Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 14 October 2019

Khabib Nurmagomedov interview: UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi the next stop on the road to global greatness

Unbeaten lightweight champion spoke to John McAuley ahead of his return to the octagon in the UAE capital

Khabib Nurmagomedov defends his UFC lightweight title against Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday. Getty Images
Khabib Nurmagomedov defends his UFC lightweight title against Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday. Getty Images

Even with the record, the reputation and the undoubted repertoire, Khabib Nurmagomedov feels he has a point to prove.

"Of course," the undefeated lightweight champion says, not long before this weekend’s long-awaited unification bout with interim title-holder Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi.

"I’m not like a fake champion who never defends his title. I defended one time already – this is my second. And in my division, interim champion, I don’t like this, even if they deserve it.

"I want to be undefeated, undisputed. No more interim. I want to take this. Because in the jungle there’s only one king. That’s why I have to kill this problem."

Nurmagomedov has seen off most problems encountered thus far in an already glittering professional career. Never beaten, his unblemished CV stands at an unparalleled 27-0, his most recent victory being that must-see matchup with Conor McGregor last October, when Nurmagomedov won by submission in the fourth round. Billed as the biggest fight in UFC history, it ended in acrimony, with Nurmagomedov suspended for nine months and heavily fined following a post-bout brawl.

On Saturday, the Dagestan native returns to the octagon as UFC makes its return to Abu Dhabi for the first time in five years. Staged at the purpose-built The Arena on Yas Island, Nurmagomedov defends not only that lightweight belt for a second time, but also his standing as arguably the main draw in MMA today.

He is favourite against Poirier, and sure to have “home” support at the sold-out venue, too. Nurmagomedov will draw on that, no doubt, backed by most of the 13,000-plus who snapped up tickets in record time.

As if Poirier didn’t have enough to overcome already.

“Honestly, when I fight, all my 11 fights in UFC, I never feel a crazy support from fans inside the arena,” Nurmagomedov tells The National. “But right now I feel like a lot of people are going to support me. And I’m very excited about this. Because I want to feel to it, how I’m going to feel when everybody supports me.

“I think almost 90 per cent inside the arena, because there'll be a lot of my friends from Russia, from Dagestan, fans from here in the Emirates, Arabic countries, Middle East, and I’m very excited about this.

“I don’t know about my opponent, what he’s going to feel. But Dustin has big experience, has a lot of fights in UFC. He knows that when the cage closes, it doesn’t work: it’s you and your opponent, one-on-one. Fans can't help.

“This is how I think. I don’t know how he’s going to think, and how he feels this pressure. I’m focused on myself.”

It helps that, for the first time during his march through UFC, Nurmagomedov’s father, Abdulmanap, will be in his corner. He is more than simply a concerned parent, serving as a long-time coach and regular sounding board alongside the experienced Javier Mendez.

“When father is with me I feel like I am a lion, I can’t break,” Nurmagomedov says. “To have him and Javier is a great mix.”

Abu Dhabi adds to the alchemy.

“I must say it’s been an honour for me to fight here, in front of my father, in front of my big fan base, my really loyal fans,” Nurmagomedov says. “Because this part of the world, this is different: Dagestan, Russia, Arabic countries – this is my part. When I come to the US, I feel this too, but here is much different.

“I love this place, I feel the energy. These people come to watch the fight because of me, not Dustin Poirier. It’s going to be my night, inshallah.”

Clearly, however, Poirier will have other ideas. The American, also 30, has climbed steadily through the ranks in a career dating back 31 pro fights. He is unbeaten in his past six bouts, along the way dispatching elite-level opposition in Anthony Pettis and Eddie Alvarez. In April, Poirier defeated Max Holloway on decision to claim the interim belt.

Khabib, meanwhile, hasn’t fought since October, when his success against McGregor was marred by events after the fight and his subsequent suspension.

In that regard, at least, Poirier has an edge. It is one of the reasons why Nurmagomedov does not treat his rival lightly.

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Khabib Nurmagomedov's six best fights

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"UFC asked him for every single fight and he took them, he became the UFC lightweight interim champ," he says. "He beat a lot of good guys, like Pettis, Alvarez, Holloway; all champions, calibre fighters. He deserves this fight.

"Right now, I think it’s going to be my toughest challenge. But I always think like this. I don’t want to make a mistake and underestimate this guy. I want to fight the best guys in the world and that’s why I’m here.

"It’s going to be a very good fight for me. I’m coming back after a big win, after the biggest in UFC history. People want to watch how I’m going to feel against Dustin Poirier. And people want to watch how Dustin Poirier is going to feel against me. It’s one of the biggest fights in UFC this year."

No matter what transpires Saturday, Nurmagomedov highlights what should be a memorable start to a new era for the UFC in the Emirates and Middle East. In April, the promotion announced a five-year agreement with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi. Major fights have been promised. First up, Nurmagomedov is intent on delivering.

"It’s going to be a very big deal for UFC too," he says. "They come here, they made an excellent contract for next five years. When they made the contract, Abu Dhabi said 'Khabib has to fight here', and the UFC talked to me and I said 'Yes, I want to fight there.' They really wanted to see me fight in main event. That’s why it was a big honour for me."

Get the victory, defend his crown for a second time, and maybe he could headline again. Patently, legacy is important. Yet Nurmagomedov's horizons extend beyond the Emirates.

"Why not [come back]?" he says. "But first of all we have to finish this fight. Let’s focus on this fight and we’ll see what happens in future. But if I fight in Abu Dhabi, why not next time I can fight in Africa, or Russia?

"It’s going to be big if I fight in Africa next time, maybe in [DR] Congo – Zaire – like Muhammad Ali did before. Why not? UFC has never made a big show in Africa, and I think I have a big fan base in Africa too.

"For legacy, I’m going to fight Africa, Russia, Australia next – if I fight these places it’s going to be good for me. We’ll see."

For now, though, Abu Dhabi forms his sole focus. Without question, there is pressure, as Nurmagomedov prepares to risk it all, the record and the reputation. But it drives him as well.

"If I say I don’t feel pressure it’s not true," he says. "I feel great energy and at the same time I feel a little bit pressure. Like always, when I go to the cage, I have to win."

Updated: September 3, 2019 10:58 AM

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