Where were you when this exact moment happened?
I was on my desk, in front of this very laptop. I was at the edge of my seat, as I’m sure many of you were. Even if we had a solid idea of how this one will end, the suspense was nonetheless palpable.
When that knockdown happened, I joined the rest of MMA humanity in a collective sigh.
Holy shit. How did that happen?
Khabib Nurmagomedov was supposed to be the quintessential wrestler/grappler, a master of subduing people on the mat. But in this brief moment, he outsmarted a formidable stand-up fighter that is Conor McGregor.
You don’t ascend to such a level of greatness without adding layers to your game. In Khabib’s case, it’s honing his striking chops enough for him to confidently stand and bang with you… Or at least that’s what he wants everyone to think.
Because if you look closely, the punches, kicks, and flying knee attempts are a mere prelude to the inevitable.
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s success isn’t solely anchored on his unparalleled wrestling skills. Is it his strength that allegedly makes him feel like a light heavyweight? Not even. It’s the pressure he puts on you.
Right off the bat, you’ll see him put the pressure on opponents. He’ll move forward and leave them zero space to operate.
Just look at Edson Barboza right here. Here’s a guy who’s an elite, no-nonsense striker. But he was moved on his backpedal for the most part. It was only so long before the almighty Eagle caught up and did his work.
If you’re Edson Barboza or any other unfortunate soul, now your mind’s on overdrive.
Oh shit, he’s getting too close. I need to angle out. No, fuck that, I need to strike back. But if I kick, he could catch it, put me on my ass, and smother me.
As you have that internal dialogue with yourself, Khabib’s already two steps ahead of you. And it’s only a matter of time before that inner chatter comes to life.
This strategy of keeping the pressure on bodes well for pure wrestlers whose vulnerabilities lie in their striking. Pushing opponents into a tight corner and forcing them to move backward takes away their ability to do pretty much anything.
Unless you’re this guy.
Khabib does it by incorporating another aspect of his game that makes him an outlier: his fight IQ.
The Wiley Setups
I mentioned this in a previous piece I wrote about strikers vs. grapplers. Khabib goads you into a fall sense of security of a striking battle. He will stand and trade with you, much to the distress of his coach Javier Mendez.
Once he’s got you in full kickboxing mode, he goes in for the takedown when you least expect it.
This is another key ingredient in Khabib Nurmagomedov’s success. It’s not solely about his flawless chain wrestling or the caveman strength that allegedly makes him feel like a light heavyweight. It’s also in his fight IQ and the ability to mix things up.
In his mind, Khabib wants to wrestle. But he’s gotten so adept at shooting at the perfect moment amidst throwing a barrage of strikes.
It’s a strategy that’s left all his opponents befuddled, clueless, and dejected. They know what’s coming, but have no way to stop it.
Fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov requires mental fortitude. Lots of it. Because he will break you, make you ti-red, and smesh you until you can’t take it anymore.
Hell, you’re lucky if he gets you out of there quick. But if he chooses to maul you for extended periods, you’ll be in for a long night.
Michael Johnson knew it coming into that third and final round. That, right there, is the face of a defeated man. Khabib sensed it and flexed his psychological edge at that moment as if to say, ‘just give up, dude.’
That psychological is the x-factor that separates good fighters from the greats. During his prime, pre-leg break years, Anderson Silva struck deep fear in his opponents.
Anyone who shared the cage with him was simply in awe of his aura of invincibility. It was like watching your favorite action hero come alive then beat the living daylights out of you.
It’s also why we saw a lot of these happen back then. Poor Forrest had no choice but to give up the remaining ounce of fight left in him.
But the difference with Khabib is that he will constantly remind you what a monumental mistake it was to decide to step in there with him. Once he knows he’s had his way with you, he’ll pretty much do as he pleases.
Many of you pundits may use the words “sloppy,” “shaky” or “fundamentally unsound” to describe Khabib’s striking. But he makes it work for him.
Here, he goaded Johnson into throwing caution to the wind and brawling. Played with fire there, a bit, but he was landing his shots.
But like I said earlier, it was only a prelude to the inevitable.
Every Khabib Nurmagomedov naysayer out there will never fail to bring these up.
“Well, he never fought Tony Ferguson. How is he the greatest lightweight of all-time?”
“His résumé will never be complete without El Cucuy’s name on it.”
Here’s the best one:
“He ran off to Russia and ducked that fight.”
Alright, for the sake of argument, let’s take a look at this one. What could’ve happened if these two men locked horns inside the UFC cage?
Now, I won’t dive into this too much to save us all time. But one point that people love to bring up is Tony’s ability to fight off his back. Yeah, you’ve got a point there.
But as a counterargument, let’s take a look at how he did against an actual murderer on the ground. He’s probably on a different level of proficiency as Khabib, but he’s an entirely different monster.
Ultimately, we’ll never know what could’ve happened. What we’re sure of is that it would’ve been one hell of a barnburner. Definitely a fight for the ages.
But unfortunately, it’ll never happen. The man’s happily retired and would rather play the mentor role to his Dagestani brothers. Let’s just leave it at that.