Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov’s 29-0 record has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time. However, the first 16 fights of his professional MMA career were spent on the Russian and Ukrainian regional circuits (which you might not know much about) before he shot to stardom in the UFC.
In this sequel to Khabib’s Top 5 MMA Finishes (Part 1), we’re going to analyse his pre-UFC dominance and reflect on how accurately the first half of his career predicted his unprecedented success on the world stage.
“The Eagle” made his professional debut in September, 2008 with a victory via triangle choke at CSFU: Champions League. He would then go on to win the Pankration Atrium Cup and the Tsumada Fighting Championship 3, taking him up to 6-0.
After a short stint in M-1 Global, he then competed in ProFC before the UFC came beckoning at 16-0. Despite Khabib dominating his UFC tenure at lightweight, he competed at both lightweight and welterweight in his early bouts – a mouth-watering, hypothetical consideration that never came to fruition in the UFC. Could you imagine the superfights?
The most notable difference between Khabib’s pre-UFC and UFC fights is the presence of his late father – Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov – in his corner. Due to visa issues, Khabib’s father and coach was never able to travel to the U.S as a cornerman. However, with the first half of Khabib’s career taking place in Russia and Ukraine, Abdulmanap was always there to coach his son to victory.
In the last few days, there have been talks about the iconic, undefeated, UFC Lightweight Champion, returning to the octagon after formally retiring in March this year.
Brazilian fighter, Rafael dos Anjos, has recently mentioned on Twitter that he would face Khabib if he beats his brother, Islam Makhachev, on October 30, in Abu Dhabi.
Since Makhachev is Khabib’s protege, it’s likely that “The Eagle” would want to come out of retirement to fight Anjos (if he wins). What a great reason to fulfil his father’s wish to make it 30-0.
This year, Javier Mendez (Khabib’s coach and trainer), also said that “The Eagle” misses the feeling of fighting. If mom gives the word, it could all reignite for Khabib to take his place as the UFC’s head honcho fighter once more.
Come with us and let’s go back a bit now to get a sense of where his legendary status came from in Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov’s Top 5 (pre-UFC) MMA Finishes! (in descending order)
5. Vs. Shahbulat Shamhalaev – M-1 (Nov. 3, 2009)
This lightweight bout marked Khabib’s M-1 Global debut after winning back-to-back tournaments in the Atrium Pankration Cup and the Tsumada Fighting Championship.
The fight began with Shamhalaev launching forward with a looping left hook which Khabib used to initiate a clinch. After some jockeying for body locks and underhooks against the ropes, the referee would restart them back in the centre.
Shamhalaev crashed forward again, throwing an overhand right, stepping through into a southpaw stance, and following with an overhand left. However, Khabib used this closing of the distance to clinch again, this time landing an outside trip and landing in his opponent’s half butterfly guard.
“The Eagle” pinned Shamhalaev’s butterfly hook to the opposite hip and passed into half guard. Immediately looking to mount, Khabib freed his entrapped leg and went straight for a reverse armbar.
Shamhalaev was wise to it though – he rolled through and stacked Khabib, only to land in a triangle. Again, he defended well by posturing out of it, but left his right arm prone to another reverse armbar that he would try to roll out of again…but fail.
Khabib controlled his opponent’s legs in the transition and came up to side control to land some of his coveted ground and pound. Slipping into mount via knee on belly, he isolated Shamhalaev’s arm and cut the angle to set up another potential armbar.
“The Eagle” leaned into his right hip to drive his weight down through his opponent and land more strikes before stepping over to commit to the armbar.
Several ground strikes later, Shamhalaev’s defensive S-grip was broken and Khabib would extend the arm for the tap at 4 minutes, 36 seconds of round 1.
4. Vs. Vitaliy Ostrovskiy – M-1 (Sept. 17, 2010)
Nurmagomedov came into this welterweight matchup in Kiev, Ukraine undefeated at 8-0.
At the start of round 1, Khabib feinted a jab and shot a swift single leg takedown, while Ostrovskiy locked up an arm-in guillotine choke on the way down. Khabib, wise to this, made sure to pass to the opposite side of the choke and allow his opponent to squeeze the submission attempt.
“The Eagle” carefully made his way to north-south, landing knee strikes along the way, and forcing Ostrovskiy to abandon the choke.
Coming round to side control, Khabib tried to force the mounted crucifix but his opponent defended well, keeping his elbows tucked.
With no success in getting to the crucifix, Nurmagomedov elected to transition to mount by sliding through knee on belly to immediately take up the S-mount. He wasted no time in snatching the armbar and extended Ostrovskiy’s arm only for the hitchhiker escape to be executed perfectly.
Still not deterred, Khabib scrambled up to lock an arm-in guillotine of his own and used it to break his opponent’s posture down and flatten him out in side control. Only now did he achieve the mounted crucifix to ground and pound, with Ostrovskiy’s gum shield falling out of his mouth and onto the canvas.
The referee allowed the punishment to continue for a few moments longer before calling it for a TKO at 4 minutes, 6 seconds of round 1.
3. Vs. Hamiz Mamedov – ProFC 30 (Aug. 5, 2011)
Khabib came into this welterweight bout having amassed 13 consecutive victories and boasting 5 finishes in his last 5 fights.
Round 1 began with tentative leg kicks and overhand strikes from both fighters before Khabib engaged the clinch and landed a ragged Judo throw, ending in top half guard.
