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Technique Talk: Ben Askren on Khabib Nurmagomedov’s wrestling greatness

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Khabib Nurmagomedov controls Michael Johnson at UFC 205 in November 2015
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

UFC 209’s co-main event between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson is arguably as good as a professional mixed martial arts contest can be. There are more popular figures in the sport who capture the public’s attention in their own genuine bouts of significance, but Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson meets virtually every criteria for excellence.

The bout pits two savants from the sport’s best weight class against one another. Nurmagomedov is arguably the most dominant wrestler in the UFC and perhaps all of MMA. He holds an exceedingly rare undefeated record, which is made more impressive by virtue of being in over 20 fights, eight of them in the UFC.

Ferguson offers something close to the total package. An ultra-confident combatant, he boasts power punching, two-way wrestling, lethal jiu-jitsu finishing skills, increasingly unorthodox attacks, and an indefatigable gas tank. There is no dimension of the game where he lacks competitive skill. He enters this contest on a nine-fight win streak.

Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson also takes place at pivotal time for the division. Conor McGregor is lightweight’s champion. This bout offers the winner an interim title, which has rankled some fans, and ostensibly sets up a showdown with the biggest name in mixed martial arts.

We’ll examine both fighters, but in the first part of this two-part series, we’ll start with Nurmagomedov. To help, ONE welterweight champion Ben Askren spoke to MMA Fighting about what makes the Dagestani’s wrestling so formidable.

In part two, we’ll explore what makes Tony Ferguson’s game unique and why he’s a legitimate title threat.

Full audio and partial transcription below:

I've noticed you tweet about him in ways you don't really talk about other guys. It seems to me like you've got an admiration for his game. Is that a fair characterization?

Yeah, that's fair. Yeah, that's very fair. Obviously, he's really good at what he does. No one's ever been able to beat him or, from what I remember, come very close to beating him. His style is incredibly effective and dominant.

You and I talked about the area he's from, Dagestan. Have you been there before [in international wrestling competitions]?

I have not. The one World Cup I wrestled in, which was in Russia, a place called Vladikavkaz, which is, I believe, close to Dagestan. Really, there's two places: Dagestan and Ossetia. They're provinces or whatever you want to call them. They're right next to each other. That's where so many of the high-level wrestlers in the world come from.

Like I told you the other day when we were talking, there's not very many restrictions on 'free agents'. For wrestling, countries [like] France will buy a Dagestani and then Azerbaijan will get one and the Ukraine will get one. Like I said, I think in the last Olympics, I want to say they represented fourteen different countries or something obnoxious.

This is a geographically small region of the world and has an outrageous number of people who good at wrestling or grappling. Let's focus on wrestling. From your experience, what is going on there that makes them so good?

They do have a substance abuse issue, so that came out. That's definitely a system. But when you take it on face value...when you read a book called 'The Talent Code' — I don't know if it's my favorite book, but it's really close to my favorite book. Essentially what this guy does is he goes around and studies these so-called 'talent hotspots' where there is a gigantic amount of really successful people in a certain a topic. An example would be the island of Curacao in baseball, South Korea in women's golf. There's a whole bunch of these places he goes and studies and the study is, why are they so good at what they do?

The whole book is really about that. Dagestan would be another place where he could study. Basically, I think it comes down to the fact, once it's established that people can do it there, it's always easier for the next person to do it and they have those people to look up to. It essentially becomes the standard. That's what you do. If you're from Dagestan or Ossetia, you go win world titles. That's what you do.

Is there anything you can speak about in terms of their process? There must be a system in place to recruit and produce these kinds of talents.

Man, I've been thinking more and more about it. I want to say I've been thinking more and more that the process, the exact process or the nature of the process is fairly

irrelevant, which is kind of a weird statement.

From the recruiting standpoint, it's tradition, right? Just take the United States. Pennsylvania — the Lehigh Valley, the Pittsburgh area — and then you go Cleveland area and Ohio. Those areas produce such an amount of the good wrestlers in the United States, whether you want to say national qualifiers, scholarship guys, All-Americans, national champions. Those areas produce such a high amount of those guys and it becomes tradition because their families, their dad wrestled, their uncle wrestled. That's just kind of how it works almost no matter what sport you're in.

It's probably one of those things. It's just such a traditional thing over there that everyone starts wrestling at a young age, and some get weeded out, then the best make it.

Let's talk about Nurmagomedov's style. When you watch him compete, in terms of takedown and control, what stands out to you?

