When Khabib Nurmagomedov arrived at the American Kickboxing Academy during the summer of 2012, he spoke almost no English.
The language barrier made communicating with his new coaches tough. Their interactions couldn't progress much beyond the purely physical. As soon as head coach Javier Mendez got Nurmagomedov on the mats, however, he says one thing was clear about the Russian fighter.
This guy went hard. Maybe too hard.
Mendez tells Bleacher Report he was constantly reminding Nurmagomedov to slow down, to take it easy. "Khabib, relax," he would say. "Khabib, relax!"
The San Jose-based camp had long specialized in turning high-level grapplers like Nurmagomedov into MMA champions. Its roster boasted current and former UFC titlists like Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez and Luke Rockhold. However, Nurmagomedov's intensity seemed to be on another level. Every time Mendez told him to "relax," he only worked harder.
"I'm like, 'What is wrong with this guy?'" Mendez says. "It wasn't until about a year later that he said: 'Coach, remember when you used to tell me to relax? I thought 'relax' meant 'harder.'"
Ah, the joys of being an internationally renowned MMA trainer.
Back in those days, Nurmagomedov was still just an up-and-coming prospect. He was a 23-year-old rookie making the transition to professional fighting after twice winning world championships in combat sambo. He'd already put up a 16-0 record on the Russian MMA scene but had just one previous appearance in the UFC—a third-round submission win over journeyman Kamal Shalorus—and was still relatively unknown in the United States.
It didn't take long for Mendez to realize he had another potential future champion on his hands.
"Right away he just dominated everybody on the ground," Mendez says. "His stand-up was very, very, very green. It was actually nonexistent, but his ground game was phenomenal. Nobody could deal with him on the ground. Nobody."
Six years and nine fights later, Nurmagomedov has advanced to 26-0 under the tutelage of Mendez and the AKA coaches. In April, he won the UFC lightweight title with a lopsided unanimous-decision victory over Al Iaquinta at UFC 223.
Nurmagomedov's English, too, has come a long way. He's conversational now, if not exactly fluent. He has also positioned himself as the chief rival of megastar Conor McGregor. The pair's 155-pound title fight Saturday at UFC 229 is expected to be the organization's top selling pay-per-view event of all time.
Yet, if there's anything that remains instructive about Nurmagomedov's first days at AKA, it's this: Even now that he is champion, many American fans regard him as an enigma.
With the biggest fight in UFC history just a few days away, it can still be difficult to get your arms around the mysterious Nurmagomedov. Who is this guy, really? Where is he from? And how has he been so good while cutting a swath through MMA's most competitive division?
Here's a look at the UFC's best but least known champion.
Nurmagomedov was born in the village of Sildi in Dagestan, the tiny, mountainous Russian republic located in the North Caucasus region along the western coast of the Caspian Sea. Dagestan's neighbors include Chechnya and Georgia, and since 2000, guerrilla warfare has spread across the border from Chechnya.
"Dagestan is one of the most troubled republics in the Russian Federation," says journalist Karim Zidan, who writes extensively about the intersection of politics and combat sports in Russia and elsewhere. "It has the highest rate of terrorist crimes within the country and has been battling Islamic insurgency and militancy for the past two decades."
When Nurmagomedov was a boy, his family moved to Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital city. His father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, is an army veteran and accomplished coach who turned one floor of the family home into a gym.
Partly because of the deteriorating social situation in Dagestan, Zidan says the local government encouraged parents to enroll children into state-sponsored sports programs like wrestling, judo and sambo. Nurmagomedov excelled as part of this system, earning the rank of "International Master of Sports" in four different martial arts disciplines and competing at the national level in freestyle wrestling.
"My father has invested a lot of time and energy in me," Nurmagomedov told Sherdog's Tim Leidecker in 2013. "It is because of him that I am the man I am today. I spent my childhood in the gym, although I fought quite a bit in the streets as well."
