For the extremely deep lightweight division, UFC 242’s main event represents a refreshing return to normalcy; for the first time since the days of Rafael dos Anjos’ lightweight rule, the fight for the undisputed belt features the lineal champion and an active and deserving contender.
After about three years of utter chaos in the championship scene, Khabib Nurmagomedov ended up at the top of the heap with a win over Al Iaquinta (after a fight with Tony Ferguson fell through), and cemented his reign with a win over then-lineal champion Conor McGregor. Already with a reasonably deep resume at lightweight (Rafael dos Anjos, Michael Johnson) in addition to his last two wins, a sustained reign at the top of 155 would make Nurmagomedov a true contender for the greatest of all time, and with the dominance that he has shown at nearly every step, one would be hard-pressed to consider him anything less than the pound-for-pound topper with a few more wins (or perhaps even just one more). That quest continues with Poirier.
As the promotional focus was largely with the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson-McGregor triangle, Dustin Poirier quietly built up a head of steam; through 2017 and 2018, Poirier ripped through 155 to build a formidable resume of champion after champion, and toppled featherweight king Max Holloway to become the top contender to Nurmagomedov’s crown. Poirier has called for a fight with Nurmagomedov with each of his wins in the last few years, growing more convincing each time; with his last three wins, Poirier has proven undeniable, and a win over Nurmagomedov would cap the best winstreak in MMA history.
Khabib Nurmagomedov punches Edson Barboza during UFC 219 (Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Khabib Nurmagomedov had been earmarked for dominance from very early on his UFC tenure, and while the rationale for that (an undefeated record that was mostly filler pre-UFC) was questionable, he has delivered at every juncture. Since his second fight with the promotion, Nurmagomedov hasn’t closed as an underdog, and his performances have backed the respect that the oddsmakers have given him; Nurmagomedov delivered awe-inspiring beatings to excellent fighters in Michael Johnson and Edson Barboza, and took any claim of being the best from Conor McGregor when they met at UFC 229. A second defense of his lightweight title would be momentous against an opponent like Dustin Poirier.
Nurmagomedov’s success has stemmed from one of the most punishing top games in MMA history; combined with sound and versatile wrestling, Nurmagomedov’s top game has only been averted by a single opponent early in his UFC tenure, and he’s gone on to batter even better fighters with recent improvements in every realm.
Most of Nurmagomedov’s success is in sheer relentlessness and a rare sort of fluidity in transition; Nurmagomedov allows positions to change, but they’re never out of his favor, and he’s extremely comfortable dictating the transitional positions that most fighters aren’t all that comfortable navigating (the best example might be when Barboza was basically out of his grasp, but he kept him in place by controlling one ankle with his legs and still got work done). Nurmagomedov’s comfort in those transitions lends itself to a game that’s focused almost entirely on dishing out damage, which leads to an unfamiliar sort of grappling; Nurmagomedov has no need to sit on defined controlling positions and he doesn’t generally gun for submissions unless his opponent is battered enough to offer no resistance, so the positions that he cycles through are different to the process of any other grappler in MMA.
For example, the leg-mount that Nurmagomedov often works to consolidate is usually a stalling position to keep the opponent down before pulling their hips back off the fence, but Nurmagomedov can deal real damage from there. Nurmagomedov’s wrist-control, his frequent mounted-crucifix, his unique use of positions like knee-on-belly, all are tuned to be primarily striking positions, and his opponents generally don’t know what to do with an opponent who can punish them so thoroughly for trying to escape. Combined with his size for his division and his athleticism, Nurmagomedov’s opponents have found little-to-no success on the ground.
Nurmagomedov’s wrestling is excellent when he’s able to get into the clinch, where he has a strong bodylock and a variety of trips that build off one another, but his wrestling in the open isn’t as strong; in recent years, he’s turned to the low-single when he decides to shoot away from the fence, which isn’t all that high-percentage (Al Iaquinta denied it dozens of times, especially since Nurmagomedov’s wrestling doesn’t really connect to his striking). This means that the success of his wrestling is often contingent on his success in pressuring his opponent to the fence, and Nurmagomedov is a decent (if flawed) pressure striker.
