By thoroughly mauling poor Edson Barboza en route to a gaping unanimous decision victory at UFC 219 in Las Vegas on Saturday night, Khabib Nurmagomedov brought an emphatic close to a frustrating chapter of his career.
Over the fourteen months or so that Nurmagomedov was inactive prior to the Barboza fight, his detractors had plenty of ammunition with which to attack and the fighter was forced to endure much derision.
Though Khabib ultimately displayed his soul-destroying, will-sapping grappling skills and finished Michael Johnson in the third round at UFC 205 in November of 2016, he was forced to come through some very shaky moments early on in the fight that led to questions and doubts about his stand-up game. To make matters worse, bitter rival Conor McGregor provided a stark contrast later that evening, when he entered a virtuoso striking performance to rip the lightweight title from Eddie Alvarez in the main event.
A few months later, in March, Nurmagomedov’s weight-cutting issues and resultant hospitalization scuppered a mouth-watering interim title fight with Tony Ferguson at the eleventh hour. This made the American Kickboxing Academy representative the butt of many a joke for the next nine months and led some to suggest that his days at lightweight might actually be over.
On Friday, however, Khabib weighed in at 155.5lbs and looked pretty healthy doing so. As if to further hammer home that he has conquered the scales, he later spoke about a potential future move 10lbs south to featherweight.
The following night, Nurmagomedov really stuck it to his doubters, showing an improved jab and cage-cutting ability, and faring well in stand-up exchanges with Barboza – one of the division’s elite strikers. This helped him to force Barboza to the fence, where he was able to employ his wrestling and subsequently his fearsome, peerless ground and pound to heap punishment upon the Brazilian.
There were very few tiramisu jokes doing the rounds online Saturday evening or Sunday morning, and significantly fewer slights against Nurmagomedov’s striking skills, like those that were strewn across social media in the wake of the Johnson fight, were to be found. Instead, there were vindicating superlatives and expressions of awe.
The hype surrounding ‘The Eagle’ is once again in full flight.
If you are flying high up there along with him though, don’t let the altitude affect your thinking too much. While Khabib effectively closed the distance against Barboza behind a solid jab that was almost non-existent against Johnson and got tagged with far fewer hurtful shots on the way in, he was also aided in his striking efforts and flattered by Barboza’s stylistic tendencies.
Yes, the Brazilian is an elite striker and a superior fighter to Johnson overall, but he is also more reliant upon and adept with his feet than his hands and thus he struggled to slow Nurmagomedv’s marches or punish his lack of head-movement once the Russian made it past kicking distance into mid-range. A better boxer might have done so. Johnson did for a time at UFC 205. Furthermore, because Barboza primarily throws traditional Muay Thai style leg kicks, round kicks to the head and body, and spin kicks – all of which are easier to step inside of and harder to execute quickly on a constantly advancing foe – he found it difficult to keep Khabib at long range where he wanted him.
Barboza is not the ideal fighter to exploit Nurmagomedov’s vulnerabilities. That person is somebody with sharp, fast, precise hands, a ruthless eye for the counter and natural punching power, who also employs snappy teeps/front-kicks and oblique kicks to help control distance.
You know, that sounds a lot like a certain, aforementioned Irishman.
UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor is a master at dictating range and perhaps the greatest counter-puncher in MMA history. Aside from all of that, he is a southpaw, like Johnson, and like Gleison Tibau, who gave Nurmagomedov serious problems at UFC 148 in July of 2012. The SBG Ireland fighter also has the ability to stifle the orthodox jab, Khabib’s newfound weapon, with his often out-stretched, open lead hand and to break the rhythm of aggressive fighters with feints or upper-body movement. McGregor makes the gap between long-range and close quarters a no man’s land and few have ever crossed without being blown away by his explosive left hand.
McGregor and Barboza might be alike in that they prefer to conduct business on the feet, but they are very, very different strikers. Khabib’s win on Saturday night was an impressive one, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it taught us anything new about the McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov match-up by the resultant hype.