The Tactical Guide to Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Juan Cardenas/Zuffa LLC

Touch wood, cross your fingers, and hold your breath: it looks like Tony Ferguson versus Khabib Nurmagomedov might actually happen! This cursed match up—scheduled, delayed, and cancelled several times already—is one which had fight aficionados salivating from its first mention but the extra time has only served to make the fight all that more intriguing. Since the first attempts to schedule this bout Tony Ferguson has dominated the great former lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos, while Nurmagomedov made the decently regarded Michael Johnson look like a complete non-factor in their bout. The bout seems to be a complete clash of styles between the man who gets on top and stays on top, and the man who gives up position freely and fights best amid chaos. Two completely different philosophies which have consistently shown themselves effective against some of the better fighters in MMA’s deepest division, and two of the lightweight division’s best winning streaks are on the line.

A Duvet Filled with Gravel

Khabib Nurmagomedov is the living embodiment of the most important principle of grappling: always be on top. The Dagestani grappler raises few eyebrows with his technique on the feet, but once the clinch is secured Nurmagomedov is something remarkable. Often he can hoist even the most experienced wrestlers in the division off their feet and slam them to the mat, not just once or twice a fight but dozens upon dozens of times. The very experienced wrestler, Abel Trujillo was so frustrated and incredulous at Nurmagomedov’s strength in the clinch that by the final minutes of their fight he could only throw his hands out as if to ask “what more can I do?”

Nurmagomedov can shoot, he can trip, he can throw, he can lift, or he can drag a guy to the mat with his weight. He seems equally happy doing any of these things and it serves to make him a far more dangerous proposition as a ‘one dimensional grappler’ than the scores of great wrestlers who have entered MMA but who can only shoot from a mile away. Yet for all the slams, shots and suplexes it is what Nurmagomedov does on the floor that really grabs the attention.

While they are not strict classifications, there are generally two types of ground ‘n’ pound: static and dynamic. Static ground and pound is the act of holding one position and putting in blows from there. It is tough to involve long kinetic chains and develop real hitting power when striking while holding position, but static ground striking offers less opportunity for the opponent to escape. Dynamic ground and pound is the less commonly seen type and it is the use of bigger movements which involve the legs, hips and shoulders. It is less often seen because it takes more space and movement and so gives the opponent a chance to improve their position at the cost of absorbing the strike. An example of static ground striking would be the short punches and elbows you see put in from side control or half guard. An example of dynamic ground striking would be the throw by pass to right hand that was made famous by Fedor Emelianenko and earned knockouts for Dan Henderson, Shogun Rua and many, many others. It is a full bodied punch hidden in a simple pass attempt.

Now the thing about dynamic ground and pound is that it often means sacrificing position to a degree, or at least risking it. For instance, Fedor Emelianenko postured up with his knee on Heath Herring’s midriff, only to throw himself into a power punch at multiple points during their bout. Herring would often roll to the turtle in the aftermath of the punch, or push Emelianenko back to guard. In the usual positional hierarchy of grappling, losing a guard pass with how tough they can be to achieve is awful. So the idea of posturing up to hit with the legs, hips and shoulders is often the exact opposite of what a fighter wants to be doing when he has achieved an advantageous position. For a powerful puncher and confident grappler, however, the risk of a positional change can be worth it to land some real, pure, power strikes provided he stays on top.

Dynamic, full bodied ground strikes are something to be sprinkled amid a performance and the best ground and pounders have been good at both types of ground striking. Take, for instance, Nurmagomedov standing from inside Michael Johnson’s half guard and delivering some of the hardest ground strikes you will ever see down onto Johnson’s head.

But Nurmagomedov is as good with static ground strikes. This is where Nurmagomedov treads a nice middle line—Emelianenko often let his man roll around as he loaded up the big punches and eschewed position altogether, other fighters simply hold and never get off the big shots, Nurmagomedov works with everything in moderation. Always looking to improve both his control and damage, Nurmagomedov is always trying to take one of his opponent’s arms out of the equation. The mounted crucifix is a Nurmagomedov staple and he enters it a number of ways. There’s the standard grabbing of the near side wrist and trying to smash it down with his knee or hips, in order to feed it through. Nothing fancy, but it gets the job done.