Nurmagomedov doesn’t really have great footwork as a pressurer nor does he cut the cage all that well, but he’s cautious and fairly crafty when he’s looking to push his opponents back (and having not faced a great outfighter in his UFC career, that’s generally enough when getting his opponent to the fence once is often the win condition). Against a genuine counter threat in Michael Johnson, Nurmagomedov managed to feint forward and get in on his hips to push him to the fence, where against Edson Barboza, Nurmagomedov made the right read and simply had to run at the kicker to get Barboza tripping all over himself.
As a pure striker, Nurmagomedov is functional but unremarkable; he picked Iaquinta apart with a decent jab and he can duck behind his lead shoulder and elbow to deflect strikes, but he isn’t very comfortable in the pocket and MJ laced him a couple times. Nurmagomedov’s striking success mostly comes when he’s able to build off his takedown and clinch entries; his knockdown on Conor McGregor came when he feinted a level change and came up with an overhand, and as MJ started to sell out on defending takedowns each time Nurmagomedov twitched, Khabib came up with an uppercut. Even in areas where he lacks polish, Nurmagomedov is smart and somewhat capable, and in his preferred area, he’s outright unstoppable.
Dustin Poirier strikes Max Holloway during UFC 236 (UFC/Getty Images)
Dustin Poirier’s rise hasn’t been nearly as clean as Nurmagomedov’s, but he’s come out on the other side a true pound-for-pound talent and one of the best boxers in MMA; while he took a while to find his weight and iron out his game, the Poirier of today is unrecognizable as the Poirier of even just three years ago. In those three years, “The Diamond” hasn’t lost, and his last three wins make up one of the best year-long spans ever; Poirier outlasted Justin Gaethje and battered Eddie Alvarez (two top contenders at 155, one of them in the conversation as the greatest lightweight in MMA), and won a decision over a man who had a claim to being pound-for-pound #1 in Max Holloway. A win over Khabib Nurmagomedov would leave him the lightweight king and arguably the best fighter in the world.
Since his days as a brawler with questionable durability and even more questionable defense, Poirier has made genuine changes to his style that rival the evolution of any fighter in history; Poirier has developed ways to stay safe in-close and draw reactions out of his opponents, and that has fed into his propensity to brawl and his offensive horsepower to create a truly scary athlete.
The core of Poirier’s game is his southpaw counterpunching; Poirier is a sound pressure fighter (one who even Justin Gaethje had trouble backing to the fence for the first few rounds) and a monstrous puncher for the weight class, and his counters are absolutely excellent from both hands. Against Justin Gaethje, it was often the straight left as he kicked, where against Max Holloway, Poirier’s right hook forced the Hawaiian to be mindful of the extended pocket flurries where he thrives (and even as Holloway exited on angles, Poirier levering off the lead hand caught Max as he backed off).
What helps Poirier counterpunch more effectively than he used to is his jab and the development of his lead hand in general; Poirier can handfight very effectively against orthodox opponents to limit their output and force their rear hands, and he can use the southpaw jab to set up other threats and to draw counters (as he did to hurt Eddie Alvarez in their first fight, jabbing to draw the uppercut counter and punishing that with the left hook).
Poirier’s boxing is also sound on the lead, and he’s one of the most versatile punchers in MMA; a lot of that was shown against Justin Gaethje’s high guard, as Poirier could often jab to draw the guard before punching around it to the head or underneath it to the body, and was also shown in his shifts and levers to push Alvarez and Holloway back to the fence (a shifting overhand combination to catch Holloway as he backed off, for instance, and often shifting as he doubled and tripled up on his left hand).
Poirier’s defense has grown to be unique and effective (a bizarre sort of shell that allows blows to slide off his lead shoulder), even if it isn’t perfect; Poirier can be caught overextending on the lead as Max Holloway did in round 1 to drop him with a check hook, but it generally takes some work to navigate his guard without getting countered. All of that converges to make Poirier one of the most deeply skilled boxers in MMA right now, one who can handle himself at every range and deal damage to even the smartest and most disciplined opponents.
Most of Poirier’s weaker moments on the feet came before the Jim Miller fight, before he developed his jab and his game was still fairly raw; Conor McGregor and even Cub Swanson found a way around his guard and Michael Johnson torched him on the counter. Since then, his striking has improved exponentially (even though that vulnerability on the counter is still there, he’s much more thoughtful about his entries, preferring to draw a reaction from his opponent out at range before committing to exchanging in-close).
