Khabib Nurmagomedov has always made his intentions very clear, inside and outside the Octagon.
On his way up the divisional ranks, the punishing grappler was focused on claiming UFC gold, going as far as to instruct Michael Johnson to give up midway through their clash at UFC 205 because he was destined to fight for the title. Nothing has changed now that he’s reached the summit of the 155-pound weight class.
Speaking with the media ahead of his title unification clash with interim champ Dustin Poirier next weekend at UFC 242 on Friday afternoon, the undefeated lightweight superstar once again didn’t mince any words when it came to his thoughts on Poirier, his place in the pantheon of all-time greats and his plans going forward.
“I think Dustin is a little bit different fighter than him, but almost the same because he’s a striker; they’re both boxers,” he said, when asked about the similarities between Poirier and Conor McGregor, the former two-weight world champion who will forever be linked to Nurmagomedov. “I think 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 won in the lightweight division.
“I think he beat only Alvarez. He has only one win in the lightweight division, that’s why I think Dustin Poirier is a much better fighter than him.”
While the prelude to his fight with McGregor was filled with acrimony and the tensions spilled over even after the bout was done, the build to next Saturday’s “Champion vs. Champion” showdown in Abu Dhabi has been nothing but respectful.
Poirier has spoken glowingly about what Nurmagomedov has accomplished, praising his undefeated run and acknowledging that his own underdog status is well founded, but he’s also made it clear that he intends to shock the world next weekend.
At times throughout Friday’s call, the 27-0 titleholder was asked about what makes Poirier a dangerous opponent and if he believes their meeting at UFC 242 stands as the most difficult challenge of his career.
Every time, Nurmagomedov spoke highly of what Poirier brings to the table, the improvements he’s made over his career and the challenge he presents on September 7.
“He has a very good win streak, beat a lot of good guys,” Nurmagomedov said of Poirier, who enters on a four-fight winning streak. “Last fight, he beat a very tough opponent, Max Holloway, and I think he deserves this.
“What makes him a tough opponent? I think he has a lot of experience. I think he has good experience. Even if you lose a couple times in the UFC, he has good experience — 20 or more than 20 fights in the UFC and he’s fought very big fights before, with tough opponents. I think it’s about experience.
“Right now, when I watch Dustin Poirier, I think it’s going to be my toughest challenge, but I always think like this,” he added later in the call. “Even when I fought Darrell Horcher, I thought, ‘This is going to be my toughest challenge.’ I don’t want to make a mistake and I don’t want to underestimate this guy.”
Though his focus is solely on Poirier and their clash on pay-per-view, Nurmagomedov has also clearly given some thought to what comes next, both in terms of challengers in the lightweight division and continuing to build his own legacy, which is something he’s spoken about frequently since winning the lightweight title at UFC 223.
The way he sees it, the only fighter deserving of the next title shot is Tony Ferguson, the former Ultimate Fighter winner and interim champion whom he’s been scheduled to face on numerous occasions, only to have the bouts fall through at various points for myriad different reasons.
“Only Tony Ferguson, of course. I think he deserves it,” Nurmagomedov said of the streaking contender, who extended his winning streak to an even dozen with a second-round stoppage victory over Donald Cerrone this summer at UFC 238, when asked who is next in line. “Who else? No one else. It’s only Tony Ferguson that deserves it.”
As for his place on the pound-for-pound list, Nurmagomedov acknowledged it’s both something every fighter should think about, but also something he tries to set aside as best he can.
“Honestly, if you’re a fighter you have to be like, ‘I want to become the best fighter in the world; I want to be pound-for-pound No. 1.’ You have to worry about this. You have to think about this,” he said.
“But I don’t care about this — I just focus on every single opponent and that why I’m here. I am almost on the top (in the pound-for-pound rankings) and this fight, nothing changes — I’m focused on my opponent.
“Of course, who knows?” he continued, offering a playful interjection that made it clear he pays attention to the theoretical rankings of the best fighters on the planet regardless of weight class. “Maybe next Saturday I’m going to finish Dustin Poirier and become pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter, but who knows? Nobody knows.”
And to Nurmagomedov, the road to the top of the pound-for-pound list and mixed martial arts immortality doesn’t veer off to different divisions in search of multiple titles and chasing the biggest names possible.
“I think if you want to improve your legacy, (I don’t think changing weight classes is helpful for you),” he said when asked about the trend of champions changing divisions. “Only one thing that helps you is you have to beat tough opponents.
“If you lose a couple times in the UFC and you win one title, second title, then you lose again — even if you win three titles, this does not make you great. In my opinion, when you’re undefeated a long time and you never lose, this is the only real thing.
“I don’t focus on welterweight or featherweight,” he added. “My focus is on the lightweight division. I am a real lightweight and my fights are going to be in the lightweight division. I don’t want to change any weight classes; I want to focus on my weight division.”
First up is Dustin Poirier next weekend at UFC 242, and should he emerge victorious once more, hopefully and finally squaring off with Tony Ferguson in the not too distant future.