Khabib Nurmagomedov paced across a temporary stage set up in a mall in Abu Dhabi, where in a few days the UFC lightweight champion will face interim champion Dustin Poirier on Yas Island for the undisputed title in the main event of UFC 242.
People were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder for the width and depth of the open space in the mall, hanging on his every word.
He told the crowd he wouldn’t work out, but would rather answer its questions. After he answered a question about when he would travel to South Africa, he turned the tables when he was asked a second question.
“He asked me what time is it,” Nurmagomedov said. “I want to ask you guys, ‘What time is it?’”
With that, he grinned and held the microphone to the crowd when, as if on cue, they shouted in unison, “Khabib time!”
He beamed as they repeated it several times. He’s come a long way since the biggest story about him was that he used to wrestle bear cubs as a child.
These people came to gawk, to catch a glimpse of arguably the greatest fighter in the world. Nurmagomedov is 27-0 with 17 finishes and has never really been challenged. He’s won each of his fights going away and opponents paid a heavy price.
Opponents in his last five fights, which came after he ended a two-year injury layoff, have a mediocre 5-8 record in their next three fights, suggesting that grappling with this Russian bear is hazardous for one’s career.
Former two-division UFC champion Conor McGregor hasn’t fought since being submitted by Nurmagomedov in the fourth round of their bout at UFC 229, which sold an MMA record two million pay-per-view buys. Al Iaquinta is 1-1 since losing a bout for the interim title last year to Nurmagomedov.
But Edson Barboza and Darrell Horcher are each 1-2 and Michael Johnson is 2-3, accounting for that 5-8 record. If one includes all of his UFC opponents, their combined record in their next three fights is 14-14.
It’s a testament to his grappling ability, which is the best in the UFC, but is also a nod to what is very underrated striking. He dropped McGregor onto the seat of his pants with a straight right in the second round of their bout before finishing him with a neck crank in the fourth.
If ever there were an athlete who was born to fight, it was Nurmagomedov. He’ll be 31 later this month, and he began training when he was barely out of diapers. He has never stopped.
When he was asked by a fan how to become a champion, his answer was telling, if not predictable.
“I have only one answer,” he said. “Since I was a child, kid, when I was 3 year, 4 years old, I began working on the mats. My father had a gym inside the house and I began working on the mats. [I’ve done it] all my life. More than 25 years, I’ve trained so hard, and now we’re here, UFC lightweight champion and undefeated.”
True to that philosophy, when asked how he’d beat Poirier, he relied on one of his old lines: Make him tired and make him tap.
His win over McGregor lifted him into a different stratosphere, in terms of fame, in terms of financial status and in terms of demand.
Even at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, where he trains, he’s not just another guy. Everyone looks at him and points at him and talks to and about him.
Three teenage brothers walk in for a class and they see Nurmagomedov and immediately gravitate toward him. He puts his arms around their shoulders, poses for pictures and encourages them to work hard.
His coach, Javier Mendez, said few athletes improve as quickly as Nurmagomedov because few put in the time and effort he does. Mendez sounded a warning about what to expect from him.
“I say it all the time: Don’t expect the Khabib you saw last time this time, because he just keeps improving,” Mendez said. “If people are expecting the Khabib they saw from when he fought Conor, [that’s a] mistake. He’s better.”
He spoke no English when he arrived in San Jose in 2011 from his native Dagestan, Russia, to train for his UFC debut the following year. His close friend, former two-division champion Daniel Cormier, was amazed by the way Nurmagomedov adapted.
He spoke no English, but he paid attention to what the many legends in that gym at the time were doing.
Their effort only reiterated the lessons that his father, Abdulmanap, had taught him years earlier in Russia.
“He came in here as a young kid who didn’t speak English, and he just watched,” Cormier said. “Look: When you can’t communicate [orally], the one thing you can do is pay attention and he paid attention. He paid attention to the way Cain [Velasquez] trained. He paid attention to the way I trained. He paid attention to the way [Josh] Thomson trained, [Jon] Fitch, everybody. He paid attention and he adopted those habits.
“In any room he goes to in the entire world, he’s going to be the hardest-working guy. I think it’s his faith. I think it’s his commitment to family. I think it’s his commitment to team, his commitment to self, just wrestling ability, confidence. His striking is better than people even think. I think he’s just a great martial artist and all of his core values are what propels him to be so special in the way people are drawn to him.”
He’s already part of the biggest PPV in UFC history. UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday he believes this show has a chance to threaten the number that Nurmagomedov did with McGregor. The primary reason it won’t is because of the start time and that it will be competing against college football in the U.S. The main card begins at 2 p.m. ET. But the UFC’s traffic on its website and social media platforms is running similarly in most cases to UFC 229 and in some cases ahead.
It’s just evidence that fans realize that not only are they watching one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport in his prime, but that he’s developed a level of popularity on his own beyond the fact that he once defeated McGregor.
“He’s a star at a level nobody could ever have imagined,” Cormier said. “He’s the biggest star we’ve ever had out of AKA. It’s a testament to all those great qualities that he has.”
One of his qualities is his ability, as he is wont to say, to smash an opponent.
Somehow, then, it was appropriate where the UFC scheduled the open workouts for this card, because his favorite thing to do is to go to the maul.
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