Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier headlines UFC 242 this September 7, 2019 at the The Arena, Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Record: Khabib Nurmagomedov 27-0 | Dustin Poirier 25-5-1 NC
Odds: Khabib Nurmagomedov -440 | Dustin Poirier +350
History / introduction to the fighters
David: What I love about UFC marketing is how in-your-face hypocritical it is: “I’ve never been more disappointed in anything in my life” to “Watch Conor vs. Khabib for FREE on Youtube, and OMG wasn’t that brawl f**king crazy?!” Needless to say, Khabib can start as many brawls as he wants as long as the bottom line has bottomless profits. Me personally? Maybe this is just moral exhaustion taking its toll, but in a sport where fighters get paid with the same phones that Stringer Bell used on his corners, the fighters themselves are tied to literal warlords, and BJ Penn is likely letting cornfed drunks exploit his CTE — how am I supposed to muster the moral Hatata to dissect a slightly more physical Royal Rumble? This is, unfortunately, the kind of story Khabib has his papakha tied in. But yes, we’re here to talk about his championship fight. Not his unevolved view of female fighters, or this insane network.
Phil: The UFC and Abu Dhabi is a combination which certainly announces itself as one which is going to be completely lacking in exploitation. It’s going to be the UFC, that famously moral and upstanding institution, getting its own small arena built in the desert, a place which typically has tremendous labour-friendly arena building credentials. It will be largely attended by extremely rich people. The card is headlined by its least controversial star. In all honesty, Khabib has (perhaps wisely) kept much of his views to himself on his way up through the UFC, probably recognizing that some of this stuff wouldn’t go down too well. As he’s received more power and recognition, some of those views and relationships have inevitably begun to surface. It shouldn’t ever have been a surprise to anyone, and at the least Khabib has the excuse of being a product of his environment, and of being an awkward position of not being able to say “no” to monsters like Kadyrov: Weidman, Werdum and Edgar have far weaker excuses for why they’re hobnobbing with dictators. Perhaps we should just accept that MMA fighters shouldn’t be role models.
David: Random, and pointless observation: how crazy is it that Michael Johnson has a win over Poirier AND Ferguson? What’s funny about this useless trivia that everyone already knows is that someone like Johnson is where I saw Poirier topping out at: a good, technical yet aggressive fighter who would up a high-paced Kenny Florian type. Then he spread his wings like a volcanic firebird and just blitzed two divisions like an abercrombie-faced kaiju.
Phil: As mentioned, MMA fighters are generally not great people. Khabib has a powerful sense of loyalty and a clearly defined ethical framework, but it’s a brutal one for a soft-hearted westerner like me. Fighters like McGregor have gradually slipped down roads of increasing awfulness, and we’ve seen former lightweight champ BJ Penn further down that road, getting into bar brawls and altercations with friends and family. Violent men drawn to more violence, through dictatorial strength or insecure weakness. This is why Dustin Poirier has been such a surprising pleasure. He appears to be genuinely working on being a better man, developing his charity work at the same time as his career has blossomed. Back in the days of the Fightville documentary it was clear that this was a likable, thoughtful guy, but there was also a hard edge and a brutality to him. While that hasn’t left him as a competitor, he seems to have softened as he’s grown as a man, in a way which we don’t often see.
What’s at stake?
David: This fight has some of the most convoluted stakes ever. There are very few scenarios that don’t create some sense of quantum entanglement. Conor rematches, other lightweights, and even the unlikely specter of GSP’s shadow lingers over these two. It’s fun, but it’s indicative of the UFC’s level of mountain dew logic.
Phil: Tony Ferguson is next for the winner, or at least he certainly should be. The Zuffa / WME machine appears to have tired of playing pattycake with McGregor, who appears to be realizing that his only way back into the top of the lightweight division is actually to take a fight with a contender. Nate Diaz is too fat to ever make lightweight again, and so it looks like the Gaethje-Cerrone winner is really the only other contender on the horizon. The loser of this fight might actually be able to finagle McGregor, particularly if the loser happens to be Khabib.
Where do they want it?
David: Khabib is a weapon unearthed from a previous civilization that remains as effective, if not more effective than his presumably evolved successors. There’s actually not much to his wrestling. A few go-to moves remain the cornerstone of his tactical approach, but after that, he’s all Zangief-ian strength, and octopus-ian grip. He’s just a highly physical fighter who operates with the core strength of a gorilla. That’s not to say that Khabib is merely “strong and explosive.” Only that he’s a unique specimen of combat: with his ragged philosophy, he excels at one particular trait with a gleeful vest, and this basic top-down approach has made him literally unbeatable. Of course, it’s all not Grapple McGrapply. I’ve underestimated his striking before, and I’ll probably continue to do so. But he’s surprisingly technical on the feet. It’s not that he’s dynamic, or creative. He just has a good sense of timing. He cratered Iaquinta’s face with a bricking jab, and did well beyond simply dropping McGregor — catching him with counter left hooks, and a veritable hot wing plate of pugilism.
Phil: Khabib is a puzzling fighter in many ways. A clear and insightful analytical mind seems to be behind a fighting style which can often seem oddly low-percentage. As the masterful breakdown from Ed Gallo discusses, Khabib’s earliest entries often tend to be that most low-percentage of entries, the low single (or, as Ed clarifies the “Smith Single”). The technique that Randy Couture used on James Toney. That’s... not typically the kind of takedown entry which you see at even the lower levels of the UFC. That Khabib uses it reliably at the top of the sport shows you just how lethal his chain-wrestling, grip-strength and power is. A single grip on an ankle or foot is converted into a single leg, or clambered up into body lock chains, and Khabib will often work to run his opponent right into the fence, where his masterful work in stripping out posts and attacking every part of the opponent’s body which they use to get back up makes techniques like wall-walking into a huge liability. With that being said, Khabib does not really have much in the way of takedown set-ups. He doesn’t lower his level into jabs like GSP, or even overhands like a typical US D1 wrasslin’ convert. Instead it’s all straight-backed striking, winging a powerful left hook and right hand until the opponent gets distracted enough that he can snatch up the diving entry, or tired enough that he can just double leg them into the fence. What makes it all work is incredible confidence, blinding speed, and the kind of physical power that has allowed him to wrestle competitively with much larger, and still extremely skilled grapplers like Luke Rockhold.
