The tragic progression of the Nurmagomedov system and why it succeeded and then failed: MMA’s misguided perception of the perfect fighter.
It’s time for the MMA community to recognize its fundamentally flawed assumption. In this article, I will demonstrate this grave error and I will use the history and progression of the Nurmagomedov system as our case study, for reasons that will become obvious. I refer to the error as the Comfort Fallacy, but before I delve into it, some background information is necessary.
Striking vs Grappling Strategy
MMA fighters (overwhelmingly) gravitate towards either a grappling or striking focused style. This is because most fighters generally start with a traditional martial art before transitioning to MMA and they often don’t transition until after they have already mastered that martial art at an advanced level. It is only natural that martial artists would have an easier time adding skills from another martial art into their repertoire, the closer that martial art is to what they already know. This is particularly the case when it comes to grapplers learning other grappling sports and strikers learning other striking sports. Some examples:
- wrestlers are notoriously quick to learn Jiu Jitsu
- boxers have an easier time learning Dutch-style kickboxing than Muay Thai
- Tae Kwon Do fighters have an easy time learning Karate
Why is there such a stark barrier between grappling and striking? The one-word answer is “strategy”: there is a fundamental strategic difference at the root of the two styles.
In grappling, there is only one thing that determines victory and that’s chaining, i.e. the ability to chain techniques together. In wrestling, it is commonly said that 90% of wrestlers can defend the 1st takedown attempt, 50% can defend the 2nd, 10% can defend the 3rd, and only the best can counter-wrestle and chain effectively after scrambling beyond 3 attempts. In Jiu Jitsu, a similar principle applies to attempts at positional advancement and submission.
Indeed, many will point to other factors as determinants of victory, such as nutrition, athletic ability, size, experience, and so on. But let’s analyze these. What purpose do these factors have if not to give the ability to chain? With poor nutrition, you will gas out and fail to chain. With poor athletic ability, you either gas out or lack the strength to chain. Against a larger opponent, it is more difficult to chain. Against a more experienced opponent, it is more difficult to chain. Without technique, you can’t chain. Stuck with a bad coach? you won’t know how to…
In striking, there is a fundamentally different approach; the one determinant of victory is the ability to deal more damage than you take and all other factors (nutrition, athletic ability, size, experience, technique…) are in service to this one determinant. Every punch momentarily exposes the head and every kick momentarily sacrifices stability and mobility. As such, infinite strikes means infinite exposure. As such, one cannot simply spam strikes, because that is simply asking to get countered. Of course, there is also the problem of limited stamina. Spamming strikes is a very effective way to gas yourself out.
In the interest of dealing more damage than you take, the focus is instead on throwing the right combination of techniques, based entirely on the opponent’s patterns and reactions. To that end, the onus is on the striker to create reactions in the opponent and this is achieved by signaling imperfect patterns of movement. In other words, (experienced) strikers determine when and how to strike based on the opponent’s reaction to how a certain pattern is broken, such as with the use of feints. Essentially, striking is, to varying degrees depending on the striking style, a game of deception. In fact, many viewers fail to take into account that even the default movement patterns of strikers (i.e. how they walk in the ring in between exchanges) is designed to conceal their strikes while maintaining the desired distance and the ability to block or evade.
Regardless of the specific sport, grapplers are experts in chaining but not to deception. Similarly, strikers are experts in deception but not chaining. This is precisely why the transition from striking to grappling (or vice versa) is comparatively more difficult. Due to this difficulty, most MMA fighters determine their style based on whether they specialize in striking or grappling. Strikers generally learn “defensive wrestling” (lol) and Jiu Jitsu for
if when they end up on their backs (e.g. Dustin Poirer, Conor McGregor, Justin Gaethje, …). On the other hand, Jiu Jitsu practitioners learn to strike, so they can avoid getting knocked out long enough to somehow / maybe get the fight to the ground (e.g. Brian Ortega, Charles Oliveira, Beneil Dariush, …).
As I explained in MMA Explained, the safest place in the octagon, assuming you have a minimal level of defensive Jiu Jitsu skills, is on top of your opponent. Any fighter who avoids that spot is necessarily in a strategic disadvantage to a fighter who doesn’t. I can’t quite understand why anyone still adopts a strategy that doesn’t ultimately lead to being on top, especially since the sport has been dominated by wrestlers for so many years (it just seems pointless to me).
Any striker who thinks he will learn Jiu Jitsu “in case I get taken down” simply doesn’t understand MMA. Any Jiu Jitsu person who thinks he will learn to strike and use “Jiu Jitsu” for the grappling is delusional. The wrestler decides whether you’re a striker or a grappler. If you are anything but the wrestler, you might still win… but only as the survivor of the fight. The only way to deal with wrestling is better wrestling. No “takedown defense” or “anti-wrestling uppercuts” (lol) or “defensive Jiu Jitsu” is going to save you.MMA Explained
In any case, there are 2 kinds of wrestlers. On the one hand, we have the balanced fighters like Georges St-Pierre, Henry Cejudo, Jon Jones, etc. These wrestlers are very good at pretty much every individual component of MMA. And then… there are strestlers.
