UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov returns to action on Saturday for the first time since defeating former champion Conor McGregor last October. In the main event of UFC 242 he will meet interim champion Dustin Poirier, who is coming off his own signature victory over reigning featherweight champion Max Holloway.
It's no secret that Nurmagomedov wants to get the fight on the ground and go to work. He is one of the best wrestlers in the UFC and has an uncanny ability to land with power on the ground. Likewise, Poirier will certainly have the edge when the fight is on the feet. The following statistical categories drill down deeper into that stylistic contrast and detail the path to victory for each fighter.
While Nurmagomedov and Poirier have radically different styles, they are both extremely effective strikers. During his UFC career, Nurmagomedov has landed 4.29 significant strikes per minute, which is right at the average for a ranked lightweight. However, he has been able to maintain that offensive volume without sacrificing defense. He has absorbed only 1.7 significant strikes per minute. Thanks to that outstanding lack of strike absorption, his striking differential (defined as significant strikes landed per minute minus significant strikes absorbed per minute) is +2.59. Not only is that rate the highest among ranked lightweights, it is also nearly five times the average of the same group (+0.51).
Poirier lands more on a per-minute basis as his SLpM comes in at 5.75, but he also allows his opponents to land a lot more than the champion. He has absorbed 4.08 significant strikes per minute. While that may seem like a lot of punishment, the lightweight division is full of dynamic strikers. Poirier's SApM rate is only slightly below average for a ranked lightweight (3.78). On top of that, he has found ways to be successful in spite of a lack of defense. Against Holloway, Poirier took home a commanding decision victory despite absorbing 181 significant strikes as Holloway outlanded him in the fight.
While Nurmagomedov focuses on putting himself into dominant positions and then striking, Poirier is a much more traditional striker. This allows Poirier to land at a higher rate, but striking in neutral positions also opens him up to strikes from his opponents. He may not need to worry about counters on the feet against Nurmagomedov. Instead, he should probably focus on keeping the fight in a position that's advantageous to his style.
There are two essential elements of Nurmagomedov's striking success. First, he is able to get the fight on the ground. Second, he is able to land meaningful strikes on the floor. Most fighters land the majority of their strikes standing, but 56 percent of Nurmagomedov's landed significant strikes have come on the ground, compared to an average of 19 percent for ranked lightweights.
This allows him to not only land at a high rate, but also avoid reprisals from opponents. During his UFC career, he has landed 368 significant ground strikes and absorbed only 11. Those 368 significant strikes equate to 2.4 significant ground strikes per minute, which is the highest rate among the ranked fighters in the division.
For his part, Poirier has done a good job defending himself against ground strikes. Only 8 percent of his absorbed significant strikes have come on the ground, and he has absorbed only 0.32 significant ground strikes per minute. However, that may not portend or predict a strong defensive performance against Nurmagomedov.
Nurmagomedov's last three opponents, Edson Barboza, Al Iaquinta and McGregor, came into their fights against the current champion absorbing 0.35, 0.17 and 0.27 significant ground strikes per minute, respectively. Against Nurmagomedov that defense did not hold up. Barboza absorbed 3.67 significant ground strikes per minute, Iaquinta absorbed 1.36 and McGregor absorbed 2.49.
The best strategy for Poirier would be to avoid the ground altogether. If the fight stays off the mat, he should have a considerable advantage in the striking game.
While Nurmagomedov excels on the ground, Poirier does his best work at distance, which is defined as standing and not in the clinch. Over the course of his UFC career, 75 percent of Poirier's landed significant strikes have come at distance. He lands 46 percent of his attempts at distance, compared to only 34 percent for Nurmagomedov.
At distance, Poirier has landed 4.3 significant strikes per minute. That rate is well ahead of his opponent on Saturday, who lands only 1.72 per minute. Poirier's distance defense is somewhat porous, as he allows his opponents to land 3.2 significant strikes per minute. However, that likely will not be a concern against Nurmagomedov. The champion is expected to use his striking to set up wrestling opportunities in order to get to his ground striking.
It is likely that Poirier will spend long portions of this fight on the ground or, at the very least, defending takedowns. If Nurmagomedov is successful at limiting Poirier's distance striking opportunities, the challenger will need to make the most of his chances. Poirier has landed 11 knockdowns and 0.71 knockdowns per 15 minutes of fight time in the UFC. Nurmagomedov has always shown solid durability, as he has never been knocked down or finished. However, if the champion ends up spending prolonged periods at distance, Poirier could easily drop him to the canvas.
Poirier will want to keep this fight standing, but that will not be the easiest task against Nurmagomedov. The champion has landed the third-most takedowns in UFC lightweight history, and he still holds the record for the most takedowns landed in a fight (21, against Abel Trujillo in 2013). In his UFC career, Nurmagomedov has landed 5.09 takedowns per 15 minutes, which is the second-best rate among ranked lightweights behind only Gregor Gillespie.
Nurmagomedov lands only 45 percent of his takedown attempts, but, like many high-level wrestlers, he will string together multiple attempts in order to secure a takedown. While this tends to drag down a fighter's accuracy numbers, the end result is still the establishment of top position on the ground.
During his UFC run, Poirier has showcased solid, but not spectacular, takedown defense. He has allowed his opponents to land 0.98 takedowns per 15 minutes, which is slightly better than the average for a ranked lightweight (1.12). Poirier has also successfully defended 69% of the takedown attempts against him.
If Nurmagomedov is able to score takedowns, it will likely be a tough night for the challenger. However, if Poirier is able to defend and keep the fight in the clinch, it could swing things into his favor. Unlike most converted wrestlers, Nurmagomedov does not have a proven track record of striking in the clinch. During his UFC career, the champion has landed only 26 significant clinch strikes and absorbed 30 clinch strikes. On the other hand, 17 percent of Poirier's landed significant strikes have come in the clinch.
Even if he does his best striking work at distance, Poirier may be able to give Nurmagomedov some trouble in the clinch if he is able to stop the continual takedown attempts.