Khabib Nurmagomedov wants to move past any controversy surrounding his career now that he’s once again shown why he’s widely regarded as one of the best in the world at 155 pounds.
“The Eagle” dominated Edson Barboza in the UFC 219 co-main event on Saturday, showing off both his trademark grappling and his toughness as he waded through the Brazilian’s dangerous strikes to get the fight down to the mat where he pummeled Barboza relentlessly for the majority of their three-round contest en route to a unanimous decision victory.
At the evening’s postfight presser, Nurmagomedov spoke about what’s changed for him in the 13 months since he last fought.
“Between every fight I improve myself,” Nurmagomedov said. “This is what I’m talking about and when I go to the cage today I show how I improve my striking game, my relaxing, because relaxing is most important. When you go to the cage, you have to fight relaxed. But you cannot be relaxed if you don’t compete with high level guys like in training, in sparring, you have to fight with high level guys. After, confidence is coming.
“I feel my time has come. I’m 29 years old. I feel great everywhere, about my power, about my grappling, my wrestling, my striking, and I think a couple of times people thought Barboza was going to kick me, but I kick him too.”
There wasn’t any question that Nurmagomedov’s meeting with Barboza would be a classic striker vs. grappler matchup, and early on it looked like the striker might actually come out on top as Barboza chipped away at Nurmagomedov with leg and body kicks. However, Nurmagomedov was able to avoid or block Barboza’s most damaging shots and he explained that his mental approach was just as important as the physical.
“I think if you go into the cage with Edson and you don’t worry about these kicks, you’re not a smart fighter,” Nurmagomedov said. “Always, all the time, when he kick me, it landed on my knee, my legs, my elbow, I feel pain, but I think about why I come inside the cage. Of course, I know he’s going to kick me. This is not enough. He’s gonna knock me out, I have to keep going.
“When he kick me a couple of times, I think about, ‘Oh, tomorrow, I don’t want to feel pain tomorrow when I go back to Moscow, back to Russia, I don’t want to feel pain inside that plane, like 15 hours thinking about this.’ I think about this inside the cage and I have to change something. I want to give him respect, big respect. I tried to finish him, but he’s a very tough opponent.”
Now 25-0 as a professional, Nurmagomedov doesn’t see anything stopping him from claiming his spot at the top of the lightweight mountain, whether it’s against undisputed champion Conor McGregor or interim champion Tony Ferguson.
While there’s reason for skepticism given that Nurmagomedov has had various maladies remove him from bouts in the past (most recently, his title fight with Ferguson at UFC 209 this past March was canceled when Nurmagomedov was hospitalized due to complications related to his weight cut), he’s hoping that 2018 will bring good fortune and allow him to compete more than twice, something he hasn’t done in a calendar year since 2013.
“I never have problem with weight cut,” Nurmagomedov said. “My problem, my number one enemy is injuries because I train so hard. I’m not training like other UFC fighters. I’m training so hard and my training partners know, my close people know about this, and the last couple of years I tried to change something and I think I do this very well and I changed a lot of things, but I never have problem with weight cut. Now I’m healthy. For this camp, I’m in my healthiest period ever, like everywhere I’m healthy, inside, outside, knees, back, everything is healthy and when I begin this training camp I feel good and this is why I make weight.
“When I’m healthy, I always make weight, but now I hope next year I’m gonna stay busy, stay healthy, no injuries, and I want to fight April, May, before Ramadan. After, I want to fight September and I want to fight December. This is my plan. I want to fight in 2018, three times.”