David: Poirier’s formula for success is simple. He was already dynamic as all hell. So he took his fight al pastor — so to speak — kept it marinated with the right blend of chile and pineapple, sliced off what he metaphysically didn’t need, and is now much more capable of folding his opponents up like a taco — so to speak. Lost in these food analogies is the fundamental truth that some fighters have it, and some fighters don’t. He’s Ross the Boss telling his opponents “if ever there comes a time and it gets down to the marrow and it’s you and me...kid, I will lay you the fuck out. “ Dustin just has that special kind of grit: as if the harder he’s hit, the more lucid he is when he hits back. From afar, Poirier is dangerous enough; nothing special in my personal opinion. But he establishes a dangerous rhythm with his jerky style of jabbing, pivoting, moving, and weaving with every strike selection under the sun. What separates him from others is what he does in the transitions, and scrambles. He’s got alligator blood, swinging crisp hooks and angled attacks mixed with the occasional centerline bullet to move forward with brutal efficiency. Dustin doesn’t overcommit either. His offense has gotten better over the years, and that’s not insignificant. But in the past, he went into a Melvin Guillard shell; trying to outburst his way back into the comfort zone. Now he’s able to effectively work in the pocket. While he still takes his share of damage, he’s assured in his responses.
Phil: The evolution of Dustin Poirier from the formless if well-rounded banger of his early career to the cerebral, confident offensive machine of his recent bouts has been nothing short of miraculous to behold. Back in those early days, Poirier would crash in behind big looping shots, almost falling over as he came marching forwards. If return fire came back, then he defaulted to a couple of defensive options, primarily a ducking double forearm guard which he’d hide behind until his opponent went away. The fighter we’ve seen lately has tight footwork and probes behind a jab and a tight right hook. He uses kicks to unbalance and peck, but remains in position to punish his opponents with the evolved version of those old blitzing rushes. In terms of defense, that old forearm guard has become one of the best arrays of parrys in the sport, where Poirier will pick off shots with his forearms, shoulders, elbows, and even his own forehead. He’s nasty in the clinch, nasty on the ground (with his d’arce, snapdown or ground and pound) and has been increasingly difficult to dissuade in recent fights. Whereas before there was a kind of panic which suffused Poirier fights, a desperate need to outdamage his opponents, now he seems to constantly draw himself back into a state of meditative violence. Breathe, punch, parry, duck, get hit, back up, breathe, spit, tilt head, come forward, punch, punch, punch, kick. It has its own distinct and oddly soothing rhythm.
Insight from past fights
David: This one’s obvious. Poirier simply doesn’t have a resume against grappling-centric fighters. Seems like grapplers at lightweight have had it tough in recent years. Khabib is, of course, the major exception. He’s a decent offensive grappler, but I don’t see him stuffing Khabib’s takedowns early, or getting out of his grasp once he’s there. Where Dustin stands a real chance is in the 4th and 5th rounds ala the Iaquinta fight. Despite Rogan’s proverbial hyperbole, Al didn’t actually do much except get jabbed to death. I felt like it was Khabib confidently switching gears more than Al forcing him onto the feet. Still, it’s something Khabib has done beyond the Iaquinta fight. He’ll take rounds “off” to strike.
Phil: Poirier has faced a surprising dearth of wrestlers in his UFC career. This is one of the problems with being a touted action fighter: they only give you the fun action fights, until the fights get so important that it doesn’t matter any more. Eddie Alvarez is probably the best wrestler he fought, and there are notes of concern there, primarily how Alvarez was able to push Poirier into the fence, and then grapevine his legs and keep him down, in much the same way that Khabib does.
David: Nothing of note.
Phil: Fighting in Abu Dhabi represents some kind of home court advantage for Khabib, but I’m not sure that I expect any kind of issues from either man. They’re the highest standard of pros.
David: This fight is a little unsettling from a predictive standpoint. Khabib has the ability to do what he’s always done, and it doesn’t help that Poirier has been metaphysically insulated from these matchups. Khabib is not indestructible despite his record. Poirier has exactly what it takes to punish him for his strike breaks. But I just don’t see Poirier having enough in the championship rounds. The thing about Khabib’s top control is that it’s not just round control. He’s punishing opponents. And his grappling is more than ground and pound: he improves from position to position. If Khabib grounds him out in the first three, Dustin will be a different kind of tired. Khabib Nurmagomedov by Decision.
Phil: This fight could go any number of ways, but one thing it is not likely to present is large swathes of competition. It will not be like Poirier vs Holloway, where both men struggled back and forth with only a few key moments cementing victory. It will be large stretches of Khabib ground and wrestling work, or it will be Khabib failing takedowns and likely getting outworked on the feet. While the champion can perhaps handle himself in this area more than Poirier can handle Khabib’s wrestling, I’m not sure that I trust Khabib’s style to hold up. If he can’t hit his low-percentage takedown chains, then Poirier is just more comfortable and dangerous on the feet. Even if he can, Poirier has fought back from bad positions against some of the most relentless, snowballing fighters in the sport. Nurmagomedov starts incredibly quickly, and the first couple of rounds will be notably dangerous, but Dustin Poirier by TKO, round 4.