Khabib Nurmagomedov, MMA's Bogeyman, Is Coming for Conor McGregor and UFC Gold

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterDecember 28, 2017

Khabib Nurmagomedov, of Russia, speaks with the media during a news conference for UFC 209, Thursday, March 2, 2017, in Las Vegas. Nurmagomedov is scheduled to fight Tony Ferguson in a lightweight fight Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

Every culture has a bogeyman, part myth, part monster, a terrifying reminder to children of the evil lurking in the hearts of men.

In Spain it's the "Sack Man," a vagrant who steals into the homes of naughty children, whisking them away from the only life they've known. In the Netherlands, the Boeman hides under the bed, claws and fangs grotesquely long and sharp. In the mountains of Afghanistan, the Madar-i-Al, a hideous hag, comes to punish the uncooperative in the dark of night.

The story is universal because humanity needs an outsider, even in allegory, to set things right. Everywhere across the planet, regardless of race, religion or language there are bad kids and lessons that need learned.

If you ask hardcore fans, the UFC is no different.

The fighters, they believe, have gone mad with power. Conor McGregor's emergence as a power brokeran athlete who only fights when and who he wantshas created chaos, with fighters demanding "money" fights and the sanctity of the ranking system called into question.

The internet is awash with fighters trying to do their best McGregor impression, perhaps forgetting the "Notorious" one only entered into legend after running over every featherweight in the world like a green, white and orange freight train.

The idea of the best fighting the best to establish primacy seems dangerously outdated, if not downright antiquated.

But a bogeyman lurks at lightweight, here to set things right. His name is Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0). And he is a very dangerous man—perhaps, just the man to return mixed martial arts to its default state.

On the surface, such a claim is absurd. This is a sport of mean mugs and muscles that bulge, a sport where the trash talk and tattoos are equally loud. 

Nurmagomedov, who fights Edson Barboza at UFC 219 Saturday on pay-per-view, fits none of those stereotypes, to the point his rejection of the current culture is a running joke. He's confident, not cocky, strong without being veiny. Muscle and Fitness isn't likely to be calling anytime soon. Neither is Saturday Night Live.

His is a power transported in time, the old-school kind developed by men like his father, Abdulmanap, a former wrestling, sambo and judo champion who grew strong tossing other men around because there was simply not much better to do.

"When Khabib gets a hold of people, they look surprised," UFC announcer Joe Rogan told me. "It's almost like they are shocked by how strong he is."

It's little wonder, then, that a young Khabib grew up learning the tools of combat, taking his first steps on the wrestling mats, navigating the world between the legs of his father's pupils who lived and trained on the first floor of his family's home. 

Theirs is a martial culture, where fights on the street are frequent and terror attacks and violence are a constant threat; where, as a boy, he once famously wrestled a bear like a seven-year-old circus strongman.  

There's something old school about Dagestan, Russia, where Khabib grew up, too. Nestled in the Caucus mountains near the Caspian Sea, it's home to the forever war, where Muslims such as Nurmagamedov have been fighting off a series of invaders from the Mongols to Peter the Great.

Until recently, a battle has raged against Vladimir Putin's Russia, the most diverse part of the country fighting off the Great Slavic North.

As Bloody Elbow's Karim Zidan explained, it's a martial culture well beyond the Nurmagomedov homestead:

"Khabib's upbringing was not particularly unique among Dagestani families. While most children did not have judo and wrestling champions for parents, almost all young boys between the age of eight and ten tested their resolve on a wrestling mat. Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap, provided a small gym that encouraged rural youth to participate in basic combat sports to build confidence, discipline, and ensure preparedness for the potentially traumatic experiences that ravished the North Caucasus. Having lived through radical fundamentalism and separatist warfare in the Chechen Wars in the 1990s, Abdulmanap took a pragmatic approach to combat sports and its pivotal role in the formation of Caucasus youth.

"'I believe every man must be ready for war … even in peaceful times,' Abdulmanap told BloodyElbow in 2015. 'It is always a topic of discussion in the Caucasus.'"

While its cultural chaos forges hard men, it's Dagestan itself that creates champions. Abdulmanap has coached many of them, with his own son being just one in an army of grappling monsters who have descended on the world of combat sports. 

"I feel the main things needed to be a successful fighter are a high level of commitment, an education, eagerness to learn all facets of the sport and a good upbringing," he told me in a 2011 interview.

"Dagestan is a mountainous country. It presents its own challenges and benefits. In the elevation of the mountains, we train for 45 days. This helps prepare a fighter and get him into as best shape as possible."

Andre Penner/Associated Press

Khabib represents his roots, from his mountain shepherd's hat to his heavy, top-control grappling game. But his journey into American mixed martial arts has required a new combat family, both to help him keep up with an ever-evolving sport and because his father has been denied a visa by the U.S. government and has been unable to corner him for any of his UFC fights.