Poirier’s wrestling and grappling are very good, as he showed in his bouts against Anthony Pettis and Joe Duffy; against one of the better guard-players in MMA, Poirier was able to consistently pass and batter “Showtime” from the top position, and he was able to take Duffy down when he felt threatened on the feet. However, there have been some issues that Nurmagomedov may be able to exploit, particularly in terms of his decisionmaking; in the second Alvarez fight, Poirier decided to pull guillotines rather than defend and break away, and he didn’t look particularly good from the bottom when Alvarez ended up on top from that.
While Poirier has proven an intelligent fighter, it bears some watching in a fight where a single bad decision could lead to the fight slipping away.
Dustin Poirier trades punches with Anthony Pettis (UFC/Getty Images)
Conclusions and Capping
Despite public sentiment, Nurmagomedov/Poirier is a fight that can genuinely go either way; Poirier has been in fairly close fights against similarly strong pocket-boxers like Gaethje and Holloway (and Nurmagomedov isn’t nearly as refined in that range) who have forced him to battle through genuine adversity, where Nurmagomedov’s successes have come in exceedingly binary affairs that haven’t allowed his weaker areas to get much play.
If Nurmagomedov wins, he’ll likely look like he should’ve been a massive favorite, as that’s simply the nature of a fight involving a skillset as narrow and deep as his, but that doesn’t necessarily represent the dynamic of the matchup. In truth, Nurmagomedov is a good enough fighter that there’s a good chance he beats a few of his more troubling matchups, even though those matchups exist.
That said, there are aspects of Poirier’s game that should give Nurmagomedov some problems, particularly due to his unrefined pressure and his most effective wrestling hinging on being able to push his opponent back. Nurmagomedov is unremarkable in finishing takedowns when he has to do it in the open, and he frankly seems to just hate doing it; against McGregor, the first takedown (in the open) was a messy and protracted affair where Nurmagomedov unsuccessfully tried to crack down twice and McGregor almost stepped over before Nurmagomedov turned it into a double, and Nurmagomedov seemed to only want to shoot thereafter when there was a chance that he could push McGregor to the fence with the attempt.
Both McGregor and Iaquinta were able to pressure Nurmagomedov to the fence, and Khabib generally seemed to accept it and didn’t often shoot to back them off; McGregor, in particular, took the front foot in the third round of their fight, and Nurmagomedov took basically every body-shot clean and backed straight up whenever McGregor twitched. Combined with his bizarre elbow-defense being most useful against orthodox fighters who throw wide rights (e.g. Al Iaquinta), a southpaw straight-puncher who’s hard to back up and who doesn’t tend to let his opponents off the hook when they’re on the fence seems to be a tough fight on paper for the Dagestani, one who draws bad shots out more often than he gives the opportunities for good ones. Poirier has shown good bodypunching before (the Gaethje fight was a good example), he’s uniquely equipped to punish straight retreats with his frequent lever-punching, and his cardio looked fantastic against the pace of Max Holloway (where Nurmagomedov has shown a third-round speedbump in his two five-round fights).
If problems arise for Poirier, they’ll likely be a result of his decisionmaking; while the low-singles of Nurmagomedov out in the open aren’t all that hard to cut off at the pass (as long as it’s early, before he starts chaining, as Iaquinta showed), Poirier often insists on turning defended takedowns into d’arces and guillotines. While the upshot is that one close choke might be enough to make Nurmagomedov reconsider his wrestling strategy (which is generally to take a bad shot and chain his way up), this is mostly a theoretical path against a grappler the caliber of Nurmagomedov; guillotines or going to d’arces will likely only concede top position against an opponent who’s really only in his element on top.
Even if all else goes Poirier’s way in the striking, the fight still hinges on whether Poirier can be trusted to go to sound fundamental wrestling defense against Nurmagomedov’s weaker entries in the open or whether he’ll look for the higher-risk sub option (or whether he does something like McGregor did, looking for the knee on the entry and giving Khabib a clean bite on the hips, which turned into being held down for the entire first round and gassing badly because of it).
Given the intelligence of his performance against Max Holloway and his consistent improvement, as well as his physicality and his cardio edge and the thorniness of the matchup on the feet for Khabib, the flyer on Poirier seems worth taking.
Prediction: Poirier via KO3. This writer caps Poirier at -120.