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Nurmagomedov's ability to implement gameplan can tip balance in his favour

Professional fighter Joseph Duffy breaks down the meeting of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor.

IDENTIFYING THE STRENGTHS of the two fighters might be relatively straightforward, but forecasting the outcome of Saturday night’s UFC 229 main event between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor is much more complicated.

As has been highlighted extensively by now, this is a clash of two very contrasting styles: Nurmagomedov’s relentless takedowns and suffocating pressure going up against the spectacular striking ability that earned McGregor titles in two separate UFC divisions.

1giybSRO UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and challenger Conor McGregor. Source: PA Images

Nurmagomedov’s takedowns are that powerful and his calibre of wrestling is so superior that it has allowed him to completely nullify the strengths of the opposition — as evidenced by his unblemished professional record of 26-0. He has been extremely dominant as a result. His positioning and control on the ground make it very difficult to recover and escape from an unfavourable situation.

When guys who have either fought against or trained with Khabib talk about the experience, they always seem to mention the force of his pressure and how tough it is to get out from underneath him.

If he takes you down early, you can choose to attempt to fight your way out of it. The problem with that approach is that you may end up expending energy that you could probably use later on, should you survive. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Alternatively, you may opt to settle, tuck up tight — even though you might take some punishment — and then hopefully ride out the storm and start again in the next round, feeling fresher than would have been the case if you’d battled to get back to your feet to no avail.

Khabib Nurmagomedov; Pat Healy Nurmagomedov scores a takedown against Pat Healy at UFC 165. Source: Chris Young

What is particularly impressive about Nurmagomedov’s pursuit of takedowns is that he isn’t deterred if he’s not immediately successful. A lot of fighters will give up if they fail with a couple of attempts. Khabib, aided by his stamina, will keep going until he gets you down.

He might not be one of the best strikers in the game but he is quite unorthodox, which has worked in his favour. The manner in which he puts it all together makes it difficult for his opponents to hold their ground and fire off shots. He’s an expert at controlling the pace of the fight.

When Nurmagomedov dominated Edson Barboza last December, it was billed as his first major test against a talented striker. However, it’s no secret that if you force Barboza onto the back-foot and put pressure on him, he struggles.

Barboza is a kicker more than a boxer, so fighting on the back-foot doesn’t suit him as it’s hard to throw kicks while you’re trying to maintain your balance. Barboza was definitely the most dangerous striker that Nurmagomedov has faced, but stylistically it was still a much different prospect to the one he’ll have to deal with against McGregor.

MMA 2016 - UFC 205 - New York Nurmagomedov in control on the ground in his UFC 205 win against Michael Johnson. Source: Jason Silva

With McGregor, you’re mostly talking about a boxer, and specifically a counter-puncher. Simultaneously, McGregor will also need to plant his feet in order to throw his most powerful shots. The danger of then being vulnerable to takedowns will make things interesting.

McGregor manages the distance very well, which will be an extra challenge for Nurmagomedov as he searches for an opening for a takedown. But what I’ll be particularly interested to see is who controls the pace and tempo of the fight.

Backing his opponents up is a key part of what allows McGregor to control the distance. You rarely see him being marched backwards. The same can be said of Nurmagomedov.

McGregor, because of the threat he poses with his counter-striking, is the more dangerous back-foot fighter of the two. Nurmagomedov is certainly capable of shooting for takedowns despite being pushed backwards, but I think he’d much prefer to be the one with the forward momentum.

MMA 2016 - UFC 205 - New York McGregor lands a shot en route to winning the lightweight title from Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205. Source: Jason Silva

As for his ability to defend takedowns, McGregor had some difficulty in that regard in his fight against Chad Mendes at UFC 189. However, the major difference is that — unlike Mendes — Nurmagomedov doesn’t seem to shoot blast-double takedowns often.

In fact, the way he set up his takedowns was something I felt Nurmagomedov struggled with when he won the title against Al Iaquinta in April. Having said that, he’s part of a very good camp so I’m sure that’s something they’ve addressed in the build-up to this fight.

If so, it will be a concern for McGregor because Nurmagomedov will be a lot more physical than Mendes, given that the Mendes fight was in a smaller weight class. In terms of strength and pressure, Mendes and Nurmagomedov are on completely different levels.

Nurmagomedov seemed content to stand and trade strikes with Iaquinta, but that’s not a strategy I expect from him this weekend. He’ll be fully aware that getting into a pure striking match with McGregor would be crazy.

Conor McGregor with Denis Siver 18/1/2015 McGregor is at his most dangerous when fighting on the front-foot and controlling the tempo. Source: Emily Harney/INPHO

Nevertheless, every round starts on the feet and there are potentially five rounds on Saturday which will begin with an opportunity for McGregor to strike, so Nurmagomedov will have to be prepared for all eventualities.

A lot has been made about mental warfare and the psychological battle. Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think any of that will come into play on the night. It will come down to the skills and the training alone.

Who said what is irrelevant — maybe not in every case, because every fighter is different — but certainly when it comes to these two guys. The better fighter will win this fight, not the better trash-talker.

Against a high-level striker like Conor McGregor, there will always be a risk of being hit by one shot that will change the fight. That’s the reality of MMA, and it’s something that Nurmagomedov will undoubtedly be cognisant of as he looks to retain the title.

UFC McGregors Return Nurmagomedov and McGregor accompanied by UFC president Dana White at a recent press conference. Source: Seth Wenig

Every time Nurmagomedov appears to have trained with a specific style of fighter in mind, he has implemented the gameplan well and managed to maul his opponent. McGregor may hurt him at some point, but I expect Nurmagomedov to get him down regardless.

Predicting the result of a bout involving two fighters of such a high quality is always difficult, but I’m veering towards a decision win for Nurmagomedov.

* * *

Hailing from Donegal and currently based in Montreal, Canada, Joseph Duffy is a UFC lightweight with a professional MMA record of 17-3. He fought Conor McGregor in May 2010 and won by first-round submission. He also fights under the same management company as Khabib Nurmagomedov.

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Joseph Duffy

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