Combat sports rivalries have always captivated fans. Just think of all the incredible battles that have etched their names in the hallowed halls of sports history. The likes of Ali vs Frazier, Hagler vs Hearnes and Tyson vs Holyfield have all been responsible for some of the greatest moments in combat sports history. Well, we can now add one more rivalry from the world of Mixed Martial Arts to that list – Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov.
This is a rivalry that saw some of the darkest pre-fight promotions in a long time as things got incredibly personal between the two. While the Russian could not match the Irishman with his words and wit, it was clear that he preferred to do his talking in the cage when the two modern gladiators finally met on October 6th, 2018 at UFC 229. The event was held at the T Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and promptly shattered all pay-per-view records in the UFC’s short but storied history. The fight itself proved to be a tactical chess match between a true striker in Conor and a consummate grappler in Nurmagomedov.
However, regardless of the outcome of that fight, many fans have often wondered (talking strictly in terms of skills) who the better UFC fighter is. Is McGregor with his venomous left cross more dangerous than the suffocating pressure applied by Khabib? Well, let’s find out as we judge each fighter on four key parameters – Striking, Grappling, Chin and Tactics – to settle the debate once and for all.
Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov: Who is better?
The idea here is to analyse each fighter’s skill set and how they stack up against each other. The match-up here is as exciting as it gets. On one hand, you have McGregor’s crisp and stylish striking and middling ground game against the effective but brutish stand-up and otherworldly mat skills of Nurmagomedov. We’ll also look at each fighter’s ability to take damage (chin) and their game-planning (tactics). Each fighter will receive one point if they’ve aced that particular category and we’ll tally up the scores at the end to see if Conor McGregor or Khabib Nurmagomedov is the better fighter.
Conor McGregor’s UFC stats
Conor stomped his way into larger MMA consciousness on August 6, 2013, after he sent his first UFC opponent Marcus Brimage packing in the first round. It was all uphill from there as he went on to capture two UFC titles in the lightweight and featherweight divisions in 2016. He’s had his fair share of losses as well, with the loss to Khabib being one of his worst defeats. As of today, Conor McGregor’s stats stands at a respectable 22-6, with a striking accuracy of 49%, takedown accuracy of 55% and SLpM of 5.32.
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s UFC stats
Khabib’s path to the title was not as straightforward as the Dagestani spent 5 long years languishing on the undercards, beating up highly touted but relatively unknown fighters until his lightweight championship fight in 2018. He went on to demolish Al Iaquinta to win the belt and has never really lost a fight or even a single round in the UFC octagon. As of today, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s UFC record stands at an impressive 29-0. His other stats include a striking accuracy of 48%, takedown accuracy of 48% and SLpM of 4.10.
Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov: Striking
If we were to take striking as one entire discipline, the syles of Conor and Khabib are essentially on opposing sides of the spectrum. McGregor is a precise southpaw striker, has great timing and uses a wide selection of punches and kicks to set up a spear of his left hand. His best weapon is usually his left straight but he will also throw hooks and uppercuts when the opportunity presents itself. He has incredible timing and his understanding of range is second to none. He effectively darts forwards and backwards, either stinging his opponents with the left hand or evading returning counters.
He is susceptible to fighters who also fight in the southpaw stance as evidenced by his losses to Nate Diaz and Dustin Poirier. He was also dropped by Khabib in the second round of their fight but that’s because Khabib had already established the threat of takedowns and was able to land a clubbing right hand off a feint. Having said that, McGregor has also sent fighters like Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes to the land of forgotten memories with his brute power.
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Khabib does not strike like a seasoned boxer nor does he possess the finesse and ballet-like skills of middleweight kingpin Israel Adesanya but what he does have is more than enough to not just hurt but knock out high-level fighters. Khabib’s striking is really there to set up his devastating ground game. He uses feints to set up wrestling takedowns where he can rain down punches from the top without fear of anything significant coming back.
At the start of his UFC run, his striking was not up to par with the elites but after a move to the fabled American Kickboxing Academy, he developed a small but effective toolkit. He has a lightning-quick overhand right that even knocked down McGregor and a basic but focused jab. He also throws a few kicks but really prefers to use his striking to set up his takedowns.
So, if we look at just striking, McGregor takes the win with a more diverse, effective and devastating set of weapons on the feet.
