mma / Columns

Khabib is #1 Pound-for-Pound

September 10, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Khabib Nurmagomedov

Khabib Nurmagomedov did it again.

Dustin Poirier is a great fighter, but he was dominated by Nurmagomedov on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The general story of Nurmagomedov’s fights is always the same. He pressures, he grapples, he dominates. Sometimes he throws in brutal ground and pound for good measure. Everything on the ground is so second nature to him that he’s several steps ahead of his competitors.

There were two points in the fight where it seemed Nurmagomedov was in some trouble. Early in the second round, Poirier tagged Nurmagomedov and the punch seemed to make the champion unsteady for a few moments. Poirier pursued with wide punches but couldn’t end things. Nurmagomedov recovered shortly thereafter and took Poirier down.

In the third round, Poirier looked for a guillotine off a Nurmagomedov takedown. He’d tried the same technique in the second round, but Nurmagomedov easily escape. This time, after some positioning readjustment, the choke looked tight. For a second it looked good enough to begin to consider what a feat it would be for Poirier to submit Nurmagomedov. Then the moment was over. Nurmagomedov escaped and found himself in a dominant position yet again.

Nurmagomedov’s dominance is particularly remarkable for its regularity and familiarity. Consider this task: You have to fight someone like Dustin Poirier, whose path toward you has seen him dispatch one current champion, two former champions, and one of the most violently tough lightweights in history. In general terms, your opponent knows exactly what you are going to do, because that’s what you do to everyone. And he’s had a fight with you in the back of his mind for years, not just because you’ve been the champion for a year-and-a-half, but prior to that you were established as one of the division’s elite. With all of that in mind, you must go into a cage and do exactly what you’re expected to do: dominate in a very specific way. That’s incredibly difficult, and yet it’s what Khabib Nurmagomedov is doing fight after fight. That’s why I believe he’s pound-for-pound the world’s best fighter.

The other claimant for this ultimate hypothetical throne is Jon Jones, and we’ll get to him in a bit. First, let’s consider Nurmagomedov’s recent body of work.

Following injuries and weight cut issues, Nurmagomedov’s recent run started in December 2017 at UFC 219. It was his first fight in about a year, but the idea of ring rust was quickly quelled. He fought Edson Barboza, then on a three-fight winning streak, and Barboza was never in the fight. This was Nurmagomedov at his most brutal. There was the usual grappling, control, and riding, but it was accentuated with an unusually ferocious ground and pound attack. Afterward, the scorecards read 30-25, 30-25, and 30-24.

After that, Nurmagomedov fought Al Iaquinta on short notice. Previously scheduled opponents Tony Ferguson and Max Holloway fell out, which left Iaquinta to accept the fight on a day’s notice. Weird things happen in short notice fights, and this was a weird fight. Nurmagomedov was still dominant and won every round, but it wasn’t the dominance we were used to. There were long stretches of mundane kickboxing exchanges, and many left the fight feeling it was a bad performance from the new champion. I felt then and now that it’s the type of fight you have to write off. Even so, the performance hasn’t aged that badly. He shut down a relatively unheralded opponent (by UFC title fight standards), and won the fight where his opponent was best.

Then came the mega-fight with Conor McGregor, the biggest bout in MMA history. It was never close. Nurmagomedov did what he does on the ground and dropped McGregor on the feet. It was a through-and-through fantastic performance.

This four-fight run—from Barboza through Poirier—has seen Nurmagomedov dominate a lower-end top ten fighter, a fringe top-fifteen guy, and two elite championship-level opponents. He fought thirteen complete rounds against them and didn’t lose a single one.

Now on to Jones, who with the possible exception of Georges St-Pierre has the most impressive overall resume in MMA history. Jones has been more active of late, with three fights in his current run dating back to December 2018. He was impressive in different ways in each of them, but in my view Nurmagomedov was more impressive in his bouts.

Jones dominated Alexander Gustafsson in December, a tremendous feat and an excellent performance. In March, he dominated Anthony Smith. This bout was more clinical. Smith had very good survival techniques, but Jones made it so he could do nothing offensively. Finally, in July, he edged out Thiago Santos in a closely-fought bout.

With Jones, I don’t think his past couple of performances have been indicative of his peak ability, and going in nobody figured Smith or Santos to be strong challengers. Nurmagomedov has been battering everybody and finishing his strongest opponents. For now, I give him the edge over Jones, but I suspect this title will be traded back-and-forth for some time.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Khabib Nurmagomedov, Dan Plunkett