It’s happening. Or at least, we hope it is. Out of fear of heartbreak, we are all trying to temper our expectations, but it is impossible to not get more than a little excited about the UFC booking Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson for the fifth and hopefully final time.
What we have in Khabib vs. Tony is a clash of styles and a clash of personalities, but most importantly: it is the ultimate matchup of the best vs. the best. Khabib is undefeated and has seldom looked vulnerable in his entire career; Tony, meanwhile, is on a 12-fight win streak, and has a deserved reputation as one of the most violent fighters in the world. This will be the first time in UFC history that each fighter comes into the fight with win streaks this long.
Khabib has demoralized and broken his opponents, while Tony has taken his to the depths of darkness, where he makes them bleed and overcomes them through sheer willpower. This is a matchup between the irresistible force and the immovable object.
The lightweight division has been cleared out (arguably more than once). The winning streaks have been kept intact. Many consider this fight to be cursed, but in fact if there ever was a fight of destiny, this is it. The injuries and botched weight cuts have only served to build up the fighters even more, and with them, the fight itself (If these two had fought at the TUF 22 finale in 2015, I doubt it would have carried quite as much weight as it does today).
But it’s not enough to wax poetic about this fight (however much it is deserving of our awe). We need to get somewhat technical here: what will the respective game plans be? What will be the most likely outcomes? In what area of the fight can each man seek out an advantage against the other?
And this is where we need to first talk about Tony Ferguson. Because as much as Tony is respected among fighters and fans alike for his entertaining style and his unparallel heart, he is the unquestioned underdog in this fight. And this is not without reason. Both fighters are on win streaks, but one of them has done so at a far greater cost than the other.
You may have heard that Tony Ferguson has made his last seven opponents bleed. This is true; this is something that happened. We have documentation of it having happened.
But he himself has taken quite a beating, as well. In fact, through the course of his impressive win streak, Tony has been badly hurt in a number of fights, and if not that, has absorbed a substantial volume of strikes in most of them. Tony fights as if long term health is a funny joke. He just does not give a crap.
Many have observed this and noted that Tony cannot be broken; even if Khabib takes him down and punishes him, Tony will not be out of the fight until he is truly out of it. In fact, if you could condense all the common arguments that are made in favor of Tony beating Khabib (or at the least, in favor of him being a major challenge for Khabib), it boils down to: 1) Tony’s guard, 2) Tony’s unparallel heart and chin, and 3) Tony’s otherworldly conditioning.
When it comes to Tony’s guard, I have long expressed that I don’t think that type of game works against Khabib, and in fact we have historical precedent to suggest that it doesn’t work against Khabib.
So I don’t think it is reasonable to expect Tony to dish out ground and pound from the bottom against Khabib like he did against Josh Thomson. As for his signature finishing move – the D’Arce choke – he does not get those from the bottom. He gets into position for the choke out of a scramble and then is confident enough in the choke to give up the dominant position.
As good as he is, I think it is safe to say that he will not D’Arce choke Khabib. Or, let’s put it this way: if he does, it would be one of the most astonishing moments in sporting history (let alone MMA history).
Heart and chin, on the other hand, can absolutely play a factor; although I do think we have the tendency to play up the psychological factor more than is warranted. This is, after all, an athletic competition, however much psychology plays a role in it. Khabib did not mentally break Al Iaquinta, for example; he simply outclassed him for 5 rounds. It didn’t matter how tough Al was. However, the important thing Al did was that he let himself be in a position where he had a chance. He lowered his stance to prevent the takedowns and as a result, his face was jabbed to a pulp.
The truth is: nobody can do much on the ground against Khabib. He is too far ahead of his peers in that realm. Tony’s path to victory is not in finding an opening for that D’Arce choke; it is in somehow keeping the fight on the feet long enough to do serious damage. And this is where his mental toughness can play a big role. After all, what if he gets 10-8’ed in the first round? What if Khabib rides him for two rounds? If there is anyone who wouldn’t be shook by that, it’s Tony.
Thus, in my analysis, Ferguson will have to make the most of a key opportunity: the “break” round. We have all seen it: Khabib takes breaks. This is not a criticism. It’s perfectly natural for him to take breaks. Five round fights are a marathon; he is smart to pace himself. However, from Tony’s perspective, this can be a huge opportunity; this is where Tony needs to pounce. Elbows, backfist, all the creative strikes that Tony loves; he needs to throw everything at Khabib in this window. Tony has been able to make guys bleed thanks to his effective use of elbows; if he can make Khabib bleed during Khabib’s “break” time, that would be an interesting development. Tony’s last fight (against Donald Cerrone) was won by doctor’s stoppage. Khabib vs. Tony will be in Brooklyn; we have all seen how much the New York State Athletic Commission is inclined toward doctor’s stoppages.
This is, of course, assuming the fight plays out that way. But there is another interesting factor at play: if Khabib has his way in the early going, will we even get to see Tony’s world class cardio on display?
The reason I ask…
This is called a scarf hold (or kesa-gatame in judo terminology). It is one of the most effective forms of side control in grappling; although not as common in MMA (perhaps because of the fighters’ sweat making it harder to grip, or perhaps it is because it is harder to throw strikes from this position; who knows). It is of no direct relevance to Khabib vs. Tony. I am only bringing it up to illustrate a point. Observe these two variations of the same position:
They look the same, more or less. But there is actually a world of a difference between the two. In the one on the left, the guy on the bottom is simply being held down. He cannot move his head and shoulders, which prevents him from bridging and shrimping out. But in the one on the right, his rib cage is being crushed and his lungs, compressed. This subtle difference in leg positioning of “top guy” is actually of great significance for the poor guy on the bottom.
Anyone who played Street Fighter as a kid is familiar with the concept of a health meter. If we imagine that real fighters have health meters, Khabib’s strategy is to drain his opponent’s meter as soon as possible; the idea being that when the guy comes back up, he’s not the same. Thus, when Khabib is holding someone down, it’s not just that they are being held down; they are being crushed under an immense weight, in a way that is often imperceivable to the viewer. This could impact Tony’s conditioning in ways we have never seen before.
In conclusion, in order to win, I think Tony needs to pounce on Khabib in the standup when/if Khabib takes a round off. This is assuming that Khabib does Khabib things early in the fight, and also that Tony has the conditioning to recover and be able to do Tony things even after that early onslaught.
The beauty of MMA is, of course, that what we see could be completely different from any of the things I have mentioned. MMA has a tendency to make everyone look stupid from time to time.