With UFC 209 now just around the corner, the time seems right to take a closer look at each of its four main event headliners, with Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov the first in line.
Nurmagomedov holds perhaps the most stellar record in high level mixed martial arts today. At 24-0, he has dispatched each and every opponent the UFC have placed in front of him and despite his extensive in-octagon experience, he has only faced adversity in patches in what has been an otherwise exemplary career.
As a widely acclaimed master in the art of combat sambo, Khabib’s strengths lie primarily in his world-class level grappling. His smothering style exhibits perfect control and brutal ground-and-pound in equal parts and despite many pointing to his stand up as his Achille’s heel of sorts, his skills on the mat more than make up for his supposed shortcomings on the feet.
With him now set to face the crafty and stylish Tony Ferguson this weekend for the UFC’s interim-lightweight title, we’re going to take a closer look at the Russian’s three definitive performances and what each one tells us about the man who believes it is his destiny to own UFC gold.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Abel Trujillo at UFC 160 (25/5/13)
This is the bout that most would point to as the ‘worst-case scenario’ when you’re scheduled to fight Khabib.
Abel Trujillo, to this day, remains a solid competitor at 155lbs. In his ten UFC bouts, he holds a record of (6-3, 1 NC) and when you consider that his only blemishes came against the highly underrated James Vick and this weekend’s title contenders in Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, you can see that he is certainly no joke when it comes to his standing in the lightweight division.
None of that seemed to bother Khabib, however, and despite a relatively slow start, he ended up putting a grappling clinic on the quick-handed American, breaking his willpower one takedown at a time until the visibly dazzled Trujillo could do nothing but wave his arms in frustration as the Dagestan native slammed him to the ground a record 21 times over the scheduled three rounds.
This fight displayed the Russian’s ruthless side and in watching the bout again, you can almost detect a twisted playfulness in the way in which Nurmagomedov repeatedly grounded his helpless opponent, especially in the later stages of each round, where Khabib’s showmanship resulted in some truly fantastic throws.
If you want to see ‘The Eagle’ in full flight then this is the fight that will give you the best possible impression of what this guy can do to you if you have no answer for his skills. It was a match-up that took place three and a half years ago and with all that training time now under Khabib’s belt, the improvement and refinement of his game in the years since then certainly makes for a scary thought.
Rafael dos Anjos vs Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC on FOX 11 (19/4/14)
When Nurmagomedov took on the future lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos in May of 2014, ‘The Eagle’ confirmed what many had suspected when he made the well-respected BJJ black-belt RDA look like a total novice on the ground, pummelling his way to what was his 22nd straight professional MMA victory.
For those who are not ‘in the know’, Dos Anjos may well be one of the greatest lightweights to ever compete in the UFC and, on top of that, is a long-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu black-belt under Aldo Januario.
He holds dominant victories over Benson Henderson, Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis and Nate Diaz and until he met his maker in the form of Eddie Alvarez last July, was slowly creeping into the ‘greatest 155lb fighter of all time’ discussion.
What Khabib did to Dos Anjos on the night was nothing short of masterful. On the feet, he never once seemed intimidated by his opponent’s ferocious striking and despite RDA’s notoriety as a smothering pressure fighter, Nurmagomedov was able to successfully weave in and out, taking minimal damage and dragging his helpless foe to the canvas whenever the opportunity presented itself.
The skill difference on the mat was the deciding factor here and had Joe Rogan not repeatedly emphasised that RDA was in fact a high level grappler himself, he very well could have been mistaken for blue-belt, given Khabib’s complete and total domination of him at all stages of this fight.
This would be Khabib’s last performance before his lengthy absence due to injury but it was also his first test against the division’s elite talent and ended being the match-up in which people finally accepted the fact that he was indeed the most dangerous man at 155lbs.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Michael Johnson at UFC 205 (12/11/16)
It’s crazy how perhaps the one single UFC fight in which Khabib found himself in a spot of bother was one that was quickly and irreversibly turned into a completely dominant and frankly terrifying grappling tour-de-force that left everyone near-speechless.
Michael Johnson may well have given Khabib the toughest fight of his UFC career to date when he managed to clip him and stagger him in a spell that lasted for just about 30 to 40 seconds of the first round, but that was it.
Yes, Nurmagomedov showed holes in his stand up when he faced the speedy striker in Johnson at UFC 205 but for all the talk of eyes being opened to the so-called ‘path to victory’ in defeating Khabib, the early successes that Johnson had in that bout made little-to-no difference when Khabib battered him with ease for the remainder of the fight.
Tony Ferguson will, of course, be studying this match-up in depth ahead of his interim title meeting with ‘The Eagle’ this weekend but some of the main takeaways from this contest came from Nurmagomedov’s constantly improving pressure, wrist control and ground-and-pound.
If you think Khabib is done improving on the mat, then this bout is one that suggests otherwise.
In the end, the Russian locked up a beautiful kimura and with that announced to the world of MMA, on what was perhaps its biggest night, that he was indeed ready for his shot at UFC gold.
Khabib moved to 24-0, put the fear of God into those watching at home and made a very strong argument that he is currently the UFC roster’s most dominant grappler.
Khabib Nurmagomedov will take on Tony Ferguson for the UFC’s interim lightweight-title on Saturday, Match 4 at UFC 209.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena