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Khabib Nurmagomedov: If I lose to Darrell Horcher, ‘I lose everything'

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Khabib Nurmagomedov first heard about Darrell Horcher last week.

At that point, the name didn't matter. Whether it was a rookie or a contender, a lightweight or a welterweight, Nurmagomedov simply needed to keep his dance date at UFC on FOX 19 intact. So as soon as the UFC made the offer, the decision was easy -- Nurmagomedov agreed to meet Horcher at a 160-pound catchweight and give the Octagon newcomer the opportunity of a lifetime.

"My reaction? I think, oh, I have to watch this guy," Nurmagomedov said Monday on The MMA Hour. "Who is this guy? Twelve wins, one loss? He has not bad record. He is some other promotion's lightweight champion, and I watch his fights. He's a southpaw. He has a very hard left punch, left kick. He's more of a striking guy.

"When I go to the cage, I go like (it is) a championship fight. Because if I lose this fight, I lose everything. I have to win. I cannot now relax and think, this guy is a new guy to the UFC. I don't think like this. I have to focus on my fight, focus on my opponent like [he is] ‘Cowboy' or Tony Ferguson or RDA. I have to come back and I have to win this fight."

The last time Nurmagomedov fought, he dismantled Rafael dos Anjos and made the UFC lightweight belt look like an inevitably. That was nearly two years ago. Gold seemed so close back then, Nurmagomedov could never have guessed what would come next: a endless stream of injuries and bad luck that drowned his stock and slowly killed off any momentum the undefeated Dagestani had built.

That is why Nurmagomedov pressed so desperately for the UFC to find him a replacement opponent for April 16 after Tony Ferguson withdrew due to injury on less than two week's notice.

Nurmagomedov and Ferguson were supposed to headline UFC on FOX 19 in a five-round fight that would ostensibly decide the next contender for the UFC lightweight title. However once Ferguson dropped out, Nurmagomedov didn't care who stood across from him. He just needed to feel the rush of competition again.

"I haven't fought for two years. I need to fight with somebody," Nurmagomedov said. "I need to fight because all of my fans are waiting for me to fight. My fans are tired, because for two years I haven't fought. Injured, injured, injured. This is a very hard time for me. I need to feel blood. I need to feel crazy. I need to throw somebody in the cage.

"This is not about main event or co-main event. This is about: I'm fighting or not fighting. I asked (the UFC), please, keep me on the card, because I need to come back. I need to feel the cage. I need to feel everything. I need to feel how I cut weight, everything. And I want to watch how I feel when I come back. When you're training in the gym, it's different. When you're sparring in the gym, it's different. But when you come back to the cage, this is a different time. This is a different feel. Different people. Everything different.

"This is why I asked, please, keep my fight on this card. I want to come back the 16th of April. A lot of my fans are upset and waiting for my next fight. If I have my next fight in two months, maybe my fans never believe I'll come back. That's why I need to fight the 16th of April. I want to come back."

At first, Nurmagomedov appeared to have options. As soon as news broke of Ferguson's withdrawal, Nurmagomedov's old rival Donald Cerrone volunteered his services to step in and accept the bout. The two were booked to fight twice before in recent years, however each time Nurmagomedov was forced to pull out with an injury.

This time, Nurmagomedov and Cerrone appeared on the verge of finalizing a deal to meet at UFC on FOX 19, yet things once again fell apart at the last second and the pair ended up engaging in a lengthy Twitter argument as to why. Even now, Nurmagomedov isn't sure what happened. He suspects the bout failed to come together due to Cerrone being injured, although Cerrone has adamantly denied that on social media.

"My manager called me and said, ‘hey, Donald Cerrone is injured.' But I already signed this contract," Nurmagomedov said. "The UFC sent me a contract to fight with Donald Cerrone at 170 pounds. I said, hey, let's go. I signed and I sent (it back). After a couple of hours, my manager called me and said, ‘hey, he has injured ribs.' I was very upset.

"I said, hey, I signed the contract, and I showed him. I said, show me your contract, how you signed it. But he didn't show me, and I don't understand it. Who played games, the UFC or Donald Cerrone? I don't understand, but the UFC gave me a new opponent at a catchweight, 160, and now I am focused."

The fight against Horcher may not present the same type of name cachet as one against Ferguson or Cerrone, but Nurmagomedov isn't overlooking the UFC rookie's skills.

Horcher is one of the most highly-regarded lightweight prospects fighting out of the northeast, a veteran of Bellator and the reigning CFFC champion, and Nurmagomedov is well aware of what a loss against a relative unknown would do to his title chances.

"I watched a couple fights. I don't think he's easy money for me," Nurmagomedov said. "I don't think like this. My mind thinks this is a hard fight for me, because I have to think like this. I cannot think, oh, this guy is easy money for me. I cannot. This is very bad for me. I think about this guy is very tough, this guy is a southpaw. I think about he has a very hard left punch. I think about everything, and I have plans. I have plans: pressure, move forward, dominate. And we'll see what happens after."