With all the ducking and dodging that’s been going on trying to book a fight for Khabib Nurmagomedov -- the guy "nobody" wanted to meet, according to UFC president Dana White -- his Dagestani friend and fellow lightweight Rustam Khabilov is quietly hovering near title contention himself.
Khabilov was supposed to fight Raphael Dos Anjos on Feb. 22 in Las Vegas at UFC 170, but had to withdraw less than three weeks out with a broken finger. The silver lining for the UFC was that Nurmagomedov could now be paired with Dos Anjos for April 19 in Orlando. As for Khabilov? With only a minor injury, he’s ready to get back in there as soon as possible.
And now his sights are set on former lightweight champion, Benson Henderson, who just came off a controversial decision over Josh Thomson in January.
"I know Ben Henderson is a very good fighter and a lot of people don’t like to fight with him," Khabilov told MMA Fighting. "I like his fights. I think it’s a very good fight for me and the fans. If we fight I think it’ll be a very good show."
Both fighters have already set the table for the fight on Twitter, with the Russian politely tagging Dana White in his request to face Henderson. Henderson responded in kind by tweeting, "Seems like no 1 wants to play with u buddy (mysteriously), well I’ll be ur huckleberry…I’ll be ready by June."
Khabilov along with his manager Ali Abdel-Aziz, met with White on Monday. Though the meeting wasn’t about Khabilov specifically, they did hit on the possibility of a Henderson/Khabilov fight, and when it might occur.
"I would take a fight in March or April but those months are so busy," Khabilov said. "I’m ready, though. The date I think we’ll be shooting for is UFC 173 in Las Vegas. That’s what we’re hoping for, if Benson’s camp takes the fight. That’s what we asked for."
UFC 173 happens May 24 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and will be feature a headlining bout between middleweight champion Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort.
Khabilov (17-1) has strung together a nice six-fight winning streak, including three in a row in the UFC. His last fight against Jorge Masvidal at the Fight for Troops in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, took home fight of the night honors. His bout with Dos Anjos was expected to have title ramifications, though the top of the division is a little murky right now with champion Anthony Pettis injured and Jose Aldo flirting with the idea of moving up from featherweight to meet him.
The injury was miner enough that Khabilov has continued training and staying in fight shape, even as the doctors put the kibosh on him competing on Feb. 22. Should Khabilov get the Henderson fight and beat him, he hopes that the UFC considers him for a title shot -- or at least in the conversation for it.
"Yessir, if the UFC gives me a title shot, I’d take it," he said. "All my life I’ve been training for that belt."