How Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC’s anti-superstar, became the baddest man on the planet

Khabib Nurmagomedov is neither the richest fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship nor the most famous –although he’s heading in the right direction on both fronts.

But the superlative that Nurmagomedov has already locked up is the undisputed title of being the baddest man in the UFC. The Dagestani Destroyer crushed Conor McGregor nearly a year ago, and in doing so silenced the few remaining critics he had.

He fights again on Saturday, taking to the Octagon for a lightweight title battle with Dustin Poirier in the main event of UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi. He’d have been back sooner, most likely, but had to serve a suspension for the ugly fracas that followed his victory over McGregor.

Let’s start with that, even though it happened 11 months ago, because it was perhaps the most dramatic moment in UFC history. While there were many contributing factors to the melee, the prime cause was McGregor taking his blueprint of “drum up business via trash talk above all else” way too far, insulting Nurmagomedov’s father, wife, Muslim faith, homeland, and anything else he could dredge up – doing so in an attempt to both gain a psychological edge and shift more pay-per-view sales.

For Nurmagomedov, however, this isn’t business. Fighting for him is a way of life, and has been ever since his Army veteran father, a renowned wrestling coach, trained him as a small boy. As legend has it, Khabib grappled with a bear at age nine – far earlier than most of us enter a bare-knuckle fight with a bear. The republic of Dagestan, a Russian satellite deep in the mountainous Caucasus, boasts a population of only 3 million people but has produced a whopping 13 hardened UFC fighters, of which Nurmagomedov is the standard bearer.

For him, insults aren’t worn lightly or erased by emerging victorious in a bout. Nurmagomedov’s fury at McGregor’s actions, which included an infamous bus attack in Brooklyn in April 2018, were not dimmed even when he forced the Irishman to tap in Las Vegas. Within seconds of his win, the Russian had scaled the fence and leapt into the crowd, seeking out a member of McGregor’s team who had similarly run his mouth.

The UFC is full of faux rivalries and beefs; Nurmagomedov doesn’t do the fake stuff. Get under his skin, and you’ve made a genuine enemy.

“This sport is all about respect,” Nurmagomedov said on a conference call with myself and other reporters. “We have to respect each other. Even if you don’t like your opponent, you have to respect them, because this is a very tough sport, and everyone has a family. People are watching you.

“My last fight, it was a little bit crazy, but now I have an opponent I want to show respect to. But when the cage closes, it will be a very good, high-level matchup. We both understand who the enemy is inside the cage.”

Poirier is a heavy underdog (+320, according to our insights), getting his shot after reeling off four straight impressive victories, most recently by ending Max Holloway’s long undefeated streak. If Nurmagomedov – 27-0 and never seriously threatened during his seven-year UFC career – gets past him, there is already talk that a fight against Tony Ferguson would be next. Ferguson is irascible and difficult to deal with, with a history of odd behavior, but he has been first in line for a long time without getting a chance. It wouldn’t be the most lucrative fight – for him and for anyone else in the appropriate weight classes, no one will ever trump the drawing power or payday of McGregor – but it would be the right one.

Every fighter wants to get paid. Nurmagomedov does too, and he will receive around $6 million for his clash with Poirier, which will serve as an intriguing test about whether the American audience will get on board with a pay-per-view that begins at lunchtime on a Saturday.

But for Nurmagomedov, non-monetary principles tend to matter more. And while he dislikes McGregor intensely, he doesn’t believe the polarizing Irishman deserves a rematch – so he’s not interested in giving him one, no matter what price tag is attached.

“Honestly, I don’t understand what you ask about,” he responded to a question about McGregor. “This guy, when (did) he win the last time? Why do you keep talking about this guy? I don’t want to keep talking about him.”

In a recent ESPN interview, Nurmagomedov admitted that his antipathy towards McGregor would never wane, that he would fight him in the street if they met, and that he would happily go to prison if it meant being able to settle their grudge.

Whatever transpires, the reality is that looking past Poirier is distinctly dangerous. Some believe that Nurmagomedov’s long run of success could be in jeopardy. He skipped his media day commitments, which did not sit well given the distance many of the international press members had traveled to attend the event. Rumors swirled that he was having difficulty cutting weight.

On Friday morning he managed to weigh in right at the 155 lb. limit, but only after stripping down and removing his underwear.

“He’s been out for a while,” former UFC star Chael Sonnen said on his podcast this week. “For Khabib, it was because of a suspension. For other guys, it was because of an injury or a contract dispute. But that always becomes a talking point.

“For some reason, Khabib has penetrated the hearts and minds of the fans to the point that that dialogue is not even coming up. It’s as if this guy is bulletproof – and we have fallen for that before.”

While fighter is infallible, Nurmagomedov might be as close as any modern UFC fighter we’ve ever seen. His ground game is simply too proficient for most to be able to deal with. McGregor exhausted himself trying to cope and eventually tapped out. Most opponents have met a similar fate when going to the ground, but no one’s been able to solve him when they try to force him to stand and trade, either.

Nurmagomedov is intriguing, at times puzzling, and wholly unlike most combatants the UFC is used to. Ironically, became a superstar by spurning the stereotypical superstar mentality. He’s a paradox and an outlier, but he’s a true fighter – and arguably the best in the business.

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