The Lost Fight: Max Holloway vs Khabib Nurmagomedov

The Lost Fight: Max Holloway vs Khabib Nurmagomedov


As most of you will be aware, the last minute fight between Max Holloway and Khabib Nurmagomedov was scrapped and replaced three more times. While Holloway was nursing a serious injury that forced him to withdraw from the Frankie Edgar fight a few weeks ago, he was nonetheless a fascinating match up for Nurmagomedov as a man with a good grasp on ring craft, stalling out takedown attempts, and using both stances to draw his man out. 

The following is the Tactical Guide to Khabib vs Max as it stood when the NYSAC announced Holloway would not be competing. 

Hypothetical Gameplans

For Max Holloway the answer is footwork. The answer to Nurmagomedov has always and will always be footwork. Michael Johnson easily sprawled on Nurmagomedov’s clumsy shots out in the open, it was when he got pushed to the fence that he was in trouble. At this point in mixed martial arts ring position and distance mean more than wrestling pedigree in preventing takedowns.

Nothing in Khabib Nurmagomedov’s footwork stands out as especially educated or crafty. He’s more about always moving forward than he is about cutting off the cage. Actually his footwork against Edson Barboza was absolutely hideous as he ran straight past Barboza any time Barboza changed angle.

Barboza himself loathes pressure and has been flustered by men like Tony Ferguson and Beneil Dariush simply running at him. He also made life difficult for himself by constantly looking to kick—an action that requires him to be on one leg, something which makes circling and moving impossible.

The thing about ring cutting of course is that you don’t see it if it isn’t needed. There were plenty who claimed lateral movement couldn’t stop Ronda Rousey getting the clinch—lo and behold, Holly Holm put the moves on Rousey and we found out she didn’t have a clue where to put her feet. For more on than, check out Ringcraft IV: The Fall of Ronda Rousey.

Technical prowess takes over the fight when athletic advantages begin to fail. With Rousey, and with so many forward moving swarmers, it is not always a case of needing to “stick-and-move”. For the early going “and-move” is enough. Making a fighter chase is often enough to slow them a little. If they don’t slow to reconsider their approach, they will quickly tire themselves out and both of those achieve the same goal of stopping the bum rush.

Holloway’s pair of fights against the great Jose Aldo showed the versatility of his jab. It is an educated jab which can be flicked out or hammered in, and is worked in doubles, can be used at multiple levels, and hides between feints. If Holloway can avoid Khabib for the first minute or two, the jab should be able to come into play more. Constant feinting is especially valuable when the opponent is constantly looking to duck inside to initiate a clinch or a shot whenever you punch. Khabib’s opponents often get into the panicked mindset where if he moves forward, they must punch to keep him off them—this actually makes his job easier as they plant their feet and open up their hips.

Everything in this fight points to activity and pace being Holloway’s ally. Holloway’s usual fighting weight is ten pounds lower, while Nurmagomedov is famed for his enormous weight cut—missing weight to fight Abel Trujillo and missing his UFC 209 date with Tony Ferguson due to a botched weight cut. That is not to say that Khabib is the kind of guy who will mentally collapse if the fight goes past the first round—even when he failed on every takedown attempt against Gleison Tibau, Nurmagomedov continued pursuing him until the dying seconds of the third round. However he did slow, and he got sloppier, and that is where Holloway’s superior technical striking can begin to pay dividends.

BJJ Scout put together a great study in anticipation of this fight this week, demonstrating Holloway’s handfighting when pressed against the cage. The single underhook position is an American Kickboxing Academy trademark, and stalling out the free hand before circling out with the collar tie has proven to be a great trick against the tactic. Fabricio Werdum demonstrated it against Cain Velasquez repeatedly. Scout’s study also shows how Max’s handfighting and wide base force opponents to pick up the single, whereupon Max will run out into the centre of the cage and limp leg out as Jose Aldo has always done so wonderfully.

