The term ‘superfight’ is often overused, but it is indeed appropriate here. Striker versus wrestler match-ups are always intriguing, and with the main event for UFC 229, we may watch the best striker and the best wrestler in the UFC go head to head. Who will be victorious in their quest for the lightweight belt?
Brash Talker, Excellent Striker
Love him or hate him, Conor Mcgregor is one of the few fighters who talk a good game and backs it up. For the Irish superstar, the fight begins as soon as the contract is signed. He’s been successful at getting inside the heads of his opponents with trash talk, causing them to overreact and fight emotionally. This was certainly the case when he took the featherweight belt from dominant Brazilian champion, Jose Aldo.
Against stoic Dagestani wrestler, Khabib Nurmagomedov, it’s likely Mcgregor will have to rely on his fighting prowess rather than his words to get the job done. A rangy southpaw, Mcgregor’s timing, precision, and counters are unrivaled. Opponents look visibly confused when they get tagged by Mcgregor’s devastating left hand.
On paper, Mcgregor looked to have a tough test against the rough and rugged wrestle-boxer, Eddie Alvarez. However, after being caught with the first punch of the fight, Alvarez was visibly compromised - leading to foolish mistakes such as circling towards Mcgregor’s powerful left. Despite being outclassed and eventually finished, Alvarez was able to work his way inside and clinch with Mcgregor. If that happens with Nurmagomedov, the Irishman is in big trouble.
Dedicating a lot of time during his two-year UFC layoff preparing for a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, it's interesting to predict whether Mcgregor will look like the same fighter.
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Dagestani savage, Khabib Nurmagomedov, makes good wrestlers look clueless. Four-time NAIA All-American wrestler, Abel Trujillo, was taken down 21 times when he faced Nurmagomedov. While “The Eagle” isn’t fantastic at shooting takedowns in open space, he’s usually able to back his opponent up against the fence where he does his best work. If he manages to secure a body lock on Mcgregor, the Irishman is taking a ride on Dagestan Airlines.
When fighting from a dominant position on the mat, Nurmagomedov is terrifying. He will force you to carry his weight from the turtle position, strip your base away and pulverize you into submission. Much like his teammate, Daniel Cormier, Nurmagomedov doesn’t just use his wrestling to ground his opponents - he uses it as a cardio draining weapon.
Given that Mcgregor has a reputation for punching himself out in striking matches, a prolonged ground exchange with Nurmagomedov could annihilate his gas tank. On the feet, Nurmagomedov is still a work in progress. Defensively, he leaves his chin high which could be disastrous against a precision puncher with a reach advantage. That being said, he hasn't been hit a lot, so his durability is still an unknown factor.
Unlike in his fight with Al Iaquinta, I don’t anticipate Nurmagomedov will indulge in the striking exchanges whatsoever with Mcgregor.
How Does Nurmagomedov Close the Distance?
Mcgregor will be looking to maintain distance and counter, while Nurmagomedov will be looking to crash forward and get hold of his opponent. Whichever fighter is successful in their approach will win the bout.
In his past contests, Mcgregor’s movement and distance control looked phenomenal. He’s usually able to keep opponents on the end of his punches - as we saw against Eddie Alvarez who was at a 5-inch reach disadvantage.
Unlike classically trained strikers, Mcgregor keeps his hands lower in anticipation of a takedown. He relies on head movement and slips to deal with close range punches, and has a granite chin even if he does get hit. This could certainly help him against Nurmagomedov, who is not a striking threat and will be looking to get in on his hips.
With a wide stance, Mcgregor could be susceptible to a low single leg takedown. I also wonder if Nurmagomedov will attack Mcgregor’s lead leg to set up his wrestling. If Nurmagomedov comes charging in as he did against kicking specialist, Edson Barboza, he’s going to get knocked out. I believe this is something that his world-class coaches at American Kickboxing Academy are well aware of.
Out of the two fighters, I believe Mcgregor’s window to victory is smaller. He has to land a kill shot, likely in the first two rounds while his gas tank is still fresh.
Even if he has to take a punch or two to get into the clinch, I think Nurmagomedov will be able to tie up with Mcgregor. When that happens, we all know what follows.
Updated 10/5 at 10:16am EDT
At the recent press conferences, Mcgregor has been trying hard to get under the skin of his opponent. The brash Irishman has been lambasting Khabib's family, manager, teammates and even the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov. Also promoting his new brand of whiskey at every opportunity, Mcgregor appears more eccentric than usual.
Throughout the encounters, Nurmagomedov has remained stoic and nonreactive - unlike some of Mcgregor's previous opponents. In terms of mental warfare, I give the edge to the man from Dagestan.
Khabib Nurmagomedov -160
Check out my full card betting predictions for UFC 229.
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