By Kenneth Lundgren
UFC 229 is this Saturday night in Las Vegas and the main event is shaping up to be the biggest fight in MMA history. UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0) faces Conor McGregor (19-3), who was stripped of his title earlier this year due to inactivity in the Octagon. The timing of this fight could not be better and their contrasting styles make for a smashing matchup.
Both competitors, at 30, are in their primes, fighting each other at the correct time. At UFC 219 in Brooklyn in early-April, Khabib finally got his title shot against Al Iaquinta and won every minute of every round. Let’s also make clear that Khabib has never lost a round in any professional fight and is known to dominate all gym sparring sessions. UFC 229 is of interesting note not because Conor McGregor smashed a window bus with a dolly but because Iaquinta tricked Khabib into a standup bout and Khabib took the bait.
In their 5-round championship fight, Khabib took Iaquinta down early in the first two rounds and kept him there, utilizing his heavy top-game pressure and just wearing on Iaquinta, continuing to fatigue the Long Island native with arguably the most severe ground-and-pound in professional MMA. Iaquinta was being blitzed on the canvas; in the third round, he came out of his corner utilizing less head movement, less movement overall… Iaquinta is a very skilled boxer and striker but lowered his game in the third round hoping to keep the fight on its feet and survive.
The ploy worked. Iaquinta stood in front of Khabib and got tagged. Khabib starting throwing his jab more and more, getting loose and comfortable, almost dancing around like a pure striker, humming with confidence. Khabib was still able to win the rounds with his standup game, but Iaquinta ripped him several times with counter rights and left hooks, made the mighty Russian grappler appear merely ordinary with his knuckle-game. Iaquinta was able to survive the final three rounds borderline comfortably and remain on his feet.
Khabib’s primary strength is grappling. He is a two-time Sambo world champion, hailing from Dagestan. This region of central Russia, running south through Iran, is a hotbed for grappling and wrestling, the best wrestlers come from this part of the world. Khabib has been able to walk down all of his opponents with relentless pressure, able to take whatever punches and kicks coming his way and continue to march forward. In his fights, he always gets the takedown and always ends up on top of his opponent, utilizing his crushing ground-and-pound.
Khabib’s strength is grappling and arguably his weakness is striking. Iaquinta tagged him hard with those counters in rounds 3-5, and in 2016 at UFC 205 southpaw Michael Johnson pinged Khabib hard with a few straight left hands that stunned Khabib, froze him in his tracks. If the heavy-handed McGregor lands these rudimentary shots on Khabib, the result will be far different.
Khabib has not fought a striker in the class of Conor McGregor. McGregor is a southpaw who relies on flim-flam movement to keep his opponent at bay and to control the distance. McGregor’s biggest strength is his ability to unload that left-hand in an instant, his movement in and out is cobra-like. He is “notorious” for a reason: he finishes fights with that left. In December 2012, his final fight with Cage Warriors promotion, he knocked out Ivan Buchinger cold with a left-hand slip-counter and became a two-weight world champion.
In early-2013 in his first UFC fight against Marcus Brimage in 2013, McGregor caught Brimage with left uppercuts, icing him in the first round.
Two fights later, McGregor knocked out Diego Brandao in similar fashion, left hands to the side of the head and the referee stopped the fight in the first round.
In September 2014, McGregor faced his biggest professional challenge to date, taking on Dustin Poirier, a top-5 opponent. Many critics and insiders felt McGregor would have an issue with the rugged Poirier. McGregor had predicted a first round knockout. McGregor instantly walked Poirier back and landed a slew of left hands, knocking Poirier out 90 seconds into the first round.
Denis Siver was next to fall January 2015, then Chad Mendes July 2015, all victims of the left-hand. Jose Aldo famously charged at McGregor early in first round of their Featherweight championship bout in December 2015 and McGregor landed that short left counter before Aldo landed his left hook. Aldo’s left hook landed and the man also landed on the ground unconscious.
McGregor’s last opponent in the Octagon was the UFC Lightweight champion, Eddie Alvarez. Their fight was the main event of UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden in November 2016. Alvarez is a veteran of the game, fought for promotions across the world, is a former world champion with Bodog, Dream, and Bellator promotions. Alvarez had never looked bad under the lights, his resume includes Nick Thompson, Josh Neer, Michael Chandler, Donald Cerrone, Gilbert Melendez, Anthony Pettis, Rafael Dos Anos, a who’s who of murderers and champions.
