In five days, the MMA world will feast its eyes on what is being called the biggest fight in the history of mixed martial arts when Khabib Nurmagomedov defends his lightweight title in a grudge match showcase against the “The Notorious” Conor McGregor at UFC 229 this Saturday, October 6th, from the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas Nevada. In the build-up to the fight, we’ve heard the same thing from most predictors: either Conor McGregor will dominate Khabib on the feet and earn a TKO/KO stoppage early in the fight or, once the fight hits the mat, the fight is over and McGregor will be on borrowed time. However, this is a false binary. The reality is, the fight could go any number of ways. Five days out from the bout we have all been waiting for, I will now present five reasons why the fight could look quite different than this either/or narrative is anticipating:
1) Khabib’s Chin is A Mystery
We do not know how strong Khabib’s chin is. We have yet to see him dropped and, in my opinion, we have yet to even see him rocked. I’ve watched the Michael Johnson clip multiple times, and I just don’t see it. Frankly, it seems like another example of the Joe Rogan effect to me. But playing devil’s advocate, let’s say for the sake of argument that he was rocked. The fact that he kept his composure and went on to dominate the round and the remainder of the fight would still be evidence that he has a chin. After all, it’s not as if Michael Johnson lacks finishing power. Johnson even possess a KO victory over current lightweight contender Dustin Poirier, who has proven to be a very tough out.
Khabib was also was able to take a spinning heel kick (flush or not) from Edson Barboza at UFC 219. Khabib is a man from a very tough background from a tough region, who is said to have been in many street fights throughout his life. The degree of Khabib’s toughness is unknown because it has never really been tested by anyone who has as high a potential to test it as Conor McGregor.
Indeed, Khabib has never been severely hurt in any MMA fight he’s been in. McGregor has also not knocked out all previous opponents, with Nate Diaz and Max Holloway each surviving McGregor’s famed left hand, so Khabib would not be the first man to do so. The mystery of Khabib’s chin debunks the “either Conor will knock him out” prong of the either/or binary of the UFC 229 main event because it is impossible to estimate just how difficult it is for Khabib to be knocked out.
2) Every Round Begins Standing Up
Even if Khabib takes McGregor down, Khabib has been vocal about his game plan to make McGregor tired as well as to play with McGregor and teach him a lesson to “humble him.” Khabib has not finished his toughest opponents (Rafael dos Anjos, Michael Johnson, Edson Barboza, Al Iaquinta), including his last two bouts against the latter names of that quartet. So if this is another fight that goes deep, that in itself would dispel the notion of the fight being “over” when it hits the mat, but rather makes it more likely that it would be another prolonged mauling by Nurmagomedov. If that is the case and McGregor is becoming another mauled victim of Nurmagomedov during the fight, every round begins standing up, as Chad Mendes learned the hard way at UFC 189. Mendes used his wrestling and mat superiority to take the first round against Conor McGregor, but the Irishman was able to score the TKO victory late in the second round. While it is true that McGregor’s power would fade with each passing round, every round still gives McGregor a puncher’s chance all over again, whether it be in the second, third, fourth, or even the fifth round. Stranger things have happened in the sport of MMA than an exhausted Conor McGregor cashing in on his elite striking skills in the twilight ticks of the bout, even if Khabib had dominated the fight up to that point.
3) Rounds/Fight Could Be a Balance of Strengths
Seeing as how each bout begins standing up and the strength of Khabib’s chin is unknown, it is entirely possible that each round could have a balance of each fighter’s strength. The most likely balance would be Conor beginning each round outstriking Khabib and being able to avoid the takedown either by maintaining a distance affair or simply defending the takedown. Then, a relentless Khabib could eventually get the takedown later in the round. This balance of strengths could also happen during the duration of the fight, where in some rounds Conor is able to remain standing and outpoint Khabib, and other rounds Khabib is able to dominate on the mat. If this possibility were to happen, we could have an outcome that doesn’t seem to be getting any mention at all: a tight or even split decision!
