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Khabib Ready To Walk Through Fire

Lightweight Champ Has No Intention Of Giving Up The Throne At UFC 254

When Khabib Nurmagomedov looks back at 2020, it’s hard to read what the UFC lightweight champion will think about a tumultuous year for not just him, but the entire world.

Maybe the word to best capture it for a young man who lost his father Abdulmanap in July and who had to bounce back from the disappointment of having to withdraw from a fight years in the making with Tony Ferguson only to ultimately face the man who beat “El Cucuy” – Justin Gaethje – this Saturday on Fight Island is persistence. Because through it all, the 32-year-old has done what he’s always done, no matter what’s in front of him.

He’s moved forward. And when his father passed away, there was only one direction for him to go. Nurmagomedov knew it, but if he needed a reminder, one of his longtime coaches, Javier Mendez, gave it to him.

Khabib Nurmagomedov: A Father To His Son
Khabib Nurmagomedov: A Father To His Son

“When what happened with my father, he (Mendez) called me and said, ‘Hey, you have to focus now. If you choose this, you have to focus. Right now we have to train very hard.’”

Nurmagomedov said Mendez called him every day as he began training for Gaethje, giving him the day’s workouts until he was able to join him in camp. Then in a training camp like no other, it was business as usual.

UFC 254 EMBEDDED:  Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4

“My team has to push me,” said Nurmagomedov. “They’re all professionals, they’re all smart guys, and they’re all a very long time with me. They know the game. They know if I’m gonna stop pushing hard, somebody’s gonna beat me.”

Translate that into the reality that “The Eagle” has never stopped pushing since he put the four-ounce gloves on 12 years ago. In that time, Nurmagomedov has compiled a perfect 28-0 record, and at this point in his stellar career, he’s interested in not just winning fights, but winning every round he’s in the Octagon.

Top Finishes: Khabib Nurmagomedov
Top Finishes: Khabib Nurmagomedov

“I want to be champion - undefeated, undisputed, and most dominant fighter in UFC history,” he said. “We see a lot of fighters like Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Demetrious Johnson – they all lose. Some were submitted, some lose decisions, someone lost a lost of rounds, and I want to be most dominant fighter in UFC history.”

That goal is already within reach, with the list of top-level fighters he’s beaten in dominant fashion growing with each bout. Rafael Dos Anjos, Michael Johnson, Edson Barboza, Al Iaquinta, Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier. It’s an impressive list, for sure, and he wanted to add Ferguson’s name to that list when the oft-postponed bout was expected to finally take place at UFC 249 earlier this year.

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But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and travel restrictions forced Nurmagomedov out of the bout, it was Gaethje taking his place and beating Ferguson.

“I was a little upset when Justin beat him because my plan was to beat this guy,” he said. “This is sports, you never know what’s gonna happen.”

And that’s precisely what happened in the Gaethje-Ferguson bout, with the Arizonan taking the interim 155-pound belt via fifth-round stoppage.

“I was a little bit surprised at how smart Justin fought with him,” said Nurmagomedov. “I think he was gonna go crazy with him and get tired and round three or four Ferguson is gonna finish him. And when the fight begins and I see how he moved, how he used his leg kicks and footwork, his boxing, he fought very good.”

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On Saturday, Gaethje gets another chance to shock the world, and it would be a shock considering Nurmagomedov’s unbeaten record and sheer dominance at 155 pounds. The Dagestan native admits that’s a lot to bear the weight of those expectations every time he steps into the Octagon.

“Of course, I feel pressure,” he said. “A lot of people are gonna watch; the whole world’s gonna watch. In every fight I feel pressure because I don’t want to lose. I do a lot of things to get to this position that I have right now, and I don’t want to make a mistake and lose this position.”

He knows to keep that position, he may have to walk through fire this weekend, but he’s willing – as always – to do whatever it takes to get his hand raised.

“I think he’s gonna hit me hard, very hard,” Nurmagomedov said of his foe. “I think he’s gonna kick me hard, hit me hard, punch me hard and he’s gonna try to show me my blood. He’s a very tough guy but I’m ready for everything. I think he’s a very good fighter. He’s very tough, he never gives up. Two things I think I’m much better than him is conditioning and Fighting IQ. I think I’m much better than him, not just a little bit.”

For Nurmagomedov, it’s not just the physical part of the game, but more the mental aspect that keeps him on top.

“MMA is everything about mental (game),” he said. “If you want to be the best, you have to be very strong mentally. In the UFC, a lot of fighters I think are more strong than me physically. But if we take everything together, I’m the best. MMA is not one sport. It’s everything together, and the number one thing in all MMA is mental.”

So in his mind, there is only one outcome in Abu Dhabi, and it’s the same one he’s had the 28 other times he’s strapped on the gloves and put the mouthpiece in on fight night.

“This victory for me means everything,” Nurmagomedov said. “I can’t lose this fight. I have to finish Justin Gaethje and become the number one pound-for-pound fighter in MMA today.”



Main Card: 2pm ET / 11am PT on ESPN+

Prelims: 12pm ET / 9am PT on ESPN,  ESPN+and ESPN Deportes

Early Prelims: 11am ET / 8 am PT on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass

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