In Abu Dhabi, Khabib Nurmagomedov looks to enhance legacy

Gaurav Bhatt
Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (Source: AP)

The last time lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov was in the UFC octagon, he choked out the promotion s biggest star and jumped out of the cage and into a nine-month suspension. His absence necessitated an interim title, won by Dustin Poirier (25-5) in April.

On Saturday, the undefeated Dagestani (27-0) returns to fight Poirier in an attempt to unify the 155-pound belt, at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi; an event designed to cash in on the Muslim fighter s popularity in the Middle East. And unlike his showdown last October in Las Vegas, marred with a build around personal jabs from Conor McGregor and ugly spats between the two camps, the road to UAE has refreshingly been about the fighters themselves.

My last fight was a bit crazy… but now I have an opponent I want to show respect to, Khabib said during a media conference call from Abu Dhabi. I think the sport of mixed martial arts is all about respect. Even if you don t like your opponent, you have to respect them, because this is a very unforgiving sport and you and your opponent have families. A lot of people, a lot of kids watch you guys.

Dagestan dreams

Barring his fight with McGregor, which seemed to bring the worst in Khabib, the Dagestan native has been a great ambassador for the Russian republic located where the Greater Caucasus range and Caspian Sea meet.

His title win last April made him the first Muslim or Russian national UFC champion, and the blockbuster title defence meant Khabib and his father-cum-coach now need police escort to avoid being mobbed by fans. While he was being criticised by purists for bringing the sport into disrepute, Khabib embarked on a victory tour across Russia, UAE and Saudi Arabia.

While Khabib brought mainstream attention to Dagestan, Dagestan has been a steady supplier of world and Olympic champions including the Olympic and three-time world champ Abdulrashid Sadulaev and the mountainous region has become a sought-after destination for foreign athletes.

India s only two-time inpidual Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar chose Dagestan as training ground for his comeback, bringing native and former Russian international Kamal Malikov as coach, who lined up a number of Dagestani grapplers at the Kayakent Sports School for the 36-year-old to work with.

The people in that region were lovely, and the wrestlers are talented. They appreciate wrestling and coach s family treated me like their own, said Sushil at the selection trials last month.

READ: Khabib Nurmagomedov s missed opportunity

World championship silver-medallist Bajrang Punia won the 65kg gold at the Ali Aliev invitational tournament in Kaspiysk, Dagestan in May, and stayed back to train in Makhachkala. During his training stint, Bajrang tweeted a photo with Sadulaev captioned: Different country, different race, different faith. But still bonded by heart, soul and spirit. That s the power of sports and the culture of sportsmanship.

After we opened (Kayakent) school in 1996, we saw the first results already in four-five years, Magomed Arangereyev, who coaches at the Kayakent sport school in Dagestan, said in an interview last year. After six years… our boys started winning in Europe, then world championships. The success of wrestlers trained in Dagestan has now made the region a top draw for the sport,
Even in Russia, the region is an outlier. At the national championships in July, Dagestani wrestlers won 16 medals. North Ossetia-Alania was second with 8.

Wrestling is the number one sport in Dagestan. It s an honour to me to represent my traditional headgear around the world, my culture, my history, Khabib said, referencing the traditional sheepskin Papakha which has become a top-seller as the fighter s stock has gone up.

I have an opportunity. People know me and I want people to know where I am from. I want to show people Dagestan, Dagestan culture, Dagestan history, because we have very, very big history in Dagestan. If I have the opportunity, why not?

No pushover

All eyes are firmly on Khabib, and Poirier takes no issues with that. The Louisiana native is a 30-year-old veteran, with 31 fights over 11 years. Primarily a boxer, Poirier has 19 finishes (12 KOs, 7 subs) and is versatile; dangerous in the pocket and at distance and has faced wrestlers in the cage before.

But Khabib s wrestling reduces all stand-up talks to a series of hypotheticals. Khabib averages 5 takedowns per 15 minutes, and scored a record-breaking 21 takedowns against Abel Trujillo. Poirer has scored 21 in his career. Poirier talked about switching up the training camp to acclimatise to the heat and food in Abu Dhabi.

I ve got out under the sun and done a lot of sprint work and a lot of stadium work, and a lot of hard pushes directly under the sun. Not that we re fighting outdoors, but just to get my body in that heat. I m also bringing a nutritionist, a chef with me. We re pre-planning for all those challenges that come with the food and spices and the time change, said Poirier. I can trust myself that when I get in there and they lock that door for 25 minutes, that I m the better fighter, and I m in there to win.

Khabib too asked the casual fans to give credit to Poirier. Dustin is a much more complete fighter than Conor. He is better, and actually beat a lot of good guys. But now, no more interim. Because in the jungle there s only one king. That s why I have to kill this problem.

Live: UFC 242 Sony Ten 2 (English), Sony Ten 3 (Hindi) at 11:30pm IST, Saturday 7th September