When we first sat down with Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2013, the 24-year-old was already 20-0 as a pro and four wins into his UFC career. Yet even at this early stage, it was clear that a championship was in the future of “The Eagle,” who will next defend his lightweight crown for the third time against Tony Ferguson.
It’s an interesting look into the mindset of one of the UFC’s most intriguing figures before the megafights with Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier materialized. So without further ado, let’s flash back to the making of Khabib.
If you’re the skeptical sort, you might assume that Khabib Nurmagomedov took his UFC 160 fight in May with Abel Trujillo simply because he didn’t want to have to be involved with the planning for his June wedding.
Not so, laughed the newly married lightweight up and comer.
“It was not because of the wedding,” said Nurmagomedov. “Our whole family participates in wedding preparation so the only thing the groom has to do is just to show up.”
Nice. And if Nurmagomedov was distracted by the impending nuptials, he didn’t show it on fight night, as he dominated Trujillo en route to a shutout three-round decision win, lifting his perfect pro MMA record to 20-0. The fight wasn’t without its share of drama though, as Nurmagomedov missed weight by two and a half pounds, leading to an altercation with his opponent at the weigh-in.
“Before the weigh-ins he did not shake my hand,” said Nurmagomedov. “It’s a gesture of disrespect where I am from. But I was composed and controlled my emotions during the fight.”
That he did, setting a new UFC record of 21 takedowns in 27 attempts, making what was expected to be an intriguing clash of rising lightweight stars a one-sided affair.
“I dominated because of my superior wrestling and grappling,” said the former Sambo champion from Dagestan. “I decided to take the fight to the ground where I have an advantage, and my wrestling will surprise quite a few fighters yet.”
So far, Nurmagomedov dominating and making things look easy has been par for the course, an impressive feat for someone who won’t hit his 25th birthday until September. He admits that his 2012 decision win over Gleison Tibau was his most challenging bout to date, but at the same time he says that he has never doubted that his hand would be the one raised at the end of the night. That’s a confidence and maturity borne in competition both in and out of conventional outlets.
“I have been fighting in the street and various tournaments since childhood and this experience and confidence helps me quite a bit,” he said. “Perhaps it's in my genes because my father is an accomplished athlete as well.”
Yet early on, his father Abdulmanap – a judo black belt, Ukrainian National Sambo champ, and National master of sports in freestyle wrestling – didn’t want a similar path for Khabib.
“My childhood was pretty normal,” said Khabib. “My father wanted me to study and I wanted to become a professional athlete. (Laughs) He and I always had a misunderstanding over this issue, but my father eventually realized that I had a gift for fighting and he started training me to become the world’s best in 2005.”
Three years later, Nurmagomedov was making his pro MMA debut, submitting Vusal Bayramov in the first round. But it was in 2010 that he realized he had the talent and drive to take things even further.
“I realized it when I won the Sambo world championship in 2010,” he said. “I started training much harder and started working towards my dream of becoming a UFC fighter.”
By 2012, he achieved that dream, and he has since won all four of his Octagon bouts, submitting Kamal Shalorus, knocking out Thiago Tavares, and decisioning Tibau and Trujillo. He trains out of the renowned AKA gym in San Jose, and after some understandable adjustments, he’s settled and ready for anything.
“It was hard living in the US at first,” he said. “However, my life consists of training, religion, sleep and meals. Following this principle, it’s easy to get used to anything.”
He’s also getting used to life in the UFC, where it’s not a bad thing to go out and ask for what you want. Case in point, his Twitter request for a bout with former two division champ BJ Penn.
“I have asked for a fight with BJ Penn but I have not received a response,” he said. “Perhaps they have different plans for him. I wanted to fight someone I watched on TV when I was younger. He is a legend.”
Someday, if things keep going the way they are for the unbeaten 24-year-old, he may be on the receiving end of similar requests from hungry up and comers. But for now, there’s still work to be done, and Nurmagomedov is more than willing to do it. So who’s next? He has no hesitation in continuing to reach for the top.
“If BJ is not available I would love to fight (TJ) Grant,” said Nurmagomedov of the number one contender from Canada recently forced to pull out of his UFC 164 bout with champion Benson Henderson due to injury. “If he feels that he is the next title contender let him prove it by beating me at UFC 165 (September 21) in his homeland.”
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