There’s a rather elemental question at the heart of mixed martial arts: who would win in a fight between a dominant wrestler and a fearsome striker? It’s a question the sport has been asking for two decades, and one that, by its nature, will never be convincingly answered, because it depends on the wrestler and the striker involved. Henry Cejudo is a UFC champ. So is Robert Whittaker.
This weekend, the question will be asked as loudly as it ever has when Conor McGregor steps to Khabib Nurmagomedov for the UFC lightweight championship. It’s been billed as the biggest fight in UFC history and probably will be, both because McGregor is an unprecedented drawing force and because the matchup itself is so self-evidently fascinating. One dude is going to try to punch the other’s face off while the other dude tries to break his opponent’s body on the mat. Anyone can see the appeal of that, and McGregor and Nurmagomedov are perhaps the sport’s greatest practitioners of their respective trademark skills.
Nurmagomedov is the healthy favorite, and while I think the degree to which he’s favored is unwarranted, no fighter has ever been able to overcome his absolutely punishing fighting style and beat him. The Dagestani is 26-0 in his MMA career, and only a few opponents have ever truly pushed him. He is not only the best grappler McGregor will ever face, but he’s probably the best grappler the UFC has ever seen.
It is much easier to diagnose what differentiates a dominant striker than it is to pick out which specific techniques a wrestling genius like Khabib uses to maul his foes. Grappling is MMA’s least sexy art form, a much uglier school of fighting than kickboxing or Muay Thai. It’s all about control. Simply put, Nurmagomedov has everything. He only needs to grab hold of a single limb or extremity and he’ll ruthlessly leverage that into complete control. Watch him drag Edson Barboza’s broken body against the fence with only an ankle hold.
Nurmagomedov doesn’t necessarily pop as an absolute specimen the way, say, Yoel Romero or Jon Jones do, but he’s an athlete on par with MMA’s very best. The dude never seems to get tired, which is impressive since he spends most of his time in the cage either relentless pushing forward into his opponents or flexing his muscles to continue smushing their faces into the mat. It can be tempting to characterize the Dagestani champ as just a freak athlete, but that would do a disservice to his analytical skills. Nurmagomedov does not try to fight the same sort of fight every time he steps into the octagon, and he adjusts on the fly with ease. (He had an uncharacteristically undominant showing against Al Iaquinta in his last fight, but that had more to do with him having 24 hours to prepare for Iaquinta than Nurmagomedov being unprepared.)
Pressure defines Khabib’s game. The Barboza fight was perhaps the most comically illustrative example of how effective Nurmagomedov can be going forward. Barboza is a fearsome kickboxer with outlandish reach and some real snappy power. Nurmagomedov’s solution was a simple one: he got get in Barboza’s face, extinguished all of the space that the Brazilian would need to set up his big looping kicks, and he fucked him up in every single phase of the fight, never even giving him a second to catch his breath.
Tha Barboza fight also featured Nurmagomedov’s best work on the feet in his UFC career, though that can probably be chalked up to what a hilariously bad matchup he was for Barboza, who hates pressure of any sort. You won’t make it to 26-0 and UFC gold without being able to hang with your division’s best strikers, and while Nurmagomedov’s title win was essentially a sparring match with Iaquinta, he has a lot to work on standing up. Before he pounded the life out of Michael Johnson, Nurmagomedov got hit a few times, maybe even getting hurt.
He keeps his head straight up and can be hit hard by anyone who has fast hands and is willing to throw combinations at him; he’s not an instinctual defensive fighter, though he has yet to face a striker who has truly been able to punish him for his mediocre footwork or tendency to put his head down and walk into the pocket. Nurmagomedov sets up his takedowns with frightening speed and power, and any fighter who steps to him absolutely must do everything they can to keep him from grabbing any part of their body or cutting off their angles of escape. That said, he does like to shoot straight on, usually after throwing an overhand right. His head is there for the taking by a capable counterpuncher, a boxer smart enough to counter a counter after initiating an exchange and anticipating an abrupt level change from Nurmagomedov.
