Khabib Nurmagomedov, Ground Specialist of the Future

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Despite being fraught with injuries, last minute replacements and the absence of Tony Ferguson, UFC on Fox 19 was a huge success. Fans experienced the full breadth and variety that mixed martial arts has to offer.

Included in the broad spectrum of martial arts mastery was the wrestling and sambo of Khabib Nurmagomedov, who returned to vintage form after a two year layoff. The last man to defeat incumbent lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, the Dagestani native earned his twenty-third consecutive victory, keeping his perfect record i tact following the systematic dismantling of promotional newcomer Darrell Horcher.

Horcher, who fought in Bellator and held a solid 13-1 pro MMA record coming into this fight, is a well-rounded, gritty fighter with excellent wrestling and dangerous power in his hands. That said, nobody expected him to win this fight. It was a classic tune-up fight for “The Eagle,” who many believe has earned a shot at the title in a rematch with dos Anjos even prior to stepping in the cage with Horcher.

Nurmagomedov spent the first several minutes feeling out his opponent, waiting for an opening to shoot a takedown. As soon as he got in deep on Horcher’s legs, he lifted his opponent into the air with ease and carried him to the middle of the octagon before emphatically dumping him on his back, almost landing in full mount.

The rest of the fight was a textbook display of MMA grappling: big, powerful takedowns promptly followed by passing the guard as soon as possible. Rather than stalling or playing it safe, Nurmagomedov mixed in ferocious ground-and-pound with his superior grappling, landing vicious punches and elbows while simultaneously passing the guard.

Horcher showed tremendous heart in this fight, utilizing sound defense and solid technique in the scrambles, but there was no denying that Nurmagomedov is on another level. In addition to relentless hip pressure, he has excellent flexbility with his legs, enabling him to step over his opponent’s head while in half-guard. This accomplishes two things: first, it allows him to posture up, giving him maximum leverage to rain down huge punches and elbows. Second, it twists his opponent’s spine such that retaining half guard opens up the head to strikes.

Unlike pure grappling (such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or submission wrestling), MMA grappling requires different techniques from both the top and bottom player. Because strikes are involved, the bottom player must stay tight defensively, clinching his opponent’s upper body and thus eliminating any space between the fighters. This technique mitigates the top player’s ground-and-pound, but offers little offense, thereby relying on referee stand-ups or simply frustrating the opponent.

If the bottom player wants to attack off his back, he must make sure to place one or both feet on the opponent’s hips, pushing off whenever his opponent swings, causing the attacking fighter to miss and/or fall out of position. This style of open guard can be incorporated with an offensive jiu jitsu game, but it’s very difficult to go between lots of space, or no space at all. The middle ground is where the top player can land punches and elbows, which can set up guard passing, submissions, and in some cases, devastating knock outs. Therefore the bottom player must constantly pull and push off his opponents hips and hope to create enough space to build his base (keeping the center of gravity perpendicular with the ground, like standing up from a deep squat) if he wishes to stand back up.

It’s essentially much more difficult to attack from the back while in full guard in MMA, both due to the involvement of strikes and due to the buildup of sweat and blood without the traction created by long-sleeve rash guards and full-length spats (basically wrestling pants). The blood and sweat make fighters extremely slippery, and when rounds are only five minutes long, it’s difficult to mount any significant grappling offense on the ground against high-caliber athletes and fighters who fight in the UFC. Then you add the unpredictability of referee stand-ups, which depend on both the discretion (and knowledge) of the referee as well as the deafening chorus of boos from an oft-impatient crowd. If the hometown favorite is a striker who is forced to fight off his back, you can bet your bottom dollar the crowd will boo at every moment of inaction on the ground, putting enormous pressure on the referee to stand the fighters back up.

All of these variables create a hostile environment for experienced world-class grapplers, which perhaps explains the dearth of UFC fighters who utilize their grappling to their full potential. While there are indeed many fighters in the UFC with high-ranking brown belts or black belts, there’s only a handful who predominantly rely on grappling to win fights. Demian Maia, who is in my opinion one of the two best pure grapplers in MMA (the other being Ronaldo “Jacaré” Souza), realized that his striking would never amount to the level of his grappling, and he is better off simply using strikes to set up his takedowns and engaging his opponent in a 15-minute grappling match.

It’s no secret that wrestling, grappling, and ground-and-pound are Nurmagomedov’s wheelhouse. He’s arguably the best in the division at those things. He knows he’s on another level, and he’s much more likely to earn a knockout victory while crushing his opponent’s body with both knees, pinning the hips and shoulders to the ground, posturing up and showering meteorites upon his earthly, beleaguered foe.

While some critics may argue that slaying the sacrificial lamb that is Darrell Horcher isn’t all that impressive, its also fair to point out that Nurmagomedov’s performance was close to flawless. It took him fewer than three minutes to land his first takedown, which he did with ease. Forgive the guy if his striking was a little rusty after going two years without a fight against an opponent he hadn’t trained for, much less heard of, until ten days or so before the fight.

His destruction of Horcher was calculated and methodical, but what else should we expect?After all, Horcher’s got some pretty serious knockout power. Nurmagomedov knows a victory will likely cinch a title fight and rematch with Rafael dos Anjos, so he has absolutely no incentive to throw caution to the wind and possibly wind up on the business end of a vicious knockout.

Nurmagomedov looked as scary as ever in his dominant performance on Saturday, and has a very real chance of unseating the current champion.

Now if only these two men can stay healthy, it’ll be one hell of a fight.

 

Main photo: TAMPA, FL – APRIL 16: Khabib Nurmagomedov (top) punches Darrell Horcher in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Amalie Arena on April 16, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

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