Few fighters can truly sympathize with the plight of Khabib Nurmagomedov. It was just two years ago when the undefeated Dagestani was considered to be one of lightweight's most feared contenders. Then one injury led to another, and overnight Nurmagomedov found himself on the outside looking in -- a ghost sidelined for over 21 months while the division moved on without him, and the man he last dismantled, Rafael dos Anjos, became UFC champion.
Still, Nurmagomedov knows his story can have a happy ending. For proof, he looks no further than this past Sunday, when Dominick Cruz returned from what effectively amounted to a four-year injury layoff, shook off any leftover ring rust, and put on a brilliant performance to capture back his UFC bantamweight title from T.J. Dillashaw.
Now, with the memory of his masterwork against dos Anjos still fresh in his mind, Nurmagomedov finds himself healthy once more and ready to draw inspiration from what Cruz accomplished.
"These two years, almost two years, were very hard time for me," Nurmagomedov said Tuesday on The MMA Hour. "I think people don't understand it. I think this is understand only (by) Dominick Cruz. Dominick Cruz understands my mind, what I feel. Everything. This is only one guy who understands me, that I'm very hungry.
"I've never spoken with him, I've never meet this guy, but you know, this guy is one of the greatest of all-time and I want to meet him. I speak with Daniel Cormier about him. Daniel Cormier say he's very good guy, very humble, and he understands MMA very good. I think that's why his mental (strength), in my opinion, is very tough. Nobody can beat him about mental (strength), and I think that's why he comes back very strong."
If Nurmagomedov has one thing going for him, it's that the importance of his win over dos Anjos increased tenfold once the Brazilian unexpectedly rose to UFC gold.
The memory of that fight has kept Nurmagomedov in the lightweight title mix even during his absence, and now that he is eyeing a comeback, he hopes to do so against one of the division's top two contenders, either Tony Ferguson or Eddie Alvarez, with a shot at the belt to follow.
"I think it's better (if I fight) Ferguson," Nurmagomedov said. "Because Ferguson is on a seven-(fight) win streak. Ferguson beat (Gleison) Tibau, (Abel) Trujillo, Edson Barboza, Josh Thomson. A lot of tough guys. He finished almost all of his opponents and a lot of people are talking about Ferguson. I like challenges. I like tough opponents, and I think for me, more tough match versus Ferguson. That's why I want to take this fight."
Nurmagomedov and Ferguson were initially slated to meet on Dec. 11 at The Ultimate Fighter 22 Finale, however a rib injury led to Nurmagomedov's removal and Ferguson instead won a thrilling victory over Barboza.
Nurmagomedov and Ferguson have since called for a match-up against each other while trading barbs over social media. Nurmagomedov said he is targeting an April return date at UFC 198 for the bout, where he would likely be competing alongside his AKA teammate, Cormier.
"I want to fight same night as Daniel Cormier," Nurmagomedov said. "Because we train (together) and we are very good friends. He motivates me. I might motivate him too, sometimes. I think it's good idea and this is very big fight card, because Jon Jones versus Cormier (will be) watched (by) a lot of people. This is one of the biggest match in UFC history, the rematch. And we'll see."
If Nurmagomedov is able to land the fight he wants, he is confident that this camp will be different than his last few, all of which ended in disaster.
Nurmagomedov vowed to have changed his training methods, and after seeing the bravery with which Cruz tackled his own obstacles, "The Eagle" has no doubt that he can do the same.
"A lot of people are talking about when you are injured, when you no fight big time, you are problem," Nurmagomedov said. "Everyday I am sparring, competition with a lot of tough guys in the gym. But [the real fight] is different. When you go to the fight, this is different. I agree. But if you have mental (strength) like Dominick Cruz, like me, this is no problem for you.
"I am confident, and I know what I do. When I go to the cage, I enjoy. I love competition. I love a challenge. That's why, for me, no problem. Only what I need now, become my good shape, and that's it. And when I come back, I can beat anybody in lightweight division."
UPDATE: Ferguson has since agreed to fight Michael Johnson at UFC 197.