The interim lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0; 8-0 UFC) and Tony Ferguson (22-3; 12-1 UFC) at UFC 209 this Saturday has been a long time coming.
Whether or not Conor McGregor ever deigns to defend his lightweight title, the winner of this bout will be a worthy champion for the most talent-rich division in the UFC. Nurmagomedov in particular has the potential to blossom into a legitimate star for a promotion that desperately needs more of them. His performance against Michael Johnson in January, one in which he told Johnson to give up and that it was his destiny to fight for the title as he pounded him into the canvas, was a star-making turn:
This isn’t just a bout that carries real consequences for the division and for the promotion; it’s also one of the best fights that can be made in the UFC. Nurmagomedov and Ferguson might have been stylistically made for each other: Both are aggressive and like to get after their opponents, but where Nurmagomedov likes to take his foes down and maul them on the ground, Ferugson peppers them with a high volume of creative combinations on the feet.
This is the best possible example of the classic striker vs. grappler matchup that has driven MMA since its very beginning. Can Ferguson keep it standing, or will Nurmagomedov be able to impose his powerful takedowns and stifling control on the mat?
Of course, it’s 2017, not 1993, and neither Nurmagomedov nor Ferguson is a novice outside his preferred area of expertise: Nurmagomedov is a perfectly competent striker, and Ferguson is a lethal grappler with a nasty choke game. The real question here is less about who gets to play their preferred game, and more about who wins the battle to create the conditions to play it. That means focusing on who gets to pressure, who’s forced to fight off his back foot, and where in the cage the fight will take place.
Let’s dig into each fighter’s game to get a handle on who has the edge.
Of the two fighters, Nurmagomedov is the more reliant on pressure and forward movement. His powerful, creative arsenal of takedowns, the heart and soul of his game, is built on forcing his opponent to the fence and only then diving on his opponent’s legs or into the clinch.
That’s not to say Nurmagomedov isn’t clever about how he does this. Take a look at this sequence from his most recent fight against Michael Johnson in November:
Nurmagomedov has backed Johnson toward the fence, with the American’s lead foot just inside the black line that some coaches have taken to calling the “warning track.” Fearing the threat of the takedown and knowing how close he is to the fence, Johnson reacts to Nurmagomedov’s forward movement by ducking down, directly into the path of an uppercut. Johnson tries to stand his ground and fire back, but Nurmagomedov rolls under a pair of counters and lands a counter left of his own.
Stung by the shot, Johnson backs up to the fence, right where Nurmagomedov wants him. He gauges distance with his jab, drawing out more head movement from Johnson, and when the American stands up again Nurmagomedov simply changes levels and drives through with an effortless double-leg takedown. The moment he hits the mat, Nurmagomedov immediately passes to the mount.
This is sequence that captures all the best parts of Nurmagomedov’s game. He reads Johnson beautifully, keying in on the American’s tendency to duck down in anticipation of a takedown, and counters that with an uppercut. He knows Johnson will try to exchange with him to get his respect and force him to back off, so Nurmagomedov keeps his head moving and stays right in Johnson’s face, refusing to retreat to open space. When Johnson retreats, Nurmagomedov plays off the threat of his strikes to open up an easy takedown, and then wastes no time in getting to a dominant position. This is sheer brilliance from the Russian, in both the plan and the execution.
Here’s a somewhat less-refined example of the same process from his 2014 fight with future lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos:
Nurmagomedov starts with a jab-cross, eating dos Anjos’s counter jab as he comes in. The Russian’s cross lands, and dos Anjos retreats, attempting to circle back to open space. Nurmagomedov cuts him off and explodes into a flying knee that connects, though not cleanly. Hurt by the shot, dos Anjos desperately tries to escape, but Nurmagomedov sticks to him like glue and lands a left hook.
With dos Anjos’s back to the fence and his hands raised to ward off another punch, Nurmagomedov simply ducks under, links his hands for the double-leg takedown, and drags the Brazilian to the canvas.
These kinds of sequences are Nurmagomedov’s bread and butter. His strikes are effective on their own, and he’s adept at using them to draw out particular responses from his opponent that he can use to capitalize with level changes and takedowns. The fence is integral to this approach, since it prevents his opponent from retreating.
