Is he the toughest fighter in the world right now?
All it took Khabib Nurmagomedov was a rear-neck choke. In his stranglehold lay a man who had trash-talked him for months, attacked his team bus, called him names, and described to Khabib in imaginative detail how he will knock him out.
There was no way the fighter from Dagestan was letting go of Conor McGregor on that October evening in 2018. McGregor, who likes calling himself The Notorious, tapped that night into submission.
Khabib was already the UFC lightweight champion by then, but his first title defense turned out to be the fight which catapulted his fame to giddy heights.
McGregor was the one who made people sit up and take note of MMA with his antics and his aggressive showmanship; more importantly, he was also one of the most accomplished fighters in the game. Put all of that together, and you have the most-watched fighter in MMA.
None of that mattered to Khabib. In the octagon, Mcgregor looked like a novice being brutally schooled by Khabib. He got punched in the face repeatedly, kneed in the stomach, picked up, taken down, elbowed, and knocked down—the Irishman had no answers. But the fight did not end with the tapping; a brawl ensued between the teams of the two fighters, with both Khabib and McGregor joining in, and being suspended for nine and six months respectively for their efforts.
On Saturday, the 30-year-old Khabib will be returning to the cage in Abu Dhabi, with a 27-0 win-loss record, for his second title defense against American Dustin Poirier, who was made the interim UFC lightweight champion when Khabib was suspended.
“I think Dustin is little bit different fighter than him (McGregor), but almost same. They are strikers. They are both boxers,” Khabib said during a conference call from Abu Dhabi. “I think maybe right now Dustin is a more complete MMA fighter than him because he beat a lot of good guys in the lightweight division and I don’t remember when Conor win in lightweight division. Dustin Poirier is a much better fighter than him.”
When asked if he is concerned about Mcgregor and his entourage attacking him again, Khabib was dismissive.
“Honestly I don’t understand what you ask about. This guy, when he win the last time? Why do we keep talking about this guy? I don’t want to talk about him. We have Dustin Poirier, we have a lot of stuff, please let’s talk about real stuff,” he said.
The ‘real stuff’ that Khabib is currently occupied with is the 30-year-old Poirier. In his last two fights he defeated Max Holloway, the current UFC featherweight champion, and Eddie Alvarez, former UFC lightweight champion. Poirier has a 25-5 win-loss record, while one fight was a non contest. Out of the 25, 12 came through knockouts and Khabib is well aware of his rival’s strengths.
“He has got a very good win streak. He beat good guys and he deserves it. His experience makes him tough. He has big fights against tough opponents,” Khabib said.
The buildup to the fight—respectful, almost low-key—has been quite unlike what Khabib, the current No. 2 in UFC pound-for-pound rankings, faced during his last fight with McGregor. But that doesn’t mean there will be any mercy inside the octagon. “I think this sport MMA is all about respect. We have to respect each other. This is a very tough, unforgivable sport. Your family, your rival’s family, all the people are watching. This is the most important fight in the lightweight division because he is the interim champion, I am the world champion. Even if we respect each other, when we enter the cage we both understand who is the enemy,” Khabib said. “If you fight, you have to be like ‘I want to become the best fighter in the world, I have to become best pound for pound fighter. I just focus on my every single opponent. I am almost on top in pound for pound. Who knows, may be next week I am going to finish Dustin Coirier and become the No. 1 pound for pound fighter in the world. Who knows”
From Dagestan, with love
Khabib was born in a small village in the autonomous republic of Dagestan in the very south of Russia, where the Caucasus meets the Caspian. The once strife-torn mountain region is now more famous for its production line of martial artists, especially in MMA and wrestling.
Khabib, before coming to the MMA, was a two-time world champion in combat sambo—the martial art used by Russian forces, and which closely resembles MMA.
Khabib’s father was in the army, and is himself a former combat sambo champion who became a coach. Khabib began training under his father at a very young age.
India’s double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar’s current coach, Malikov Kamal, is also from Dagestan.
Hailing from this proud fighting culture, it’s only natural for Khabib to showcase it, a thing which he does every time before a bout by donning a papakha, the traditional sheep’s wool hat worn throughout the Caucasus.
“A lot of people know me and they should know where I am from,” he said. “When I came to UFC, they told me that my name is difficult to remember so I must do something for the fans to know me. My friends suggested that I should wear the papakha. Dagestan has a lot of history and culture. I think I am part of Dagestani history. Maybe 40-50 years later people will understand what I did.”
To create his legacy, Khabib has relied on the one discipline he has loved since he was a child—wrestling.
His fights follow a predictable pattern: He spends the first minute or so of a round toe-to-toe with his opponent—his boxing is speedy, hard and accurate, his defensive reflexes superb—but that’s not his space.
He is simply using that time to look for his opening, that tiny opportunity where he will take his man down to the ground and into wrestling territory (he holds the UFC records of most takedowns in a match—21 out of 27 attempts against Abel Trujillo in 2013). This is Khabib’s space.
What follows is a brutal, sustained and (so far) inescapable siege where the opponent finds no way out of the grip and is subjected to hammering of fists and elbows.
Louisian man Poirier, on the other hand, is more of a kick boxer, though even his introduction to martial arts was through wrestling. Going against Khabib, Poirier knows that he is not the favourite.
“People have counted me out for good reason. He (Khabib) is undefeated,” Poirier said. “I am travelling to a part of the world where he will be the favourite. But I am embracing this to do what hasn’t been done. I want to put a loss on Khabib’s record for all the underdogs across the world. I want to show if you are focused and dedicated enough, you can be great.”