When rumors emerged that a Russian UFC fighter once wrestled bears in his youth, I assumed, like many, that this was just allegory. But then came old video footage from 1997, which shows a young Dagestani, allegedly Khabib Nurmagomedov, in a low-intensity, back-and-forth wrestling match with a brown bear. It is a scene he would jokingly refilm two decades later -- with much less actual wrestling -- to help fan the promotional flames of his legendary grappling dominance.
To be fair to the bear in the old video, the animal mostly gets the better of the boy. And we do not know for sure that the boy was truly Nurmagomedov. Regardless, analysis of his professional MMA performances reveals the most dominant grappler in the modern game. Should he win a championship, we should brace ourselves for a potentially dangerous new training trend for wrestlers.
The undefeated UFC lightweight is scheduled to challenge interim champion Tony Ferguson for the title at UFC 223 on April 7 in Brooklyn, New York. Nurmagomedov (25-0) is riding a nine-fight UFC win streak, having most recently mauled Edson Barboza for three lopsided rounds. In that fight, Nurmagomedov's display of dominance once again relied on his most powerful weapon: his stifling position control. And dominant top position is one that he finds himself in frequently, as he attempts 1.5 takedowns for every minute he spends on his feet.
A statistic often shown or quoted during fight night telecasts is FightMetric's "significant strikes." Ultimately, MMA can be partially reduced to a fighter's ability to land meaningful strikes while avoiding those of an opponent. A quick look at those numbers for athletes in the UFC lightweight division gives the first hint as to why Nurmagomedov has such a successful record.
If there's truth to the common sports adage that "defense wins championships," Nurmagomedov has earned this title shot largely by taking minimal damage. He averages the fewest significant strikes absorbed of any active lightweight. And he does this not by slowing the pace or evading contact but by landing his own significant strikes at a higher-than-average rate.
Control after contact
The primary driver of Nurmagomedov's effectiveness in the cage has been position control. When two fighters stand at a distance exchanging strikes, the game is all about hitting while not getting hit. But once the fighters make contact, it's dominant position that wins the round. The dominant fighter is the one who takes outside position while the two are clinched against the cage or the one who seizes top control on the ground, thereby stifling the opponent's ability to fight back, while keeping available his or her own offensive options.
In the clinch and on the ground, no one in the 155-pound division has been more effective at control after contact than Nurmagomedov.
"The Eagle" flies highest of all in the graph, even in comparison to the division's other top-ranked competitors. Nurmagomedov has spent 87 percent of all his clinch time in control, and for 96 percent of all his time on the ground, he's been in control. Few fighters come close on either metric, and none are higher than 70 percent on both.
These metrics are not achieved by accident. In a ranking of the total share of time that fighters spend on the mat controlling their opponents, Nurmagomedov tops the lightweight division at 41 percent. It equates to more than a full round out of a three-round fight spent on the ground and in control. The next-highest percentage is Kevin Lee's 33 percent, and the division average is 17 percent.
Those numbers by Nurmagomedov are the result of a combination of factors -- his frequent takedown attempts, his success on those attempts and his ability to hold opponents down. With Nurmagomedov in control for that much time in the cage, it's easy to see why he has dominated in fights he's finished as well as those that have gone to decision.
Notably, Nurmagomedov's opponent at UFC 223, Ferguson, shows up on the opposite corner of the graph. Stylistically, his placement in such a disadvantaged spot is largely due to his willingness to fight off his back using his dangerous submission game. Ferguson has nearly one submission attempt per trip to ground, far above the average. But Ferguson has lost rounds to wrestlers when they have been able to avoid or stifle his guard. So a matchup against Nurmagomedov would seem to be the ultimate test of top control versus a guard game.
Though Ferguson will likely want to create standup exchanges, the fight will likely go to the ground eventually. Once there, the fighters' contrasting styles will be the primary chess match that will decide the round-by-round scores.
Raw data is provided by Fight Metric, with graphics and analysis by Reed Kuhn, author of "Fightnomics: The Hidden Numbers and Science in Mixed Martial Arts."