Who holds the wrestling edge?

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With UFC president Dana White recently announcing that the promotion has set a lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje for October 24 at UFC 255, many of us, including myself, were shocked given the recent death of Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.

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Although I could offer my own speculation as I desperately reach for Michael Jordan parallels, the only real comparison worth mentioning is the fact that the death of Adbulmanap likely will bleed into a lot of the media coverage ahead of his son’s relevant sporting future. Rather than add that incoming boat of unfair intangibles, I’ll instead focus on the most intriguing aspect in this early look at the fight: the wrestling exchanges.

Both fighters come from different stylistic bases, applying wrestling in totally different ways. Gaethje, who has been wrestling since age 4, embraced the American system of folkstyle wrestling, which he believes could trouble Nurmagomedov.

Sure, Nurmagomedov may have a base in freestyle wrestling (as his father was a master of sports in freestyle under the U.S.S.R), but I’m not sure how much of the rule set in regards to exposing your back will play into scrambles given both the champion’s combat sambo background and his grappling preferences in MMA.

Learning from his father, who worked with world-class sambo and judo trainers in and out of the military, Nurmagomedov eventually made a successful transition into combat sambo, showing an aptitude for aggression, as well as positional awareness. And in his MMA career, Nurmagomedov seemingly has refined the metagame in regards to positional rides and mat returns that encourage opposition to give their backs (or necks) just to get out of Dodge.

If Nurmagomedov can compromise Gaethje’s hips and force his favored sequences, then the American’s confidence in his folkstyle scrambles could be a double-edged sword.

On one hand, Gaethje could dust off the Granby rolls that got him out of sticky situations with grapplers like Luiz Firmino, as I suspect that those scrambling options will have a lot more play against Nurmagomedov considering the success that Abel Trujillo had. But on the other hand, Gaethje’s propensity to tripod up and turn into opposition might play right into Nurmagomedov’s strengths.

Still, Gaethje’s initial line of defense – from hard counter strikes to sprawls – will provide a stern test for the entries that Nurmagomedov uses to push his opponents to the fence.

Hitting all the checkboxes for a solid sprawl, Gaethje’s hips are hardwired to hit the floor anytime someone changes their level, as strong underhooks are usually in tow. More often than not, Gaethje will shut down takedown momentum before it gets too deep, utilizing a hoisting overhook as he looks to separate his opponent’s grip with his other arm.

Once able to face his foes inside the clinch, Gaethje smartly frames off of his opposition’s hips while using solid head position to help him steer in the desired direction. Despite these defensive layers appearing to hold up well throughout the early portions of Gaethje’s collegiate matches, the former All-American wrestler – akin to portions of his fighting career – struggled against crafty opposition the deeper he got into the competition.

Although the weight cuts may have been a contributing factor for Gaethje in the video above, you can see some of the potential problems with giving your back or getting out of position against someone who knows how to wrap legs and ride backs. Add in the fact that Gaethje himself has admitted that wrestling tends to tire him out, and things could get dicey the longer things go.

Ultimately, the wrestling dynamic between these two could be tricky: I see Gaethje having an edge early with first-line defenses and momentum, while Khabib should be able to show his mat wrestling superiority if he can ply his brand of pressure for prolonged periods of time.

You’ll have to wait until fight week for my official prediction, as there’s still a lot to digest before UFC 255 comes around.



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