UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is well on his way to becoming the greatest fighter in divisional history, if not all-time. Nurmagomedov’s incredible mat wrestling has been the highlight of his skill-set, very few fighters have been able to contend with the Dagestani after being taken down.
His wrestling work from neutral, however, is a bit more open to criticism. Those strengths and weaknesses were explored in more depth in this longer breakdown titled, “Wrestling for MMA: Khabib Nurmagomedov”. That article was followed by an exploration of his fight with Dustin Poirier, in which “The Diamond” showcased a lot of what not to do against Nurmagomedov.
Today we’ll focus on one particular way that Khabib Nurmagomedov sets up his takedowns.
Make Them Tall - Setting Up Leg Attacks
Khabib Nurmagomedov usually scores takedowns in two ways - either shooting a head inside single from space, standing and taking out the base leg, or working his opponent to the cage for a double or chain of upper body attacks.
Against a grappler of former champion Rafael dos Anjos’s caliber, Nurmagomedov chose not to risk a prolonged scramble in the open, instead exploiting RDA’s shaky ringcraft to attack near the cage.
Nurmagomedov largely had his way with RDA by the end of the fight, but early on he struggled to get deep on his entries.
In this exchange, Nurmagomedov punched his way into the shot against the cage after RDA backed himself up to the boundary.
While Nurmagomedov did some work to disguise his level change, forcing RDA to assess whether a striker or takedown was coming, he was largely out of position to shoot quickly, and RDA wised up fairly quickly.
You can see in the above frames that Nurmagomedov had to switch stances during his entry to drive toward RDA’s hips, as his opponent circled out to the open side.
Using a whizzer and a guillotine grip on the head, RDA pulled Nurmagomedov up from his double and foiled the attack.
Too many things went wrong - Nurmagomedov wasn’t in the best position to take a clean attack, and RDA was not bothered enough by Nurmagomedov’s striking to take his eyes off potential takedown attempts or swing back hard.
At the time this was largely a function of discomfort on the feet. Since then, Nurmagomedov has been able to measure his attacks more carefully and line himself up for cleaner shots on the hips against the cage. You can see that clearly in his fights with Poirier and McGregor.
Funny enough, in those earlier days Nurmagomedov had a lot more success with sustained, wild linear blitzes than with more precise cage-cutting or pressure.
The flying knee linear blitz has been part of Nurmagomedov’s game for some time now, and it has showed up in other cage wrestlers like Colby Covington since.
The urgency of a blitz typically takes away some of the defensive tools of your opponent - they often don’t have the time to compose themselves and respond entirely correctly. The drawback is that you’re charging forward in a straight line and have no choice but to push on toward the cage, and if a fighter does get a read on your blitz they can either pivot off the center or level change.
This tactic expends a decent amount of energy, and with the aforementioned risks, it would not be wise to use it very often. Khabib Nurmagomedov has a great gas tank, but even his cardio has limits, especially with his physically demanding style.
What is sustainable is a long-term process of setups that lead to clean entries down the line.
For a wrestler who initiates wrestling through leg attacks, they want their opponent to be as tall as possible, with a narrow base. This is part of why reactive shots are so effective - the momentum of your opponent coming in is the most important part, but it’s also important to see that fighters often break their stance and straighten up as they move forward with strikes.
So what can a fighter like Khabib Nurmagomedov do as the aggressor?
He can select strikes that put his opponent in the most vulnerable position possible for his takedown entries. Linear strikes that are thrown upward, in particular, work to this end.
A low, long stance is typically best for a fighter looking to defend against wrestling. To discourage or punish this stance, Nurmagomedov frequently attacked with front snap kicks and uppercuts.
Even when RDA wasn’t ducking down or lowering his level, the uppercut entries kept him tall, making him an easy target for a double leg entry against the cage.
The beautiful thing about the uppercut for wrestlers in MMA is that it sets up level changes, and that level changes can set up uppercuts. The relationship goes both ways. Khabib Nurmagomedov can level fake to draw the guard down, then explode back up into the uppercut. Featherweight wrestle-boxers Chad Mendes and Ricardo Lamas have gotten a lot of mileage out of this technique.
To come full circle, in this case, Nurmagomedov feints level changes, uppercuts once RDA is vulnerable, then rolls right through into his shot following the uppercut.
By constantly showing the uppercut, Khabib Nurmagomedov was also able to develop a read on RDA’s reactions. He knew he would stand tall against it, but after a few looks, RDA started to load up and attack with rear hook counters.
Nurmagomedov was able to use the uppercut to draw out the powerful retaliatory strike from RDA, while seamlessly shooting underneath it for a smooth takedown.
This worked especially well because of RDA’s hooking mechanics, he turns his hips all the way over to the point where he’s standing side-on for a moment. A long stance makes it difficult to be pushed back, and a wide stance makes it hard to be pushed side-to-side. In this position, RDA had no base to resist the straight-on double.
At UFC 254, Khabib Nurmagomedov will face perhaps the most brutal striker of his career in Justin Gaethje. Will the champion be able to identify Gaethje’s triggers and set him up for clean takedown entries, or will Gaethje be able to pressure and punish any potential collisions by Nurmagomedov? I can’t wait to find out.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the overall wrestling game of title alternate Michael Chandler.