UFC 254: What’s it like to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov? ‘Something I’ve never felt before’


Want to know what it’s like to compete against Khabib Nurmagomedov in the Octagon? Ask someone who thought he would take it easy sparring with Nurmagomedov because he was about 70 pounds heavier — only to realize he needed to give it more gas. Ask Daniel Cormier.

“There have been times when Khabib was short on training partners, and I’ll go in there and spar him, light, I’m not going hard,” Cormier said. “But honestly, you can’t go as light with Khabib as you’d want. He’s not the normal 155-pounder. He’s big, and he’s strong.

“He can wrestle, so you kind of have to give him a little bit more than you would generally give a little guy, but that’s what makes him so special. He can be standing across the Octagon from me, and that’s when I was the heavyweight champion of the world, and I would go in there and spar with him a little, and that dude had no fear. I kind of have to give a little bit more than I would normally give a little dude, because this dude’s actually trying to win.”

Cormier and Nurmagomedov have been teammates at American Kickboxing Academy since Nurmagomedov joined the UFC in 2012. When Nurmagomedov defends his lightweight belt against interim champ Justin Gaethje on Saturday, Cormier will be Octagon-side working the fight as a commentator. And Cormier knows what Gaethje can expect.

“He’s getting better at controlling, which is absurd, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy better at top control in my life,” said Cormier, a former Olympic wrestler and UFC champ at light heavyweight and heavyweight. “He’s getting better with his pressure on top. He’s better at chasing the finishes once he gets on top, because for a while, he was just beating guys up. He wasn’t finishing them as much as he wanted to. But now he’s getting finishes.

“He’s getting better at learning to manipulate everything. All that control that Khabib does with his legs now, it wasn’t like that before. He was a wrestling guy, like me, we were trying to control everything with our arms and squeezing, and over the years, he developed the ability to control with his legs, and it completely changed the game.”

Here are six of Nurmagomedov’s past seven opponents describing what it’s like to know what’s coming from Nurmagomedov but being unable to stop it.

Dustin Poirier

Lost via third-round submission on Sept. 7, 2019. (Watch this fight on ESPN+)

“It’s just so hard to get your footwork going on a guy like Khabib, who just bull-rushes and puts you against the fence, and his skill level against the fence is something I’ve never felt before.

“His understanding of balance, the way he uses his trips, his weight distribution, it’s hard to explain to someone who’s never been pressed up against the fence in a combat scenario. The guy is good.

“If Justin can use his footwork, use his wrestling in the open, I think Justin might be able to out-wrestle him in the open. But against the fence, I don’t think so.”

Al Iaquinta

Lost via unanimous decision on April 7, 2018, after taking the fight on short notice.

“Khabib is unorthodox on the feet. Although it might look a little — I don’t want to call it “amateurish” — it’s a problem. He’s a problem. He’s got a good chin. You look at Edson Barboza, that guy is world class, and Khabib made him look normal.

“I didn’t want to get taken down, but I mean, I just went for it. Right after the first bell, I went straight forward. The difference with me is I didn’t find out I was fighting him until what, 24 hours before. I was just like, “You know what? Let’s just rock. Let’s go.” I didn’t have a concern in the world. I just went out there and winged it.”

Edson Barboza

Lost via unanimous decision on Dec. 30, 2017.

“I think he’s very strong. He’s mentally very strong. Everybody knows his game. Everybody knows his game plan. And he goes there and [does] it.

“I think that makes him different than other guys. Everybody knows what he thinks about the fight, what he’s doing in the fight. Everybody knows that — and nobody can stop him. I think he’s definitely one of the best of all time in lightweight.”

Michael Johnson

Lost via third-round submission on Nov. 12, 2016.

“It was nothing crazy I haven’t seen before, but I was worried about his takedowns quite a bit. I wasn’t really comfortable. I kept my hips back as I threw punches and was leaving myself extended because I didn’t want to step into anything. I was worried about his shot. If I had just focused on myself, I think it would have been a different story.

“During my camp, I had quite a bit of people in my ear about his wrestling, how good it was, how good his control was — if I didn’t have those people in my ear with all that bulls—, I don’t think I would have had such an issue. It wasn’t even his wrestling that was a problem, it was definitely his top control. I think he gives you choices. You can defend punches, or you can try to get up, or you can try to get your wrists free. He’s always attacking and holding the position. He feels like a damn middleweight, and I was a smaller lightweight.

“People talk about the left hand I landed, but I never really thought I hurt him as bad as everyone thought I did. You see different things when you’re in the cage, and I didn’t see Khabib getting hurt. I remember him taking a good punch. That wasn’t my best left hand because, again, my hips were back and I didn’t step in with a lot of power because I was worried about the takedown.”

Darrell Horcher

Lost via second-round TKO on April 16, 2016, after taking the fight on short notice.

“I wouldn’t say he’s physically that strong. I’ve fought people who are stronger. But he’s relentless with his Sambo [Russian martial art]. As soon as we hit the ground, I couldn’t move.

“He’s really good at getting his head off center as he comes in. I train with really good wrestlers, and you can time takedowns with a shot, but he was very good at getting his head out of the way. There was no way I could hit him. The timing off his shots is good, but he’s not much of a wrestler in that initial shot. It’s more of a way to chain into his Sambo. I got my hips out on his first shot, but he never stops. He’s going to just follow you wherever you end up and work you down.

“I train with light heavyweights and heavyweights, and that’s the closest I’ve ever felt to his top game. You get a light heavyweight who probably weighs 230 pounds in the gym on top of you — it felt about the same to that. His feet were in concrete. I went back to my corner, and I remember going, ‘Yep. You can’t move him when he gets on top of you.’ And they just said, ‘Well, don’t let him get on top of you.’ I was so tired. His pressure just sucks the wind out of you. Even if you’re in shape, and I was out of shape from taking it on short notice, it just sucks it out of you.”

Rafael dos Anjos

Lost via unanimous decision on April 19, 2014.

“He has good waist control. I felt like he kind of focused on holding me down, because after that fight, I didn’t have one scratch on me. I even called my manager and asked to fight again right away. I fought 49 days later.

“I remember for that fight, I trained very little wrestling, which was one of my mistakes. I thought I would be able to keep it standing, but he’s a good wrestler. He’s been taking everybody down in the UFC.”

Editor’s note: Some quotes were previously published.

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