There’s the slightly more complicated knee rides. Not only do the knee on belly, knee on chest and knee on neck allow Nurmagomedov to force movement and trap arms, they are also essentially standing positions, allowing him to throw those dynamic strikes. In this instance Nurmagomedov switches from knee on neck to knee on belly, then pummels his free leg inside Johnson’s forearm to drop his weight on Johnson’s biceps and threaten a mounted crucifix once again. And of course he’s throwing leather the entire time.

Another instance of Nurmagomedov eliminating one hand in the match with Johnson was Nurmagomedov’s snatching up of Johnson’s far wrist across his back when he posted his hand. In this fashion Nurmagomedov could keep collapsing Johnson back to the mat and pounding him with the other hand.

Nurmagomedov has wound up on the bottom on occasion but is active and aggressive in his guard and brings an unusual style even in his escapes. As much as grappling is pretty much a melting pot for all ideas now, there is a different dynamic to the ground game of a man who spent his entire youth competing in sambo. To quote the great Scott Steiner, “maybe it’s right, maybe it ain’t” but Nurmagomedov’s unorthodox bottom game has certainly helped him get up and, most importantly, get back on top. You may recall Renato ‘Babalu’ Sobral used an octopus escape from the bottom of side control in the UFC, and against Abel Trujillo, Nurmagomedov was able to use the same escape. Nurmy worked his way back to octopus half guard, threatening the back, attempted an overhead sweep when Trujillo brought his hips up, and finally followed Trujillo up to the feet to hit an arm drag.

Salsa Footwork

Tony Ferguson, meanwhile, is unarguably at his best on the feet. And that’s a tough thing to accept for a purist because by all appearances his striking looks terrible. His head is high in the air, he throws it back when he punches, he leads with uppercuts, he leans on his jabs. And for the first few exchanges of any fight he seems to get hammered clean in the face a remarkable amount. And yet he batters some of the best fighters in the world. As a fight progresses Ferguson looks more and more comfortable and suddenly his subtle, constant head movement is taking his unprotected head out of the way of his opponent’s strikes and he is connecting his own in synchronicity.

Ferguson’s long jabs, coming off both sides as he back steps and marches between stances, catch opponents off rhythm, mid-punch, and sting, cut and tire his man. And that is a big part of what makes Tony Ferguson so unique—it is not that he hits particularly hard, or fast, or that he’s particularly strong—it’s that he has put together an array of skills that exhaust men very, very quickly. Another weapon in Ferguson’s arsenal which wilts his opponents is his front snap kick.

Ferguson’s other key weapons on the feet are his low-low kicks, to the calf or even shin, and his elbows. Using both hands to check his opponent’s, Ferguson will fold over into elbow strikes often with such force that he throws himself off balance. A good connection can be enough to put the opponent on wobbly legs, a glancing one can open a cut which will quickly be torn further agape by his frequent and accurate straight punches.

Hypothetical Gameplans

It looks like striker versus grappler, just not in the classical sense. Both are oddities within their preferred area, and frightening enough in the other’s that they must be respected. Tony Ferguson could benefit from straight shooting as much as possible—Michael Johnson connected a couple of good left straights on Nurmagomedov and then missed a dozen wild swings for each. Nurmagomedov is an unpolished article on the feet and in his last bout was playing with a stonewall guard that he didn’t seem to understand: turning into the punches rather than taking the sting off them and getting down behind his shoulders. Driving a pace on someone who desperately wants to step in and grab you is a tough ask for anyone, and while the front kick is a killer for Ferguson it might be a dangerous strategy to go to it against Nurmagomedov until he is puffing or at least until Ferguson can be certain he can stuff Nurmagomedov’s takedowns.