Conor McGregor, on the other hand, is such a counter puncher. The only other time McGregor has fought at 155 pounds, he wasted Eddie Alvarez with an endless array of counter left hands.
It can be easy to forget how good of a striker McGregor is, since he hasn’t had a fight in two years, instead spending his time pretending to box and looking at boats. His counter left is a devastating punch, and it’s claimed many an elite fighter. Watch how he only moves his head back as Alvarez advances, standing his ground to load up and drop a bomb on Alvarez’s chin.
That’s not a punch that works unless you are accurate as hell, and for all of McGregor’s legit knockout power, what makes him special is his accuracy. He’ll find your chin with his hands, and he’s got a nasty front kick to the body, though he hasn’t used it as much in his recent fights. The wild uppercuts that Khabib used to throw against people like Pat Healy will not work against someone like McGregor. He finds heads, and he smashes them. At 155 pounds, he’s shown himself to be just as snappy and lethal as he was at featherweight.
That’s, duh, an important skill, but it’s about McGregor’s only elite one. He is not a good wrestler.
The only other time McGregor fought a truly talented wrestler, he won a weird little fight against Chad Mendes. Mendes spent a good portion of that fight, including most of the second round, mounted on top of McGregor, wailing on him with elbows and fists. Conor struggled to escape, and if he wasn’t facing a tiny dude on short notice, he probably would have been choked out in two rounds. Nurmagomedov also loves to get on top of his opponents and smash them, and he’s much better than Mendes. If this fight goes to the ground early, it’s going to be a bad night for McGregor.
Conversely, Khabib really needs to be careful in the first round. As Jose Aldo would tell you, McGregor is the fastest starter in the UFC. From the word go, he’s ready to throw and he’s dialed in. Khabib doesn’t rocket out of the gates, and you can probably count on McGregor making the most of his first few minutes in the octagon to do some lasting damage. Even if McGregor doesn’t get a knockout in 13 seconds, big shots can chip away at a fighter’s abilities, and he can permanently damage Nurmagomedov.
A tricky question McGregor has to answer is whether or not he is comfortable leading. Against most opponents, the Irishman would be happy to kick back and wait for his foe to close the distance, where he can set up his monstrous counter shots. The problem is, you almost have to pressure Nurmagomedov to keep him from closing off escape angles and making it his sort of fight. Khabib will be wary of that left hand, but he’s creative enough that he’ll find a way to get to McGregor if he has the entire octagon (there’s also the question of whether he even respects Conor’s counter shots enough that he won’t just walk into his face and take him down like he did to Barboza).
For all the inherent uncertainty of a fight like this, there’s one truth that seems more and more important: Nurmagomedov has a undrainable gas tank, and McGregor, who hasn’t fought since the 2016 election, has a history of getting really tired and losing his pop. He had better hope he can find a home for his left hand on Khabib’s face, or else he is going to be in for a world of pain. It seems like a safe bet that if this fight reaches the championship rounds, Khabib will spend 10 minutes twisting McGregor’s helpless body into a pretzel than punching him a bunch.
The crux of the fight is this: Can McGregor fuck Nurmagomedov up enough at the start of the fight that he either knocks Nurmagomedov out or hurts him bad enough that he can’t grind him into hamburger meat against the cage? This matchup is so interesting because both Nurmagomedov and McGregor are each other’s kryptonite. As Connor Ruebusch noted, both fighters have dominated pretty much every fight they’ve won, and both are facing men who can exploit their weaknesses better than anyone else they’ve ever fought. It’s hard to see a scenario where this fight ends without a clear winner. Someone will impose their style (probably). No one has a good sense of how Khabib fares against heavy-handed punchers of McGregor’s caliber because there are no other such punchers; no one has a good sense of how McGregor fares against stylists of Khabib’s caliber because there are none. Everything will be new. Thank God these two both made weight, because the rest of this card is shit.