On September 7 in The Arena, Abu Dhabi, all eyes will be on one of the most anticipated comebacks of the year. Even those who don’t follow Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) may recall hearing the name Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov last year thanks to the media frenzy that followed his fateful battle against the infamous Conor McGregor (UFC 229).
The McGregor mess
Nurmagomedov dominated the fight, showcasing his formidable wrestling skill and strategic strikes against the arguably over-confident Irish fighter. And although he achieved victory in the 4th round with a well-executed and inescapable neck crank, the craftsmanship of both fighters is not what many remember from that night. Instead, it’s the controversy of what happened both before and after the fight that stole the headlines, and thrust the sport into the worldwide spotlight.
McGregor is well-known for his trash-talking. He creates a story or sense of drama that entertains the fans, and uses it to try and get into his opponent’s heads. However, it was clear that in the case of Nurmagomedov, he took it beyond the realm of entertainment. His attacks were deeply personal, abusive and harmful in light of the communities he mocked.
McGregor aimed insults at Nurmagomedov’s father, country, culture and Islamic religion, including his choice not to consume alcohol and the religious dress of his wife. Many have argued, and most would agree, that this kind of abuse should never have happened and that the UFC administration should have done something to sanction it on ethical grounds before the fight could take place.
After his victory, following an insulting comment from McGregor’s team-mate Dillon Danis, Nurmagomedov launched himself at Danis. Following this, a brawl ensued between both teams, launching the arena into chaos.
Both fighters received sanctions, McGregor was fined $50,000 and suspended for six months, Nurmagomedov faced the much steeper fine of $500,000 and a none-month suspension. At the time of the incident Nurmagomedov raised the issue of McGregor’s unreprimanded behaviour, questioning “why no one says anything about insulting my homeland, religion, nation, family...why do you have to punish my team, when both teams fought”.
In terms of who started the fight, Nurmagomedov stated that “I finished what he had started”. He apologised for his actions (as did McGregor), but stated that he had been provoked. Being an ordinarily sportsmanlike and respectful fighter, it was clear that the whole incident was out of character and many believe that it would not have happened had he not been provoked to such a personal degree. Others have stated that this show of unprofessionalism was unnecessary, overshadowing Nurmagomedov’s legitimate and incredible victory.
Even so, many fans were sympathetic to Nurmagomedov’s situation and eagerly awaited his return. Now he is to headline an event with none of the drama of his last match but all the anticipation of a fresh challenge.
A shot at redemption?
The reigning undisputed Lightweight champion Nurmagomedov now faces the interim champion Dustin ‘The Diamond’ Poirier. The two men are the same age, but Nurmagomedov holds a 1-inch height advantage whilst Poirier holds a 2-inch reach advantage. Arguably any physical advantages are balanced, though a reach advantage will likely aid Poirier in fending off Nurmagomedov’s formidable wrestling skills. They have a similar amount of experience but Poirier carries 5 losses whilst Nurmagomedov remains undefeated.
Nurmagomedov came from humble beginnings, raised in the remote former Russian Soviet Union state, Dagestan. This upbringing however was immersed in Martial Arts, being coached by his father who converted a floor of their family home into a combat gym. He began wrestling early on and most famously wrestled a bear at 9 years old. He trained further in Judo (now a Black Belt) and Sambo wrestling. This definitely comes across in his style of fighting, which uses grappling to control opponents, setting up his strikes and submissions.
On bringing his focus to MMA, he achieved a faultless professional record of 16 wins, 0 losses in the Russian and Ukrainian circuits before joining the UFC in 2012 to secure 11 further victories. He has achieved a balanced record of wins despite his clear grappling specialism with 8 via knockout, 9 via submission and 10 decision.
A majority of decision wins could be put down to the dominating, relentless style of his wrestling and how he advantageously combines this with his strikes. The continuous, untiring suplexes and wrestling domination seen in his fight against Abel Trujillo are a great demonstration of such a decision win.
Once on the ground, Nurmagomedov has a strong submission game. His recent fight against Michael Johnson (UFC 205) showed his strategic ability to play to his strengths, using his forward force and stamina to wear down his opponent effectively. Despite eating hard hits from Johnson, he used rapid and disorientating punches of his own with the aim of making it into the clinch where he could effectively “disarm” Johnson and control him against the cage. He was thus able to use the cage to take Johnson to the ground, controlling him there and eventually achieving the kimura victory.
He also has fierce strikes and in terms of kicks favours the jumping straight kick and jumping knee. His strikes are more singular attacks or a continuous barrage of punches as opposed to complex combinations, meaning he is able to disorientate his opponents with his striking and wrestling which leaves gaps open for both to be effective.
Dustin Poirier also has a background in wrestling, albeit at the high school level. Like his opponent, he is a balanced fighter, with 7 submission victories, 6 via decision and a majority 12 via knockout. Whilst Nurmagomedov is naturally slightly stronger in terms of submission finishes, Poirier takes a firm lead in proven knockout power - showcasing his progression as a Martial Artist.
Poirier is quite similar to Nurmagomedov as a fighter in that he is calm and collected but comes out with great power, confidence and forward force, using a combination of heavy strikes and a dominating style of wrestling. Taking a look at his fight against Eddie Alvarez (UFC on Fox 30), Poirier was actually dominated by Alvarez’s wrestling skill whilst still landing his own deliberate hits.
He was patient and chose his moment against the cage, wearing Alvarez down with relentless punches, taking his head in a guillotine hold to land a knee before finishing the knockout with those punches. Alvarez is unable to find a single moment of recovery or retaliation at this point, and Poirier deserves the win.
Our fight prediction
Here stand two well respected and experienced Mixed Martial Artists who have taken the time to hone and progress in their craft. Both have the ability to overwhelm their opponents with strikes as well as control them both standing and on the ground with the effective use of wrestling and BJJ style techniques. However, many would say that Nurmagomedov’s wrestling pedigree far outweighs Poirier’s and that despite Poirier’s strong striking skills, it is likely that Nurmagomedov will dominate the fight with his wrestling, therefore taking the victory.