncher of McGregor’s ability, but once the sting faded from the former champion’s shots, Nurmagomedov was more willing to trade a bit in mid-range exchanges. McGregor showed some respect by covering up, allowing Nurmagomedov to feint a striking entry and level change for the double.

Take a look at Nurmagomedov’s successful and unsuccessful entries against McGregor.

In straight wrestling exchanges, McGregor showed aptitude, consistently pressuring on the head, digging underhooks and standing Nurmagomedov up straight. It’s when Nurmagomedov could occupy McGregor’s arms, either baiting a counter or causing him to cover up, that’s when he could get deeper on his entries.

Finishing Like a Hoss

As far as shot finishes go for Khabib Nurmagomedov, there are some common themes.

Off singles, he’s able to build up fast enough and avoid the limp leg, Nurmagomedov gets a higher grip on the leg, stands, and finds a way to eliminate the remaining base leg.

In open space, Nurmagomedov can drive forward and get height on the attacked leg, allowing him to get closer and trip out for the finish. Less flexible opponents will go down without the additional effort.

Against the cage, it’s supposed to be more complicated.

I took a look at how Frankie Edgar and Joseph Benavidez have found crafty ways to finish single legs against the cage, one of the most complicated maneuvers to pull off in MMA. If you’re insanely powerful, there’s a much simpler solution - lift and return.

It’s already a serious task to lift with the head outside on the single, you can press against the hip and use your whole body to lift at the same point. Nurmagomedov is typically pressuring in with his shoulder and leaning his head inside.

Amazingly, and to the disappointment of dedicated weight-lifters everywhere, Nurmagomedov is able to round his back and hoist up his opponents, walking in to narrow their base and trip out the base leg.

See for yourself!

Finishes against Al Iaquinta

Finishes against Conor McGregor

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

The Scramble

Just for fun, I wanted to take a closer look at the opening grappling exchange in Khabib Nurmagomedov’s fight against Conor McGregor.

Here’s the clip.

Unlike the diving single situations against Iaquinta, McGregor was not in a position to turn away and limp leg. He timed the shot of Nurmagomedov and attempted to pivot toward the shot with his trail leg and hit an intercepting knee. The knee hit the shoulder and Nurmagomedov was still able to get a bite on the ankle, starting the scramble on his knees, across McGregor’s body.

With Nurmagomedov’s head already underneath his hips, McGregor had no choice but to square up with Nurmagomedov. From there, he would have been well-advised to stuff the head with his hands, attempt to dig underhooks, sprawl back and apply forward pressure with his hips. That would be the best strategy to shut down the exchange and eventually create separation.

Instead, as a first move, McGregor reached past the arms of Nurmagomedov swum inside the left leg, from there he could have looked to block the hip, but seemed indecisive, essentially doing nothing with the position. Nurmagomedov postured up with the leg of McGregor and attempted to sit him on his hip and turn in to cover. McGregor used his right arm to stabilize and square up once again, earning him new life in the scramble.

Not happy with his angle, Nurmagomedov postured back down, this time with McGregor’s leg folded underneath him.

McGregor locked through the waist and essentially just held, keeping his free leg as far away as possible, intermittently looking to elbow on the outside. McGregor’s chief concern should have been to survive these positions and separate, taking away an arm to strike was a huge risk.

But it paid off in this instance, Nurmagomedov reached to trap the elbowing arm, only holding the single with one arm, allowing McGregor to start to draw his leg back.

As Nurmagomedov built back up and postured, McGregor used his near arm to push down on the head, and the far arm to pull the knee, weakening the base as Nurmagomedov looked to stand.

It worked like a charm, Nurmagomedov’s back was completely round, his head was down, and his base was narrow.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor

A persistent athlete, Nurmagomedov was able to stand, and the dynamics of the position changed. This is where having wrestling experience matters, being able to unconsciously make the correct adjustments as soon as a position changes is essential.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor

The knee pull had given McGregor an angle, and the best way to capitalize on the position in order to separate would be to continue to chase that angle.

With his right arm, McGregor needed to switch from pushing the head to crossfacing, using the bone of his forearm to push away on Nurmagomedov’s face. His left arm could probably be used as a post in some manner, but in this case it might make more sense to block across the hip, that could turn into an underhook if Nurmagomedov continues to drive in.

Unfortunately for McGregor, he stuck with pushing on the head and pulling the knee, allowing Nurmagomedov to crack down on the single and take him back to his butt, extending the exchange. Nurmagomedov’s crackdown was far from graceful, and he ended up folding over his own lead leg, completely off-balance.

McGregor utilized the butt-drag (also noted in the Joseph Benavidez breakdown) to knock Nurmagomedov to his hip, stepping all the way over his opponent. Both recovered, with McGregor stabilizing with both legs behind him and Nurmagomedov on his knees, still clutching the single.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor

Besides the standing position where McGregor should have crossfaced, this is by far the most favorable situation of the exchange for the former champion.

You can already see McGregor reaching for the ankle. This was a mistake. To grab the ankle would mean that McGregor would need to commit to once again chasing that angle to his left, more indicative of chasing a go-behind than separating entirely.

To remind everyone, this was the advice from earlier, in a similar position:

“From there, he would have been well-advised to stuff the head with his hands, attempt to dig underhooks, sprawl back and apply forward pressure with his hips. That would be the best strategy to shut down the exchange and eventually create separation.”

But McGregor continued to pull the ankle, while pushing on the head, rather than crossfacing. These are not two connected strategies, McGregor was splitting his efforts.

On top of this, he used his head-pushing arm to intermittently strike, giving Nurmagomedov time to posture and stand with the leg.

In two sequences, McGregor could not identify which defensive wrestling tactics to use, and that’s what lost him the exchange. He showed flashes of both necessary approaches, but did not apply them in the correct moments.

Once Nurmagomedov stands with the leg, he is able to make adjustments and crack down again, doubling off for the finish.

UFC 242 Press Conference Photo by Marc Atkins/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier

Dustin Poirier’s aptitude as a wrestler is far more offensive than defensive.

In his rematch with Eddie Alvarez, Poirier neglected his shot defense, instead choosing to pull guard for guillotines.

So what should we consider in this matchup? Positioning. Will the ideal entries be available? Al Iaquinta isn’t elite in terms of wrestling in MMA, but even he was able to shut down Nurmagomedov’s worst shots in their title bout. The coaches at American Top Team, especially legendary wrestler Steve Mocco, should have had ample time to at least partially prepare Poirier for Nurmagomedov’s favorite attacks.

With clean entries, I don’t trust Poirier to outscramble Nurmagomedov if he’s exclusively trying to separate, and I trust him even less to even try to separate, Poirier himself has noted he will probably try to attack in grappling exchanges.

We saw both Iaquinta and McGregor back Nurmagomedov to the cage. Will Poirier be able to capitalize on those positions, will he be able to keep Nurmagomedov there? A cracking, combination counter striker, Poirier could punish Nurmagomedov for throwing to scare him off when he’s pressured.

So much of this fight depends on Nurmagomedov being able to enforce his preferred ranges, and to convince Poirier to respect his striking enough to set up his entries. Dustin Poirier may not be the perfect fighter to dethrone the champion, but his fitness and competency as a grappler may give some hope that he can stave off Nurmagomedov’s punishing assault for long enough.

If Poirier does survive to see Nurmagomedov “take a break,” he has the weapons to take back momentum in a way that previous opponents could not.

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