Ferguson’s takedown defence has proven very solid, having stuffed deep, well-timed shots from Rafael dos Anjos with little difficulty in that bout. A lazy shot or duck on the feet against Ferguson results, almost invariably, in a snap down and either a back take, a guillotine or a d’arce choke attempt. But the strength of Nurmagomedov is not that he takes everyone down on the first attempt, it is that he clings to opponents and keeps dragging them back down. The Trujillo fight was frustrating for many viewers, and Trujillo, because Nurmagomedov wasn’t advancing position on the ground, he was simply dumping or dragging his man back to the mat whenever he fought his way up. It’s all well and good to stuff a good shot, but Ferguson has a tendency to run himself onto the fence (often past an opponent as they circle out). Against most folks that isn’t so much an issue but against a man who only wants to grab a hold and stay-a-hold, it is those sort of errors in ring generalship which can lead to a 10-9 round of getting ground against the fence at the very least.

Whenever we discuss Ferguson we talk about his propensity to perform a Dark Souls roll in answer to any moment of disadvantage. Against Nurmagomedov that might prove a more valuable tactic than anyone else. Nurmagomedov excels in the upper body clinch and positions where he is able to hold and hit. Should Ferguson find himself in a bodylock his best option might be to tuck and roll rather than risk being dragged down into a position where his guard has already been passed. One possible outcome is a leg entanglement and sambo lineage or not, Nurmagomedov does not work on the legs in most of his fights. Hell, this being Tony Ferguson he might just go out there and shoot an Imanari roll to see if he can catch Nurmagomedov with a leg attack. This writer would be fascinated to see what kind of hitting, if any, Nurmagomedov could achieve from this awkward position.

The alternative outcome could be that Ferguson slips out freely. Abel Trujilo’s granby rolls worked numerous times against Nurmagomedov while nothing else was able to prevent the Dagestani from imposing his will. Each time Nurmagomedov tried to drag Trujilo to the mat, the latter would roll through, throwing Nurmagomedov forward and allowing him to come up and attempt his own takedown.

For Nurmagomedov, any time hanging around on the outside would seem to be a poor idea. Ferguson works well at range, and it was by mucking about out at range that Nurmagomedov hamstrung himself against Johnson. Obviously an underdeveloped talent on the feet, one cannot help but wish that Nurmagomedov had the kind of ability in the pocket that Rafael dos Anjos has, and therefore the comfort moving forward to impose his grappling game. Instead Nurmagomedov seems to either give his opponents no respect and leap in with left hooks, or too much respect and struggle to initiate his first move to the clinch.

Ugly and clumsy, but dangerous.

With that being said, Ferguson’s head movement and shoulders do a good job of protecting him a lot of the time but his low right hand could prove a perfect mark for Nurmagomedov. On the feet Khabib’s only real go-to is a leaping left hook or uppercut. One is great for punishing a low right hand and an upright stance (particularly while kicking without set up as Ferguson often does), the other is great for fighters who lean to reach on their punches (which Ferguson can also be seen doing). While Nurmagomedov seems unlikely to do much with his boxing, those two strikes alone might at least give him something to do in the moments that he is not trying to grab a hold of Ferguson.

While Ferguson is proud of his time with Eddie Bravo and his 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu, he has been guilty of relaxing on his back and treating it as an attacking position rather than a disadvantageous one. While Nurmagomedov might be unable to pass if he gets stuck in Ferguson’s guard, he is unlikely to simply stand up and let Ferguson stand back up as Rafael dos Anjos did. Nurmagomedov might be a wonderfully dynamic ground fighter when things are going his way, but he’s shown he’s more than happy to grind out a slow one: as long as he can follow that primary rule of always staying on top.

The addition of another silly interim title means that we are getting treated to a scheduled five rounds in this one and it is easily this writer’s most anticipated match up of the year so far. The only sad thought is that either of these men, the cream of MMA’s bumper lightweight crop, would make a fantastic challenger to the champion and extremely untested lightweight commodity, Conor McGregor, and yet whichever one loses will probably be written off against McGregor in many fans’ minds. Whatever happens, check out our Tactical Guide to Woodley vs Thompson II, enjoy the fights, and get back here Monday for all the good stuff!


Check out these related stories:

The Tactical Guide to Woodley vs. Thompson II

Bellator 173 + Glory 38: Counter Jabs and Swinging Wild

Kyoji Horiguchi and the Failing Flyweight Division