Khabib Nurmagomedov sat alone. Owner of a 23-0 pro mixed martial arts record, the Dagestan native was about to fight Michael Johnson on the first UFC event in the iconic Madison Square Garden in November 2016, but on this media day in New York City, the attention went to the main card fighters competing in just a few days.
Nurmagomedov, fighting Johnson on the prelims, watched quietly, wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up before the masses did come to him. In the meantime, I asked him about a childhood friend who had fought in that same building three years earlier.
Magomed Abdusalamov lost a 10-round boxing match to Mike Perez on November 2, 2013. It was a punishing bout, but not one that caused those at ringside or on press row to think anything was wrong. But everything was wrong with Abdusalamov, a married father of three daughters who suffered a brain injury in the bout.
Every time Nurmagomedov was in New York, he would visit his friend. The week before the biggest fight of his life was no different.
“When I was a kid, we lived very close and we trained in the same gym,” he said that day in 2016. “I know him a long, long time. He's a real man. I'm very upset about the situation and I hope very soon he will solve the problem with his health.”
When former middleweight boxing champion Gerald McClellan came to New York City to help honor his friend Teddy Blackburn at the Boxing Writers Association of America’s annual dinner, many of his peers visited him in his midtown hotel room. So many didn’t, though, not wanting to see what boxing had done to one of the rising stars in the sport, who was permanently injured in his bout with Nigel Benn in 1995. It was understandable, given that these were active fighters, but seeing a friend was more important to Nurmagomedov, even though he knew the danger of his chosen profession.
“Yes, I think about this,” he said. “In training, if somebody punches your head or you have tough sparring, and then you go into the fight, this is very dangerous, but I stay relaxed because everything happens because God wants it. This makes me relax. Because if God wants, you can die in the next minute. It doesn't matter. That's why I only think only about good things, because if God wants, anything can happen.”
Khabib Nurmagomedov | 2022 UFC Hall of Fame
Khabib Nurmagomedov | 2022 UFC Hall of Fame
A lot of good things have happened to Nurmagomedov since that day. He defeated Johnson, added a win over Edson Barboza, then won the UFC lightweight title by decisioning Al Iaquinta in April 2018.
What followed were three dominant finishes over Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje, his retirement from the sport with a perfect 29-0 record, and on Thursday night in Las Vegas, he will be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Of course, with the good comes the bad, and Nurmagomedov hasn’t had a fairy tale life. There was the often-ugly lead-up to the McGregor fight, which included the Irishman attacking a bus that Nurmagomedov was on; the aftermath of that bout; key injuries over the years; a fight with Tony Ferguson that never happened; but most tragically, the loss of his beloved father Abdulmanap in 2020.
Ideally, fathers and sons have a close bond, but that’s not always the case. Fortunately for the Nurmagomedovs, that bond was stronger than steel, even if Abdulmanap didn’t want this life for his son.
“My childhood was pretty normal,” Khabib told me in 2013. “My father wanted me to study, and I wanted to become a professional athlete. (Laughs) He and I always had a misunderstanding over this issue, but my father eventually realized that I had a gift for fighting and he started training me to become the world’s best in 2005.”
Abdulmanap may not have shared his son’s desire to become a pro athlete, but once Khabib’s mind was set on it, the father made sure he did get the training needed to succeed.
And it didn’t take long for Nurmagomedov to become the world’s best. By 2018, he was a world champion and a little over two years later, the question wasn’t whether he was the best lightweight in the world, but if he was the best to ever strap on the four-ounce gloves.
But back to the Johnson fight, one where many believed he was trash talking his opponent when he turned up the heat and told him to quit so he could get his title shot. Unfortunately, I never asked him about this, but I always assumed that he was telling Johnson to quit because he didn’t want to hurt him.
For such a dominant fighter, Nurmagomedov seemed to be a compassionate one, as well. Take away the McGregor fight, where “The Eagle” was intent on punishing his foe, and Nurmagomedov was either brutally efficient with his wrestling attack or dominant to the point where the finish came as soon as he wanted it to. That reminded me of boxing legend Joe Louis, who fought a friend of his, light heavyweight standout John Henry Lewis, because it was a chance for Lewis to get a substantial payday. But Lewis wasn’t big enough to challenge Louis, and “The Brown Bomber” knew it, mercifully getting his buddy out of there in a single round.
So while some competitors like the pomp and circumstance that goes along with a big fight, relish the trash talk and the gladiatorial sense of it all, Khabib Nurmagomedov just wanted to win, represent his team, and make his father proud.
Check. Check. Check.
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