The one thing is, everyone says he's got the sambo background. He's a sambo guy. Listen, I ain't never seen a sambo guy do takedowns like that, ever. Ever. If you think about the number of sambo guys who've actually had success in mixed martial arts, it's not very many. It's very limited.

I don't know if he's expressly come out and said this, but I believe his dad is a very successful wrestler. So, I would guess that somewhere he had a huge amount of wrestling training as a kid. Maybe he wasn't the guy. Maybe he realized at whatever age that he wasn't going to be the guy because there's a few guys in front of him that were better than him and he turned his focus. 'Well, hey, maybe I can't be the best here, maybe I'll be the best in sambo,' and then it turned into MMA. I don't know that that's exactly what happened, but I have to guess by how goddamned good he is at wrestling that he grew up doing some form of wrestling.

Imagine someone had never seen him. How would you describe what he does in terms of his style preferences to somebody else?

The one thing — I do this — that's undervalued in fighting is the ability to be hit at and stay calm and make contact with your opponent. Because when you're going from wrestling to MMA, that is the difference. In wrestling, you have to make contact or you're stalling. In fighting, if you're a wrestler and they're not, the whole point, for them, is not to make contact with you, right? Once you make contact, they're going to get taken down and beaten up.

Some guys like Khabib have figured out how to make contact with taking very little damage. The second part of that would be — and this is funny, a lot of former wrestlers don't do this because it's not a freestyle thing, but a folkstyle thing — he is able to control so well. That's a folkstyle thing. You have to escape or keep them down depending on what position you're in. In freestyle, all you have to do is turn. You don't actually have to control them.

The second part is, once he gets them down, he controls the sh*t out of them. Like I said, you don't usually see that out of international wrestlers.

A great example of that is Yoel Romero. He's a freestyle wrestler. He gets takedowns when he wants to, but his control isn't amazing because he never did that part of it.

Where [Nurmagomedov's] control came from, I don't know the exact rules of sambo, but I don't believe holding someone down is part of sambo. Maybe at some point when he crossed over to MMA, he realized, 'Hey, I can take everyone down. How about I just hold them down and beat their ass?' Maybe he started working through the techniques on his own because really, I always say this: at some point, people in MMA are going to spend a lot of time studying folkstyle wrestling, because of the ability to get out or reverse and then the ability on top to ride and keep someone broken down is a very important thing that a lot of people are neglecting.

When I go to a jiu-jitsu gym and throw some folkstyle wrestling holds in there, people have no idea what I'm doing. It's so foreign to them.

Give me an example. What are some of the principles of control you're talking about?

Sure, getting wrist control on top. If the bottom is actually going to get up, he's going to have to turn over at some point to his knees. The whole kick them off thing, that doesn't really work anymore. It's very rare. So, you're going to have to turn over if you're going to get up.

When they do turn over, if you can get wrist control ... if it's their left hand and your right, it's cross wrist. If it's your left on their left or right on right, then it's inside wrist. Once you control their wrist, you take one of their blocks away. In addition, if you apply pressure correctly, it's very hard for them to stand up, too, when they don't have that hand.

So, if you watch a lot of my fights, I get a lot of wrist control. Khabib does that. Phil Davis does it really, really well. There are people figuring out this wrist control stuff.

He uses leg rides, too, doesn't he?

I was using a cross wrist as one example. There's definitely ankle rides and leg rides that are part of folkstyle wrestling. He's pretty diverse on top. He was doing a huge amount of wrist control on Michael Johnson, who was a wrestler, and so the fact that Khabib was schooling him makes it more impressive.

He was doing a huge amount of wrist control. He was doing the one I really love. It's inside wrist, but your opposite side of the body. So he would have Johnson's right wrist with his right hand, but he'd be applying pressure on the opposite side of the body and then striking with his free hand.

And forcing Johnson's face into the mat?

Yes, exactly. The one if you watch that fight he did really well that most people neglect is, most people have this thought they can hold and hit the guy 30 times. That doesn't happen unless the guy's a total fish. Really, when you get a control position, I'm thinking I'm probably going to get two or three punches. Then I have to reassess and re-control the situation. That's what he would do. He would get the situation, get a couple of punches, Johnson would build, [Nurmagomedov] would take the time to re-break him down, re-control the hold, hit him a couple more times, then repeat that over and over and over again.

One of his talents is the ability to switch between two completely different kinds of takedowns when the first one fails. What do you make of that?

That's what you're supposed to do. Like you said, there's not a lot of people who've figured out how to do it that well in mixed martial arts. That's what you're supposed to do against high-level competition.

