The Rising Tide: The Sky Is the Limit for UFC 165's Khabib Nurmagomedov

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The Rising Tide: The Sky Is the Limit for UFC 165's Khabib Nurmagomedov
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Stone. Cold. Impressive.

Every prospect in mixed martial arts becomes that way by earning accolades of this nature, but every now and again, one fighter will show a level of potential that deserves more than basic descriptive adjectives.

In regard to surging lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov, cliched terms barely do justice to the performances he's displayed inside the cage. At 23 years old, the Dagestani-born fighter brought a 16-fight winning streak and an undefeated record into the UFC fold. Now, 21 months and four fights later, "The Eagle's" record remains flawless as he's defeated a collection of talented veterans on his climb up the lightweight divisional ladder.

The AKA-trained fighter submitted Kamal Shalarous in the third round of their tilt at UFC on FX 1 in January of 2012, then earned the unanimous decision nod over one of the longest-tenured lightweights on the UFC roster in Gleison Tibau six months later at UFC 148. 

He followed up that performance by scoring a blistering knockout at the expense of Thiago Tavares at UFC on FX 7 in January. Where Nurmagomedov had displayed a strong game in his first two outings, his first-round drubbing of Tavares proved he has legitimate one-shot put-away power.

In his most recent showing against Abel Trujillo at UFC 160 in May, Nurmagomedov's heralded wrestling skills reached a new level as he recorded a UFC record 21 takedowns en route to his lopsided steamrolling of the Team Blackzilians fighter. 

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the fight, especially at the weigh-ins, things became heated between the two fighters. While Nurmagomedov wasn't able to put Trujillo away, he used the entire three rounds of the fight to prove his dominance.

"The guy disrespected me backstage," Nurmagomedov said. "I was composed and controlled my emotions. We were planning to grapple and our goal was to finish the fight, but unfortunately it did not go the way we planned."

On the strength of incredible performances in back-to-back outings, Nurmagomedov began to set his sights on the biggest names in the 155-pound division. His first target was former title challenger Nate Diaz, and when no traction was gained in that direction, the talented made a play to welcome MMA legend B.J. Penn back to the cage.

While neither bout came to fruition, reaching for those lofty goals at such an early stage of his career is an example of the the type of motivation Nurmagomedov possesses. He believes he's one of the best lightweights on the planet and has no issue proving his status.

"I still say that," he added. "I train everyday. I think I'm ready for any fighter in the division."

The next challenge the 24-year-old will face will come this Saturday night when he squares off with Pat Healy at UFC 165. The gritty veteran is in the midst of a career resurgence as he's collect six consecutive victories. Healy earned his seventh-straight win when he defeated Jim Miller in his return to the Octagon at UFC 159, but a failed post-fight drug test turned the bout into a "no contest."

Despite having the victory overturned, Healy is still a fixture in the next tier of the lightweight division—a position Nurmagomedov is eager to obtain. While he has a solid track record behind him, Nurmagomedov believes the next chapter of his career is set to begin in Toronto.

"I think it is a beginning," Nurmagomedov said. "I am going to fight top 10 and there will be a lot more for the fans to see. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve. 

"[Healy] is a big guy who has a good winning streak. I like this matchup, and a win over him will move me up the ranks. I have a few surprises for him in this fight. Anything can happen in a fight, but I have some good stuff for Pat Healy."

While Nurmagomedov's rise through the UFC ranks has been noteworthy, he's one of many talented fighters that have emerged from Dagestan. The Russian Republic has launched a new wave in mixed martial arts as Dagestani fighters have been spilling onto the sport's biggest stages and finding success in large supply.

Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

The San Jose transplant feels the talent has always been there, but, until now, fighters from Dagestan lacked the proper representation to get them to the big shows.

"We always had good fighters but we were lacking management," Nurmagomedov said. "I think with the help of my mangers, Sam Kardan and Mike Constantino, we are going to see a lot more fighters coming out of the region."

With MVC management at the helm of Nurmagomedov's career, Mike Constantino has a front-row seat to the prospect's climb. As one of the fight game's most highly regarded reps and the ever-rare trainer/manager, Constantino has an excellent grasp on what it takes for a fighter to succeed in the grind of MMA.

In Nurmagomedov, Constantino sees all the necessary tools for the Russian fighter to make it to the top of the mountain and believes he possesses the critical intangibles that make a UFC title possible in his future.

"He is a gamer," Constantino said. "He brings his level up when he fights, and that is what makes champions. He has all the skill sets as well as heart and will. Khabib will be a champion."

Whether Nurmagomedov lives up to the expectations and will continue to grow throughout his career remains to be seen, but what is set in stone is the confidence and self-belief he carries with him into the cage.

Despite his age and having been on the UFC roster for less than two years, Nurmagomedov has made substantial progress. While a victory over Pat Healy on Saturday night won't earn him an immediate shot at UFC gold, a win in Toronto will bring him one step closer to achieving the ultimate goal.

Nurmagomedov is set on becoming the UFC lightweight champion and will do whatever it takes to turn that dream into reality.

Right now, Pat Healy is obstructing his path to the top, and Nurmagomedov is game for the challenge.

He's looking to obtain victory at UFC 165 in any form or fashion—and if the fight turns into a gritty affair that becomes an all-out war—it won't bother him one bit.

In his mind, he's born to do this.

And one day soon, he just might prove that he can do it better than anyone else.

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.

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