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The Eagle Owns the Desert

Khabib is the foremost pacesetter, and he proves it once again at UFC 242
Publish Date: 09/09/2019
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
Sep 7, 2019; Abu Dhabi, UAE; Khabib Nurmagomedov (red gloves) fights Dustin Poirier (blue gloves) during UFC 242 at The Arena. Mandatory Credit: Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Coleman was jubilant! He ran around the ring flailing his arms, jumping on the turnbuckle, getting his feet caught in the ropes and falling down comically at one point.

It didn’t matter, he had no shame, his joy was obvious and infectious, he’d just won the richest prize in all of Mixed Martial Arts–the Pride FC Grand Prix Championship–before nearly 40,000 adoring Japanese fans. Coleman had just beaten feared Ukranian kickboxer and savage KO merchant Igor Vovchanchyan, an elite wrestler. Coleman took Igor down and laid down a vicious barrage of knee strikes en route to a stoppage win in the second round. Throughout the grueling tournament Coleman defeated some of the best MMA fighters in the world at the time, including the famous Japanese Karateka Masaaki Satake, a veteran of K-1 Kickboxing tournaments; the popular Japanese MMA pioneer Akira Shoji; Kazuyuki Fujita, who had come off an impressive upset of Mark Kerr; and finally, grinding Igor into dust.

Coleman accomplished this on the back of decades of experience as a high level freestyle wrestler out of Ohio State–an elite program to this day. Among his accolades are an NCAA championship, Silver Medal at the FILA World Championships in 1991 and a top-10 finish at the 1992 Olympics. Coleman’s strategy was as simple as it was novel at the time when he first entered the sport of MMA (it was still called No Holds Barred then) at UFC 10. Take the other guy down–since there’s no fucking way they can stop him– and once on the ground, hold them there and beat the shit out of them.

Rinse and repeat.

Mark Coleman is more or less credited with inventing the style of fighting/grappling and giving it the name “Ground N’ Pound”.  

However, a mere four years after entering the sport and dominating Coleman was a sad afterthought, as a new crop of fighters emerged on the scene, men who learned to defend Mark’s basic takedowns and in doing so managed to easily tire the prohormone-filled Coleman to the point of exhaustion where he could then be picked apart on the feet and often knocked out cold (see Mark Coleman vs. Pete Williams). But after losing four fights straight, the upstart Japanese fight promotion Pride FC came calling for Mark Coleman. In need of marquee name-value and fond of freak show fights, the mafia-backed promotion would pit 500 plus-pound sumo wrestlers against tiny Shoot Fighters and pro wrestlers against legit combat athletes, blend and serve.

Mark was down and out, nearly broke, in the early days of the UFC. Even the top fighters won little more than bragging rights and Mark had not won in years. Even if he lost his first fight and didn’t advance in the tournament, Mark could pay the mortgage for a few more months, feed his kids, keep the lights on… it was something. No one expected Mark Coleman to win the whole fucking thing! Least of all Mark it seemed, so when Mark bounded around the ring in celebration, how could you not be happy for the guy if you were well acquainted with his story?

Bird Of Prey

Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov was not yet eight years old when Mark Coleman was smashing dudes to a pulp in the Middle of Nowhere, Alabama at UFC 10. Khabib was born in the Middle of Nowhere, Dagestan, a small, hardscrabble piece of earth in the North Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union. Khabib was only a small child when the “Evil Empire” collapsed under the weight of its own armor. For reference, the Chernobyl Disaster, which HBO vividly brought to the small screen this year, occurred just two years before Khabib was born. So it was in this milieu of deprivation, economic and political chaos that Khabib was born and grew up as a child. 

Adding to this unyielding environment was his father Abdulmanap, a humorless and unrelenting taskmaster and brilliant martial artist in his own right. Adulmanap raised Khabib in the same strict fashion that he was forged in, book ended by two constants in Dagestan–strict Islamic religiosity and Combat Sambo. 

A facet of Combat Sambo unique to Dagestan is the elite level of wrestling there, so much so that during the Soviet era and to this day freestyle wrestlers from Dagestan routinely medal if not utterly dominate the field of competition. In fact, just last year Abdulrashid Sadulaev steamrolled the competition en route to a third Gold Medal at the World Championships, including a pinfall victory in seconds over Kyle Snyder, America’s best freestyle wrestler.

