Well, tomorrow, it finally happens. After years of hoping and waiting, after flying dollies and plea-bargains, press conferences and all manner of shenanigans, UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagedmedov will defend his title for the first time versus former UFC featherweight and Lightweight Champion Conor McGregor. The weights are made and all there is left to do is gather your friends, make the food, order the show, and pray.
For the last few years, most fans and experts have seen this as a simplistic matchup — the best grappler in MMA versus one of the very best strikers, a man who also manages to carry middleweight power at lightweight. But this matchup is actually far more complex within that basic framework. Here are some things we need to be paying attention to come tomorrow night.
1) How long is the first two minutes?
If you look at Khabib’s last three fights against Michael Johnson, Edson Barboza, and Al Iaquinta, there has been a two-minute window at the beginning of the first round where Khabib has been vulnerable standing up. Whether by design or circumstances, Khabib did not impose his dreaded grappling game up until this point in the round, and while all of these three guys had a pretty bad time after that, there was a window where Khabib looked human, especially against Michael Johnson, where the experienced contender hurt the Russian with several left hands.
Yet it is not Conor McGregor’s task to take advantage of that window, but to extend it. Khabib has shown that he will take his time, for sport or just for opportunity, to let the other guy strike with him. The odds are that he may try to shoot earlier in the first round, but that has not been his tendency. Against a guy who hits like McGregor, it might be a good idea. The length of that first standing exchange may decide the whole damn fight.
2) What’s the location?
Teddy Atlas was fond of saying that fighters should often call a real estate agent, because fighting was about location, location, location. Never more so maybe than in this fight.
The mistake that Johnson and Barboza made was that they allowed themselves to be pushed to the perimeter of the cage, where Khabib could easily push them into the cage and begin his assault. They were unable to command the center of the cage, something that McGregor has done very well. Much of this is because the wide karate stance that he often fights from, and that stance may be part of the secret of solving the Khabib puzzle. That stance allows for better movement and just takes up more space than a traditional Muay Thai or boxing stance. The question is, will it allow Conor to get off good shots, hurt Khabib, and most of all, control of the center of the cage? If it doesn’t and Khabib gets him against the fence, it’s the Russian’s fight.
3) Kick, Conor, Kick?
This is something that may be a little controversial to say, but Conor needs to kick well to win this fight and he needs to land hard leg kicks. Normally, against a high-caliber wrestler, you would avoid throwing kicks for the fear of getting taken down, but in recent fights, that has not been Khabib’s game. If you set them and they are fast, you can kick Khabib. Edson Barboza landed several leg kicks early in their fight and landed one hell of a spinning heel kick late in the fight. Conor needs to do this, especially when Khabib is coming forward. Kick his leg, kick his body, especially in the early rounds. Khabib is not leg kick catcher. Conor can’t be fooled by the perception. He needs to let his feet fly.
4) Controlled Fury
In his fights versus Barboza and Iaquinta, Khabib showed more striking than he ever had before, often coming forward throwing both hands, landing hard strikes. Against Barboza, Khabib struck his way inside before taking down the Brazilian, who was up until that point known for having great takedown defense. Khabib broke that down. Then against Iaquinta, he used his jab to control several rounds of the fight, when the New Yorker’s unorthodox style and toughness made his usual game harder to execute in the later rounds.
This time around, Khabib cannot rush in and he certainly can’t be a jabber and mover. Conor is way too good of a striker to do that. Khabib has come in and smart and controlled but his pressure has to be consistent. Nate Diaz proved that pressure can burst Conor’s pipes, but it has to be smart pressure. Khabib has shown that he can do that before, but he will need to be at his very best tomorrow night.
5) The Better Chin
In the end, this fight will come down to how well the other takes the other’s punch. Khabib has had his chin tested once, by Michael Johnson, a smaller man than Conor, and he wobbled, but was still able to recover and impose his game. Conor was cracked by Nate Diaz hard enough that he tried to grapple with a superior black belt and he got choked out. But that was at 170 pounds and the result of the taller guy’s pressure, and these two are basically the same size. If anything, Conor has looked like the bigger man this week.
What happens when Conor cracks Khabib with a clean left hand? Does he wobble? Or does he blow through and take Conor down? This is why we’ve waiting for this fight for years!
All in all, I am just happy this fight is here. All the bullshit, all the talking, it will all give way once that cage door locks tomorrow night. And while we are praying that nothing happens between now and then, pray that we get a good fight…