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Usman Nurmagomedov wants challenges just like Islam Makhachev faced with Alexander Volkanovski

Usman Nurmagomedov

Usman Nurmagomedov watched his teammate and close friend Islam Makhachev battle through an extremely tough fight against Alexander Volkanovski just a few weeks before his own title defense at Bellator 292.

The champion vs. champion showdown at UFC 284 ultimately served as Makhachev’s first UFC lightweight title defense, but it was also the hardest he’s been pushed by an opponent during his current 12-fight win streak. Nothing came easy for Makhachev that night, but he still found a way to win a unanimous decision and retain his title.

“It was a great fight, the most competitive fight in Islam’s entire career, but without such competition there is no growth,” Nurmagomedov wrote about Makhachev’s win on Instagram.

As he approaches his first title defense against former UFC champion Benson Henderson on Friday, Nurmagomedov hasn’t really faced that same kind of adversity. He’s largely run roughshod over every opponent he’s faced en route to the Bellator championship.

After finishing his first three opponents in the promotion, Nurmagomedov earned a lopsided decision over Patricky Pitbull to claim his title this past November. While he’s always happy to get dominant victories, Nurmagomedov wants to eventually be pushed to his limit just like what Makhachev faced in his fight with Volkanovski.

“I think it’s very important to constantly have new challenges,” Nurmagomedov told MMA Fighting. “To have some new threshold to cross. Because if you fight the guys that are easy to beat, yeah, that’s good for your record, but it’s not helping you much to grow as a professional [fighter].

“So it’s always good to get into deep waters, to have challenging guys and to be competing with guys from the top.”

Nurmagomedov’s fight with Henderson not only serves as his first title defense, it’s also one of the first four bouts to kick off the Bellator Lightweight Grand Prix. The champion’s belt is up for grabs every time he competes in the tournament, which means Nurmagomedov may end up defending his belt three times on his way through to the finals.

While Nurmagomedov hasn’t spent much time looking at future opponents, he’s legitimately excited for the difficulties he’ll surely face over his next three fights.

“Definitely this tournament is going to be a great advancement,” Nurmagomedov said. “To be honest, I’m not really paying attention to [the other fighters in the Grand Prix]. I’m just paying attention to one opponent at a time.”

In his upcoming fight, Nurmagomedov faces ex-UFC lightweight champion Henderson, who is already one of the most seasoned veterans the 24-year-old Russian has fought.

Truth be told, Nurmagomedov admitted he wasn’t all that familiar with Henderson’s exploits when the American was considered the best lightweight in the sport, although he definitely appreciates the accolades that his opponent has achieved.

“Growing up, I didn’t have a computer or a smart phone so I didn’t have internet access,” Nurmagomedov explained. “I watched some of his fights, some rather small clips so I was aware of him. I’ve seen some of his stuff. I knew that he was a great fighter. So definitely I knew of him but I didn’t know much about his style.

“I was excited in the sense that he was a big name. Fighting with him will definitely be a good opponent in my expertise, one of the people that I fought in that sense, he is a good opponent to have.”

It remains to be seen if Henderson will present the kind of challenge that Nurmagomedov is seeking, but the champ is staying ready for whatever comes at him on Friday. If there’s any adversity Nurmagomedov has been asked about in the lead-up to this fight, it’s the fact that his cousin and longtime coach Khabib Nurmagomedov won’t be in his corner.

The legendary UFC lightweight took a step back from coaching and cornering fighters to spend more time at home with his family and focus on businesses outside of MMA. As much as Khabib’s absence serves as a question Nurmagomedov has to answer, he promised that his cousin will always be in his corner — even if he’s not in the arena.

“Khabib wasn’t present for my last fight so I wouldn’t say that it’s the first time, plus I’ve had other fights without him cornering before,” Nurmagomedov said. “We’re always in touch.

“We just communicated today. We always discuss things, the preparation, training, also with my current coach. He always helps, he kind of gives his insights and advice in terms of strategy. He’s always involved.”

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