"When I fight in USA, when I sign in 2012 to fight in UFC, he never can come and support me because we have problem with visa," Khabib told The MMA Hour's Ariel Helwani. "...I am fighting eighth time without my father. It's OK. He prayed for me, with me all the time with my heart. We talk with him everyday about my weight, my plan, my everything. My father is with me all the time, it's no problem."

In his father's absence, coaches at the American Kickboxing Academy have molded Nurmagomedov into a fiercely single-minded fighter, a throwback to a time when a single skill set could take a man far. 

Modern mixed martial arts is a sport where wrestling and grappling are typically building blocks, sturdy parts of the overall structure rarely seen unless everything else comes crashing down. In any high-level UFC fight, it is presumed, both fighters have solid grappling fundamentals.

As a result, the bulk of every fight will consist of often awkward kickboxing and toughman contest shenanigans, either dreadfully technical or borderline bar-fighting.

Khabib plays a different game, effortlessly tossing every opponent with a variety of trips, bodylocks, and single leg shots, then demolishing them with one of the greatest top games in MMA history.

"My best background is like, smash opponents," Nurmagomedov told UFC Countdown. "I all the time go forward. I all the time try to take down somebody. Make him give up. This is my style, you know. This is what I do all my life."

Nurmagomedov doesn't take an opponent down for points, then peck away fecklessly in his guard. Instead, he passes the legs quickly and smoothly, dropping furious ground-and-pound from either side control or the mount, confident enough to pursue submissions when they present themselves, knowing in his heart he can always find his way back to the top if things go awry.

As Vice's Jack Slack points out, that style doesn't just rack up points—it tends to crush a man's spirit, even those who fight for a living:

"...the real strength of Nurmagomedov's game: when he has a hold of his man. He is exceptional at shucking his way to a back bodylock and from there he will happily spend a round dragging his man to the mat, allowing them to get back up, and then either falling to the mat with them or tossing them to the mat and landing on them. Round after round in the octagon, Nurmagomedov has shown himself to be a step ahead of everyone who ends up with him around their waist.

"...And that is how Nurmagomedov wins bouts, he breaks fighters. He lets them up and he drags them down again. While he convinces opponents that his having a bodylock means the rest of the round is going to be spent on the floor."

That's not to say Nurmagomedov is hopeless in standing exchanges. There is both method and madness in his game, a combination that makes it hard for opponents to plan for him. His uppercut, in particular, is a formidable weapon, both a threat to an opponent's consciousness and a tool to stand them upright for a takedown attempt.

On the whole, he's an enthusiastic striker who often leaps in with winging hooks, counting on his speed and athleticism to bail him out of bad spots. That's not supposed to be possible at the top levels of the sport. Not in 2017, when the game has become about punishing mistakes more than anything else.

In his last fight, Michael Johnson punished Khabib's recklessness at times. The same punches landed by the incredibly disciplined McGregor would be fight-changers. His UFC 219 opponent, Barboza, is also the kind of striker who could end Nurmagomedov's march to the championship with a single blow. 

However, identifying weaknesses on video is one thing; in the cage, there is Khabib to contend with. Nurmagomedov is so good at what he does, it doesn't really matter what the other man does well.

There is only Khabib—unyielding, unflappable and seemingly unstoppable.

"You have to give up," he told Johnson in mid-fight, fists raining down like a storm. "I have to fight for the title. You know this. I deserve it." 

Actions, including a hammerlock that threatened to break Johnson's arm, eventually spoke even louder than his words. Deserve was suddenly no longer part of the equation. Khabib had earned his opportunity against the best in the world.

While no man has been his match, and that shot at the title a presumptive inevitability, Khabib's own body has continued to be his worst enemy. He's fought just three times since 2013.

In the same span, six separate fights have fallen through. The culprits have included a torn meniscus, a rib injury and, in his last scheduled bout, a last-minute hospitalization as he struggled to make weight.

"Because all my life I train hard. This is why injuries are coming," Nurmagomedov told UFC's Megan Olivi. "But now, in the last couple of years, I changed a lot of things. It's working too. Now I train a little bit smarter. I take care of myself. I'm tired of injuries and surgeries, rehab, then comeback and talk about this.

"...I feel great. I want to show I'm very excited about this comeback...I want to compete in one year maybe three or four times. This is my plan for next year. Now I'm healthy, now I feel good...I want to stay busy."

It's an awkward few minutes—answering inquiries from the press is definitely not Nurmagomedov's strong suit. Earlier in the month, he created headlines by refusing outright questions about his weight.

But the UFC he represents doesn't require a master's degree in communications to advance to the top. Khabib is at his best when mouths slam shut and the cage door opens.

Is Khabib the traditional fight star the sport needs to return to its roots? On Saturday, the time for talking is over. It's a question that can only be answered in fire and blood.


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.


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