To be clear, strestling is a term I coined to refer to the other main kind of MMA wrestler. To understand what strestling is, however, let’s back up for one moment and compare boxers to kickboxers. One might assume that kickboxing is, as the name implies, boxing with kicks; on a surface level, this is a true statement. However, anyone who has done both sports will know that it is not fully accurate. A boxer does not become a kickboxer simply because he follows up his punches with kicks. Due to the added level of complexity that kicks introduce, there are only a subset of boxing techniques that work in kickboxing and all the other techniques (e.g. bobbing and weaving down low) could get you knocked out. This is known as the Systems Complexity Axiom (SCA):
Increasingly complex systems can only be built on increasingly more selective building blocks. […] [For example, a] great variety of materials can be used to build the foundation of a 1-story house, whereas only the strongest materials can be used to build the foundation of a skyscraper.Maximum Memetic Diversity
It would thus be more accurate to describe kickboxing as a coherent system where punches set up kicks set up punches, and so on. While it is a tremendous asset in kickboxing to be an elite boxer, a pure boxer would be easily dismantled by a even a top 20 Muay Thai fighter (under kickboxing rules), even though Muay Thai fighters are known to be rather lacking in the boxing department. I use the example of a Muay Thai fighter to illustrate that the fighting system itself is what matters, rather than any individual component of that system. Of the boxers who fail to transition to kickboxing, the usual cause of the failure is the desire to turn the kickboxing match into a boxing match because that’s where they are comfortable. But this ignores the kickboxing system in favor of the desired component – boxing. One cannot use a checkers strategy to win at chess, no matter how comfortable one is at checkers. This is what I call the Comfort Fallacy and this fallacy is why I am critical of MMA fighters who focus on any individual component of MMA. A fighter’s comfort does not change the nature of the fight.
So, what is strestling? The word itself is a portmanteau of the words “striking” and “wrestling”, and it refers to a coherent standing-up MMA system where wrestling sets up striking sets up wrestling, and so on. Due to the added complexity, a style of kicking and punching will always and without fail be superior to a style of boxing in kickboxing rules, just as a style of striking, wrestling, and submissions, i.e. strestling, will always and without fail be superior to any style which doesn’t combine all of the three offensively. This is why balanced MMA wrestlers are not strestlers. There is a difference between a style which makes use of each component individually and a coherent system of all three.
A recurring theme that continuously shocks the MMA community (but really shouldn’t) is when strestlers out-strike strikers. For example, Chael Sonnen was not a very good striker, but… who cares. Stand-up MMA is not a striking match but a strestling match. People tend to forget that while Chael did dominate Anderson Silva on the ground for 5 rounds, he also out-struck Silva standing up and by a solid margin. The strestler dominated one of the best MMA strikers of his time and nobody should be shocked by this outcome any more than anyone should be shocked that a Muay Thai fighter can out-strike an elite boxer under kickboxing rules.
Another example is Khabib Nurmagomedov. Like Chael Sonnen, he was a strestler and he was also one of the most dominant fighters in MMA history. Towards the end of his career, he was regularly out-striking and walking down strikers. But he was feared for his grappling, which is what makes strestling work. Many of you will already know that he was following his father’s blueprint, the (Abdulmanap) Nurmagomedov system. What might shock everyone is that strestling was never a part of the system. As we are about to see from the history and progression of the Nurmagomedov system, Abdulmanap’s intent was always to progress his fighters towards balanced MMA. The only reason that Khabib, as with many other MMA wrestlers, strestled was because he could not afford to engage in pure MMA striking, like a balanced wrestler, as he lacked the experience and skill to do it.
As such, much of the MMA community has come to associate strestling with poor striking skills. People falsely assume that strestling is an attempt to take the fight where the fighter is more comfortable, i.e. an instance of the Comfort Fallacy. However, one need not lack striking skills to resort to strestling. The better the striking skills, the better the strestling. This is similar to the boxing / kickboxing comparison. Sure, Muay Thai fighters have to kickbox because they can’t afford to be too reliant on boxing. But there are plenty of kickboxers with elite boxing skills. Just as being good at boxing is a bad argument to abandon kickboxing, being good at striking is a bad argument to abandon strestling.
The Nurmagomedov System
Abdulmanap had long considered Georges St-Pierre (GSP) to be the perfect fighter. As such, the Nurmagomedov system can be thought of as an augmentation of GSP’s style. Abdulmanap’s innovation was a reliable strategy to drain an opponent’s stamina, which is something particularly useful given how energy-intensive wrestling is.
On the feet, it involves forcing the opponent to choose between moving away or exchanging. Due to the takedown threat, strikers and Jiu Jitsu practitioners generally choose to be extra mobile laterally or backwards, at the expense of stamina. Eventually, they either back into the fence where Khabib can clinch or shoot, or they gas themselves out making them easy to take down. Either way, the fight is going down where the opponent will gas out even faster thanks to a combination of top pressure (which restrict the opponent’s breathing while forcing extra exertion) and locks (which force the opponent to struggle free). For a more in-depth analysis of the Nurmagomedov system, see MMAI’s video on Why Khabib and Islam’s Grappling is so dominant in MMA.
The 1st attempt at implementing the system was with Rustam Khabilov. Despite his early successes, his strestling ultimately proved to be inadequate, as he was lacking proper striking styles. Khabib was the 2nd attempt and he was a complete success. Over the course of his career, Khabib’s striking skills improved and these complemented his strestling. However, his striking skills never quite reached a level where he felt he could abandon strestling.
The 3rd attempt is Islam Makhachev and he has mostly been a success. However, Islam’s striking skills have reached a level where he no longer strestles. The result is that he is not as dominant as Khabib and he no longer drowns opponents like he used to. His fights are no longer one-sided.
The 4th and 5th attempts are Usman and Umar Nurmagomedov, and they represent the final form of the Nurmagomedov system. They are even less dominant than Islam, yet they are what Abdulmanap was trying to accomplish. And this is the tragedy. Abdulmanap mislead the progression of the system, having been misguided by the Comfort Fallacy, into abandoning strestling.