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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 10 December, 2018

Khabib Nurmagomedov: From wrestling bears to conquering the UFC

Conor McGregor will aim to give the UFC lightweight champion his first taste of defeat on 6 October.

HIS RIVALS AND detractors have often accused him of hand-picking opponents but, to Conor McGregor’s credit, the announcement of his latest bout is testament to his willingness to take on the toughest of challenges in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Where McGregor is vulnerable, his next opponent is at his most dangerous.

MMA 2016 - UFC 205 - New York Conor McGregor, who'll face Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229. Source: Jason Silva

In the main event of UFC 229 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the Dubliner will aim to regain the UFC lightweight belt from reigning champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.

While McGregor has assembled an impressive highlight reel of knockouts over the course of his mixed martial arts career, the holes in his game have occasionally been exposed at the highest level.

Chad Mendes, the man with the most legitimate wrestling calibre that McGregor has faced so far, executed four takedowns when the pair met in July 2015, before McGregor eventually stopped Mendes with strikes late in the second round.

But when it comes to opponents within McGregor’s domain who possess the attributes to exploit his weaknesses, it’s difficult to think of anyone more capable of capitalising than Nurmagomedov.

A 29-year-old native of the Russian Republic of Dagestan, Nurmagomedov has wrestled his way to the summit of the UFC’s 155-pound division. He has dominated opponents, although ‘The Eagle’ has shown along the way that he too is by no means flawless, despite what the numbers on his record might suggest.

Boasting an unblemished ledger at 26-0, Nurmagomedov began his professional MMA career 10 years ago and made his debut for the UFC — for whom he has competed 10 times — in January 2012, when he submitted Kamal Shalorus.

His grounding came via judo and sambo which he learned from his father, under whom he continues to train. But nowadays Nurmagomedov’s training camps are conducted at American Kickboxing Academy in California, where he shares the mats with an array of current and ex-UFC champions including Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez and Luke Rockhold.

After signing with the UFC, Nurmagomedov gradually established himself as a promising prospect. The emergence of objectionable footage of a nine-year-old Nurmagomedov wrestling a chained-up bear cub understandably wasn’t well received by animal rights activists, but it did achieve its aim of enhancing his reputation among fight fans.

Source: Sadam Astamirov/YouTube

In his fourth outing in the octagon — a unanimous-decision win over Abel Trujillo in Las Vegas in May 2013 — he managed to successfully execute a remarkable 21 takedowns in three rounds, which set a new UFC record.

Even then there was almost a sense of inevitability about his ascent to the title, but the victory against Trujillo also illustrated one of several reasons why it took Nurmagomedov over six years in the UFC before he eventually got his hands on the belt.

Cutting weight has been problematic for the current champion. As well as exceeding the limit for the fight with Trujillo, a botched weight-cut saw him hospitalised just two days before a March 2017 interim title bout against Tony Ferguson, which was subsequently cancelled.

Nurmagomedov was relatively active during his first few years on the UFC’s roster, but a big win over Rafael dos Anjos — who later went on to clinch the lightweight title — was followed by a two-year spell on the sidelines due to knee injuries which forced him to withdraw from two separate bookings with Donald Cerrone and another previously scheduled fight against Ferguson.

Nurmagomedov’s devotion to his religion has also impacted his schedule. As a devout Sunni Muslim, he is unable to compete during, and in the initial aftermath of, Ramadan. In 2016, he received an apology from EA Sports as a result of a blunder in the company’s UFC 2 video game, which showed him celebrating a win by giving himself a Christian blessing.

He delivered one of his most impressive performances last December by dominating Edson Barboza over three rounds. It was vintage Nurmagomedov, as he succeeded with takedowns before controlling his opponent on the ground with smothering pressure from top position.

“I want to see him fight someone who can give him a challenge because he’s just been walking through guys for the last four years or so,” UFC analyst and former title challenger Kenny Florian said of Nurmagomedov afterwards. “I don’t see anyone who has a game right now who can beat him. I really don’t.”

Khabib Nurmagomedov Khabib Nurmagomedov sporting his trademark papakha, a traditional hat in the Caucasus region. Source: Chris Young

Nurmagomedov and McGregor may share a rivalry now, but things weren’t so heated in September 2014 when the pair first met in Las Vegas. After McGregor’s win over Dustin Poirier, Nurmagomedov shared a photo of himself with ‘The Notorious’ on Twitter, praising his “unbelievable” performance in his first-round TKO win.

Back then, McGregor was still fighting at featherweight so he wasn’t an obstacle for Nurmagomedov in his pursuit of the lightweight belt. But that changed in 2016 when the Irish star leapfrogged the Russian in the 155-pound division by being handed an immediate title shot, which he made the most of by dethroning Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden.

Tensions between the pair came to a head in Brooklyn in April when McGregor and several associates attacked a bus carrying UFC fighters, including Nurmagomedov.

It’s understood that the attack was carried out in retaliation to an incident that occurred days earlier, in which Nurmagomedov and members of his team cornered Artem Lobov — McGregor’s Straight Blast Gym team-mate — in a hotel corridor.

McGregor will subsequently have to undertake anger management classes and five days of community service after reaching a plea deal at Brooklyn Criminal Court last month.

When Nurmagomedov captured the vacant lightweight title a couple of days after the bus attack, it was another comprehensive victory on the scorecards but the performance wasn’t quite as convincing against Al Iaquinta, who was a short-notice replacement following the late withdrawals of both Tony Ferguson and Max Holloway.

Nurmagomedov used his wrestling to control the opening two rounds, but he then sought to defy the limitations of his striking game by appearing content to keep the fight standing. Fortunately for him, Iaquinta was unable to pose him too many problems.

That won’t be a concern for McGregor, whose gameplan will be based on picking off his opponent with punches and kicks from a relatively safe distance while guarding against the relentless threat of Nurmagomedov’s takedown attempts — an approach Michael Johnson had success with in the first round of his November 2016 bout against the current lightweight champion.

Between the wrestling game that has yet to fail Nurmagomedov, and McGregor’s spectacular and varied striking arsenal, this match-up brings together two fighters who are stylistically poles apart. An intriguing contest awaits.

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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