Ever since Khabib Nurmagomedov stepped into the Octagon, he has displayed a confidence and poise that makes you think he is never going to lose.
He never seems intimidated, lackluster or distracted. To see him before, during or after a fight is to see a young man who is fully aware of the opportunity before him and plans on seizing it.
And with every fight he wins, more and more fans rally under his banner.
But is he a title contender?
Right now, I have a hard time imagining him defeating Benson Henderson, Gilbert Melendez or Anthony Pettis. It’s not just a matter of Nurmagomedov not getting the opportunity to fight a true, Top 10 lightweight; it’s his style.
He is a relentless fighter, and anyone who puts pressure on his opponent is someone to be respected. But upon closer examination, he’s not reinventing the wheel by any means.
There is no secret to his game plan, as it never seems to change. He’s going to throw strikes while working for the takedown, and he’s going to be looking for the takedown all night.
Can getting the lightweight title really be as simple as that when you consider just how deep the division is?
Given how most MMA fights are scored, part of that answer is “yes.” If he can get enough takedowns in any fight, chances are good he can get a decision victory, no matter who he faces.
Clay Guida managed to defeat Pettis in much the same fashion. Guida took Pettis down repeatedly and won the bout 30-27 on all cards, simple as that.
Nurmagomedov also has very good submission skills, which could keep him out of trouble, as he works a top-heavy game and keeps the fight where he wants it. By controlling where the bout is fought, he can win fight after fight after fight.
So, on paper he looks like a serious contender already: a man eating his way to the crown, one fight at a time.
But thus far, he’s yet to face top-tier opposition. In his last bout against Pat Healy at UFC 165, his striking was a bit wild yet effective, simply because he was throwing more and Healy was walking in. Even then, Healy tagged him with a hard right that clearly hurt.
To expect that Nurmagomedov would find much success against good strikers like Michael Johnson or Pettis seems a little far-fetched at this point. Unless he plans on bull-rushing them every second of every round, he’s going to have to stand and trade in order to set up successful takedowns.
And that could be where he winds up in trouble.
Men like Johnson, TJ Grant and Pettis have the power to finish Nurmagomedov with one shot. If he cannot get the takedown, he’s going to be forced into a situation where a powerful striker will get many chances to end his night early.
But from what we have seen thus far, he has the kind of grit that makes it easy to imagine him pushing forward anyway, ignoring all the blood and pain just to get on top.
The French have a saying: "Plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les memes." Translation: "The more things change, the more they stay the same." In MMA, no matter how much the sport evolves, the man who decides where the fight takes place is usually the winner, just like it was back in the early days.
While we cannot say for sure if Nurmagomedov will prove this true as the competition gets tougher, we do know that he’s undefeated because he always plays to his strengths.
And if he can put anyone in the Top 10 on his back, I cannot imagine anyone stronger from the top.