Now, just shy of 20 years since Mark Coleman’s serendipitous victory at the Grand Prix, Khabib Nurmagomedov would pay homage indirectly to Mark Coleman by laying waste to 27, now 28 opponents using an evolved style of Ground N’ Pound that ought to make Coleman proud.

The End of History

I’ve been a fan of MMA/NHB since the very first UFC events. Billed as brutal blood sport, as a kid we’d almost rather our folks caught us with porn than the early UFC tapes. I’ve also been a martial artist myself off and on for the better part of 20 years. My introduction to grappling was the Gracie Family. Royce and Rickson (pronounced Hoy-ce and Hix-son) popularized a style of grappling in Gi called Gracie Jiu Jitsu, later Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)–the “gentle art of folding clothing with the people still in it.

Joint locks, strangles, takedowns and body control are the main techniques and principles of this grappling system. Aside from the muscles, the cool accents and perfect tans I thought any Brazilian BJJ fighter was a god! I rooted for them without hesitation and against my fellow countrymen. To me BJJ was “the new religion” and I was a converted disciple. Never mind there was no shortage of marketing and at times careful matchmaking that highlighted the strengths and papered over the weaknesses of BJJ. I’d found my truth.

So it was pretty inconvenient and unacceptable when wrestlers like Mark Coleman came along with their muscles and their wrestling shoes and their grinding brute force and beat many of my heroes. 

But beat them they did, due in large part to a lack of deep understanding of and fluency in the takedown. Wrestlers have an insane work ethic and it enables them to explode and maintain a hellish pace. BJJ fighters, if they have any takedown knowledge or defense, it’s usually limited to simple techniques–a double leg, body lock and/or some simple foot sweeps. If they are more advanced they might supplement BJJ with Judo, however in the context of MMA, a sport fought without the Gi uniform, many if not most techniques are rendered useless. That’s a wrestler’s first advantage. BJJ emphasizes an attrition-based approach, using as little energy as possible and leverage over explosive strength. All this of course is anathema to a wrestler. Therein lies their second and arguably greatest advantage.

I don’t agree with Joe Rogan about much. Besides the bro science and pseudo intellectualism, I find him intolerable, his minions and fanboys are legion so if I’ve offended any of you drink some of that disgusting Mushroom Coffee he shills for and get over it. However, Rogan was the first MMA pundit I can recall with any clarity who said early and often that freestyle wrestling is the most crucial asset and the greatest weapon in the arsenal of the MMA fighter. With it the fighter with a strong wrestling base becomes “The Dictator” he/she will control if, when and how the fight goes to the ground.

There have been many dominant fighters throughout the relatively brief history of MMA who have had a very strong wrestling base and Khabib Nurmagomedov is simply the latest and quite possibly the best yet. 

Principally it’s his ability to chain wrestle that makes him so effective, flowing seamlessly from one technique or position to the next, relentless and unflappable that causes suffering like none other. 

And the underpinning of Khabib’s game is pretty simple. 

It hinges on two main principles: back the opponent up the cage, limiting their movement and eliminating the sprawl, and establish the underhook, from there the body lock. Khabib’s ending position is typically with his hands clasped around the opponent’s waist with him standing behind them. Now his opponent cannot strike him effectively, meanwhile Khabib has a variety of slams, mat returns and transitions to single or double leg takedowns and sneaky foot sweeps and trips at his disposal. But if ever he loses position and has to bail, he goes back to the double under bodylock. He uses almost no energy while his opponent exhausts himself fighting for an underhook, trying to scramble away all while carrying Khabib’s weight. 

Once he has you down and controlled he likes to encircle your legs with his and sit on them. He’ll often angle your upper body against the cage and now you have no leverage to escape, no means of building yourself back up to your feet. When completely subdued Khabib strafes you with elbows and punches. The kids on the MMA forums have taken to calling Khabib and his style “SMESH” a wink and a nod to the way Khabib in heavily accented English says the word “smash.”

It’s hell for his opponent.

Since his one-sided assault of Michael Johnson at UFC 205 in November 2016 the cat has been out of the bag, Khabib’s grappling game is second to none. Prior to that bout Khabib was not that highly thought of, being only a six fight veteran in the UFC at the time, a litany of injuries keeping Khabib on the shelf for two years, and his victory over former UFC Lightweight Champion Rafeal Dos Anjos was just a distant memory. Micheal Johnson was an established UFC vet already and had just come off a brutal first round KO victory of–ironically–Dustin Poirer. For three rounds Johnson was controlled and battered until finally he submitted with a brutal kimura shoulder lock.

