For a professional prizefighter known for a punishing and swarming style that has garnered him a 26-0 record and the UFC lightweight championship, Khabib Nurmagomedov gives off a distinct impression that he’s a compassionate man and not someone hardened by life in the fight game.
His visits to his friend, former pro boxer Magomed Abdusalamov, who was permanently injured in a 2013 bout with Mike Perez, are one example. Another is his insistence on keeping his circle small with friends he doesn’t call sparring partners, but brothers. And who can forget him telling Michael Johnson to quit in the latter stages of their UFC 205 bout, something that some described as trash talk, but seemed more like a plea to end the fight before more punishment could be inflicted.
But when the 30-year-old steps into the Octagon at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night to defend his crown against former two-division champion Conor McGregor, Nurmagomedov gives off another distinct impression – this one that there will be no mercy for “The Notorious” one.
I want to make him tired, make him exhausted, talk with him, talk with (UFC President) Dana (White), and give them a little master class about trash talking
“My job is to smash him, make him humble,” said Nurmagomedov. “I don’t want to finish him quickly. I want to make him tired, make him exhausted, talk with him, talk with (UFC President) Dana (White), and give them a little master class about trash talking.”
PRE-ORDER UFC 229
If this seems out of character for “The Eagle,” consider that a lot of water has gone under the bridge between the two 155-pound stars over the years, with the verbal salvos tossed by McGregor getting more and more personal as the UFC 229 fight night approaches.
Nurmagomedov says of McGregor’s pre-fight gamesmanship, “It’s not working. I want to stay calm, stay focused, stay relaxed, and when the fight is beginning, I’m gonna go forward.”
It’s easy to be calm and unbothered by trash talk when no one has come close to defeating the Dagestan native since he made his pro debut in 2008. Yet as the wins piled up, Nurmagomedov was considered a solid prospect on the Russian scene, but perhaps not ready for the elite of the UFC when he was signed to the promotion in 2012.
Nurmagomedov didn’t pay attention to such talk, but he heard it.
“I always watched Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Royce Gracie and other guys and I think, for us (in Dagestan), it’s almost impossible when I was young,” he said. “And at the beginning of my professional career, when I had six, seven, ten fights, I think, ‘Okay, I can wrestle, I can grapple, I can strike – why can’t I follow my dream? But I’m gonna follow my dream. And when UFC signed me, UFC doesn’t have someone from Dagestan. This is not Russian level, Khabib cannot compete there. And they give me ten fights and I become UFC champion. I have everything that everybody has. But what I have more than everybody is belief in myself. I believe in God and believe that God is gonna give this to me if I work hard.”
In that tenth UFC fight in April, Nurmagomedov beat late replacement opponent Al Iaquinta to win the vacant lightweight title. When asked what’s changed since he wrapped gold around his waist, he said, “To be honest, nothing’s changed. I had the dream to become UFC champion and I became UFC champion.”
But everything has changed. Saturday’s bout is on pace to shatter records, the buzz is growing with every mention of the event, and should he beat the Irish superstar, Nurmagomedov’s global profile is going to shoot through the roof. But if anyone has the personality to be cool under the bright lights, it’s “The Eagle,” whose sole goal at this point is to fight his fight against McGregor and leave the Octagon with a 27-0 record.
“For me, being undefeated is more important than the UFC belt,” Nurmagomedov said. “How many fighters in the world right now are 26-0? I don’t want to lose. This is not only about a fight; this is about every single minute, every single round – I don’t want to lose. I want to dominate all the time.”
If he does, everybody will know Khabib Nurmagomedov on Sunday morning. But by then, this fighter will be planning his trip back home to Dagestan to see his family. Fame, fortune, all that good stuff? It pales in comparison to beating Conor McGregor.
“He never fought with someone like me,” Nurmagomedov said. “I want to give him this feeling. When the cage closes, I’m going to go forward all the time.”