A similar idea might be applied to the ground work. The fence has not proven to be the ally Nurmagomedov’s recent opponents once they are taken down. Working to wall walk up saw Michael Johnson and Edson Barboza both get stuck in two awful positions which Nurmagomedov shows off regularly. The first is catching the wrist or crook of the elbow across the back as the opponent posts his arm to begin standing up or dragging himself away from a Nurmagomedov smash pass. When he catches the arm across the back, Nurmagomedov will drag it in and smash his man down on top of it, essentially ending up in Mario Sperry’s old ‘One Armed Man’ position. In MMA this is bad news because the bottom man has lost his most effective block to strikes from that side.

Another position that Nurmagomedov gets to regularly is sitting on his opponent’s grapevined shins as they sit against the fence. For years this position was almost exclusively for wasting time or ‘laming it out’. Nurmagomedov discovered, however, that this is one of the few grounded positions where the uppercut is a practical punch.

Much of Nurmagomedov’s passing also comes with the opponent pressed towards the fence. He swings fighters around into leg weaves or pops his hips straight over to mount as his man is attempting to shuffle up the cage wall.

For Holloway it might be preferable to work away from the fence whenever possible. Rather than working on wall walking up, or shrimping and returning to guard, Max might work best building up from the turtle out in the open. Away from the fence Nurmagomedov is even more dynamic on top, standing out of the knee shield to drop punches and just to make stuff happen without worrying so much about which iteration of guard he is ‘trapped’ in.

Letting Nurmagomedov pass is bad too—he is terrific at smashing his way to the mounted crucifix either from side control or by jumping up to place a knee on his man’s throat.

In the spirit of keeping the action moving and trying to avoid being stuck in position where he will take a lot of damage, Holloway could have success with the Sakuraba / Nick Diaz strategy of encouraging the guard pass but building to the turtle as it happens.

While Abel Trujillo was taken down a record number of times against Nurmagomedov, he did keep getting up. And he also demonstrated one of the important principles that Ray F. Carson was harping on about a few decades ago. While coaching, Carson performed a study of all the pins and reversals from the referee’s position through a season. Looking at the data, Carson asserted that the stand up was king. Not only did stand ups succeed more often than attempting granbys, switches and arm rolls, all of those escapes worked far better when attempting to stand and escape first. Fairly common knowledge in wrestling nowadays but Carson was one of the first to run the numbers and start coaching based on his findings and in fact published several treatises on the subject. When trying to stand, Trujillo had success turning Nurmagomedov’s relentless aggression into granby rolls.

Trujillo pursued a wrestling match once he escaped, but Holloway only needs to get back to his feet and begin the dance again. The less time he is in physical contact with Nurmagomedov, the better.

Returning to the feet, Holloway jabs well as an orthodox fighter but also works well from a southpaw stance. You will notice that Holloway almost always switches stances while in motion to his left or right. This hides the switch of stances and also mitigates the risk of being hit between stances. If T.J. Dillashaw, Dominick Cruz and Demetrious Johnson have all been dropped on their arses by a punch they ate between stances, it’s a risk for anyone.

Working from a southpaw stance, Holloway has a couple of nice angles he can operate from. Drawing Khabib forward he could try to step out to his left side and hammer the Dagestani with a left straight from the open side. The Wonderby / McGregor special, it works so well because the opponent cannot duck down behind their lead shoulder, all they have to protect them is the small surface of their right forearm. As was demonstrated by Edson Barboza in the brief moments he stopped trying to kick and actually boxed with Khabib, cutting an angle results in Khabib pivoting around his lead foot and eating whatever strike follows.

Holloway could also work the John Dodson trick of constantly stepping outside the opponent’s lead foot, doubling up on the left straight, and sprinting to the other side of the cage. This, combined with Pedro Munhoz’s complete inability to recognize patterns, made Dodson’s last fight unbearably samey but won him the bout.

On the ven diagram of aggressive, face first swarmers and pasty snowflake skinned Russians, Khabib Nurmagomedov comfortably occupies the middle segment. This means that intercepting elbows are always going to be a good idea against him. No swinging necessary, just if he seems like he’s getting a clinch and Holloway can’t circle out in time, Holloway should be jutting that elbow out there for Nurmagomedov to run onto. Half of the brilliance of Holloway’s jab is that it irritates his opponent’s eyes and hides his follow up strikes—blood trickling down your brown and into your eye achieves the exact same thing.

[It was at this point that the fight was cancelled and Jack quit for the day]

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