I don’t think I’ve been this interested in an MMA fight since Jon Jones beat* Daniel Cormier last summer at UFC 214.
There have been some great bouts since (Miocic/Ngannou and Whittaker/Romero 2 come to mind), but in terms of star power and overall draw, it’s hard to view Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov as anything but a top-five all-time UFC fight, at least in terms of anticipation and meaning.
You’ve got the return of the most compelling figure in UFC history, fighting for his vacated lightweight title against a 26-0 opponent. There’s been rivalry and trash talk going back years now, while Conor was carrying the featherweight belt and feuding with Nate Diaz and others. Anybody who was dialed in back then hoped to see Conor vs. Khabib sometime in the future, and here we are.
On paper, this fight is incredibly straightforward. Khabib is the promotion’s best grappler and Conor is the promotion’s best striker. I really don’t think that’s a bullshit hot take; I think it’s true. McGregor has put the likes of Eddie Alvarez and Jose Aldo on their butts with perfectly-timed strikes while Khabib has looked bored while grinding opponents into dust on the mat.
That’s a good starting point, the idea that Khabib really hasn’t been tested. He’s had some easy wins in the past, mauling Edson Barboza and Michael Johnson and besting Rafael Dos Anjos in 2014. Beyond that, however, there’s not much on the resume. Khabib was due to fight Tony Ferguson for the lightweight belt in April, but Ferguson pulled out with injury and Al Iaquinta stepped in as a huge underdog. Khabib I think viewed the fight as practice and didn’t even seem to be performing at 100% as he won via unanimous decision.
Conor, on the other hand, beat Aldo, Alvarez, Nate Diaz, Chad Mendes, Dustin Poirier, and Max Holloway. He’s been involved in more high-profile fights and he’s much more familiar with the spotlight and all of the pressure that it brings. If we’re looking at this fight like a college basketball matchup in the NCAA tournament, Conor is #3 seed North Carolina with 22 wins, 9 losses, and a tough strength of schedule. Khabib comes in as #1 seed Gonzaga, something like 29-2 while playing in a lesser conference against lesser competition. Both are capable of winning it all, but you have more questions about Gonzaga.
The thing with Khabib is that his stand-up game has been sloppy in the past. His approaches are getting more creative, and when he gets you on the ground you’re basically cooked, but he’s vulnerable in a fist fight and can leave himself open while trying to close the gap.
Early on in the Johnson fight, he took a few shots before eventually landing the takedown, moving to crucifix position, and unloading:
The common thought here is that Khabib won’t survive those kinds of hits from Conor, so he needs to tighten up his stand-up and protect himself as he moves in, or else McGregor will put him on his back in the same way he’s taken out so many people before.
I found this quote from Johnson to be fascinating, which comes from an excellent ESPN story seeking opinions of McGregor and Khabib from their previous opponents:
“People talk about the left hand I landed but I never really thought I hurt him as bad as everyone thought I did. You see different things when you’re in the cage and I didn’t see Khabib getting hurt. I remember him taking a good punch. That wasn’t my best left hand because, again, my hips were back and I didn’t step in with a lot of power because I was worried about the takedown.”
On the flip-side, does Conor have the wrestling and ground skills to combat Khabib if the fight goes to the mat? No, I don’t think so, but his takedown defense is underrated and he proved in the second Diaz fight that he’s more than just a strong left hand. He took plenty of hits, paced himself for five rounds, and used his precision to out-duel Nate in a way that showed a lot more maturity and IQ than the first fight, when he gassed out early and ended up tapping to a rear naked choke. Conor was able to use leg kicks efficiently in the second fight, and maybe he tries that again with Khabib tomorrow night to keep him off balance and hold distance.
One of the first guys to really damage Conor on the ground was Chad Mendes, who couldn’t close the deal, but he took him down and bloodied him in their fight at UFC 189:
Said Mendes of the fight:
“What I remember most about the fight is his wrestling was pretty bad. In my opinion, he was a novice. He wasn’t able to keep up with the changes in direction. One of the main things you learn as a high-level wrestler is chain wrestling. When you shoot and a guy defends, you don’t just stop and back out. Chain wrestling is going from one thing straight to another, straight to another. Conor had good defense on the first go-around, but once the chain wrestling kicked in he couldn’t keep up. Khabib is a little bit of a different wrestler than I am, though. He’s not super explosive, he’s more about pressure and putting you against the fence. In my mind, that might be a tough way to try and take Conor down.”
And that’s interesting to me because Khabib is less of a wrestler I think and more of a guy who forces the fight to the ground, where he can use his Russian Sambo skills. He doesn’t come from an American collegiate wrestling background ala Mendes or a guy like Colby Covington, his strength is operating on the ground once he gets there. He’s a suffocating machine on top, but he’s more of a guy who will grind you down with attrition instead of putting together nifty chains to hit the ground.
Ultimately, I feel like Khabib has been able to get by on pure talent alone while not being 100% dialed in during some of his fights. That’s gotten him to 26-0, so he obviously knows what he’s doing, and his overall skill level is phenomenal, but the margins for error are almost nonexistent when you’re fighting Conor McGregor.
That said, I don’t think this turns into Demian Maia vs. Tyron Woodley. I think both of these guys will go for it instead of boring us to death. Conor is the more polished product with the better resume and he passes the eye test while Khabib still carries some blemishes, in my opinion. Still, if Nurmagomedov gets McGregor on the ground with time to spare, this fight is probably over.
Prediction: no clue, but I’m ready