Alvarez had never been stopped and McGregor caught him flush three times in the first round with left hand counters and knocked Alvarez down each time. Alvarez looked tight and flustered under the Madison Square Garden lights, not his usual self, and looked very tired. McGregor was able to keep his rhythm and knocked Alvarez out halfway into the second round. McGregor caught Alvarez with a stunning left counter to finish the fight.
Nurmagomedov, who was hampered with back and knee injuries 2014-2016, is now healthy and has fought three times in last nine months; he touted he has never been stronger physically, he’s had issues making the big cut to 155 but his weight is already correct. Khabib knows this is a big test and he is not cutting any corners – for sure we will be seeing the best Khabib ever.
Will McGregor have any ring rust after two years away from Octagon? I don’t think so. He will show sharpened stand-up prowess because of his boxing preparation for Mayweather, who is one of the GOAT boxers. McGregor has known for a long time he was going to face Khabib, maybe he was planning the timing of this bout all along. McGregor and his team have studied Khabib’s attacks and shots, I am sure they have put together a proper game-plan – easier said than done, as many coaches who have faced McGregor have claimed to have the blueprint to avoid the KO but none have worked thus far…
Many insiders are breaking down Khabib-McGregor as a grappler versus striker, the fight will only go two ways. Khabib will get his hands on McGregor and fatigue and smash him, or McGregor will catch Khabib on the chin and knocked him unconscious.
On their feet, both men want to come forward. I give a big edge to McGregor on their feet because McGregor coming forward will feel safe, he will set up his strikes, Khabib does not have the raw counterpunching ability of McGregor, will not catch the Irishman cold. Khabib’s stand-up is much more basic, he come straight in, he moves straight back. He does throw a lot of feints, but there is not much variety. He feints, and then comes in. Khabib wants to come in and maul, and McGregor wants to keep Khabib at end of his range. A typical ploy from McGregor is to throw wild kicks from a distance, hoping to either back you up so he can move forward and get you against cage, or to elicit a response so he can counter.
I have noticed in Khabib’s fights that when he takes an opponent down, the guy gets right back up again. Taken down, fights to get back up. Khabib never lets go. The opponent gets up, Khabib stays on him and drags him back down again. Then the opponent just will not get up. Part of Khabib’s success is this all-out pressure, he is constantly on you, nowhere to go.
The key to battling Khabib’s ground game is to defend from the guard. Easier said than done, with this heavy Russian bear raining punches and elbows down onto your face and body, no fighter or jujitsu practitioner has been able to solve Khabib’s ground attack thus far. This is a big reason why the public and fans want to see Khabib versus Tony Ferguson so badly: Ferguson has an eleven-fight win streak, he is tall and lanky, he is black belt Brazilian jujitsu, he has stated he would attack, could be on his back, from the ground. Khabib brings a completely different level of grappling, but I am confident a jujitsu practitioner will be able to defend himself against this Russian bear. Just because you get taken down, doesn’t mean you have to get right back up. Do not play into the Russian’s game.
My one concern about Khabib is that he is undefeated. He has never lost, he does not know what it is like to lose. This can be a double-edged sword, a fighter with supreme confidence is a dangerous fighter, but when you think you cannot lose you can get reckless. Having said that, I do not expect Khabib to just march in. The key for Khabib is to not panic, he just has to get his hands on McGregor and begin to impose his will.
McGregor’s ability to judge and maintain distance is the equalizer for this fight. This is McGregor’s fight to win or lose. Khabib is known to come forward, but if McGregor can sting him once and have Khabib even pausing or taking a step back, this fight is finished. Just like that, that is the razor’s edge difference. If Khabib takes a backward step, this fight is over.
McGregor likes to back his opponents up against the cage so he can begin to tee off on them. McGregor for sure wants to avoid a clinch with the Dagestani while trying to inch him back. McGregor has a 4-inch reach advantage, he will march Khabib back and wait for a counter or for Khabib to come forward and rush in. McGregor will keep Khabib just at end of his range and keep creeping forward. One ploy McGregor likes to utilize is throw a few soft, short jabs, jab jab, then CRACK come over the top with a fast, long left-hand that hits the mark.
