Last month, when the UFC visited Brooklyn, it made sure to set up a date for Khabib Nurmagomedov to visit Brighton Beach. Given the slush and cold and the assortment of papakha hats and tracksuits, it might as well have been Rostov-on-Don. His Russian faithful showed up to a little theater and enthusiastically asked questions of the Dagestani fighter — mostly about Conor McGregor, but a few regarding Tony Ferguson — which he answered in grumpy monotone.
And for a brief moment, it all became clear: So this is what the fight world would be like if Nurmagomedov were to take it over. A gray February day with some pirozhki warming over a Sterno. If the UFC ever does make it to Russia, and brings Nurmagomedov as its champion, it’s going to be a lot of strange fun.
Nurmagomedov has a chance to make a big splash at UFC 209, when he fights Ferguson in what Ariel Helwani would call the “People’s Main Event.” This is the first really big platform for fans to effectively essentialize him, in the way that McGregor was essentialized through stops in Boston and Dublin. Honestly, it’s surprising it’s taken this long for Nurmagomedov’s “it factor” to come into focus. So many its.
Nurmagomedov is undefeated in the UFC, and undefeated in mixed martial arts, which are good things. He does ridiculous stuff in the cage, sporting and otherwise. There was the time he took Abel Trujillo down something like 17,000 times, becoming a performance art piece that was all about oppression (okay, it was 21 times…but still, 21 freaking times). Once he gets an opponent on the canvas, there’s really no telling. His ground and pound is unique in that it’s both vicious and chatty, as evidenced when he fought Michael Johnson at Madison Square Garden. In between a fierce right hand and an elbow, Nurmagomedov casually told Johnson as he was slipping into survival mode, “you have to give up…I have to fight for a title…you know this…I deserve it.”
We thought Ivan Drago was cold. Khabib is machine-beating-the-chess-masters cold.
And here he is, some four months later, fighting for an interim title. We won’t call Nurmagomedov “Nostradamov” just yet, because he hasn’t ascended to those kind of “Mystic Mac” levels of psychic busywork, but if there’s a selling point for Nurmagomedov it’s that he’s preternaturally unsupernatural. Everything he does is purposeful, industrial, and comical. As in, there’s nothing fancy about smashing a face. But there is something uniquely heartwarming in hearing him talk about smashing a face. His humorlessness on topics like that are filled with mirth.
Say what you want, but that’s a rare trait.
Should Nurmagomedov beat Ferguson, in what is one of the most compelling fights on the calendar right now, the UFC will have itself another star. It’s unclear if Nurmagomedov can sell pay-per-views, but toppling “El Cucuy” in any kind of dramatic fashion, and getting on the microphone afterwards to ream McGregor as a chicken or absentee landlord (or whatever) would go a long way. Nurmagomedov has said that McGregor and Ireland are small fries next to him and Russia. When geography is part of a fighter’s corner, you’ve got the makings of something special.
The truth is, Khabib does have Russia. He has Siberia and the Road of Bones. He has Eastern Europe, and the people of the Caucasus.
Here in the States, we are just beginning to really celebrate who Nurmagomedov is. Did you see the thing The Chive did, having him try and guess the plots of specific romantic comedies? For Love Actually he said, “I don’t like watch movie about love, too much movie make your heart weak.” That is Nurmagomedov in a nutshell. Step to him with Emma Thompson, and he becomes Ivan the Terrible. There’s a market for that.
Bottom line is this: The UFC needs stars. Khabib Nurmagomedov is poised to become just that. One of the more interesting things he said at Brighton Beach last month was that if the UFC ever gets to the point where it believes McGregor is getting too big for his britches, he’s a phone call away. That’s a refreshing way of looking at it. A company hit man? Who volunteers his services to humble stars? Who’d love to bring the pestle to nine-digit dreams and turn the prince back to pauper for the sake of restoring order?
That’s the kind of thing that will translate in the fight game, no matter which language you speak. Nurmagomedov has a chance to truly arrive on Saturday night, but — even if it took a minute to see it — he’s been that guy all along.