Khabib vs. McGregor at UFC 229: A detailed breakdown, including how each could win, various strategies to watch for

By Dave McGrath

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Khabib vs. Conor: How they both could win

Two days out. One epic, angry Conor McGregor trash talk fest in the can and now it’s almost time to put up, close the cage and start the round clock.

Forget all the trash talk, the slapping, and the dolly throwing bus drama – the reason why this fight is so intriguing isn’t the style. It’s the alpha and the omega. The irresistible force is McGregor and the immovable object in Nurmagomedov.

We know how we got here, so let’s now explore how each man gets the ‘W’ in this epic battle for the lightweight crown.

The Champion: Khabib Nurmagomedov

The champion is about as one dimensional as it gets at this level, but that one dimension is so head and shoulders above everybody else and that is the essence of his success. His striking is ordinary, his submission game is suspect, and as far as disciplines go, his Sambo is top level. I’ve analyzed some 20 fights between the two, and here are my takeaways on what the key factors are for both fighters. Let’s start with the champ.

•He changes his approach

Nurmagomedov knows one way and one way only – that’s forward. There’s really no movement side to side, and no feinting. To me he looks slow. If he has added some footwork to his game, some decent lateral movement techniques and plays the slip and move game just a little bit, that’s going to be a major plus for him. Walking in, and doing what he has done in each of his UFC fights won’t work. I’m gonna assume that Nurmagomedov and his camp have recognized this and will adjust accordingly. I’m not expecting him to remake himself like Muhammad Ali, but in this fight, some head movement sprinkled in is critical. Also, let’s be honest, I’m not expecting the champion to stand toe to toe with McGregor in a boxing match. He’s gonna do what he does, what’s got him here, it would be foolish not to. One thing that for certain is he cannot stand on the centerline and expect to survive.

​•Break McGregor’s spirit

Make no mistake, Nurmagomedov is gonna get McGregor to the ground. He’s just simply too good and too determined not to, the question is gonna be how McGregor reacts.

When down, one thing I’ve noticed is that nobody ever tries to fight Nurmagomedov off their back, they just try to scurry away and return to base. Big mistake. Nurmagomedov’s spirit on the ground is exceptional, if he gets McGregor on the ground and slips into side control and starts landing those elbows and fists, this is going to be a long long night for the former champ – champ. The spirit it’s gonna take to survive that all night is gonna be a tall order, and if that scenario plays out it leaves open submission opportunity and severely diminishes McGregor’s stand up game when he does get up or when the round restarts. We have seen it before, UFC 196, McGregor fully mounted gives up his back and gets submitted easily by Nate Diaz. McGregor was exhausted, he had no gas. There’s a precedent for this.

•Pace Pace Pace

The most impressive thing about the champion is his cardio pace and his Terminator like approach to always moving forward. The problem it presents is that all of his opponents are always so preoccupied with not being taken down, and when he does move forward they can’t launch an offense off that back foot. By the time you’re making sense of all that you’re on your back being mauled, we have seen Nurmagomedov literally  chase opponents back across the octagon. A scary concerning proposition for the McGregor camp has to be the cardio pace the champion can push. If that happens and Nurmagomedov is controlling and pushing the pace, again, it will be a long night for the Irishman. McGregor has been known to gas out. He’s a quick-twitch muscle fiber type, even in his second fight against Diaz he started to gas and was beat up badly against the cage. If this contest is fought at the champion’s pace then it’s going to go the way of all his victories thus far. If McGregor is launching off his back foot, the champion has done his job, the gameplan is coming to fruition. Seems technical, it seems almost boring, but that factor is so key, I can’t push it enough.

And now for the challenger.

•Fight off your back!

Let’s assume that McGregor gets taken down a couple times, I think that’s a safe assumption. As noted earlier, most opponents are in full blown survival mode against Nurmagomedov, if McGregor  decides to pull him into guard and see if Nurmagomedov can pass it and then go to work that’s a solid play. Fighting off your back is an essential element to jiu-jitsu and McGregor’s jiu-jitsu is underrated in my opinion. Pull the champion into guard and make him work as opposed to running and letting a massive, strong man ride you around the octagon. Such a nonsensical strategy is really the reason why most of Nurmafomedov’s opponents look completely gassed against him. Even if he’s not landing damage, its going to drain all of your energy.  On day one white belt beginner jiu-jitsu you learn to relax when on your back if I’m McGregor’s coach, I’m doubling down on that basic – go on your back, breathe, and make him pass your guard. No one has done it yet, and it’s going to be a key factor if and when this fight gets to the ground.

•Heavy hands early and often

The entire paragraph above is totally moot if McGregor can simply catch Nurmagomedov on his way to attempting a takedown. There’s no doubt McGregor’s hands are the heaviest in the division and his stylistic ”slip and rip” approach is gonna serve him well against his opponent. His fluidity is special, and if McGregor hits him and moves I don’t think McGregor is gonna be in the area code when the champion comes in to take him down. I think the gameplan is going to be heavy on taking shots early and often because Nurmagomedov is so amateur in his striking defense. His chin is way up in the air and the takedown is all that’s on his mind. If McGregor catches him say the way Michael Johnson did, this fight is gonna end in a McGregor knockout and probably early.

•How does it play out?

I hate predictions. I just can never say for certain that when two super athletes do battle that I absolutely know for sure what’s going to happen. One thing I’m sure of is that we’re not going to get a super edge of your seat seesaw fight that leaves us with a close decision. If McGregor wins I think that he’s going to hit him in the chin on one early takedown attempt and maybe get a flash knockdown and then hammerfist him to a stoppage. If the champion retains, I see him eating a shot or 6 and proving his chin and taking McGregor down and giving him a prolonged, drawn-out beating on the ground and leaving little doubt when the judges scorecards return. The styles just don’t match up for me to see it any other way after analyzing all of both Nurmagomedov’s  and McGregor’s professional fights. However, I’ve been wrong before, I guess that’s why 2.5 Million people are expected to buy this fight on pay per view.

If I absolutely had to pick the outcome of this fight, my feeling is eventually the Dagestani is going to impose his will on the Irishman. My feeling is Nurmagomedov is going to prove his chin, weather an early storm from Mcgregor, and take him down multiple times. My best guess is he wears McGregor down around the 13-15 minute mark and eventually McGregor gets sloppy and leaves an opening for Nurmagomedov to submit him. But then again what does anyone know.

Let’s just hope the MMA gods have forgiven our sins and both fighters make weight and survive 48 more hours in Vegas.

Fingers crossed.

The world is watching.

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