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UFC 254: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje — A Closer Look

No intro for this one. You all know what you’re here for, let’s get right into it.

THE OPPRESSIVE GRAPPLING OF KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV

UFC 229: Khabib v McGregor

What can I say about Khabib that hasn’t been said already? He’s one of the most dominant fighters in one of the most stacked weight classes in one of the biggest promotions in MMA history. Looking through his match history is reading through a who’s who of the lightweight division, and no matter how stiff the opposition, he’s managed to retain a so-far perfect record of 28-0, all consisting of dominant victories in a sport known for its volatility and propensity for upsets.

What’s more impressive, however, is the fact that everyone knows what Khabib’s deal is. Sure, his game has evolved over the years, but it hasn’t really changed much: He’s a control-grappler who uses every trick in the book to take his opponents down to the mat, where he can then inflict upon them vicious ground and pound, or maybe hunt for a submission. 

The fighters he’s going up against should, theoretically, have every tool they need to prepare a strategy that can nullify his preferred approach. But it’s not that simple, is it? Because while Khabib’s plan might be linear, the nuances in it make it so that falling into it at some point during the round is nearly unavoidable. 

Khabib grabs an ankle, turns it into a takedown.

Everything Khabib does stems from the threat of his lightning fast shot. An explosive level change is almost necessary for anyone wishing to implement a wrestling-heavy style in MMA, but Khabib stands out because of just how quickly he can go from standing straight up to almost sliding on the ground. 

When mixed with his amazing strength, which allows him to turn even the most seemingly inconsequential of grips into a takedown, this makes it so that even fighters with amazing sprawls need to be extra wary of stuffing his shots. Stopping him is very possible, but in order to do so one must be always ready to drop, move their hips away, fight for underhooks, etc., which in turn makes fully focusing on a stand-up game very hard.

Khabib catches Tavares with a left hook, immediately crumpling him.

This single weapon opens up a myriad of doors for Khabib. His boxing, for example, might appear to many as amateurish and clumsy, but while he’s certainly no Mayweather, it still enables him to badly hurt opponents who’re too busy trying to catch him changing levels to move away from his punches. Worthy of note is also his love of the flying knee as a way to mix up opponents who want to duck in on him.

It is against the fence, however, that we truly get to see Khabib shine: When his opponent’s back is against the (literal) wall, a combination of trips and leg entanglements makes it almost too easy for Khabib to sit his opponent down. Once there, he’s perhaps the best fighter we’ve yet seen in MMA at controlling their legs in a way that makes it seem truly impossible to get back up.

When they do manage to stand, whether because Khabib messes up or purposefully allows them to regain control, it is rare to see them get on their feet for too long before being hit with a mat return, which only serves to exhaust them further and score more points for Khabib.

This video by Sonny Brown is a few years old, but still an excellent extrapolation of some of the work Khabib does against the fence.

This isn’t to say Khabib’s style is completely flawless, however: His wider stance has shown itself to be vulnerable to leg kicks, and against fighters who’re able to thread that needle between preventing the takedown and striking effectively (like Barboza and McGregor did for portions of their fights), his lack of effective defense left him with little answer but to keep pressuring and waiting for a slip up.

Still, this puts the onus on his opponent to either fight a near-perfect match or to make a mile out of the brief windows of opportunity they’ll get — which would be an inhumanly impossible task for many, but might be within the grasp of his next opponent…

THE SHEER BRUTALITY OF JUSTIN GAETHJE

Back when he joined the UFC roster, Gaethje was quick to make a name for himself as a dude with incredible power and unequaled gameness: A fight with Gaethje was nearly guaranteed to be a banger and end with either him or his opponent down on the floor. He was relentless, tough, dangerous and exciting to watch — but also incredibly reckless and prone to taking unsustainable amounts of damage.

Following back to back loses against Alvarez and Poirier, Gaethje seemed to make a conscious effort to switch his style into something more patient and thoughtful. He’s still an incredibly dynamic high-pressure fighter, but now with a more measured and patient approach he’s probably more dangerous than ever.

As someone who mainly uses boxing for his offense, Gaethje has a variety of ways in which he likes to close the distance and pressure his opponents: A stiff, stepping jab which he likes to throw to the body, slips and parries to nullify his opponent’s offense and occasional feints to scare them into backing away. But perhaps more important of all is his leg kick.

Whereas a lot of other fighters prefer to use the leg kick as a fast, far-reaching strike, Gaethje throws it not unlike Barboza, putting the full of his weight into it and all but stepping on his opponent’s foot so he can really sink his shin into their calf. In a way, it’s reminiscent of someone kicking a soccer ball. While this does leave Gaethje more exposed, it matters little when he leaves his opponents off-balance and unable to retaliate most of the time.

He also likes to step into exchanges with the left hook, something that works doubly well if the opponent is already watching for his jab, or trying to circle away from him while on the fence. Gaethje’s lead hook is fast and strong, but it’s also a multipurpose tool: He can use it to set up a half-plum tie, which allows him to off-balance his opponent so he can more easily land some strikes in the clinch, or simply to find the range for his right hand.

Gaethje’s left hook stops Vick’s momentum, which sets up for his right hand.

Of note is also Gaethje’s wrestling pedigree. Gaethje has been wrestling folkstyle since he was four years old, graduated high school with a record of 191-9 and went on to join the NCAA D1 program through his college years. He made ample use of his wrestling early into his MMA career, at first to control his opponents, then to slam them against the mat — although he slowly phased it out in favor of what he saw as more ‘exciting’ brawling tactics.

There’s no real way of knowing how Gaethje’s amateur wrestling experience would translate to the level of MMA he fights at today, but while his ability to fight for control and scramble hasn’t been put to much use in his UFC run so far, it certainly won’t be an unwelcome aid against one of the most dominant control wrestlers the sport has ever seen.

THE MATCHUP

Gaethje, as a fighter, is hard to diagnose. While his aggression, durability and ungodly power mean he can pose a major threat to just about anyone, his tendency to be overcommit (even after tempering his style) and always chase for the finish like his life depends on it make it so that he’s always in a precarious position. Does he have the skillset to punish Khabib’s shortcomings? Yes. Will he be able to?

Well, that depends.

Khabib will no doubt want to avoid fighting on the feet as much as possible. He’ll try to exploit Justin’s proneness to crash into his opponents and swing his whole body around with each punch to clinch and take him down. Once there, unless Gaethje can surprise us by showing he’s still got some of his amateur wrestling chops, the fight will most likely be all Khabib.

This means Gaethje will get a precious few chances to make Khabib pay, and he needs to make them count — and while he certainly could do it, it’s hard to argue in favor of his chances when other more precise and more composed strikers have tried in the past, and gotten mauled for their troubles.

I’m gonna play it safe here and say Khabib will most likely take this fight via submission, probably in the third or fourth round.


My name is Edgar and I like to talk about MMA. Follow me on Twitter at @Mexican_Striker and follow @OT_Heroics for more great sports content.

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Mexican_Striker
I write technical breakdowns for MMA fights and cover MMA news. If I get anything wrong please don't call me out, it hurts my feelings. Follow me on Twitter @mexican_striker.
https://medium.com/art-of-fighting
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