It’s easy to hear an athlete on the brink of competing for a championship say that the impending moment is the culmination of everything they have been working towards their entire career and pass it off as a tired sports cliché.
Trying to win the big one – to reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport – is the goal of everyone that laces up a pair of sneakers, cleats or skates, so hearing them acknowledge as much as the opportunity draws closer often elicits more eye rolls and “well obviously” responses than anything else, but that’s because the totality of the journey to reach that moment is seldom televised and incomparable to those that haven’t traveled the path themselves.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is in that position now, just a handful of days away from facing Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title in the co-main event of UFC 209 in Las Vegas, and like many others before him – and surely many more in the future – he too sums up his feelings with a version of that familiar refrain that carries so much more weight than most people can ever understand.
“This is why I am training. This is why I am here in the UFC,” says Nurmagomedov, the undefeated 28-year-old who has transformed from an unknown raw prospect into one of the most popular and talented fighters in the sport during the course of his five years competing inside the Octagon. “This is why I am training all my life: to become the new UFC lightweight, undisputed and undefeated champion of the world.
“This is what I want and March 4, inshallah, this becomes true.”
Nurmagomedov has all the elements to be a tremendous star in the UFC.
His grappling pedigree is beyond reproach and his performances in the Octagon have been second-to-none, but it is his undeniable charisma and quirky personality that elevates him from being a talented fighter to potentially being one of the biggest names on the roster. Plenty of people talk trash during their fights, but not many tell their opponent they must give up in between punches, imploring them to quit so that the beating can stop because, “I must fight for title; you know this,” as Nurmagomedov told Michael Johnson during their clash at UFC 205 in New York City.
But not everyone wants to be a superstar, and less than a week before fighting for UFC gold on Pay-Per-View in Las Vegas, the unbeaten title challenger admitted that all the attention he’s receiving is a little too much for him at times.
“After the last fight, I feel my life is a little bit changed because too much attention is coming, but I understand it,” explained Nurmagomedov, who has reigned as the uncrowned ruler of the 155-pound ranks in the eyes of the fans for the last several years. “When you keep winning and you’re No. 1 in the world, this is coming. That’s why I understand it a little bit, but I don’t like it too much, to be honest.”
For Nurmagomedov, reaching the pinnacle of the sport this weekend is about far more than fame, fortune and popularity.
From a competition standpoint, it’s about testing himself against the best at all times and accomplishing what he set out to do when he first arrived in the UFC.
“When I had a fight with Darrell Horcher, I didn’t like this fight week because all everybody talked about was ‘this guy is not your opponent; you’re gonna smash him.’ Nobody gave him a chance,” he said of his April 2016 return to the cage that was supposed to take place against Ferguson before the California-based contender was forced out with an illness and replaced by the UFC newcomer.
“But now, everything is different. I have tough opponent – toughest opponent in my life. He’s unpredictable. He has good jiu-jitsu, good standup, everything – and one of the very best win streaks at lightweight.
“I have a crazy opponent and a crazy opportunity in this fight,” he added. “This fight is biggest fight in my career, for sure, and I am very excited about this. I can’t wait for Saturday night.”
But more importantly, on a personal level, this fight is about representing for his home country of Dagestan and making history as the first Muslim UFC champion.
“Everybody has his religion and I respect all religions and all nations, but I’m so proud that I am from Dagestan and I am Muslim and in this fight, I want to become first Muslim UFC champion,” Nurmagomedov said. “Around the world, you have 1.4 billion Muslims and we have – in the former USSR countries – almost 500 million people. I have crazy big fan base and I am so motivated about this and this is why I want to become – “
Silence filled the line.
“This is not only about me,” he said. “This is about my people, my friends around the world. I want to give this victory for these people and this Saturday, my dream is coming true, inshallah.
“God gives everything and I believe He is going to give me this victory.”