Khabib repeated the same song almost note for note against another UFC stalwart, Edson Barbosa, a flashy Brazilian Kickboxer known for lightning fast strikes and a YouTube highlight reel full of crazy KOs. Edson managed to survive without being finished but lost years of his life from the beating and I’d argue is half shot, losing three of his last four fights. Oh and Michael Jonhson has lost three of his last five bouts.

Then he rag-dolleded Al Iaquinta on way to winning the vacant title on less than a day’s notice after Tony Ferguson had to pull out due to a freak injury at UFC 223 last April and then cemented his title in his first defense in the unholy ass whooping of Conor McGregor. 

No one is the same after fighting Khabib, they are all irrevocably changed. From professional losing streaks to public humiliation of whiskey salesman, no one seems safe from the literal grasp of Khabib Nurmagomedov and the side effects of taking a beating from the man.

He’s rewritten the book on MMA strategy. All of a sudden there is a glut of wrestling-heavy MMA fighters that hold titles in the UFC. For example, Colby Covington recently mauled Robbie Lawler; Kamaru Usman ran roughshod over Tyron Woodley to claim the 170-pound title; Henry Cejudo is an Olympic Gold Medalist who holds the Flyweight and Bantamweight titles simultaneously; and Daniel Cormier only just lost his heavyweight title but is easily one of the best to ever do it. There are plenty more. I’m not suggesting that these guys were not doing their thing prior to Khabib, but it’s unmistakable the UFC has noticeably shifted its attention toward this particular style or at a minimum is putting these types of fighters in line for top spots.

Quick Sand

MMA math does not work. Applying a formula in a combat sport with as many variables as exists in MMA to suss out who will win each fight every time is a fool’s errand. That being said I believed Dustin Poirer had a real chance at beating Khabib due largely to the areas of improvement in Dustin’s game–namely his boxing and the area where Khabib is most deficient, his boxing defense.

The biggest strike against Dustin was the intangible of “big fight experience”, how Dustin seemingly bottles it in the big moment. Case in point, the KO loss I mentioned above to Michael Johnson where both men were on the cusp of a title shot. Johnson won and faced Khabib and got mauled. Dustin was also kayoed memorably by Conor Mcgregor, another crossroads moment. So Dustin went back to the drawing board and reinvented himself. A fighter who typically fought like a madman fueled by emotion dialed it back. He sharpened his tools, like his boxing, and the wins came and his profile grew, a 16+ year 40-odd fight “overnight sensation”.

On the road to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi Dustin beat veteran Jim Miller and former 155-pound champ Anthony Pettis. He stopped both Eddie Alvarez a future UFC Hall of Famer and the durable former WSOF Champ Justin Gaethje. Then the “big moment” came again, moving up to 155 pounds to challenge Dustin for the interim title was Max Holloway, the current 145-pound champ and a consensus #1 p4p Mixed Martial Artist. In a moment of redemption Dustin handily beat Max to become interim champ while Khabib sat out the rest of his suspension following the brawl with McGregor after UFC 229.

So the stage was set for Khabib and Dustin to clash for the undisputed championship just before dinner East Coast time.

The shocking thing about the fight was how one-sided it was. As mentioned above Khabib had an obvious path to victory, SMESH; Dustin had an obvious path to victory, box. 

Round one began by the numbers with both guys taking the other’s measure, judging distance looking for feints. Not much happened until the eventual clinch and takedown by Khabib. Prior to the fight Dustin and his team highlighted that they came in lean and fit ready to scramble and not be stuck in wrestling exchanges, however perhaps Dustin gave up too much strength as Khabib put it on him straight away. The round ended with Khabib in control and Dustin already weary, he sulked back to his corner telling his team that “there was no space”, referring to the physical pressure Khabib exerts. Dustin already seemed to be losing confidence.

