Khabib Nurmagomedov began training at the age of six under the tutelage of his father and by the time of his first MMA contest he had gained a background in freestyle wrestling judo and combat Sambo. Before his UFC debut, Khabib’s matches took place on either an open mat or in a ring and his early takedown game consisted almost exclusively of shooting to his knees for a single leg with the head on the inside. The majority of these shots are taken from outside of the striking range of his opponents and made with minimal setup.
Single Leg Takedowns
Once he got in on the single-leg he would finish them in three primary ways with the most common of these being the cutback. Next, we will see Ben Askren demonstrate how to finish the single-leg shot with the cutback. Once you have shot in on the single leg and finish by stepping your leg up, raising your head up to the ceiling, and pulling your opponent’s leg up and across your body.
Here we see examples of Khabib using the cut back in his matches. Here he shoots in on the single leg, lifts his leg up and then drags his opponent’s leg up across his body. This single-leg finish was favoured by Khabib during the majority of his early matches.
If his opponents were able to stand or maintain balance during the cutback then Khabib would switch to running the pipe. This is where once you have the single leg you rotate your body with a back step and as your opponent hops around you drop your weight onto their thigh to force them to sit down. Here during a match, you can see he’s shooting for the single-leg rotate his body around and sit his opponent on their back.
And lastly, his third option off the single-leg was to turn the corner. This is when once you have locked onto the single leg you start stepping around to the opponent’s back, as you make your way around it is common that your opponent will pull guard but if you turn quicker than they do then you’ll take their back.
Here is a match, Khabib locks onto the single leg and as he turns his opponent pulls guard. With this shot, we’ll see Khabib chain these techniques together as he shoots in low and grabs onto a single leg with his head on the inside. He first tries for the cutback, with that failing he stands and goes to running the pipe, also unsuccessful eventually turning the corner and taking his opponents back.
With a pre-UFC career consisting almost entirely of single-leg shots, he would enter the Octagon with a 16-0 record and face a substantial step up in the level of competition. In his first outing, he would face an accomplished wrestler in Kamal Shalorus and with a head position against the cage and a good sprawl was able to defend Khabibis takedown attempts initially. But after causing damage with strikes he was able to work his usual strategy of a strong single leg with a cutback finish.
Gleison Tibau – His Toughest Challenger
But next, he would face his toughest challenger to date. Gleison Tibau is a physically imposing veteran of over 50 fights and holding an impressive 92 per cent takedown defence statistic. During the contest, Khabib applied his usual takedown strategy but had every single leg attempt defended. Overall he went 0 of 13 takedown attempts. Using the fence to keep his balance Tibau was able to defend against the cutback, running the pipe, turning the corner and any other technique that Khabib applied. Although Khabib still won a close decision victory that split opinions* a weakness in his strategy had been revealed.
American Kickboxing Academy
After that fight, Khabib would switch his USA training camp to American Kickboxing Academy and his next attempt at takedowns would see a new strategy employed. Against Abel Trujillo he would look for an upper-body clinch to take the back and secure a body lock he would then execute a series of trips, sweeps and throws. If you’re interested in learning more about this mat return strategy you can view my other study which goes in-depth on this topic.
Using this new strategy against Abel Trujillo he set the UFC record for the most takedowns in a match with 21 and all of this without any of its previously utilized single leg shots. Where he had once been relentless in shooting for single legs he was now persistent in securing upper body clinches body locks and taking the back.
Upper Body Clinches
With these clinches he would now also use a strategy which he had shown on a few previous occasions in his bouts prior to the UFC when clinching against the ropes Khabib would secure a body lock and then bounce and turn his opponents towards the centre of the Ring before executing an inside or outside trip takedown.
This is a strategy favoured by Ben Askren as he demonstrates here using the fence to secure your body lock and then rotate your opponents away from it to prevent them from using the fence to keep balance. Once Khabib secures this he will then use a series of inside trips outside trips or brute force lifts.
Pressure Striking to Takedowns
Khabib would now also uses striking much more effective to set up these takedowns while his striking could be described as “wild” with winging hooks lunging uppercuts and flying knees, it serves a purpose to pressure his opponents, where if he now gets them on the fence and committing to or defending strikes he will grab a quick double leg takedown.
And if you now attempt to negate Khabibs pressure striking by moving forwards he will shoot for a reactive double leg takedown. We have seen Khabib evolve from being primarily focused on single leg shots to now being more centred around upper body takedowns and using his striking to set up double legs. The constant threat of takedowns relentless mat returns and exhausting groundwork combined with wild and continuous pressure striking can force his opponents to make bad decisions.
