October 6 is finally upon us and with us now just hours out from the biggest fight in MMA history, here’s our official prediction for Khabib vs. McGregor.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is a one-in-a-million talent.
I remember watching his showdown with Abel Trujillo five years ago and being completely astounded at his special ability to break fighters mentally.
When I think of Khabib, I see that crystal clear image of Trujillo holding his arms up in protest mid-air as his opponent scored another one of the 21 takedowns he landed in that fight. It was almost as if he was pleading with the referee to do something for him, to help him.
It was very, very odd to see.
As the years went on, it became increasingly apparent that Nurmagomedov was not your regular fighter. He wasn’t an All-American wrestler with a powerful double leg that would sit in your guard and drill you with shots – the classic ground-and-pounder.
He had submissions, yes, but his style was far removed from the Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners and his clinch-throws and trips were definitely there but he didn’t strike you as a traditional judoka (although he does have a background in Judo).
The sambo master had arrived with his terrifyingly unique and ruthlessly violent brand of brutality.
I’ve always loved watching Khabib fight.
When he was on the verge of returning from his long battle with injury in 2016, the hype that surrounded his abilities had gone through the roof and in the four fights he has taken since beating Rafael dos Anjos in 2014, I was happy to say that he has lived up to his billing.
He doesn’t just beat people, he doesn’t even just maul them, Khabib Nurmagomedov is able to instil a sense of inevitability into the room when he fights.
As Michael Johnson showed, you do have your shot at the start of the fight (and perhaps every round), but if you don’t take it, he can make you feel very hopeless, very fast.
You could see it on Edson Barboza’s face at UFC 219.
He breaks you down, punch by punch, takedown by takedown. Al Iaquinta did ok when the fight remained standing but never once looked as though he was going to trouble the Russian.
I find it very hard to believe that you can sustain a belief in your chances of beating this man over five-rounds if it’s not going your way.
We’ve seen this man quench that fire many times before.
Given what we know about the mental strength needed to step into that octagon, it would be interesting to be able to pinpoint the exact moment each of Khabib’s 26 prior foes realised deep down that they were destined to become another feather in his hat.
He doesn’t catch people with a flash KO and he has never had to swing the momentum of a fight in his favour.
It’s always an inevitability with Khabib.
This guy plants seeds of doubt like it’s a full-time job and with him now scheduled to square off against Conor McGregor, breaking his opponent’s belief in his chances will be crucial if he is to succeed.
Guys he faces fight outside of their games from the get-go when Khabib starts walking forward because they know exactly what will happen to them if they can’t hurt him early.
Say what you want about Conor, he’s not going to allow the fear of the takedown to hinder his approach when the first-bell rings.
This is a guy who had absolutely no problem jumping back into an octagon five months later with a man, in Nate Diaz, who had just choked him into submission on live television.
If he fails tonight, I’m sure he’ll be the first to hold his hand up and admit it but the important thing to note here is that his he will come out in round-one and he will be in the zone from the very first exchange.
And this is so crucial.
Khabib has never fought anyone who has reason to believe in themselves as much as Conor does. Iaquinta, Barboza, dos Anjos and Johnson had all under-performed, underwhelmed and experienced their fair share of ups and downs on their path to eventually stepping in to fight the ‘The Eagle’.
None of them had ever once competed in a UFC title fight by then and Khabib has never even shared the octagon with someone who had headlined a UFC PPV card before then.
Conor lives in this world.
He only fights in marquee matchups. The chips are all on the table, every single time.
I’m not saying this necessarily has a bearing on Nurmagomedov’s ability to impose his will on Conor but in my opinion, the way these two contrasting styles matchup leads me to believe that this matchup could be won or lost very early.
The difference in this fight will be Conor’s experience and stubbornness.
He’s not going to shell up – even in the face of potential embarrassment. If he was willing to fight Chad Mendes on short-notice with a torn ACL, knowing what could go wrong, I don’t think he’s going to be intimidated by Khabib – even if that eventually works towards his own downfall.
Mind you, he absolutely could be broken down as the fight goes on and begin to doubt himself but if I’m going to make my concrete prediction, I don’t see this one getting to that stage.
At UFC 205 when he fought Eddie Alvarez, one of the first shots he threw – maybe a minute into the contest – dropped the then-champion to the canvas.
Conor threw a few jabs out there and some half-hearted lefts but despite Eddie opening with two or three decent leg-kicks, it was McGregor who was pressuring, but at the same time, waiting for Alvarez to spring forward.
When he did, he was countered and dropped with just over a minute on the clock.
From there he fell into a whirlwind of confusion, making all of the wrong moves before the fight morphed into something of an exhibition for the hard-handed southpaw’s skills.
I’m not sure that Khabib has the tools necessary to close in on Conor without eating a hard left in return – especially in that first exchange. We’ve heard about what a quick-shot on the chin from the Irishman feels like and I think his precision will be enough to zap Khabib on that sweet-spot early and take him out of his game.
Nurmagomedov’s takedowns are amongst the best in MMA history but let’s be real, if he isn’t the one pressuring you up against the cage, those shots lose steam. His stats for takedowns in the centre of the octagon more than supports this.
I see McGregor tagging him in an early exchange, applying pressure and then gradually picking him apart until his opponent runs out of space to move back into and is forced into a desperate retaliation.
Khabib can definitely power through Conor’s defense and floor him, of course – even if his own back is to the cage, but as we’ve seen in the past, if Conor has you cornered, he limits your options drastically and for a fighter of Nurmagomedov’s inferior striking, the option he chooses will more than likely be the wrong one.
So much is made of the 26-0 record and the fact that he has never even lost a round.
And believe me, I can see Khabib winning this fight and winning it quite easily, but if you’re fighting a guy with Conor’s power and accuracy in the biggest fight in MMA history, how do you react if you experience getting tagged, rocked and even knocked down for the first time in your professional career?
Either way, we’ll learn a lot more about both of these guys soon enough.
Prediction: Conor McGregor by first-round TKO
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena