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UFC 229 main event breakdown: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It’s been nearly two years since Conor McGregor last saw the inside of an Octagon. And while the sport has gone on in his absence, it still feels like MMA is back after some sort of hiatus. His presence is that immense.

Prior to his side trip into the boxing world, the few existing criticisms of his MMA success centered around what some saw to be beneficial matchmaking. Never mind the fact that he took on both Chad Mendes and Nate Diaz with just a few days of preparation for each. But with this return, win or lose, McGregor can put that denunciation to bed forever. In facing Khabib Nurmagomedov in the UFC 229 main event, he is walking into a dominant buzzsaw at the height of his powers, one that boasts as his top strength the weakest part of McGregor’s game. Given McGregor’s power within the UFC, it’s a pairing that was not necessary for him. He could have gone straight to the Diaz trilogy; he could have called out Georges St-Pierre; he could have set up nearly any pairing he wanted. He took the most difficult one.

The matchup is the realest kind of contrast in styles, not simply that one likes to strike and the other likes to wrestle, but that one likes to fight from distance and the other wants close-quarters combat; that one began his legend by routinely finishing in a flash while the other explicitly prefers a nice and slow mauling.

This is exactly why it’s such a dangerous position for McGregor. Sure, the fight starts standing, but Nurmagomedov has routinely bent the strongest of men to his will, fully and completely suffocating them before mashing them to dust. He has rarely been challenged; he has never officially lost a round.

For McGregor (21-3) to win, he will have to capitalize on his openings in the way he always has but in a way nobody has done against Nurmagomedov. The Dagestani wants to take distance away from all of his opponents, but he does not always make clean entries into their airspace. He occasionally shoots from too far away, and sometimes without any kind of distraction strike. These are opportunities to be had, but to date, no one has cashed them in any meaningful way. Mostly, opponents are already on their heels and happy to stuff his initial shot. Throwing a counter shot in that instance is a risk, and McGregor will have to weigh in a millisecond whether it’s a worthy one or whether to focus on remaining upright.

You can see in film that against him, opponents frequently punch from their heels, ready to backpedal. Michael Johnson, the man largely credited with landing the best single strike against Nurmagomedov in his career, recently said as much in an ESPN interview. This phenomenon is understandable because the thing is, you know Nurmagomedov is coming. While his UFC career takedown rate is a pedestrian 44 percent, it’s his relentlessness that drives opponents and their coaches mad. In his last seven fights, Nurmagomedov—still unbeaten at 26-0—has a staggering 46 takedowns. But a number perhaps equally meaningful is 87 attempts during that time. It’s nearly impossible to sit down on punches when you’re worried about him ducking into your suddenly stationary hips.

Nurmagomedov is a range specialist; he wants in. All the way in. So to him, his entry technique isn’t as important as breaching the distance. It doesn’t even matter if it’s sloppy, because he trusts his chin and because he just wants to make contact, initiate a clinch, employ chain wrestling sequences to tax the mind and body. When he is successful in finishing his takedown, opponents often find themselves in a recurring nightmare. Nurmagomedov likes to triangle his opponent’s leg and gain far-side wrist control in building a dilemma. Do you defend the strikes? Do you leave yourself unprotected to attempt to get to your feet? If you defend the punches, you are essentially conceding the position, and likely, the round. And if you give your back to try to escape, you are essentially conceding to a hail of undefended strikes. This is a rinse-and-repeat situation, because Nurmagomedov is unrelenting. He bypasses possible chokes to pummel and punish.

To be clear, McGregor is no slouch on the ground. He pulled off an X-guard sweep against Diaz in their first fight, and has shown slick guard-passing when the opportunities have been there, but Nurmagomedov has dominated everyone in the position, so it’s unfair to expect McGregor to be the first to resist.

McGregor is a range specialist, too; he wants out. One of his best and most underrated gifts is his reach. At 74 inches, he’ll have a four-inch advantage on fight night. He combines that reach with excellent footwork, hand speed and precision to sharpshoot from spots where he can connect while minimizing risk. His stunning 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo is perhaps the most famous example of that. McGregor dances on his toes, threatening to come forward, baiting Aldo into his airspace. Aldo has to lunge to reach him but McGregor’s body is aligned. They both land left hands, but one is full power and the other one isn’t.

He pulled the same trick off against Eddie Alvarez. Then the champ, Alvarez lunges in with an overhand right but McGregor’s distance management is perfect. Alvarez misses and McGregor counters with a sharp left en route to a knockout.

These things don’t happen by accident; they are as much a designed part of his game as Nurmagomedov’s takedowns are for him.

Because Nurmagomedov is known to occasionally lunge into takedown attempts, these standup exchanges will be the most paramount element of the fight. If Nurmagomedov doesn’t establish the threat of the strike, he may well get hurt badly on the way in; if he can make McGregor respect his striking, his entry routes will be much easier.

If there is one x-factor to consider above all others, it is McGregor’s stamina. He himself has noted this shortcoming in the past, saying he was “inefficient” with his energy in his loss to Diaz, and that fatigue sunk him against Mayweather. This is no easy thing to figure out, because training for MMA requires so much that adding extra training for something like endurance often brings with it a law of diminishing returns. The body needs both training and recovery, and the balance between them is often fragile. McGregor has always been known to be a hard worker in the gym, and has had a year to work on it, but no one knows how it will translate on fight night.

Due to McGregor’s past issues, there is a conventional wisdom that he has to win early, before fatigue saps him of power. That sounds correct. There is ample evidence that Nurmagomedov can do his thing for as many rounds as is necessary. He seems to revel in the grind. While no one would be shocked in the least if McGregor connected on a tracer left for an early knockout, the odds are that Nurmagomedov will work it into a grind, and that is a fight that favors him. The official pick is Nurmagomedov in a fourth-round TKO.

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