For a while, it looked like nothing would stop Rustam Khabilov on the way to the top of the lightweight division.
Stoppages of Vinc Pichel and Yancy Medeiros were followed by a Fight of the Night win over Jorge Masvidal, and the “Tiger” was seemingly one main event victory over former lightweight champion Benson Henderson away from title contention.
Khabilov would lose that June 2014 bout to Henderson, then another to Adriano Martins, before injuries and visa issues kept him out of the Octagon for a year. On Saturday, he finally comes back to face Norman Parke, and he couldn’t be happier to have the gloves on once more.
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“A layoff is a terrible thing for any professional athlete, in my opinion,” Khabilov said. “First, I had those visa issues, after that I injured my back. Treatment and rehabilitation took some time and finally I’m here.”
It’s a welcome return for the Dagestan native, and not just because he’s still one of the most talented competitors at 155 pounds, but due to the fact that he and Parke apparently don’t care for each other too much.
“I don't pay attention a lot to trash talking,” Khabilov said. “I see that he is trying to poke me, joking around and talking some nonsense, but it's worse for him. He’s gonna look like an idiot after the fight when I beat him, and all his words will sound like a joke.”
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Coming from someone who Tweeted after his suplex-induced knockout of Vinc Pichel, “My job is to throw him, how he lands is his business,” it’s clear that Khabilov means business, so when faced with serious adversity in his career, the solution was to assess the situation, work harder and move on.
“For the last fight (against Martins), I had a really bad camp,” he explains. “I trained only boxing, no wrestling at all. A weak performance was the result. A lack of five-round fight experience and an awful weight cut are the reasons for my loss to Benson. He knew what he was going for, and I didn't. But I wouldn't change anything in my life. I believe that all difficulties and tests are sent to us by God, and there are always good lessons in it.”
For the Parke fight, Khabilov has prepared in the mountains close to his home in Dagestan, though he says that his first destination once he comes back to the United States will be the Jackson-Wink MMA gym in Albuquerque. But he has no complaints about the work he’s gotten at home.
“Training in the mountains at the high altitude automatically improves your endurance and stamina conditioning,” he said. “If you have opportunity to train in the mountains, you better do it.”
And while the physical game is key, especially after a long layoff, keeping the mental game strong may be even more important at this level. And it’s here that the 29-year-old believes he is best prepared.
“The longer you are out, the more hungry you get - hungry for a fight, for action,” Khabilov said. “It's a huge motivation to get back to the game and climb back again to the top, especially after losing two fights. So I have no problem with motivation and the mental game. Physically, I kept training all the time, except when I was injured.”
On Saturday, the long wait is over, and Khabilov is happy to get back to work.
“Well, my career in UFC so far I can describe easy,” he said. “It’s like a ‘rise and fall.’ But this week I have to add another ‘rising’ chapter to my story, and Norman is the first who stands in my way on my way back. So expect a new version of Rustam Khabilov - hungry and desperate.”