Khabib Nurmagomedov kept his undefeated record and took another lightweight scalp on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi. Dustin Poirier put together a performance that could be described as spirited and gritty but not particularly slick or smart. At this point everyone should know Nurmagomedov’s deal: his takedowns are best against the fence and not so great out in the open, and he doesn’t set up his shots very well. But rather than circling and moving for the early going, Poirier stood straight in front of Nurmagomedov and then slowly gave ground before he hit the fence.
When Nurmagomedov entered along the fence we were show that yes, American Top Team very much understands the American Kickboxing Academy game along the fence. Nurmagomedov and AKA’s other top men will take the single underhook and work to achieve a bodylock but they have to link their hands to do that.
So Poirier, like Conor McGregor, invested his time gripping two-on-one on Nurmagomedov’s free hand to prevent the body lock. Though unlike McGregor, Poirier at no point stuck his fingers inside of Nurmagomedov’s glove. Here you can see Poirier blocking Nurmagomedov’s left arm behind the triceps.
Nurmagomedov then switched to the high crotch that he used to send McGregor flying late in that fight. Diving his free hand between Poirier’s legs and locking his hands together there, Nurmagomedov was able to lift and drive Poirier up onto one foot (1). Just as against McGregor, Nurmagomedov used his right leg to kick out Poirier’s standing foot, resulting in a quick sweep (2).
The reason that Nurmagomedov prefers to get a body lock is that he has a far greater degree of control. With this lift to foot sweep, the opponent is often bouncing up before Nurmagomedov can settle on top of them. But against both McGregor and Poirier this actually created an opportunity as both turned their back to stand and Nurmagomedov was able to lock his hands around them and collect a back bodylock: the position he is almost always working towards and the place from which he can transition to the back or simply keep returning his man to the mat.
Poirier survived that first bit of trouble and was stood up for the start of round two, whereupon he simply charged Nurmagomedov with blows and seemed to have him a little rattled before getting put on the fence again and that glimmer of hope disappearing. Now that we are suitably removed from the emotions of Nurmagomedov vs McGregor it is a little safer to say that while McGregor might have been better trying to dance and circle, his tactic of forcing Nurmagomedov onto the back foot did have one of the effects that was intended—forcing Nurmagomedov to shoot into the centre of the cage instead of onto the fence made it easier (or at least possible) for McGregor to stuff the takedowns and disengage. Poirier sort of made that work by backing Nurmagomedov up, but his offence was a constant charge rather than well applied pressure and pot shotting.
As referenced in the Unibet preview, Poirier’s willingness to snatch a guillotine and throw himself to the mat in front of the fence at every opportunity hurt him in this match. While Poirier appeared to be troubling Nurmagomedov in one attempt, it ultimately failed to pan out and left Poirier on the mat, by the cage once again. Poirier succumbed to a rear naked choke in the third round and while Nurmagomedov had very little real trouble in this fight we continued to learn about his habits and ultimately the meta of MMA.
Ahead of this fight I was particularly intrigued by some of the moments in Nurmagomedov and Islam Makhachev’s fights when the ground work was turned away from the fence. While using the fence to wall walk makes returning to the feet considerably easier, it seems that some of the best wrestlers in MMA right now (Nurmagomedov, Usman, Makhachev) excel at slowing down the opponent on the way back up, and then returning them to the mat once they get to their feet. It seems as though most of Nurmagomedov’s opponents can return to the feet at some point, but the problem is that they cannot disengage and so have fought their way back up to just another disadvantageous position.
Nick Lentz and Arman Tsarukyan’s work with butterfly hooks against Islam Makhachev was particularly encouraging and Lentz would actually get taken down on the fence and then push himself out of a seated position on the fence to get his back to the floor and start playing butterfly hooks. Nurmagomedov’s work against men like Michael Johnson out in the open mat was much more loose: he would stand and punch down on opponent, or hop up to knee on belly, and this provided a lot of space that just isn’t there in those grinding minutes when the bottom man is sat against the fence. Similarly, Abel Trujillo’s escapes from underneath Nurmagomedov tended to involve a stand up into diving granby or sit out—all stuff that requires space and which can’t be accomplished while pushed against the fence. Ultimately the wall walk—or rather scooting the butt to the fence in preparation to wall walk—massively increases your ability to force you way up to your feet but completely removes the threat of a sweep or a submission: the other two parts of the holy trinity of the guard and the parts that are going to distract an opponent and allow a fighter to stand.
This brings us to the last round of the Makhachev – Ramos fight. Ramos was the 2015 ADCC under 77kg champion and his skill on the ground is tremendous, but even world class grapplers are trained to value the wall walk because you can’t waste time on your back, losing the round. Ramos actually eschewed the wall walk in the third round and instead played guard and forcibly turned his head off the fence at every opportunity. Through the use of knee shields and pivots off the fence, Ramos was able to redirect Makhachev’s pressure and had the Dagestani sitting back and playing passive after a few attempts.
