Surprisingly, Conor McGregor didn’t play the part of the evasive fighter on Saturday night. Lateral movement and evasion has always been the most logical way to undo a strong grappler and force them to stay in striking range longer. But in spite of every bit of nonsense outside of the ring, Conor McGregor has always been a man of his word in the cage and he came out ready to push the pace as he has to wilt every other fighter he’s met spare Nate Diaz. McGregor moved forward immediately and Khabib Nurmagomedov looked to be flummoxed by this early on. After a left hand grazed the wrestler and the crowd erupted, Nurmagomedov escaped the fence and dived on a long, low shot.
Papa Nurmagomedov’s Shot
Just before Andrey Koreshkov vs. Douglas Lima met a couple of weeks ago we discussed the high crotch and its role in MMA. In grappling, the threat of the guillotine is a stern one, and in wrestling trying to use the high crotch without being able to switch off to the double can result in a struggle as the opponent attempts to butt drag himself up towards the shooter’s back. Yet Khabib Nurmagomedov’s own father has explained the family philosophy on the high crotch which (in this translation at least) he calls “the beginning of the alphabet.” Shooting with the head on the outside and only attempting to pick up one leg keeps the fighter away from his opponent’s uppercut and rear knee. In that very first low shot, McGregor timed a knee but had to awkwardly angle it across himself as he tried to track Nurmagomedov’s head.
The two men went into a spiral as McGregor chased Nurmagomedov’s back until Nurmagomedov could switch off to a double leg, immediately driving McGregor into a seated position against the fence and grape-vining his legs.
Every subsequent Nurmagomedov shot either went straight to the head outside position, or began with a faked shot to the middle and ducked to the outside when McGregor tried to counter.
McGregor managed to keep himself relatively safe and conserve his energy through the first round—mainly by refusing to try to fight his way up—but in the second round the order of things was turned on its head. The awkward, spasmodic flailer from Dagestan bobbled around, feinted, and stepped in with a swing from behind him which caught McGregor pulling back and sent him stumbling.
Equally surprising was McGregor’s ability to keep himself safe on the ground when stuck in the seated position along the fence. Where Edson Barboza and Michael Johnson immediately began working their way up and found themselves getting battered and laid down on a trapped arm, McGregor got caught in that usual Nurmagomedov leg mount position but protected his hands and hips well, also managing to prevent Nurmagomedov from landing those unique leg mount uppercuts.
Preventing the Bodylock
In "Six Key Questions in Conor McGregor Vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov" we referred to the importance of securing the bodylock for the Dagestani:
“The bodylock is the difference: if he gets it, Nurmagomedov will be sagging his weight on McGregor and throwing him around when he wants to. If Khabib cannot get the bodylock or strike effectively he is forced to drop for more traditional takedown attempts on the legs and those are the ones that can be more readily punished with elbows, limp legs, switches and so on. McGregor himself tends to favor those almost-downward elbows and that is the key difference along the fence: upper body takedowns remove McGregor’s power, lower body takedowns give him weapons to strike with.”
In the instances that McGregor wasn’t quickly bundled to the floor off a shot, or when he was able to work his way up along the fence, he made a concerted effort to control Nurmagomedov’s left hand. Often he did this by keeping his left hand inside and across his body so that he could work two hands on one. When Nurmagomedov went to change level and work on a leg, it became clear that McGregor was hoping to start elbowing and Nurmagomedov would bring his head back up.
For three rounds McGregor prevented that bodylock from occurring but Nurmagomedov found his spots. At one point he was able to draw the elbow out of McGregor and immediately linked his hands between McGregor’s legs, hitting Randy Couture’s favorite pick up at the crotch and kicking out McGregor’s other leg.
In many respects this fight mimicked McGregor’s bout with Chad Mendes which is perhaps the best of McGregor the fighter even if it isn’t the best of McGregor the technician. In that fight McGregor’s timing was off and he was blasted with right hands and rag-dolled from the opening, but he kept working, kept the pace high, and simply outlasted Mendes. Against Nurmagomedov, McGregor seemed to fight with the same stubbornness while it was all going wrong, but the fight was marred by a willingness to flagrantly violate the rules. Illegally kneeing Nurmagomedov’s head on the mat, using his toes in the fence, grabbing the fence with his hands, grabbing a fistful of Nurmagomedov’s shorts to stop his level changes—everything except eye gouges and groin strikes seemed to be present.