McGregor is a southpaw and Khabib stands Orthodox. Khabib’s favorite shot is a single-leg takedown, and this shot is easier to make against a lefty because the lefty’s forward leg is so close, very easy for Khabib to pick up with strong arm and take opponent to mat. This is the danger for McGregor, he needs to be close enough to Khabib so Khabib can’t touch him but so McGregor can still hit the Russian.
This is the most exciting fight in the history of mixed martial arts. You have arguably the two best fighters in the division, at the peak of their powers, going at each other with 100% confidence. This fight feels almost like a throwback fight from early UFC, grappler versus striker. Both guys are so good at their specific skill sets that it is very hard to call a winner.
Khabib has not moved backwards in any of his fights, hard to imagine him doing so against McGregor. The odds of Khabib getting McGregor to the ground at some point are high. McGregor has brought in Russian grapplers and trains with grappling ace Dillon Danis, one of the top jujitsu practitioners and grapplers on the planet, they have studied Khabib and are well-prepared for what Khabib is going to bring. McGregor’s ground game has been heavily criticized in the past, I have never had such cynicism. He dominated Max Holloway and Denis Siver on the ground in both of their fights, and he completely stifled Eddie Alvarez’s grappling and wrestling, Alvarez had no way to get in and was shoulder-shrugged to the cage when he tried to grab.
In this championship match-up, preparing and designing a game plan for Khabib seems easier than coming up with a plan of attack or defense against McGregor. McGregor is by far the more dynamic and unpredictable fighter, and he leaves fighters unconscious. Khabib’s style is what it is, he is coming like a bear. The amazing truth is no fighter has been able to deal with Khabib’s pressure and strength, he has completely nullified all opponents. If Khabib gets his hands on McGregor and pins him to the cage, puts his weight on him, body-locks him, gets him to the ground, this can be a terribly long night for McGregor.
To make matters worse, McGregor’s biggest weakness is his endurance and Khabib has shown zero weakness in this department, Khabib’s stamina is 10 of 10. Khabib is the slower fighter. McGregor is smaller and faster, his body-type is filled with fast-twitch muscle fibers, which can fatigue faster than slow-twitch. McGregor’s left-hand is a weapon but it does come at a price, that fast-twitch movement requires heavy energy expenditure. His movement is constant darting inside and out, McGregor seems to be okay for two rounds but then begins to slow down – the way McGregor looks at it, it doesn’t matter. If he’s hitting you, the fight will only go one or two rounds. If he slows down against Khabib, McGregor is done. Not only will the sting of his left hand decrease, his movement will lessen and Khabib will find a dead man walking.
McGregor needs to force his will in the first two rounds. He needs to catch Khabib coming in. I had noted that fighting could be from your back might be an option for future fighters, Tony Ferguson makes for a very interesting opponent for Khabib because Ferguson is a black belt in jujitsu and already states he would fight Khabib from the ground, from his back. Skilled fighters can certainly score and win rounds and fights from this position, but that is scary enterprise against the Russian. McGregor found success throwing elbows from his back against Mendes and took minimal damage. McGregor was almost able to relax on the ground, waiting to get back to his feet again. He cannot afford to do this against Khabib, Khabib will just overtake, his presence and intensity is just different when he is on top position. From top position, Khabib will stand up, cup the opponent’s foot so the opponent cannot stand, then throw down big shots down, then look to pass, a constant pressure. The longer you stay there, the worse it gets. Khabib, the wet smothering blanket. Khabib does not rest in top position; he smashes.
No matter how good McGregor is on the ground, the rounds will not end well for him if Khabib takes him down. Khabib is landing shots, perhaps this goes on for a round, two rounds, now Conor is behind, he’s chasing shots, now he has to rush forward into that area where he wanted to maintain distance… McGregor must work hard not to back up, if Khabib sees the cage behind him he will just shoot, then come up and press to the cage.
This is a fight: I see the skilled striker beating the skilled grappler.
McGregor finds his distance and lands punches, this fight is done.
McGregor, 2nd round KO.