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Editorial: For Khabib Nurmagomedov, styles don’t just make fights, but legacies too

UFC 254 could be a milestone for Khabib Nurmagomedov if he wins, and perhaps for the sport too.

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A lot of weird details went into making the UFC what it was. The weirdest? Knowing where the Octagon itself came from: none other than Hollywood scribe John Milius. Milius, who once described his own politics as Zen fascist, directed some of your 80’s favorites, like ‘Red Dawn’ and ‘Conan the Barbarian’. For all the oddities, from the allowance of nut shots to the proposed razor wire atop the fence, it was the milquetoast fight proverb ‘styles make fights’ that defined the UFC for years to come.

For a time, Royce Gracie was the UFC, and vice versa. Physically, Gracie wasn’t what you’d call a specimen. Yet this sinewy little man armed with nothing more than his dignified facial features was considered the apex predator of facepunching. It took two years for the sport to make him look human. Although the less said about watching that moment live, the better. Grappling remained the dominant art, even if they didn’t personify Gracie jiu jitsu. Dan Severn, Mark Coleman — it wasn’t until Maurice Smith in 1997 that we began to see a slight shifting of the guard. It was shortlived thanks to Randy Couture. But it was around that time that we began to see the future of mixed martial arts with hybrid fighters like Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock.

For the early champs, it wasn’t about having multiple tools you could use for an equal balance of proactive and reactive lines of fighting. It was about having one tool your opponent couldn’t stop. Nowadays, the strikers can submit the black belts, and the black belts can knock out the strikers.

And that’s what makes Khabib Nurmagomedov a breath of fresh air. I know what you’re thinking fight nerds. ‘Are you implying that Khabib is one-dimensional? What the hell are you talking about? Haven’t you seen him reverse hook shuck while throwing a Koichi Wajima-inspired frog punch? Khabib’s as complete as they come!’

Let’s stop right there. Yes, Khabib is well-rounded. Not only is he well-rounded, but he has a fantastic understanding of what kind of strike catalog fits in well with his takedown entries, like a steady selection of uppercuts to setup body control, and overhand rights against opponents dropping their hands to anticipate a double leg. I read Connor’s article too. It’s important technical analysis that factors into Khabib’s planned action within the fight. But these skills are peripheral to Khabib’s planned purpose — which is put you on your back, and squeeze the life out of you.

That’s what makes Khabib a throwback. Where modern fighters are overly concerned about the right balance of skills, Khabib is overly concerned with tilting the balance completely. However, this isn’t just mere fight philosophy. I think it speaks to mechanics as well. As in: like many throwback fighters, their flaws don’t just stand out as skills they lack in proportion to their strengths, but as skills they lack, period.

Let’s start with Khabib’s strike selection. While he does a lot to support his takedown entries, that only makes them good strikes in conjunction with his wrestling. On their own, they’re just sound and fury. He tends to lean in with his jab, and the end result is that his follow up punches leave him out of position; an ideal fight state for an opponent capable of returning fire. He’s able to mask his punches well, but he doesn’t mask his strikes consistently, and once he throws, he tends to stay there, sometimes taking entire rounds off to strike with the opponent.

He has a darting, striking style that works in an abstract sense — doubling as part of what adds velocity to a fight game built on momentum — but I think it also reveals his flawed execution; not quite able to calibrate the shifts, pivots, and switches in strike progression. It’s something that plays out in his defensive game, where he’s never able to angle out. Sure enough, that’s exactly how Dustin Poirier caught him. Nurmagomedov darted in, darted back out, and Poirier, seeing the predictability of his in-and-out movement, caught him.

I mention all of this because I think Justin Gaethje is a legitimate threat to exploit all of these flaws. Against Tony Ferguson, you saw a committed attack on the legs. Except Gaethje is not an in-and-out fighter. Ferguson might have been able to land more punches, except Gaethje would often pivot out immediately following a low kick. This shifting out of the pocket would result in punches upstairs, more movement, or more leg kicks. Eventually Justin turned him into a bloody mess in what turned into a lopsided fight.

As a quick aside, I’m picking Gaethje. His combination of movement, raw power, and mixture of athleticism and technical wrestling prowess leads me to believe he can do it. And with Lomachenko vs. Lopez still fresh in our minds, something about a Gaethje win feels written in the stars, as goofy as that sounds.

But this is about Khabib. And to that extent, we can comfortably say that a potential win over Gaethje would be massive. Not because it would be another successful title defense — although that’s certainly part of it — but because being able to fight beyond and through your weaknesses is all the more impressive. It used to happen with regularity. Now it’s the exception.

What Khabib brings to MMA is something we rarely see: a sequence of rhythm and progression that transforms each fight into a marathon rather than a sprint. That grueling sequence is why Conor’s striking in round three at UFC 229 looked so much different than Conor’s striking as we typically know it. Khabib knows this. Which is why he actively takes advantage of it. It demands opponents to endure, for one moment more.

I’m sure if Khabib wins, a lot will be said about his status among the MMA gods. Frankly, MMA hasn’t been around long enough to talk of rich history, and rich legacies. Whether Khabib goes down as one of the greats is not an interesting discussion for me. But just like when it all began with nothing more than the imaginations of anarchist filmmakers and television producers inspired by Mortal Kombat, there’s still greatness in limitations.