LAS VEGAS — The main event of UFC 229 is going to end with one fighter on the mat. Who wins will be determined by whether both of them go there.
Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is not only the best grappler in the UFC, but he’s got an other-worldly ability that leaves elite fighters in awe.
His coach, Javier Mendez, said Nurmagomedov “is like no one I’ve ever seen before.” His good friend, UFC featherweight Dan Ige, has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and often rolls with Nurmagomedov during fight weeks. It’s an experience he’s almost at a loss to describe.
“There’s nobody like him,” Ige said, after struggling to find the words to express Nurmagomedov’s ground game. “Just, nobody.”
Conor McGregor, Nurmagomedov’s opponent Saturday in the main event of UFC 229 at T-Mobile Arena and the former UFC featherweight and lightweight champion, is arguably the sport’s top striker.
How McGregor fared in his last fight
There were boxing fans who mocked McGregor for being stopped in the 10th round by Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match a year ago, but that mocking is badly misplaced. There are few boxers in the world who could have gone 10 rounds with Mayweather last year, let alone someone making his pro boxing debut.
Conor McGregor punches Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a super welterweight boxing match Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo)What McGregor did against the finest boxer of the last 25 years and one of the finest who ever lived was a remarkable feat kind of like Michael Jordan batting .202, driving in 51 runs and stealing 30 bases as a 31-year-old in Double-A baseball in 1994 after having not played the game since he was teenager.
Both were extraordinary accomplishments that didn’t receive the necessary respect because the general public didn’t grasp quite how difficult what they were attempting was.
“I can make a case for Conor winning this fight pretty easily and it starts with what he did against Floyd Mayweather,” said ex-UFC champion Michael Bisping, a Fox Sports MMA analyst and host of the outstanding “Believe You Me” podcast. “A lot of people said Conor wouldn’t even land a glove on Mayweather. He was very successful in those early rounds. He landed a beautiful uppercut, I think it was Round 1 or 2, and he landed some pretty decent shots. Of course we all know what happened in the fight, and if he can do that to Floyd Mayweather, he can certainly do that to Khabib.
“The one thing we know for certain that Conor has is power. Of course, he couldn’t stop Mayweather, but Floyd’s been in there with the heaviest hitters in his division in boxing, which is a different thing altogether. So if he could do it to Mayweather, he could do it to Khabib and if he hits Khabib with those small gloves on, it could be an early night.”
McGregor has knockout power not only in both hands, but also with his kicks. In July 2015, McGregor was in trouble briefly against Chad Mendes at UFC 189, but he got up and hurt Mendes with a kick, leading to the fight-ending sequence.
Those two elite skills, Nurmagomedov’s grappling and McGregor’s striking, play into the other’s weaknesses. Nurmagomedov’s striking is average, or even slightly above average, but it’s not on the level of McGregor’s. And McGregor’s ground game has long been seen as his Achilles’ heel.
This fight is the MMA version of the unstoppable force against the immovable object.
How Nurmagomedov fared in his last fight
Nurmagomedov is 26-0 and has rarely been challenged in a fight. But McGregor mocked Nurmagomedov’s performance in a title-winning effort against Al Iaquinta at UFC 223, the same show in which McGregor attacked a bus on which Nurmagomedov was sitting.
Even after losing to Nurmagomedov at UFC 223, Iaquinta is ranked ninth at lightweight, and has impressive wins over the likes of Kevin Lee and Jorge Masvidal, among many others. But McGregor referred to Nurmagomedov’s title “as a phony, fake title,” because, he said, “He’s beating up on a real estate agent. Big [expletive] deal.”
Iaquinta is a real estate agent.
That bout was mostly fought on the feet, and Nurmagomedov was never in jeopardy. He didn’t really have Iaquinta in any dangerous spots on the ground, but he controlled the fight while on his feet from start to finish.
How Conor-Khabib should play out
Nurmagomedov promised to maul McGregor. He’s twice taken fighters down and dragged them to the side of the Octagon where UFC president Dana White sits and talked to White, asking White what he wants him to do to the opponent before he does it.
No doubt that if he gets McGregor on the ground into his realm, he’ll try that again. McGregor described Nurmagomedov’s style as “dive for the legs and hold on for dear life.”
Fighter after fighter who has grappled with Nurmagomedov will talk about the pressure he puts on, how relentless he is and how difficult it is to get up if he takes you down.
“Unless you’ve been on the floor underneath someone with tremendous wrestling, it’s hard to appreciate how much pressure they can generate,” Bisping said. “A good wrestler has a way of making himself feel incredibly heavy, heavier than they actually are. They know how to spread their weight.
“If he gets Conor flat on his back, getting up from Chad Mendes is one thing but getting up from Khabib is an entirely different thing. If it’s the first round, maybe. Conor’s going to be explosive and strong. He’s a smart guy with a good team and he’s probably drilled that scenario time and time and time again. So can he get up? First round, probably. Second round, not so much. Third round, no. And we’ll see what happens from there.”
Nurmagomedov isn’t the kind of wrestler who can stay out of punching distance, then shoot in with a double leg and get McGregor down. He generally jabs his way in and gets into a clinch with an opponent but to do that, he’ll have to be in the line of fire.
That is a massive risk against someone with McGregor’s power.
“When Conor hits guys, they don’t get up,” White said.
Nurmagomedov has shown a good chin — “You don’t go 26-0 without having your chin tested a few times, that’s for sure,” Bisping said — and he’ll need it to get into position to put McGregor on his back.
If he does that, it’s likely fight over for McGregor. But Nurmagomedov could go out in the hunt for a takedown. It’s what makes the fight so fascinating.
“You know, I love this fight because of the styles and because you just don’t know what may happen,” Bisping said. “I could easily see Conor knocking him out in the first round and going on to main event Madison Square Garden [for UFC 230 next month]. But I could also easily see Khabib taking him down over and over and beating the [expletive] out of him for four or five rounds. It could go either way.”
— The Rush (@therushyahoo) October 2, 2018
Predicting the winner of McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov
McGregor is undoubtedly better on the ground than he was in 2016, when he was submitted by a Nate Diaz rear-naked choke. But it’s a lot of ground to cover to come up with an effective defense for Nurmagomedov when the fight hits the mat.
Look for Nurmagomedov to survive some hairy early moments to get McGregor down and finish him on the ground. Bisping noted that McGregor is “a sprinter not a marathon runner,” and often gasses early. Grappling will make a fighter gas even earlier than normal.
Given that, expect to see Nurmagomedov get a weary McGregor to the mat and finish it in the second half of the fight.
More UFC 229 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• McGregor’s trash-talk game is on point
• 10 moments that made McGregor ‘Notorious’
• Khabib’s 10 defining moments en route to UFC 229
• Dan Wetzel: This time McGregor isn’t faking the hate