It isn’t that there’s something in the water in Dagestan: it’s that there isn’t enough water — you have to fight for it. With a reputation as one of the most arduous places on the planet, it is no surprise that the troubled Republic is the homeland of one of the most focused and feared cage fighters on the planet, UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
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With a perfect record of 27-0, a victory over Conor McGregor, and the proprietor of perhaps the most dreaded fighting style in mixed martial arts, it is no wonder why Khabib Nurmagomedov is hailed as an unstoppable force. While this image is justified, it is important to recognize that it is deserved due to the techniques and tactics that “The Eagle” employs; he wins fights because he utilizes a set of skills and techniques that have been refined through the trials and tribulations of his ancestors and countrymen. The perfection of hand to hand combat has been the focus of Dagestani life for generations, which has left Khabib Nurmagomedov with the techniques he uses to thrive in the Octagon. While it is easy to fall into the trap of viewing the fighter from a war-torn area of the planet as just being “tougher” than other fighters, this would be a disservice to Khabib, his culture, and the specific skillset the champion has accrued.
Specifically, what Khabib Nurmagomedov does better than the rest of the UFC roster is relentlessly top control and damage his opponents from the top position. While many in the UFC can take their opponents down almost at will, where Khabib Nurmagomedov is unparalleled is in his ability to keep his opponent down while he damages them with strikes. He does not lay and pray: once an opponent is down he is incredibly active in blasting them with strikes. This is what has caught his competition off guard. They are used to fighters either laying on top of them and holding them down or attempting to strike, which gives them the space necessary to move and escape. But by utilizing a specific set of riding and pinning techniques, Khabib can both harm and control his opponents.
Before he faces off against the always-dangerous Dustin Poirier at UFC 242, let’s take a look into how Khabib Nurmagomedov can simultaneously pin and damage his opponents in a manner in which no other UFC competitor seems able to replicate.
Immediately after getting his opponent down to the mat, Khabib will look to establish what is known as the leg mount. In this position, Khabib drags his opponent’s legs between his own, then locks them in place by securing a triangle. By driving his hips downward, he forces their legs straight, depriving them of the ability to place their feet on the floor in order to stand.
From here, Khabib has immense control over his opponent; unable to get their feet under them to stand, Khabib’s prey is hapless as he ravages them with strikes, or climbs his way up their body to a more dominant position.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is not the only fighter to utilize the leg mount: past and present competitors alike — most notably the legendary Bj Penn — have made extensive use of this maneuver. However, Khabib’s version of the leg mount is without a doubt the most formidable to ever been employed in the Octagon; this is for two reasons: first, Khabib will ensure that his opponent’s legs are crossed inside of his triangle. By intertwining their legs, it is substantially more difficult for Khabib’s opponent to escape. In the preceding clip, we see Khabib cross Conor McGregor’s legs just by using his own legs, while here we see him use his hand to reach down and ensure the legs are woven together before he locks them in the triangle.
The second reason Khabib’s leg mount is the most effective, and notorious, in all of MMA is that he uses it as a base to striker or methodically climb his opponent’s body; as the excess control of crossing the legs means he can keep his opponent in place and strike, he doesn’t have to immediately rush to the mount of back control, which often gives the victim the chance to escape.
Here we see Khabib wrap up McGregor in the leg mount, then slowly climb his way up to mount, never providing the space necessary for Conor McGregor to get an underhook or escape his hips. This would eventually lead to Khabib’s submission victory over the Irishman.
Now compare that with how Eddie Alvarez attempts to rush directly from the leg mount into mount against Khabib’s upcoming opponent Dustin Poirier. By hoisting his hips into the air, Eddie Alvarez gives Poirier space, and time, to get an underhook, post his hand on the mat, and stand up.
Khabib doesn’t make such mistakes, which greatly increases the effectiveness, and formidability of his leg mount, and therefore his entire game of top control.
The Dagestani Handcuff
Easily the most notorious tactic in Khabib Nurmagomedov’s toolkit, the Dagestani handcuff is perhaps the most significant contributor to Khabib’s feared reputation as a mauler.
If Khabib’s opponent places their wrist or elbow on the mat (often in an attempt to stand), Khabib will immediately reach around their back and grab their wrist. As a major aspect of the Dagestani handcuff is this around-the-back wrist grip, the position is often maligned as just being a wrestling technique known as “barring the arm.”
The reasons why Khabib’s tactic is both different and superior to barring the arm are slight, but consequential. Notice how Khabib uses the handcuff against the almost hapless Michael Johnson: as soon as Johnson places his elbow on the mat in an attempt to get up, Khabib secures the around-the-back wrist grip. Then, he sucks his arm back, driving Johnson’s body over the apparatus of intertwined limbs. He then moves his left leg in between Johnson’s legs, which prevents Johnson from turning away, while the wrist grip prevents Johnson from turning in.
