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UFC 242: Khabib vs Poirier – The American must avoid the fence to stand any chance

September 5, 2019January 7th, 2022

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV is the man asking the questions in this match-up, and whether Dustin Poirier wins or loses depends on whether he can offer any answers. Barring Nurmagomedov diving onto an uppercut or knee straight off the bat, Poirier is going to have to show us something—anything—to counter the usual Nurmagomedov gameplan, which is still unbeaten in almost thirty professional outings.

Poirier has shown himself to be a decently rounded fighter, despite his focus on boxing. He is never averse to changing level for a takedown attempt and his corner, usually containing the great Mike Brown, regularly call for him to do this even when he is winning the fight on the feet. The value of a takedown and some time on top is pretty significant in terms of judging, but it also just adds another complication for the opponent. Many of Poirier’s shifts into big swings come as he ducks down and sometimes even looks at his opponent’s chest or hips before swinging a haymaker across the top.

When the fight becomes a kickboxing match, level changes convert into actual takedowns much more readily because a good deal of any defence is awareness and anticipation. While outlanding Justin Gaethje at a good clip on the feet, Poirier still found time to change level and attempt to bundle Gaethje over. Poirier was winning on the feet and Gaethje was the man with the wrestling trophies on his mantelpiece, but by surprising Gaethje with level changes in the middle of a striking contest Poirier was able to make Gaethje expend energy fighting off the takedowns or scrambling back up.

The use of short double legs along the fence and a good top game has allowed Poirier to take rounds even in fights where he is coming up short on the feet—such as against Joe Duffy—and much of his top game and takedown defence hinges around the whizzer and the front headlock as the D’arce choke is Poirier’s weapon of choice on the mat.

But coming into the fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov the pertinent questions aren’t much to do with Poirier’s new boxing. His sharper jab could be crucial to his success—but everyone is rightly thinking “can he stop the takedown?” Of course, Khabib Nurmagomedov isn’t magic—he often fails on takedown attempts and his opponents regularly get up. Nurmagomedov’s best work comes against the fence and once his opponent is pressed against it, they rarely get back out into the open before the round is over.

The wall walk revolutionized MMA when Chuck Liddell made it famous in the early 2000s. It is the most reliable way for a fighter to return to his feet and every MMA gym in the world regularly works it. Even when you watch an MMA event in the ring, the fighters will lean on the ropes to build up in the same way. The problem is that getting up isn’t “mission accomplished” and Nurmagomedov—along with welterweight champion, Kamaru Usman—might be the best in the world at slowing his opponent down on the way up and returning them to the mat once they get back to the feet.

Everyone scoots back into the fence, and Nurmagomedov slows them all down the same way.

The modern MMA dilemma is that downed fighters will scoot to the fence in order to wall walk back up from the mat, but you will almost never see a serious submission threatened by a fighter on the mat along the fence. “Sweep, stand up, or submission” is the holy trinity of the bottom game in MMA—you threaten one to create openings for the others. The problem is that there are no realistic sweeps when you are sat against the cage, and unless the opponent lazily puts his head into a guillotine choke you have very few convincing submissions to attack from there. While the fence at your back holds you up and allows you to drive up to your feet without being easily pushed over, it makes it hard for you to move your hips or bring the opponent over the top of you.

There isn’t a whole lot of footage of Poirier in this position. He had some magnificent grappling exchanges with Anthony Pettis in their bout but most of that happened out in the open mat with plenty of room to move. When Poirier found himself underneath Eddie Alvarez along the fence in their second fight, his response was the same as everyone else’s: butt to fence or build up on a hand. He found himself getting grapevined and mounted by Alvarez who worked relatively ineffectively from these positions, but one of the reasons that Khabib Nurmagomedov is remarkable is that he has found ways to stay active and keep hitting in these stalling positions. It took Alvarez committing a series of fouls and for the referee to save Dustin Poirier from bottom position—Poirier achieved no magic from his back. In fact, Alvarez easily took Poirier’s back along the fence and Poirier’s best answer was to tuck his chin and take the choke on his face until Alvarez tired.

The other big problem for Poirier is that he hasn’t looked particularly good at staying away from the fence on the feet. With a little pressure from Alvarez he put himself there and Alvarez just had to duck in on his hips. To actually bring quality striking to lever against wrestlers it is not necessary to be able to stop their best shot, but to be able to force them to pick sloppy shots with good ring awareness and movement. Do not make the mistake of thinking that Nurmagomedov’s takedowns are magic: UFC Stats, formerly FightMetric, has him at just 44% completion rate on takedown attempts and if you watch his fights the ones which tend to fail are the ones he dives after out in the open.

All things considered it might be a better move for Poirier to try and work his way off the fence when the takedown occurs, or he feels as though it is about to occur. It’s a move you haven’t seen a whole lot since back when Ken Shamrock did it against Tito Ortiz, but for Poirier in this specific match-up it might not be a bad idea. Ideally, Poirier needs to stay off the fence and focus on just the jab and side stepping the bum rush for the early going, then bring in his counters and his kicks once Nurmagomedov slows down or gets a little easier to read. The one thing you probably don’t want to see him doing is what he did against Alvarez in their second match when Alvarez pressed in to take him down along the fence—Poirier snatched up a guillotine choke attempt and threw himself to the floor underneath Alvarez twice, winding up with no choke and pressed up against the fence both times.