4) Alexander Gustafsson
Following Alexander Gustafsson’s loss to Phil Davis at UFC 112 in 2010, his career was never the same again. Gustafsson devoted a large bulk of his training to mastering the art of the takedown defense. Since that fight, Gustafsson has displayed some of the best takedown defense in the sport, including against wrestlers the likes of Jon Jones and Olympian Daniel Cormier. Alexander Gustafsson is perhaps the #1 example of how someone can tighten up a defensive glitch in their game and thus repackage themselves as a more complete fighter.
Conor McGregor was taken down and controlled on the mat by a high-level wrestler in Chad Mendes, but this was now three years ago. Conor McGregor is not a foolish man. He has known Khabib was a future opponent for some time now. From their run-in backstage at UFC 205 where Khabib told Conor “We’ll see” and McGregor replied with Irish fire, “We will see” to McGregor predicting that he would most likely be facing Khabib for the lightweight title way back when McGregor first spoke publicly about wanting to be a double champion, it is apparent that McGregor has known this was a potential or even inevitable matchup for him. And even aside from Khabib, the desire to simply make the conscious decision to tighten up his defense and become a more complete fighter would be far from unexpected for a fighter the caliber of Conor McGregor. So for those who believe that Chad Mendes was a tell for what could happen come October 6th, many fans may have made the same assumption about Alexander Gustafsson heading into his classic contest against Jon Jones at 165 after watching Gustafsson’s fight against Phil Davis, which was also three years prior, and they, too, would have been wrong.
5) Valentina Shevchenko
Another external name from the marquee UFC 229 headliner who is evidence that the Khabib/McGregor superfight is more unpredictable than many believe is one Valentina Shevchenko. Heading into UFC on FOX 23, the main event for that card, Valentina Shevchenko vs. Juliana Peña, came with a very similar narrative to the Khabib/McGregor bout. Most people saw the contest going one of two ways: either Shevchenko was going to piece up Peña on the feet or Peña was going to use her wrestling to ground and pound Shevchenko en route to a victory. I would love to know what the prop bet was on a Valentina Shevchenko submission, but I’m sure that, whatever it was, whoever placed that bet walked away with a lot more coin that night, believe you me, because virtually no one predicted that would be the outcome of the bout.
Now I can already hear readers saying, “Juliana Peña is no Khabib,” but they’d be missing the point. The point is, you never know how a fight is going to end. When people made their predictions for the Shevchenko/ Peña fight, they didn’t say, “Either Shevchenko is going to win on the feet or Peña is going to win on the mat…but hey, guys, remember, she is no Khabib, though!” No, they simply made their predictions and the outcome was different than what was widely expected. And what makes something as unexpected as a McGregor submission even less of a stretch is that McGregor’s very close friend and training partner Dillon Danis is a black-belt jiu jitsu ace who could have drilled all kinds of back techniques with McGregor, including a flash technique that is nearly impossible to defend against, such as Shevchenko’s armbar of Peña, especially if Khabib, like Peña, is totally caught by surprise.
Indeed, like any fight, no one knows what will happen, even one claims to have known after their prediction came to fruition. But in reality, there is a wide number of possibilities for how the bout could actually unfold. McGregor could be so gassed in the championship rounds that he leaves an opening for Khabib to land a strike that drops McGregor and opens him up for a TKO finish. The fight could wind up more competitive on the feet or even on the ground than anyone expects, or there could be a finish that even this highly deliberated list hasn’t considered. But those are the five biggest reasons why the much anticipated Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor superfight has far more to it than the “either/or” narrative that MMA fans have heard ad naseum before this bout was even made. How the fight will actually play out, fingers crossed, we will find out in just five days. The only sure bet about this once-in-a-lifetime contest that awaits us is that the world will indeed be watching.
How do you think Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor will play out?