Prime vs. Prime: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Kamaru Usman, who would have won?

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Kamaru Usman (left) vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov (right) [Image Courtesy: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC and Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports]

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Kamaru Usman is a matchup that reigns supreme over the land of MMA fantasy fights. 'The Eagle' is the first-ever UFC champion to retire undefeated after defending his lightweight crown against Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, and Justin Gaethje: all former champions in their own right.

Meanwhile, Kamaru Usman remains an ominous presence in the welterweight division. Among every other 170-pounder, his legacy stands closest to the great Georges St-Pierre. Alas, his two recent losses to Leon Edwards have left fans wondering if age has finally caught up to him.

His prime years, however, were the epitome of dominance. His welterweight title reign coincided with Khabib Nurmagomedov's unbeaten run at lightweight. Yet, 'The Eagle' never eyed Kamaru Usman's divisional throne. But what if he had? Who would have won if two unstoppable forces had clashed in their prime years?


Fighter Profile: Khabib Nurmagomedov

Khabib Nurmagomedov was a suffocating grappler with a bottomless gas tank and a competent striking game designed to create openings for his takedowns. Perhaps the best description for 'The Eagle's' striking is that was chaotic, ranging from looping punches to flying knees.

The purpose behind this onslaught was to occupy his foes. Furthermore, he often applied forward pressure, walking his opponents backward to off-balance them for takedowns. Whenever he faced strikers who mainly relied on kicks, he smothered them, depriving them of the space to throw kicks with any leverage.

Against punchers like Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, he was more disciplined. Khabib Nurmagomedov kept his hands tucked to his chin, preventing his foes from using range-finding tools like touches to his lead hand. Yet, he still stood close enough to his opponents to create the illusion that he could be hit.

So once McGregor and Poirier fell short on their punches against a foe they expected to simply pressure them without respect, they grew reckless. When it came to wrestling, Khabib Nurmagomedov didn't have the cleanest takedown entries. This, however, is likely because he didn't have to.

'The Eagle' was blindingly fast, capable of shooting for takedowns from the outside. His grip strength was also ludicrous enough that he only ever needed to clasp his hands around an ankle to walk his foes to the fence, where he could chain-wrestle to his heart's content.

Once he had his opponents pinned against the fence, Nurmagomedov truly shined. Like former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, he shoved the top of his head against his foe's chin, gluing their face to the fence to break their posture. This exposed them to punches from one side.

The punches were meant to distract his foes from trying to fight his hands as he fished for takedowns, whether they were single-legs or a kick at their ankles for a back-trip whenever his opponents tried to lean forward. Khabib Nurmagomedov was especially tricky in the clinch as well.

Both he and reigning 155-pound king Islam Makhachev use knees to the body in the clinch with the goal of goading their opponents into responding with knees of their own. Once their foes oblige, the two Dagestanis then trip their opponent's standing leg while their other leg is airborne as they throw an ill-advised knee.

On the mat, 'The Eagle' was brutal. He did everything in his power to wrap his legs around his foe's, trapping them in a leg-triangle that enabled him to raise their ankles above the ground. This stopped his opponents from pushing off of their feet to stand back up or adequately threatening him with submissions.

He would also simultaneously secure one of their wrists with an iron grip, rendering them one-armed, especially when he succeeded in trapping one of their hands under them as he applied heavy top pressure. In these sequences, he'd punish his one-armed foes with relentless ground-and-pound.

These strikes created openings for submissions, especially since his foes often turned away, exposing their backs to invite a rear-naked choke. Meanwhile, 'The Eagle' was more preoccupied with mauling his opponents. When he wasn't triangling his opponent's legs, he was passing their guard.

He would pin their head and chest to the mat with his head and shoulders, all the while raising his hips for him to step over their guard. If he needed to rain down blows, he'd simply use his elevated hips and drive them into his punches for more power. He was similarly inescapable even if his foes stood back up.

Modern-day MMA emphasizes scaling the fence to drag oneself back to their feet. Unfortunately, doing so against Khabib Nurmagomedov—who kept his foes pinned to the fence to land blows, create takedowns, and extend his control time—simply meant that his opponents were in a losing position.


Fighter Profile: Kamaru Usman

All-time great 170-pounder Kamaru Usman is a nuclear threat on the feet. While he is, by no means, an elite striker, he is an extremely effective one. 'The Nigerian Nightmare' is powerful and sharp. He generally fights from an orthodox stance, from which he employs a strong jab-right straight/right cross combination.

His right hand has quickly become the stuff of legend in the welterweight division, handing former 'BMF' champion Jorge Masvidal his first-ever KO loss in the UFC. He also attacks the body far more often than Khabib Nurmagomedov ever did. Furthermore, 'The Nigerian Nightmare' is a slick stance-switcher.

By switching between orthodox and southpaw, he can change the alignment of his and his opponent's strikes, setting up an equally devastating left cross. His stance-switching was pivotal in his rematch with Colby Covington, who devoted much of his training camp to low-kicking him, only for Usman to shift stances.

As a wrestler and grappler, Kamaru Usman is also a clinch specialist. He, like Khabib Nurmagomedov, pins his opponents against the fence. He secures an overhook-underhook grip while battering his opponents with knees to the thighs and punches to the body.

Due to the years of wear and tear on his own knees, 'The Nigerian Nightmare' isn't an explosive double-legger. He occasionally threatens his foes with traditional takedown shots. Meanwhile, he does have a habit of positioning his head on the outside of his opponent's hip, exposing himself to counter-guillotine chokes.

Thus, most of his takedowns come from the clinch. He secures underhooks and blocks his foe's hip to lift them for an upper-body slam. Usman uses the same principle against opponents who try to stop his double-legs against the fence. Once his opponent widens their base, he switches to a single-leg.

After securing a strong grip on the single-leg, the former welterweight champion blocks his foe's hips prior to lifting and slamming them. On the mat, he isn't much of a submission threat or even a significant ground-and-pounder. Furthermore, while he maintains heavy top pressure, he isn't an active guard-passer.

Instead, he pins his opponent's wrists to the mat while landing blows from the top. If his opponents manage to work their way back to their feet, Usman simply keeps them suffocated against the fence to rinse and repeat. He is not much of a finisher on the ground, but he is exceedingly dominant.


The Verdict

Kamaru Usman is a far more dangerous fighter in the striking department than Khabib Nurmagomedov. He is more disciplined, more effective, and a great deal more powerful. 'The Eagle's' tendency to throw looping punches with a wider arc would render him easy for Usman to counter with jabs and straights on the inside.

He may very well fall victim to the same sequence that led to Gilbert Burns' knockout loss against the Nigerian phenom. This is especially possible given that Khabib Nurmagomedov wouldn't be able to pressure Kamaru Usman with the threat of a takedown, as the Nigerian is much bigger and stronger in the clinch.

Usman's tendency to turn onto all fours to defend takedowns could expose him to a rear-naked choke. Meanwhile, this hypothetical bout may very well transpire in the same way that most fights between high-level grapplers do: a chaotic striking affair after one or two failed takedowns.

Neither man can outlast the other in terms of cardio, but due to the difference in size, strength, and power, a prime Kamaru Usman would likely defeat Khabib Nurmagomedov.

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Edited by Nicolaas Ackermann
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