Score: McGregor – 1, Nurmagomedov – 0
Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov: Grappling
The one big weakness in the skillset of Conor McGregor is his grappling. All but one of his losses have come by way of submission. This is not to say that his skills on the ground are bad but because of his focus on striking, he doesn’t have a consolidated grappling game to keep top-heavy competitors like Khabib at bay. Even in his third Dustin Poirier fight, McGregor was held on the ground and beaten up by a guy who just had a better-grappling game. While he is a legitimate jiu-jitsu brown belt, it’s not enough to secure wins at the highest levels of professional fighting.
This is the area where Nurmagomedov truly shines. The man is a grappling phenom and it shows. He uses a variety of trips, body locks and single/double-leg takedowns to stifle his opponents, punishing them with a steady stream of punches from the top position. You will never see Khabib out of position when he is grappling. He values position over submission and control while doing incredible amounts of damage. There’s even a grainy video on YouTube where a much younger Khabib is wrestling an actual bear cub! That’s where he gets his grappling acumen from, a lifetime of honing those particular sets of skills.
This one is a no-brainer as Khabib takes the point with his other-worldly grappling ability.
Score: McGregor – 1, Nurmagomedov – 1
Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov: Chin
When using the term ‘chin’, what we’re talking about here is the ability to absorb damage and still stay in a fight. Call it heart, grit or dogged determination, we’re looking at how much each fighter is able to take without getting knocked out.
Conor McGregor does have a tremendous chin with his only knockout loss coming in his most recent fight. He has faced off against a plethora of power punchers in the UFC and has only ever been knocked down twice – once by Khabib and once by Dustin Poirier. In fact, he’s taken shots from guys like Chad Mendes and Nate Diaz and still went on to win those fights.
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Khabib has never been knocked down, never been hit clean, never even been cut in his entire professional career. Nurmagomedov stands as a statistical anomaly in a sport full of bloody beatings. The man has a preternatural ability to avoid damage. It’s not like he has incredible head movement or is a defensive savant, he just understands where he needs to be in order to not get hit. Again, this is not a normal thing in MMA. Fighters don’t just decide to not take damage but Khabib is truly a ‘once in a lifetime’ athlete.
The clear winner in this category is Khabib since we’ve literally never seen him get hurt in his entire career.
Score: McGregor – 1, Nurmagomedov – 2
Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov: Tactics
Game planning is the process of studying your opponent and then designing a fighting style that best attacks their weakness while amplifying your strengths. It also includes the ability to read your opponent’s reactions and make decisions based on their movements.
Even though McGregor has a big disadvantage on the ground, he has the ability to read his opponents and deliver punishment when they make mistakes. He sets traps and possesses a relatively high fight IQ. He also uses pre-fight trash talk to really disrupt his opponent’s mental state before a fight and it has worked on more than one occasion. He hounded the former featherweight champion Jose Aldo by peppering him with venomous barbs and just being a nuisance to the point where it bothered Aldo so much that, when the two stepped into the cage, he uncharacteristically lunged at McGregor and suffered a 13-second knockout at the hands of the Irishman. So, all in all, Conor does have a smart team around him who plug up his deficiencies and push his strengths to the forefront.
Every fighter in the UFC lightweight division knows exactly what Khabib is going to do and despite all of their preparation, they still succumb to the Russian. Nurmagomedov’s preparation is meticulous. He knows exactly what he’s going to do because he trains accordingly. The gap in skill level between him and his peers is too much for them to overcome. He is meticulous in training and will stay disciplined for the full 25 minutes. No one has been able to stop or even come close to stopping him.
This was a close one to call but in the end, the point had to go to Khabib since he’s never lost. It just means that his gameplan works, every single time.
Score: McGregor – 1, Nurmagomedov – 3
If the outcome of their fight did not make it clear enough, by a score of 3-1 in our parameters, Khabib is the superior fighter. He understands the fight game better than anyone and is laser-focused on achieving his target. Conor McGregor is an incredible fighter but apart from his impressive striking skills, he does not compare to Khabib in any meaningful way.
(Main and feature image credits: Courtesy Instagram/Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov)
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: If we are going by number of world titles, then McGregor is the better fighter since he has more MMA world championships. However, if we are going by technical skills and UFC stats, then Khabib is considered by many to be the superior fighter since he understands the fight game better than most and is laser-focused on achieving his target.
Answer: Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated Conor McGregor at UFC 229 on 7 October, 2018.