Like the last three Conor McGregor fights and any that will occur after this, Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov is being called the biggest fight in the history of the UFC. The match up has been examined a hundred different ways and ultimately comes down to “grappler vs. striker” but with much higher stakes and skill levels than that description would usually suggest. Ultimately, the complexity of this match up can be reduced to a few key questions:
Can Nurmagomedov keep forcing the clinch?
The most important factor of this fight is whether or not Khabib Nurmagomedov can keep making the clinch happen. In an ideal world, Khabib would only need to grab his opponent once and that would be the end of matters. But even the best wrestlers in MMA don’t even approach a 100 percent completion rate on takedown attempts and cannot completely avoid being broken from clinches for inactivity. Furthermore, as everyone and their mother has pointed out this week, every round starts on the feet. A bum rush will get you a clinch or two but if Conor McGregor’s feet are doing what they are supposed to, waltzing effortlessly into the kitchen just isn’t going to work.
If Nurmagomedov simply sprints at McGregor over and over as he did against Edson Barboza, it is hard to see him not offering some glaring openings for the left hand as McGregor retreats on an angle or side steps off line. But if Nurmagomedov can actually use the fence as his accomplice and corral McGregor before each exchange he stands a much better chance of controlling when he can achieve the clinches, and also of tiring McGregor out. Last-ditch efforts to sprint off the fence take a lot more energy than circling out in the measured fashion he could in the middle of the cage.
Can Khabib complicate the left hand?
In the course of closing the distance, Khabib has to navigate that legendary left hand. McGregor’s best lefts land as he convinces his opponent to overreach. He will go forward and apply pressure, they will swing back at him, he will fade away and stretch them out to their maximum extent, then counter over the top through the open side.
While McGregor’s left hand is treated as the death touch, there are plenty of ways to complicate his Dim Mak. The most scientific one would be to show lots of feints and make him swing at air. Floyd Mayweather had McGregor swinging at shadows in their fight and the fight turned a corner as McGregor waited longer to react and ate stiff right hands for his hesitation.
Another way to complicate the McGregor left hand that doesn’t come with the caveat “also be a good striker” is to simply cover up as Nate Diaz did to tremendous success in their second bout. The old "bull guard" as it is termed in Lethwei: forearms high and chin down, top of the head projected toward the opponent. McGregor is lethal when his force connects on an exposed jawline or temple but blasting away at Diaz’s skull didn’t have nearly the same effect. And the more McGregor opened up in his attempts to hurt Diaz, the more chance Diaz had to get him into trades and land body shots. McGregor woke up to the opportunities for body work and folding elbows, but Diaz turned the mid portion of the fight by not trying to box scientifically.
Covering up is obstructing the path of the blow close to the target—and therefore the "lowest" form of defense. A similar principle is to obstruct the strike closer to the source. Have a look at Daniel Cormier’s checking of his opponent’s hands. George Foreman did the same to complicate the task of jabbing him and used it well even against the great Muhammad Ali, and George learned it from Sandy Saddler, and Saddler allegedly stole it from Jack Johnson.
As a tactic it has been around for decades, but it still does its job, makes ugly, awkward exchanges where the opponent struggles to land clean blows. Cormier uses it marvelously to hide his own blows and to draw opponents into clinches as he did against Stipe Miocic and Volkan Oezdemir.
Even turning Khabib southpaw just for this fight—placing his lead shoulder between his jawline and McGregor’s left hand—would serve to complicate the path of McGregor’s favorite punch. Preventing the left hand is not really a possibility if the fight goes any length of time between clinches but complicating it and taking away the best targets could make the difference between a McGregor knockout and a Nurmagomedov victory.
Can McGregor substitute the left?
Equally important is what McGregor can do if he cannot find his clean left hand counters. McGregor’s jab has often been an afterthought used as the aggressor. Against Mayweather, McGregor’s jab actually raised some eyebrows as he was forced to circle the ring and cut angles. Against Nurmagomedov it might be a better weapon to invest in if the early knockout doesn’t appear. Attrition work to the eyes with the jab can make aggressive fighters hang back, and if the swelling or cutting gets severe it makes it very hard to see power punches coming. Most importantly the completed jab is essentially a stiff arm with the body turned away from the opponent, where to throw the power hand McGregor must square himself—making the clinch more likely if Nurmagomedov is conscious after the strike.
