Why the UFC takedown record matters

Note: this article is based on the video uploaded to our YouTube channel on 27 March, 2019.

There are a lot of silly arguments that become narrated and transmitted, often to the point that we don’t even question how solid they are anymore, and instead treat them as fact. One such example is the lack of respect many have for the UFC single-fight takedown record. Time and time again, I have heard people insist that landing 21 takedowns in a fight is not impressive; that it indicates a lack of a ground game. After all, the guy who was taken down was able to consistently get back up! Thus, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s 21-takedown performance against Abel Trujillo is often dismissed as a meaningless record.

I didn’t know crap about MMA back then, and I don’t know crap about MMA now, but anyone – even someone uninitiated to the sport – should be able to understand how one-sided that fight was in favor of Khabib.

“Once the fight goes to the ground, a dominant grappler should be able to keep it there.” That’s how the basic argument goes. But this ignores many factors. For one, a takedown is defined differently in the respective sports of MMA and wrestling. The unified rules for MMA define a takedown according to two criteria: 1) a fighter must take his opponent off his feet and to the canvas, and 2) he must establish some form of offense by means of this takedown. (The latter is meant to discourage “laying and praying” as a strategy for winning.)

Wrestling defines a takedown differently. From a wrestling perspective, most of Khabib’s takedowns against Trujillo were not, in fact, takedowns. They were mat returns. In wrestling, when your opponent gets back to his feet while you are still riding his hips, and you drop him to the mat again, that is scored as a mat return rather than a takedown. (There are also mat returns that start from a standing position, but that’s not particularly relevant to this discussion).

An example of a mat return (although it’s better if you don’t let him land on top of you)
One of Nurmagomedov’s many mat returns against Trujillo

This is an important distinction, because Khabib controlled Trujillo for almost the entire duration of their fight. For three minutes in round 1, three minutes and forty-five seconds in round 2, and four and a half minutes in round 3. (These are according to my own rough estimations; they may be off from the official numbers by a little bit.)

Altogether, Khabib controlled Trujillo for over 11 minutes in a 15 minute bout. For three quarters of the fight, Trujillo was rendered immobile, and incapable of doing much of anything other than try to get back up. Trujillo is a four-time NAIA all-American, an imposing physical force, and one of the lightweight fighters who was actually bigger than Khabib. That did not stop him from getting outclassed in his own area of strength.

So while Khabib recorded 21 takedowns according to the record books, in wrestling terms, he only had five takedowns, along with what (by my count) looks like 26 mat returns. Rounds 1 and 3 ended with Khabib controlling Abel on the mat.

Actually, Khabib very nearly finished Abel with a triangle choke at the end of the first
Khabib gets on top after a scramble to end the third

Round 2 ended with Khabib controlling Abel up against the fence.

When an otherwise elite wrestler is so thoroughly outclassed, there is no reason to not be impressed. And our imagination about what some numbers may imply about the fight should not supersede the evident reality we see when we watch the fight. Nowadays this is less of a talking point, as Khabib has since notched eight victories in more or less identical fashion. But we should be vigilant against fallacious narratives that tend to pop up in our sport.