There is so much to like about Khabib Nurmagomedov.
It was love at first sight between Nurmagomedov and many hardcore UFC fans when the 28-year-old native of Dagestan debuted in the Octagon in January 2012. Nurmagomedov’s ice-cold trash talk, aggressive stand-up skills and high-octane grappling made him an instant darling in the quirky sport of MMA, where popularity can be difficult to predict.
As he amassed an 8-0 record in the shark tank that is the UFC lightweight division (24-0 overall), Nurmagomedov began to look like more than just a cult favorite. He shaped up as a potential champion—a guy poised to take his place among the sport’s pantheon of great Russian fighters like Oleg Taktarov, Igor Vovchanchyn and Fedor Emelianenko.
Suddenly, however, much of that enthusiasm has been replaced by uncertainty.
In the wake of last week’s 11th-hour withdrawal from an interim 155-pound title fight against Tony Ferguson at UFC 209, Nurmagomedov’s future as a top contender in the UFC is more tenuous than ever.
It’s possible fans and fight company brass alike have reached their breaking point with his propensity to fall out of high-profile bouts. If he means to preserve his hard-won status as one of the world’s elite lightweights, something has to change—and fast.
Nurmagomedov’s career has already been plagued by long periods of inactivity. All told, he’s fought just three times during the last three-and-a-half years, while missing most of 2014 and all of 2015 due to various injuries. He’s had proposed meetings with stars like Gilbert Melendez, Donald Cerrone and now Ferguson all fall through for one reason or another.
Though he’s won all the fights he has had to this point, this habit of not fighting must now be considered Nurmagomedov’s defining characteristic.
Fans are understandably frustrated and the list of top fighters saying they’d be hesitant to sign on for a clash with him is mounting.
Take comments this week from Ferguson and former champ Eddie Alvarez during appearances with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour, via Bleacher Report’s Scott Harris:
These sentiments echo those of lightweight champ Conor McGregor, who said after defeating Alvarez for the title at UFC 205 that Nurmagomedov needed to show more consistency if he wanted to earn his own championship opportunity:
Adding to the general fog of doubt around Nurmagomedov are recent quotes attributed to his father, reportedly telling Russian language media outlet Life.ru in late February his son’s MMA career may already be almost over.
“I don’t want to upset any fans but Khabib is 28 years old and by 30 he has to finish his career …,” Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov said, via Bloody Elbow's Karim Zidan (translation by Egemen Birben). “I want him as a healthy, thinking person. I want him to develop other fighters. In such a big sport, a career between 24-30 years old is enough.”
Add to all this UFC President Dana White’s exasperated comments to Fox Sports' Megan Olivi that Nurmagomedov’s team “went rogue” and took him to “some random hospital” in Las Vegas when his weight cut for the Ferguson fight turned bad and a disquieting picture starts to emerge.
It’s possible Nurmagomedov quickly rehabilitates himself from this latest setback. Maybe he still fights Ferguson later this year, wins an interim title and sets himself up as the man to beat if-and-when McGregor and the UFC eventually come to terms on a return.
But that no longer feels like the guaranteed outcome.
It seems just as likely now that Nurmagomedov never fulfills the promise of his early UFC career. Heck, it no longer feels certain he’ll remain active long enough to make the kind of impact we once expected from him.
Even if he does, he might not end up doing it in the Octagon.
Under the management of new UFC owners at WME-IMG, we’ve already seen a few top international fighters leave the organization. Highly regarded 26-year-old flyweight Kyoji Horiguchi departed the UFC and signed with Japan's RizinFC last month. Nine-time UFC veteran light heavyweight Nikita Krylov, 25, chose to eschew a renewed contract and instead inked a deal with Russia’s Eurasia Fight Nights promotion.
The fact is, we’re not yet sure what exactly WME-IMG wants from the UFC’s stable of fighters or whether a guy like Nurmagomedov fits in, despite his popularity among MMA aficionados.
With MMA on the rise across the Atlantic, who’s to say a fighter as talented as Nurmagomedov won’t soon be able to make as much or more money fighting closer to home as he can in the new UFC?
And if his relationship with the American fight company remains rocky, who’s to say he won’t take it?
These are unprecedented times in this sport. It’s getting more and more difficult to predict even the immediate future.
One thing that takes no guesswork is that when Nurmagomedov is healthy and available, he’s one of the best lightweight fighters in the world.
If he wants to keep it that way, however, the rest of 2017 will be pivotal for him.
He’ll either prove he was worthy of the early hype or risk losing it forever.