Even if Nurmagomedov’s initial shot fails, his follow-up takedown attempts are almost certain to get the job done. Here’s a slick hip toss from his April 2016 fight against Darrell Horcher:
That’s just one of the deep arsenal of takedowns Nurmagomedov has at his disposal. Again, however, note the use of the fence to secure his position before completing the throw.
This is what Nurmagomedov does best, and he’s exceptional at it. His dominating ground game flows directly from his ability to get the opponent to the cage and then chain takedowns until the fight hits the mat; without this pressure, he struggles to impose his preferred approach. Nurmagomedov simply isn’t an open-space fighter.
Ferguson, too, likes to pressure. He’s one of the most creative and dangerous strikers in the UFC, combining a core of crisp, technical boxing with sharp kicks, slashing elbows, and an array of spinning strikes. Aggression is the glue that binds these different pieces of his wild game together into a coherent whole.
Forward-moving combinations that feature stance switches and an array of different strikes are the basis of Ferguson’s approach in the cage. Here’s an example from his fight with dos Anjos last November:
The American starts with a superman punch that dos Anjos manages to parry, and eats a counter left hand in return. Ferguson doesn’t stop there, though, landing a right hand and a lunging left uppercut. He follows that with another left uppercut and right hand, lands in the southpaw stance, and finishes with a left kick to the body-straight left combination as he pulls back into his stance.
Note just how much distance Ferguson has covered with this sequence: dos Anjos was in the middle of the cage when it began and finished with his back to the fence. This is blitzing aggression rather than the methodical, stalking approach favored by other pressure fighters, including dos Anjos himself. This wild, wide-open approach leaves Ferguson open to counters, as we saw early in this combination, but it also allows him to put a tremendous amount of mental stress on his opponent.
Here’s an example from Ferguson’s 2015 fight against Brazil’s Edson Barboza, one of the best stick-and-move strikers in the division:
Ferguson begins in the orthodox stance and pursues Barboza as he circles through the cage, trying to avoid the fence. The American fires off a jab and eats one from Barboza in return, then lets his right foot drift forward so he’s standing in the southpaw stance. He steps back into orthodox and fires off a left hand when Barboza plants his feet, but the Brazilian rolls under the shot and lands a two-piece combination to Ferguson’s body. Ferguson finishes with a left hand and continues pursuing Barboza.
This is both the best and the worst of Ferguson’s game. His stance-switching allows him to cover a huge amount of distance and stay on his opponents, and his rangy, lanky frame makes it hard for opponents to get away. Ferguson is durable and perfectly willing to take a shot to give one, and this constant aggression eventually breaks practically everyone he faces.
As much as he likes to get after his opponents, though, Ferguson is perfectly capable of playing a more measured game. He doesn’t have to be wildly pressuring to be successful, and while he likes backing his opponent to the fence, his game doesn’t fall apart without it.
Here’s one example of that more measured Ferguson:
Ferguson probes with his lead hand to gauge the distance and distract dos Anjos, then slams a perfect straight right into the Brazilian’s chin. He’s much longer than dos Anjos, so it’s a simple matter for him to pull his weight and his backward to avoid the right hook-left hand counter combination with which dos Anjos tries to reply. Ferguson steps forward into the southpaw stance to end the sequence.
That 2016 fight with dos Anjos, himself a pressure fighter by trade, was full of sequences like this from Ferguson. He has a fantastic jab and good if not outstanding stick-and-move footwork, which allows him to crack aggressive opponents and keep them on the end of his long reach. This is definitely his B game, but he’s comfortable enough with it to take up chunks of time between bursts of pressure.
Of the two fighters, Ferguson is by far the more versatile, and while he can stick and move in spurts, pressure is still the hallmark of his game. Can he really stay disciplined and remain committed to that game plan in the face of Nurmagomedov’s relentless pressure? Does he have the footwork to stay away from the relentless Russian? Will he be baited into exchanging close to the fence and open himself up to the Nurmagomedov’s clever takedown game? Conversely, how will Nurmagomedov respond if his pressure doesn’t come as easily as it usually does? Does he have a backup plan, and how effective will it be?
This is a humdinger of a matchup, one of the best in the entire sport, and it’s been worth the long wait to see it happen.
Patrick Wyman is a mixed martial arts scout who’s earned his PhD. He hosts the Heavy Hands Podcast and contributes analysis to The Post.