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UFC 223 main event breakdown: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Al Iaquinta

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Khabib Nurmagomedov will square off against Al Iaquinta in the UFC 223 main event Saturday.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

So here we are, hours away from a fight where the UFC lightweight champion is not involved, and the UFC interim champion is not involved, yet a new titleholder will somehow be determined. Or maybe he will? If Khabib Nurmagomedov wins in the UFC 223 headliner, he will be the new champion. Of that, we are sure. But what of late replacement Al Iaquinta? On Friday, UFC president Dana White made a vague claim that if Iaquinta wins, he will be the champion. Yet when he was cornered to explicitly confirm that Iaquinta was eligible to win the belt, he hedged.

“We as the fans, as fight fans and as people, know who the champ is if you win the fight,” he said. “I mean, if you win the fight, you’re the champ. To be the man, you beat the man. If you beat the man it’s hard to deny he’s not the champ. All technicalities, we will figure out after the fight.”

Well, that clears that up?

At least we finally know who’s competing, and have a fairly solid idea of how they will approach each other. Nurmagomedov is a straightforward fighter whose style is reliant on relentless pressure and success in tight spaces he creates upon closing the distance. Nurmagomedov doesn’t just embrace the grind, he embodies it.

Throughout his career, Nurmagomedov (25-0) has built his success on a foundation of wrestling. According to FightMetric, he averages 5.85 takedown attempts for every 15 minutes. That number is far and away above his peers. For comparison, Georges St-Pierre, who is considered to have one of the most wrestling-heavy styles in recent history, averages 4.16 takedowns per 15 minutes. Moreover, he’s found success against strong defensive wrestlers such as Michael Johnson and Edson Barboza.

Nurmagomedov’s wrestling game looks basic on the surface, but it’s his variety of attacks that affords him his success. He shoots from different distances, uses an array of sneaky trips, drags foes to the mat, or powers them off their feet with suplexes. It’s a constant and unpredictable push-and-pull that eventually creates the takedown.

And once the Dagestani gets the fight to where he wants it ... oof. Nurmagomedov on top may be one of the most dominant positions in MMA today.

Rare is the fighter who is capable of holding an opponent down, controlling his movement, passing guard, and landing thudding shots with equal aplomb, but Nurmagomedov can do it all.

He’s a master at this in the same way Anderson Silva was in the striking realm. He’s battered virtually everyone he’s faced from the position, sometimes using a mounted crucifix, other times dominating a turtled opponent with wrist control as he unleashes strikes.

His beating of Michael Johnson, during which he attempted to persuade Johnson to give up, was indicative of his overwhelming abilities. So was his most recent win over Edson Barboza, a clinic of another kind in which Nurmagomedov limited Barboza’s ability to return to his feet by repeatedly grapevining his legs. He has all the tricks.

Nurmagomedov’s success or failure doesn’t completely depend on getting the fight to the ground, but his chances of victory go up exponentially in that kind of grinding fight. By comparison, his standup is fairly pedestrian. He does have a good grasp of the basics and features some power, but most of what he does is in service of setting up his entries. Offensively, his best strikes are his jab and a good lead body kick. Defensively, Nurmagomedov is available to be hit. He doesn’t feature much head movement, and he has total faith in his chin. So far that’s been well placed, as he’s never been knocked down. All in all, he’s a tough out for anyone.

Taking the fight on just over 24 hours’ notice, Iaquinta (13-3-1) is certainly facing an uphill challenge. If you’re looking for a good sign for the Long Islander, it happens to be the 11th anniversary of his teammate and coach Matt Serra’s legendary upset of Georges St-Pierre.

Iaquinta has had an interesting career arc. As a prospect, he showed talent and promise, making his way up the ladder with a string of decision wins over Ryan Couture, Piotr Hallman and then Kevin Lee. After a submission loss to Mitch Clarke, he relied off three straight knockout victories and appeared to put himself in position to crack the top five. But during the last three years he’s been mostly inactive largely due to unhappiness with his contract, with only a single bout since May 2015.

With such little to go on since that time — his only bout is a 98-second knockout of Diego Sanchez — we must attempt to extrapolate what he is from what he was.

Like most Ray Longo-trained fighters, Iaquinta features good footwork and dangerous hands. He’s not particularly flashy, but his fundamentals are there. He likes to feint and double up on the jab. He does an excellent job creating openings for a powerful overhand right. He doesn’t kick much but he’ll show it as a threat from time to time.

According to Fightnomics, Iaquinta has the edge in the major standup categories. He has more career knockdowns than Nurmagomedov (7-2) and is more accurate. And while every fight has to feature striking by virtue of the opening of every round, Iaquinta’s wrestling—and in particular his defensive abilities—will tell the story of the fight. Simply put, if Iaquinta can stay upright, he has a change to shock Nurmagomedov. If he can’t, the fight will be a rout.

Historically, Iaquinta has excellent takedown defense, with a 85 percent stoppage rate in his career. He hasn’t been put on his back in his last six fights, not since Kevin Lee took him down in 2014. However, it’s worth noting that he’s never faced anyone so creative and relentless when it comes to the takedown. Of his UFC opponents, only Lee has had comparable credentials and success, yet it must be noted he was early in his career at the time, and not as polished as he is now.

Determining Iaquinta’s abilities to stop Nurmagomedov is a roll of the dice. He would be wise to use the entire circumference of the cage, to make Nurmagomedov chase him around and chip away at his stamina.

Still, Nurmagomedov is nothing if not tenacious. He is not dissuaded by a single failure, or even a series of them. He will chain together attempts until something connects, and that is likely what will happen here. He has five rounds to work, and he’s probably ready for all of them while Iaquinta only trained for three.

Until Nurmagomedov loses, it’s hard to pick against him, let alone here, given these difficult circumstances. The Dagestani stays unbeaten with either a decision win or a late stoppage.