The combination of leg and hand control gives Khabib complete dictation over when the fight will advance to a different position. With his opponent unable to move and only having one hand to defend, Khabib employs the ultimate objective of the Dagestani handcuff: the deliverance of vicious ground and pound to his nearly defenseless opponent.
These two actions — driving his opponent’s body on top of their trapped arm and placing his leg back inside his opponents half guard — are what differentiates both the Dagestani handcuff from “barring the arm,” and Khabib Nurmagomdov from the rest of the UFC roster. Johnson’s arm isn’t just “trapped behind his back:” his arm is “trapped behind his back, his body is on top of his arm, and Khabib Nurmagomedov is on top of him, punching him in the face.”
As it provides the capability to decimate an opponent through ground and pound, Khabib Nurmagomedove will pursue the Dagestani handcuff the way most fighters pursue traditionally dominant positions like the mount or the back. Here we see Khabib lock up the position as soon as Johnson’s wrist becomes available; Khabib could have looked to secure the back, but as he prefers the handcuff, that is his principal choice.
And just as with a dominant position like the back or mount, if the opponent is in the midst of an escape, Khabib will cease his attack and resecure the position before resuming his assault. Here we see Johnson start to get his bodyweight off of his wrist and start to free his arm. Khabib immediately stops his ground and pound to ensure the escape attempt is unsuccessful. Notice how he doubles up his wrist grip in order to drive Johnson back over his trapped arm.
Khabib views the Dagestani handcuff for exactly what it is: a dominant position that is just as good, and in some cases is even superior to, the mount or back. While the submission opportunities aren’t as numerous, the Dagestani handcuff allows Nurmagomedov to completely deprive his opponent of the ability to effectively defend against strikes by removing one arm from the equation.
Coupled with the sheer violence directed at their skull, the position renders the victim at the will of Nurmagomedov. It allows him to decide if and when he wants to advance to another position, while completely removing the possibility of the opponent escaping back to their feet. By viewing its conjunction of control and allowance of damage, it is obvious that the Dagestani handcuff is without a doubt one of the most notable reasons for Khabib Nurmagomedov’s success in the cage.
Although a rare, sometimes Khabib’s opponents will be able to work their way up off the mat and begin to stand. Never deviating from his unforgiving style of wrestling, Nurmagomedov will employ a series of riding techniques to keep his opponent down. One of the most prominent of these rides is the turtle rundown. If his opponent is about to get up off the mat (a rare occurrence), Khabib will secure his arms around their waist and quite literally run them forward, forcing them to place their hands on the mat to avoid face planting.
Once their arms are on the mat, Khabib drives his weight up over his opponent’s shoulders. Known as “weighting the arm,” the combined weight of Khabib and his opponent ensures that the arm can’t be taken off the mat, or the victim will fall face forward.
Here we see the turtle rundown employed against Al Iaquinta. Notice how Khabib is keeping his chest directly above Iaquinta’s shoulders: this places the weight of both fighters directly into Iaquinta’s hands, preventing Iaquinta from completing his attempt to stand. And just like the rest of Khabib’s preferred techniques, as the mechanism of control comes from Khabib’s body placement (his chest over his opponent’s shoulders), this means he has a free hand to strike.
The turtle rundown is an immensely effective tactic: it not only keeps an opponent from getting up off the mat, but penalizes them for even trying: forced to carry the weight of both fighters, Khabib’s opponents are sapped of their stamina as the Dagestani rides them face-first into the cage and mat, dishing out strikes whenever he fancies.
The Diamond Could Be Rough
Through the use of these three techniques (as well as many more that are too numerous to cover here), Khabib Nurmagomedov has been able to accrue an almost unbelievably perfect record of 27-0 that includes victories over some of the most notable names in the UFC.
Coming off of an impressive victory over the featherweight champion Max Holloway, Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier will be looking to put an end to that. While he has yet to reach the level of prestige that Khabib has, Poirier has been making consistent, substantial improvements with each fight. With very good defensive footwork and a unique style of boxing that is likely to prove problematic for Khabib, Poirier is far from an inevitable victim of Khabib Nurmagomedov: he is a formidable threat who could absolutely remain on his feet, out-strike the champion, and unify both the lightweight belts under his name. However, one aspect of his game that should be foregone against Khabib is his tendency to jump for guillotines, which Khabib and his team are happy to accept as it gives “The Eagle” top position.
Being one of the most anticipated bouts of 2019, UFC 242’s main event of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier will likely fulfill Dana White’s wildest dreams of generating worldwide hype for the UFC’s entrance into the Middle Eastern market. While we may not yet know if the infamous riding techniques of Khabib Nurmamogmedov will be sufficient for the lightweight champion to best Dustin Poirier and unify the two lightweight belts, it is safe to say that the main event of UFC 242 will be an outstanding fight that will be frequently recalled from the anals of mixed martial arts history.