If you watch a high-level wrestling match, it's not like I try one thing and then it works. I try one thing, he defends, so I go to my next, go to my next, go to my next and then, eventually, you get a takedown. The generic term for that in wrestling, we call it chain wrestling. You're chaining things together. If I'm coaching an athlete, that's exactly what I'm him doing. I want him to chain wrestle because he knows if he's facing someone good, the first attempt usually isn't going to work.

Right, but here's my point. I've seen Georges St-Pierre go for a double, the guy rips him off of his hips and GSP will change to a knee tap. That's still more a congruent family of takedowns. What I'm talking about is going for a double and then switching completely to an uchi mata. That seems to me, very unique.

I guess I'd have to think more about it as I'm watching fights, but I still think it's chain wrestling. Really the singles and high crotches, which are really prevalent in wrestling, they don't really work in mixed martial arts for a variety of reasons. Really, to me, you have upper body takedowns and double legs. If you're going to get takedowns in mixed martial arts, those are your choices.

To what extent are upper body takedowns a part of elite wrestling?

Remember, I don't know how he grew up, but if he was doing some Greco-Roman wrestling, then it was probably a good part of it. I don't know for sure, but from the few times I've heard, a lot of the Russian wrestlers from a very young age do a little of both before they pick which direction they're going to go.

Nurmagomedov has a fight against Tony Ferguson coming up. I'm wondering how you see that match-up going.

Tony's good. He's really good. With that being said, I guess my general feeling would be as good as Tony Ferguson is, I don't think he's good enough to stop Khabib from implementing the style he wants to implement.

In what way? What makes him so dominant?

He's so good at the wrestling and the control. With that, if you actually apply that, it's so hard — you have to be at such a certain level — to stop it. If you're not at that level, he just trumps everything you have. Even if you're really good and Tony Ferguson is one of those guys, he's good everywhere. He doesn't really have a huge weakness, right? But he's not really amazing in one place. Maybe I'm totally wrong, but that's kind of how I feel.

Is there anything to the body type of Nurmagomedov?

I don't think so. I wouldn't say, no. He's a normal-sized guy. He's not abnormally short or tall. If I trained with him on a regular basis, I'd probably have a better idea, so maybe Daniel [Cormier] is a better guy to ask.

Cormier told me once he gets his hands grasped around you that he's shockingly strong.

Most of the guys who have, not that explosive strength, but the strength where once they get ahold of you, you're not getting them off — they don't look big because the guys who have the big looking muscles, those muscles fatigue fairly quickly.

One of my coaches said if you're watching film — this was way back — if you're watching film of a foreign guy and wondering why he's so good or why he wins so much and his technique isn't so good, it's probably because he's really, really f*cking strong.

Conor McGregor is the title holder in this weight class. I'd say in his defense, his wrestling has improved substantially. In a five-round match, it is true Nurmagomedov doesn't necessarily put guys away. How do you size those two up?

McGregor's wrestling, I don't know if we say it's that good because in the [Eddie] Alvarez fight, we didn't get to see it. He decked Alvarez early. In the Nate Diaz fight, Nate did push him around a little bit and Nate is not known for his wrestling by any stretch of the imagination. [Jose] Aldo fight we didn't see it and in the [Chad] Mendes fight, Mendes was on a two-week training camp and still took him down, what, three times or something.

Has his wrestling improved? I'm not really sure. We haven't got to see that. You're right that Khabib doesn't really put people away, but if Conor's not able to establish a solid guard where he's defending without a lot of effort, Khabib's going to make him work. We saw Conor's gas tank as very suspect in both Diaz fights.

What do you make of the takedown attempts Diaz put together in those fights? How would you rate them?

Poor, at best. Not good. They're not efficient, they're not powerful, they're not technically correct. I don't know, there's just nothing too good about them. They didn't work on top of everything else.

What about the Alvarez fight?

He was on queer street. He didn't know where he was at.

McGregor is a great fighter and good athlete, so those type of guys can improve quickly, but I guess I will withhold judgment.

Is there anything else we can say about Nurmagomedov, perhaps about the way he competes?

The other thing, and his undefeated record shows it, is that he's very consistent. That's a quality that a lot of people don't give a lot of credence to. But when a guy can show up and perform the same way every single time, that's a hugely valuable asset. We can think of guys who are the opposite in either MMA or wrestling, who sometimes they show up and they look like a f*cking superstar. Sometimes they show up and they look like they couldn't beat your grandma. They have these wildly varied performances, but for Khabib, he shows up and performs every single time.