Mamedov bridged hard to scramble up to his feet, only to end up in an arm-in guillotine. Khabib used the control to clinch up, and land a huge Greco-Roman style throw.
Khabib landed in side control only for Mamedov to roll through, attempting to re-guard, but “The Eagle” stayed tight to his opponent’s hips, maintaining the position.
Mamedov sprawled to initiate a scramble, but Khabib circled to his back. Another attempt to roll through this time, gave Khabib the opportunity to jump into mount and bring his knees high into his opponent’s armpits.
With Mamedov attempting to body lock Khabib from the bottom, he provided an easy transition into the well-versed S-mount.
“The Eagle” would sit back into an armbar, however Mamedov sat up with the submission, looking to stack Khabib who would abandon the armbar in favour of a triangle choke.
In a last-ditch attempt to escape the choke, Mamedov stacked Nurmagomedov but fell to his back, welcoming a now mounted triangle choke. From here, the tap came quickly, making Khabib the winner by triangle choke at 3 minutes, 51 seconds of round 1.
2. Vs. Ashot Shahinyan – ProFC 28 (May 5, 2011)
Khabib came into this welterweight bout riding an 11-fight unbeaten streak. Also on this card was his teammate Islam Makhachev, who was only 2-0 as a pro at the time.
Round 1 began with Khabib dominating the striking exchanges. He moved out of range from a straight right, then back in to land a barrage of punches, prompting Shahinyan to shoot a takedown.
After sprawling on the takedown attempt, Khabib allowed his opponent back to the feet only to pursue him around the ring, stuffing multiple, panicked takedown attempts.
Several failed takedowns later, Shahinyan resigned to sitting back and playing open guard. However, “The Eagle” soared over his opponent to land a flying punch, ending in top half guard.
Sliding to the other side, Khabib initiated a knee cut pass but stalled to posture up and land ground and pound.
Shahinyan sprawled and grabbed a meagre single leg attempt, inviting more punishment. Khabib allowed his opponent back to his feet, landing knees in the clinch before they separated for the finishing sequence…
Shahinyan missed with a big straight right only for Khabib to rush in with a ducking left hook that rocked his opponent, sending him to the canvas.
Only one follow-up strike was needed for the referee to stop the action for a TKO at 2 minutes, 18 seconds of round 1.
Significantly, “The Eagle” didn’t shoot a single takedown in this fight. His opponent had lost his previous two fights by submission, so grappling was obviously an area of weakness. However, Khabib chose to stand and bang, showcasing his offensive striking and defensive wrestling.
1. Vs. Vadim Sandulskiy – ProFC / GM Fight (Sept. 15, 2011)
This welterweight bout in Odessa, Ukraine would mark Khabib’s second to last fight before he entered the UFC. He came into the fight boasting a 14-0 record.
Round 1 began with Khabib feinting a jab, stepping in to feint again, but using it to disguise a swift, single leg takedown attempt. He turned the corner and completed the takedown, landing in a guillotine choke but ensuring he was positioned on the opposite side to the choke.
“The Eagle” circled round to north south, mirroring his guillotine defence from the Ostrovskiy fight. Sandulskiy resorted to the turtle position and tried to roll through to re-guard. However, he landed with Khabib sat in an unorthodox reverse mount position.
Nurmagomedov quickly rectified the position, circled round to side control, and replicated his masterful transition through knee-on-belly into mount.
Immediately, Khabib shifted his knees high into his opponent’s armpits. From here, he alternated between landing ground strikes and looking for his favoured S-mount position.
Instead of snatching the armbar, this time Khabib controlled Sandulskiy’s left arm and shoved it out of his S-mount.
He wasted no time sitting back into a triangle choke with the angle on his opponent’s neck already cut perfectly.
From here, the tap came quickly, making Khabib the winner by triangle choke at 3 minutes, 1 second of round 1.
So, what can we learn from Khabib’s Top 5 pre-UFC MMA finishes? If any of the finishes in this top 5 look familiar, that’s because they are…
No.4 on our list (vs. Vitaliy Ostrovskiy) saw Khabib land in his opponent’s guillotine choke. However, he remained calm under pressure and allowed Ostrovskiy the opportunity to squeeze a submission that would never be finished.
Sound familiar? “The Eagle” came out after his second title defence against Dustin Poirier, claiming that he allowed Poirier a full sunk-in guillotine choke to ‘tire his arms out’…chilling. As it turns out, he’s been baiting opponents into wasting their energy for his entire career!
No.2 on our list (vs. Ashot Shahinyan) featured one of Khabib’s tried and tested strikes – his ducking left hook. It simulates the start of a takedown attempt, prompting the opponent to drop their hands to defend, but leaving their head wide open for the incoming hook.
Khabib boasts a similar finish in his third UFC fight against Thiago Tavares – the technique was rinsed and repeated for another devastating TKO victory!
Finally, no.1 on our list (vs. Vadim Sandulskiy) echoes Khabib’s final fight and finish against Justin Gaethje. The consistency “The Eagle” shows in getting to the S-mount and finishing with armbars and triangle chokes is remarkable.
Notably, he elected to finish Gaethje with a triangle choke rather than an armbar for two reasons.
Firstly, the triangle from S-mount was his late father’s favourite submission. And secondly, he knew Justin wouldn’t tap to a submission and didn’t want to break his arm in front of his parents who were in attendance. Again…chilling.
Check out the UFC fights that Khabib’s early victories laid the groundwork for in our Top 5 MMA Finishes (Part 1).