By the end of round three, Nurmagomedov was losing his temper. In a clinch, McGregor held the inside of his glove—preventing the bodylock that they both knew was pivotal. Nurmagomedov pulled back to land punches, his glove still being clearly held, before pressing back in, whereupon McGregor landed yet another downward elbow to the back of the head. As Nurmagomedov pressed into McGregor, the Irishman’s digits clearly buried in the cuff of his glove, he alerted Herb Dean, who continued to do nothing.
No one knows quite what has happened to Dean. He drew attention a few weeks back when he seemed willing to let C. B. Dollaway get beaten to death, but in this fight he verbally acknowledged almost every foul McGregor committed and acted on none of them. Then consider Robert Byrd’s laughable performance as McGregor literally hammer-fisted the back of Floyd Mayweather’s head multiple times. It seems as though when it comes to the biggest fight of the year, refs are desperate to not involve themselves in the outcome by taking a point. As an authority figure, Herb Dean was completely flaccid at UFC 229 and McGregor was allowed to run wild as a result.
Khabib Nurmagomedov might stick his chin up in the air and swing wildly when he strikes, but he was surprisingly sharp against McGregor. No, it wasn’t beautiful, but he showed a real awareness of everything he had to worry about. The McGregor body kicks and long lefts to the body still landed, and did their part in slowing Nurmagomedov down, but when it came to the mythical left hand Nurmagomedov seemed undaunted and well practiced.
Nurmagomedov struck the balance between feinting and actually stepping in. This is such a fine line to walk but it is the secret to besting a good counter striker. Feint too much and attack too little, and they aren’t going to buy the feints. Attack too often or have your feints look nothing like your actual attacks and you’re just going to eat counters. Nurmagomedov showed the right amount of courage to step in and fire, and then the right amount of guile to use feints to have McGregor back-skipping and swinging at air. The most important part of the outside fighting seemed to be Nurmagomedov’s head. And we’re not just talking about his head movement—which was surprisingly decent throughout.
Study the peculiar nod that Nurmagomedov uses when he steps in to punch or to attempt takedowns. It looks like a goofy tell that a wrestler—desperately trying to learn the striking game— has kept in spite of coaching. Yet it was a tell that McGregor fixated on. Every time Nurmagomedov threw his head forward he got a response out of McGregor.
When Nurmagomedov jabs he tends to lift his chin up in the air. This has most of us cringing and thinking of how it could go wrong. Yet against McGregor he would do a “what’s up?” head raise and a shoulder feint, and then switch his head off to the outside so that McGregor swung a knee or an uppercut at the air.
And as much as we laughed at the idea of out jabbing Al Iaquinta being proof of a good jab, Nurmagomedov’s jab was a solid weapon in this bout. From Eddie Alvarez to Jose Aldo, the temptation has always been to lunge at McGregor. Nate Diaz shackled his hands to his head and walked McGregor down, but only Mayweather was constantly readjusting the distance to take away that perfectly measured pull counter. As dangerous as it seemed for Nurmagomedov to be standing with McGregor in round three and round four, he consistently put McGregor on the end of his jab, removing that buffer of distance and he rarely overextended.
Here McGregor attempts to use the faked left hand to shift up and then follow with the one-two as he famously did to drop Eddie Alvarez from long distance, Nurmagomedov is having none of it though.
In fact when Alan Patrick lunged with his left hand and walked onto that McGregor-esque open side counter over and over again earlier in the night, this writer thought had an uncomfortable feeling that he was seeing a couple of hours into the future.
Yet when Nurmagomedov threw his right hand, he was on top of McGregor. And when he felt McGregor returning, Nurmagomedov dropped under the left hand beautifully to take the clinch. This sequence is some of the best handling of Conor McGregor’s left hand we’ve ever seen, sadly undermined by McGregor taking a fistful of shorts.
As McGregor scrambled up off a shot in round four, he lost track of Nurmagomedov’s left hand and suddenly the Dagestani had a bodylock and was driving McGregor down under both of their bodyweights. Nurmagomedov dragged himself onto McGregor’s back before mounting the Irishman. McGregor conceded his back and another million memes of Conor McGregor tapping out were born.
Everything after that moment is beyond our scope and frankly, my interest. Both men have shown the absolute worst of mixed martial arts and yet you can be damn sure the footage of that scrap will turn up in the promotional material for the rematch no matter how shocked the UFC brass profess to be. What happened in the cage was fantastic, and combined with Tony Ferguson’s performance in the co-main event made for a sensational night of entertainment. In fact, if you are a casual MMA fan and you take only one thing from this article, it is that Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson is the fight to decide who the greatest lightweight in the world is, and it has been for a long old while.