On April 7, 2018, the night he became UFC lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov offered a clear message that the shenanigans that had plagued the 155-pound division for nearly two years were over.
“I told you guys I’m gonna change this game,” Nurmagomedov said after beating Al Iaquinta to win the vacant belt. “Now there is only one champion. No more fake champions. No more champion who never defends his title. Now UFC has a champion, and this champion wants to defend.”
Nurmagomedov’s remarks were an obvious shot at Conor McGregor, the man who had held the belt before him. As captivating as McGregor’s rise toward becoming a two-weight champion in 2016 had been, his actual reign over the 145- and 155-pound divisions was undeniably stagnant.
McGregor held the UFC’s featherweight championship for 350 days and didn’t defend it once. He held the lightweight title for 511 days, also without a single defense. Those periods of time rank fourth and second, respectively, among the longest UFC title reigns without a defense. The other two fighters on that list failed to defend their belts because of injury. McGregor was healthy.
What Nurmagomedov (27-0) was really promising back in 2018 was a new era at lightweight. Deserving contenders would no longer have to worry about never getting a shot at the title, as they had when McGregor sat on it while he was chasing bigger challengers and paydays. There would never again be the need for some “fake” interim champion. Nurmagomedov was pledging to stay busy enough to keep the division moving.
Now, 17 months since Nurmagomedov claimed the lightweight championship, it would be difficult to argue he has lived up to his promise.
He has recorded just one title defense, against McGregor in October. Immediately after that fight at UFC 229 — which, symbolically, kind of felt like the real end of the McGregor era — Nurmagomedov leapt out of the cage to confront the Irishman’s corner. That resulted in a nine-month suspension and, ironically enough, the creation of an interim lightweight title earlier this year.
On Saturday, Nurmagomedov will attempt to unify the 155-pound title once again, when he faces interim champ Dustin Poirier (25-5) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. UFC 242 is built around Nurmagomedov, who is a devout Muslim and very popular in the Middle East. Although he does not regret the actions that led to his suspension — in fact, he says he would fight McGregor on sight, on the street, to this day — he does seem eager to get back to work. To make good on what he once promised.
“Always, I want to fight,” Nurmagomedov told ESPN. “I have belt; I need to defend. Of course, in future I am going to finish [my career], but right now I am still hungry. I want to compete.”
The mere fact that Nurmagomedov is facing Poirier this weekend is a sign the division might be getting back on track. Poirier won the interim title in April by defeating featherweight champ Max Holloway. Had Holloway won, a champion vs. champion bout with Nurmagomedov would have been a blockbuster event — much bigger than this fight against Poirier. Once Poirier won, however, Nurmagomedov made no attempt to seek out a challenger with a bigger name. McGregor, by contrast, never showed interest in facing Tony Ferguson while he was champion, even though Ferguson won an interim title.
None of this is to suggest McGregor actively ducked his responsibilities as a champion. The moves he made while at the top were understandable. After winning the 145-pound crown, he immediately wanted to move up in weight and hold two titles simultaneously, something that had never been done. And when he accomplished that, he essentially willed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — a lucrative boxing match against Floyd Mayweather — to reality. But the impact those decisions had on two divisions was nevertheless a negative one.
Nurmagomedov setting his sights on Poirier — even while coming off what was the biggest fight in UFC history, against McGregor — is refreshing. But to him it’s simply the natural progression of being a champion.
“Honestly, he surprised me when he won,” Nurmagomedov said of Poirier. “I think Max Holloway is going to beat him, but he show good skills, good heart. … I think right now Dustin Poirier, he is interim champion, very tough opponent. I have to beat him.
“And after this fight, I have to fight with Tony Ferguson. I have to beat him. Make my legacy go higher with every fight.”
Every move Nurmagomedov makes between now and the end of his career will be made with that one thing in mind: legacy.
It’s why he not only accepted a fight against Poirier — the division’s obvious No. 1 contender — he wants the fight. And it’s why he’s so willing to put Ferguson’s name out there as next in line. Ferguson is on a 12-fight win streak but has struggled to capture mainstream attention for it. He’s the kind of opponent a fighter might want to duck. Nurmagomedov, however, believes a fight between himself and Ferguson is the “most important” matchup the UFC could make in any division.
“He wants to be the greatest of all time, and personally I feel with two or three more title defenses, he will,” said Javier Mendez, Nurmagomedov’s coach. “One hundred percent, he feels an obligation to the title. That’s why he doesn’t refuse challengers. The only time he won’t fight is [during the annual Muslim fasting period] Ramadan. That’s it. Other than that, [if] he’s healthy, he’s saying, ‘Let’s go.’ He doesn’t want to pick fights.”
Legacy factors into even Nurmagomedov’s decisions on sponsorship deals. Unlike McGregor, who not only pocketed plenty of sponsorship money but went so far as to start his own whiskey company, Nurmagomedov has turned down several lucrative partnerships in the past year, according to his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, solely because he felt they would demand too much of his time.
“He’s very picky about sponsors because most sponsors require appearances and time,” Abdelaziz said. “We’ve picked the right sponsors for him, certain ones that maybe don’t have as many requirements. Khabib does a lot of travel. If he starts traveling for sponsors, too, he won’t have time to train. It’s not about the money for him. He has to train.”
Attached to the legacy Nurmagomedov is trying to leave behind is one thing he says he could do without: fame. Despite his outspoken intentions to keep to himself, he has reached nearly 16 million followers on Instagram. In a recent interview with a Russian outlet, his father said he is approached every day in their Dagestani village by small crowds of people asking for financial help.
One reason Nurmagomedov trained for this upcoming fight at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, was to get away from the constant attention he receives in his home country. And even in San Jose, fans and autograph seekers regularly line up outside the gym to see him. According to Mendez, one group recently shattered a glass door leading into the gym when they found out Nurmagomedov wouldn’t be there the day they visited.
“More people show up here looking for Khabib than any other fighter we’ve ever had here,” Mendez said. “That includes Cain Velasquez, ‘DC’ [Daniel Cormier], Luke Rockhold. They come from all over the world and just stand out there, waiting for him. They’re here every day.”
Nurmagomedov has witnessed fame and money derail other champions, including his predecessor at lightweight. Why might Khabib be immune to a similar fate? The answer perhaps is contained in that promise he made in April 2018.
Despite his undefeated record, UFC title and the fact he’s coming off the biggest fight in MMA history, there’s still work ahead for Nurmagomedov. If all goes well, he would like to fight three times in the next eight months. He acknowledges that someday he will be “free” of the rigors of training he has known since he was a child — but not before his legacy is complete.
“I’m still hungry, still focused,” Nurmagomedov said. “I really want to compete with the best fighters in the world. This is why I come to UFC. This is why I sign with UFC. This is why I train all my life.”