Nurmagomedov began his professional MMA career at age 20 in September 2008. A month later, he claimed the Pankration Atrium Cup by winning three fights during a one-night tournament in Moscow. Over the next three years, he would compete in Russia and Ukraine, going undefeated and winning 12 of his 16 fights via stoppage.
He was equally impressive in early UFC fights against established veterans like Shalorus, Gleison Tibau and Thiago Tavares. Nurmagomedov became the highest-profile member of a rising tide of Russian fighters who've impacted the landscape of MMA in recent years.
He quickly earned a following among hardcore fans for his deadpan trash talk and relentless, grappling-based fighting style. One of the first things that truly set him apart, though, was a bizarre home video that surfaced early in his UFC career, which appeared to show a young Nurmagomedov wrestling with a bear cub.
Nurmagomedov and his father have both confirmed that's him in the video, and his father's explanation for it seems straightforward enough.
"In the end, this was a test of character more than exercise," Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov told a Russian language media source, as translated by Zidan for SB Nation's Bloody Elbow in 2015.
Although he's been slowed by injuries, Nurmagomedov has yet to meet his equal inside the cage. His defeat of Iaquinta in a short-notice bout in April made him the first Muslim champion in UFC history. Mendez says the fighter is very proud of this accomplishment, though the organization itself hasn't exactly shouted it from the rooftops.
He's going off as a slight favorite over McGregor, according to OddsShark, and it remains to be seen what role Nurmagomedov might play in the UFC if he manages to beat its biggest star in the most watched fight in promotional history.
The fact that Nurmagomedov has advanced this far in his Octagon career while remaining a mystery to fans may not be an accident. It could be he wants it that way, Zidan says.
"It's by design," Zidan says. "He is extremely private about his personal life and has managed to separate it entirely from his professional endeavors. Most MMA fans are not aware that Khabib is a father because he rarely speaks about it. He has also never mentioned his wife and is never seen in public with her. This, in part, is due to his upbringing in the North Caucasus, where tradition demanded a certain level of masculinity and patriarchy. It has certainly contributed to his mysterious persona."
Yet it's tough to fight McGregor and remain a private person. At the pair's first press conference Sept. 20, McGregor laid into Nurmagomedov on a number of personal fronts.
The former champ brought up Nurmagomedov's father posting a picture of Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov on social media, questioned Nurmagomedov's association with manager Ali Abdelaziz and the figher's financial relationship with Dagestani billionaire Ziyavudin Magomedov.
Magomedov, an MMA enthusiast, paid Nurmagomedov a salary for being president of his Eagles MMA fight club, bankrolled some training camp expenses and paid for Nurmagomedov's surgery in 2017, according to Zidan. In March, Magomedov was arrested in Russia and charged with embezzlement and racketeering. He remains in detention.
Neither Nurmagomedov nor Mendez says he was surprised McGregor brought family and politics into publicizing this fight. Mendez says any human being would be agitated by McGregor’s antics, but he thinks Nurmagomedov is uniquely suited to mentally stay above the fray.
"I'm a little bit [angry], but I can control my emotions," Nurmagomedov told ESPN's Brett Okamoto this week. "He can say whatever he wants. ... I don't care what he's talking about. I know who I am. I know. My friends know, my family knows, my close people know who I am."
The one thing that does seem to be troubling Nurmagomedov leading up to this fight is that his father won't be there to cheer him on. Despite the fact that he's visited his son in America before—once staying as long as a month, Mendez says—Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov is being denied a visa to enter the U.S.
Now that language is no longer an issue, Mendez says he's gotten to know Nurmagomedov well over the last half-dozen years. He describes the man as loyal, respectful and humble. He says he's very much his father's son, with Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov's reputation as a coach and a master strategist having rubbed off on Nurmagomedov.
Above all else, Mendez says he's proud to have Nurmagomedov in his gym.
"He will do all the right things for his family," Mendez says. "He's the type of person who will take care of his friends. He's shown that time and time again. Everybody loves Khabib."