As round two opened maybe it was the desert heat, maybe the mental pressure, but Dustin started the round like a man trudging through quicksand, his movements were sloppy and slow. He found his rhythm for a moment and caught Khabib with a glancing punch that had the champ scrambling away in desperation, hands flailing in front of his face, and chin straight up. When Khabib gets hurt he reverts to type and seems to panic in the boxing distance, but he recovered his composure, returned with another takedown and this time mauled Dustin for the remaining two-plus minutes of the round. The round ended with Khabib in a truly dominant position and had there been another 15-20 seconds he may have even stopped Dustin.

Again, Dustin’s body language was all wrong back in the corner. “I can’t keep him off of me,” he said. His coaches tried to pass on some advice that was hit and miss. His boxing coach simply asked for “more effort” (Well thanks coach I don’t think Dustin tried that one yet). Head coach Mike Brown suggested the “switch was almost there but you have to control the leg.”

In wrestling a switch is when you turn into your opponent who has a body lock on you and lace your near arm under your opponent’s near leg, basically through his crotch, and in a swift movement drop your hips, break your opponent’s grip and end up now on your opponent’s back with a body lock of your own reversing the position. (Mike, how about don’t even try to wrestle with this fucking beast at all). After two brutal rounds I think it’s been established Khabib is the better wrestler.

Early in the third round Khabib shot in for another takedown and Dustin caught a tight guillotine choke, a strangle from the front face lock position but Khabib deftly escaped. As it happens after a guillotine choke attempt the one trying to execute the technique will often gas their arms out and Dustin had little left to fend off Khabib, who controlled Dustin, moved to his back and secured a Rear Naked Choke at 2:06 of round three to retain his Lightweight title in his second defense.

After the fight Khabib was humble in victory, even vowing to donate to Dustin’s charity that he’s established with his wife Jolie back in Lafayette, L.A. Dustin was also gracious in defeat. He gave one of the more honest and heart rending post-fight interviews in recent memory. 

After all these years and all these miles, Dustin realizes that a road back to a title shot, if one ever again materialized, is off in the unknown distance. Choking up and holding back tears he apologized to everyone he may have “let down” with the loss as he received a standing ovation from many in attendance.

Post Mortem

The UFC made no secret of their push into the Middle East, particularly in the United Arab Emirates, with the crown jewel being Abu Dhabi. Some five years after the failed experiment of bringing a UFC event to that part of the world the UFC proudly announced fight week that the company reached a multi-fight, multi-year deal worth many millions of dollars with Emirates. Apparently the lynch pin of getting the deal done and UFC 242 up and running was the inclusion of Khabib and the card was generally packed with Muslim/Arabic fighters, to the joy of the crowd. 

However, it cannot be ignored that if the UFC is going to get in bed with the Emirates and Khabib used as the figurehead they need to own that their partners in the U.A.E. have an atrocious human rights records. From supporting the unjust war in Yemen, to the oppression of political/religious dissidents–even the capture and imprisonment of foreign nationals from the U.K. and abroad. The stadium that was rushed to completion for the sake of UFC 242 was likely built by essentially slave labor, Human Rights Watch reports that 88.5% of the population of the U.A.E. are foreign nationals brought there to work in deplorable conditions, from Bangladesh and Africa, these men and women would have to see an improvement in their situation to even be considered second class citizens.

Karim Zidane, another contributor to TGT, has written much more forcefully and eloquently about regimes like the U.A.E. and their forays into Sports Washing than I could and I urge you to read and support the work he’s done and continues to do, but I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the UFC’s rank nihilism in partnering with the Emirates.

That stated, Khabib versus perennial contender Tony Ferguson has to happen next and Dana white said as much–if one can believe a single thing that ever comes out of that man’s mouth.

Dustin said post-fight that he feels there’s “tred still on the tires”, suggesting that retirement at least right now is off the table.

The x-factor as always is Conor McGregor, should he choose to come back and fight in a professional capacity and not against 60-year-old blokes in bars, having been completely inactive since his drubbing at the hands of Khabib. Who in their right mind really thinks a second fight will go any different? Then there’s all the baggage that will come along from the first bout, the vitriol between the two men that Conor alone suggested was a clash of cultures.

I’ve been around the game for a while, I’ve seen many fighters come and go and styles come and go, but this is Khabib’s moment in the sun. If he fights Tony Ferguson later this year or early in 2020 and beats him convincingly as well, there will be no one left and Khabib will be the most dominant 155-pound champ in the history of the UFC. 

In the meantime I bet those wrestling practice rooms are full and Mark Coleman is smiling like a proud papa.

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