McGregor’s kicking game has always been a very powerful tool in creating opportunities for the left hand. The left high kick brings his opponent’s right arm high and wide, his left straight sneaks down inside it. The left front kick to the body saps the strength of his opponents and draws awkward swings to keep him off. The front snap kicks to the body are a huge part of McGregor’s success, and while they are exceptionally dangerous to throw against wrestlers, he wasn’t afraid to use them against Chad Mendes even when Chad was catching them each time early on. In his mobile performance against Marcus Brimage, McGregor applied nice side steps off this front kick and ultimately drew Brimage onto counter uppercuts. A safer option might be the use of low line straight kicks, which are considerably more difficult to catch and can be used to force the opponent’s hips back, providing plenty of time to get away unscathed.
Can McGregor prevent Nurmagomedov from Locking his Hands?
The clinch might not be the end of the fight, but it is certainly a spot McGregor won’t want to hang out. If Nurmagomedov can lock a bodylock, he will be able to force McGregor to the mat or to his hands, and both of those options are steps down a path that gets further and further from the light and space of the middle of the cage.
Nurmagomedov often achieves this locking of the hands off a single underhook pin, which is a solid hitting position in itself. Cain Velasquez, Luke Rockhold, Daniel Cormier, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira all used this position well and flowed it into takedown attempts. Nate Diaz even used the single underhook pin to rough McGregor up in their first fight. Yet in the rematch McGregor showed better control of the position, stalling Diaz’s free hand and eventually cutting an angle out to that side when Diaz moved to make something happen.
But Nate Diaz isn’t Nurmagomedov. Not only is Nurmagomedov a much better technical wrestler, he is also enormously strong and while we spend most of our time talking about tactics and techniques, strength still matters a hell of a lot. But 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.
Can McGregor Get up?
Doubtless when McGregor visualizes this fight he lands his left hand and all the wrestling and groundwork he struggled through in training is rendered pointless. But McGregor has to know that there is a great chance he hits the mat before he can find his perfect shot and that is half the intrigue here. What can Conor McGregor do when put underneath really only the second great wrestler he’s faced in the cage? Chad Mendes was a smaller fighter, coming in on short notice, and is very much a one trick pony in his grappling. Nurmagomedov doesn’t get bogged down stalling in closed guard, he doesn’t spend all his energy on a big running shot and then lay on top of closed guard catching his breath, and he doesn’t ever stop working.
Whether McGregor somehow locks Nurmagomedov down in the closed guard and can find a way to strike with his elbows, or rolls to the turtle and attempts to perform more wrestling style stand ups, he cannot rely on what are effectively stalling strategies to save him here as they did against Mendes. “Stand up, sweep, or submission attempt” is the traditional trilogy of threats that makes an effective bottom game, and at most points in that Mendes fight McGregor was threatening none of them.
The most important point is that Nurmagomedov—while good against a flattened out opponent—seems to thrive when his opponent is attempting to wall walk back to their feet. Grapevining the legs and landing shockingly effective uppercuts or trapping the posting arm behind his opponent’s back—Nurmagomedov seems to have revolutionized ground work along the fence.
How do you get up without the fence? Well, frankly, it’s a lot more difficult against a heavy top player. If McGregor scores his knockout early that will of course be entertaining, but if McGregor gets put on his back and works his way back up to his feet with any kind of success against Nurmagomedov, that will be genuinely educational.
What on earth is happening with the rest of this division?
Finally, it is worth mulling on what happens next. Tony Ferguson has been placed in the co-main event which pretty much assures him a decent share of the viewership. This is great because he should be the next order of business for whoever wins. The truth is, of course, that if Nurmagomedov wins, the UFC will likely book the rematch to take advantage of a motivated McGregor willing to fight again within months of the loss. If McGregor wins there is a great chance that the lightweight champion disappears for another year or more, and we are back at square one. Even if McGregor does come back within the year, there is a distinct danger that Nate Diaz will be shoehorned into Tony Ferguson’s spot with a victory over Dustin Poirier. It seems like the best Ferguson might be able to hope for if McGregor beats Nurmagomedov is another interim title fight against Diaz.
Perhaps the most pertinent question—with the announcement of the awful UFC 230 main event and pay-per-view buyrates in the toilet since the WME takeover—is will the UFC ever be able to actually use their biggest attraction, Conor McGregor, to create stars out of their many other brilliant fighters?