Like when RDA decided to shoot on Khabib in the third round setting up a massive Hare Goshi throw. Or when Abel Trujillo chooses to clinch with Khabib in the third round of their bout and lastly in the third round of his bout with Michael Johnson after having successfully sprawled Johnson decides to jump guard and go for a guillotine
We will now take a look at the mat work and ground game of Khabib Nurmagomedov. It is a style that is often characterised by relentless top pressure with a superior head position, pinned on the chest or under the chin of his opponent stifling the shoulder movement while throwing scoring punches and elbows.
Khabib Grappling Breakdown
Open Guard Punch to Pass
Once the fight hits the mat Khabib has a diverse array of techniques that we’ll be taking a closer look at here. The first of these is from an open guard position. When Khabib is standing he will launch in with a leaping overhand right in an attempt to pass the guard of his opponent and cause damage while doing so. The overhand to guard pass is a technique that was also employed by his countryman Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib even used it once to score a TKO victory.
Knee Slice & Tripod Passing
Once Khabib has engaged his opponent on the ground from either full guard or half guard he will look to pass using a knee slice. This is where Khabib raises his hips and knees higher than his opponents by beginning to stand and then dropping one knee back down to the mat while slicing his shinbone across his opponent’s thighs. This is a passing strategy that was often employed by George St. Pierre and is ideally done with an underhook on the far side arm, but Khabib will even attempt to with an overhook. An interesting strategy of Khabib is that when attempting the knee slice pass, he is not always looking to pass the guard entirely. If he gets his ankle stuck in quarter guard, he will begin to throw punches and elbows at his opponent. He will often camp from this position using it to gain posture while his opponent is stuck below him and then starts to throw heavy shots.
Knee on Neck Ride
Another technique he will use when in a quarter guard or even from knee on belly is to use a shin or knee on neck ride. This is where he pins his opponent’s neck by forcing his knee or shin down onto their throat which gives him additional control and posture to strike while making it extremely uncomfortable for his opponent.
Double Wrist Lock
Once he passes into side control one of his attacks is to look for the double wrist lock, where once he has control of the arm he moves his hips towards his opponent’s head while applying torque to their shoulder. Currently, he successfully finished two fights using this technique. But his preferred technique from side control is to look for the topside crucifix. Which he will even move directly from a knee slice pass after pinning his opponent’s arm with his far knee.
The topside crucifix is a powerful control position the traps both his opponent’s arms leaving their face defenceless to Khabibs punches and elbows. While these punches are not the most powerful, they accumulate damage and drain the energy of his opponent. This technique utilises a concept that I like to think of is putting your opponent into a positional deficit. This is where you have now made your opponent’s primary goal into escaping the crucifix but even if they do achieve that they will still find themselves trapped in side control.
If Khabib moves from side control to mount his favourite technique is to then transition into S-Mount. This is where one of your feet is brought forward past your opponent’s shoulder which roughly puts your leg into an S shape where the position gets its name. While this does leave your opponent’s hips free, it places all your weight down onto their chest and put you in an excellent position to attack their arms. From the S-Mount, Khabib will then attack with his favourite two submissions which are the triangle and the armbar. If his opponent gets their firearm underneath his leg, he will fall to his back while pulling his opponent on top and locking up the triangle choke. If they have their arm on the inside, he will drop to his back and attack the armbar. If they resist the armbar he will happily pepper them with strikes. He will also smoothly chain the two submission attacks together depending on the reaction of his opponent. Here he attacks with the armbar but as his opponent regains posture, he switches to a triangle choke.
It might seem odd for grappler more known for their crushing top game to have a preference for submissions off his back, But Khabib does have a very aggressive guard game where if he is taken down he then offensively looks for triangles and armbars which he will use to submit or sweep or even regain position. While I have shown some of Khabibs common habits even more impressive is the wide variety of technical moves he has executed once but only when they were required by the situation.
A depth of Grappling Techniques
This hints at the real depth of his game which is continuously evolving to use more advanced concepts, for instance, utilising headbutts from the closed guard when the rules allowed it, using a body triangle to control the back or employing an octopus guard to regain a standing position. From the knee slice pass cradling his opponent’s leg. Even using the folkstyle wrestling cowcatcher to put his opponent back on the mat, defending a single-leg attempt with a belly roll and from a single leg ride using inside wrist control to continually break his opponent’s posture and using a full leg mount against the cage.
In conclusion, although fighting infrequently, Khabibs ground game went through massive evolutions in his last two fights against Darrell Horcher and Michael Johnson. If it continues at this pace, it will be fascinating to see what techniques Khabib continues to utilise in the future.