Here Ramos has used snuck his left knee in front of Makhachev’s right biceps and is gripping the wrist (1). Makhachev is trying to smother any attempt at offence. Ramos swings his right leg up along the fence (2).
Turning his foot into the fence, Ramos is able to swivel his hips out and move his head underneath Makhavev (3). He attacks an overhook armbar from this position but Makhachev’s arm slips free. However you can see that Makhachev’s weight is off Ramos and Ramos has moved himself off the fence.
Makhachev began to sit back and play more cautiously and Ramos was able to keep his knees in front of Makhachev’s chest while hooking his hand behind one of Makhachev’s knees. This is sometimes called “K control” and it is becoming more common in submission grappling—Eddie Cumings has some nice sweeps and leg entries from here, and Karo Parisyan actually had good success turning back the relentless pressure of Georges St. Pierre when he used this position. Rafael Lovato also used a similar position and inversions to get Gegard Mousasi on the defensive in his disastrous third round against the one-time Bellator champion.
Am I saying that the guard is going to come back and people are going to start getting submitted left and right? No, submitting someone from the guard in MMA is extremely difficult. I don’t even believe that the wall walk is done—some more developments on the defensive end and you might see wrestlers struggling to hold their opponents down again—but I do believe that right now a fighter and his team have to make the decision regarding time.
A fighter will be able to get up on the fence at some point, and at some point he might be able to disengage, but it is going to take a lot longer than it used to and the bottom man is completely toothless with strikes, reversals and submission attempts until he reaches his feet. And then if gets back to standing on the fence and decides to grab a guillotine it doesn’t work to open up other options, it ties him to the one. The question the fighter and his team have to ask themselves is: do we think—with offensive cage work where it is right now—that this can be achieved quicker than scrambling up from guard where sweeps, submissions, elbows, and kicks to the chest are all also threats?
Getting to the rest of that fight, Islam Makhachev looked to be the better rounded man. Davi Ramos was winging right hands and trying to do so in combination but the southpaw Makhachev was able to step back to his left and just slide away. Makhachev picked away with quick left straights and long straights to the body. One interesting moment came as Makhachev got hammered trying to use the lead hand uppercut to set up the rear straight. He had done it once earlier in the fight, but he wasn’t getting himself quite outside Ramos’ lead shoulder when he came in and wound up eating a left hand that buckled his legs for a moment.
You will notice when Prince Naseem Hamed, or Marvin Hagler, or Conor McGregor applied this set up for the left straight, they tended to really “lean out the window” and then slide down the side of their opponent’s lead foot. That is to compensate for the dropping of straight-line defence that often accompanies and uppercut. Even with a front hand uppercut, leading with an uppercut still carries that danger.
Odds and Sods
While this card didn’t look like much on paper, some of the other fights turned out well. Paul Felder versus Edson Barboza provided a good, technical scrap that was hard to judge but also hard to dislike. Ahead of the fight we questioned Felder’s ability to actually apply pressure effectively instead of simply plodding forward and eating strikes but it seemed like Felder found an effective middle ground. Barboza wasn’t running for his life but once the Brazilian slowed down a little in rounds two and three, Felder didn’t look nearly as ponderous and was actually returning with combinations at several points.
Felder has always done well on strike variety even if he doesn’t always combination strike that well. There were plenty of stepping elbows and counter elbows in this fight but oddly enough it was Felder’s jab that came to make the difference in the late going. Barboza ended up getting stuck in the same loop that he did against Barboza: jog around the cage, set stance to kick, get stung by the jab, leave stance and jog around to a new position.
A couple of the cooler moments in this one were Edson Barboza’s slip and counter left hook to pivot off line—the one neat boxing trick in his arsenal but still solid gold—and Paul Felder’s insistence on returning every successful low kick with a spinning backfist.
Barboza punts Felder with a low-low kick, Felder turns his back and spins into a spinning backfist. It is worth noting that Felder owns one of only three knockouts by spinning backfist in UFC history.
When Nordine Taleb and Muslim Salikhov were matched against each other I couldn’t help but hope for some slick sanda trips off Taleb’s caught kicks, but Salikhov actually kickboxed Taleb into an early knockout. Salikhov established the counters very early and as a result Taleb barely got going. Each time Taleb stuck out a strike, Salikhov would slide back, let it fall short, and come back with a kick.
As Taleb goes to step in, Salikhov lengthens his stance by sliding his right foot back and drops away (2). As Taleb returns to his stance, Salikhov pushes off his back foot and spins into a back kick (3).
The early counters turned Taleb—an enormously powerful kicker—completely passive. He would flick out a jab and then back away, or throw out a feint on its own and then do nothing to capitalize on it. When Taleb began backing up, Salkikhov followed him to the fence, got his hands down with a body jab, and cracked Taleb with an overhand as he circled into it. It was a breathtaking knockout and a fantastic coming out party for Salikhov on one of the year’s bigger cards.