It’s been a long and winding path to get to UFC 229, where undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov will defend his UFC lightweight championship against former UFC lightweight and featherweight titleholder Conor McGregor. How did we get here? Yahoo Sports looks at the top 10 most important moments along the way for both competitors in the Oct. 6 bout at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, this time with Nurmagomedov:
1. The early days
Nurmagomedov’s base is the Russian grappling art of sambo. The Dagestan native was so good at the sport, in fact, that he was a two-time gold medalist at the World Championships in Kiev in 2009 and Moscow in 2010. Those medals, though, came after he had already debuted as pro mixed martial artist. Nurmagomedov turned heads by winning three times in one night in the Pankration Atrium Cup in Moscow on Oct. 11, 2008, and needed just over three years to blitz to a record of 16-0 before getting the call from the UFC.
2. Nurmagomedov’s UFC debut
Nurmagomedov had quite a bit of buzz with hardcore fans when he made his UFC debut on the undercard of the first UFC on FX card on Jan. 20, 2012, in Nashville. And “The Eagle” lived up to his hype against former WEC headliner Kamal Shalorus. Nurmagomedov dropped Shalorus early with an uppercut and instantly started his trademark aggressive ground assault. Shalorus escaped that time, but the scenario kept repeating itself until Nurmagomedov sunk in a rear-naked choke and got the tap at 2:08 of the third round.
3. The UFC’s most-ducked fighter
Nurmagomedov continued to slowly work his way up the ranks, but the best fighters at 155 pounds all seemed to have other things do when presented the chance to fight the rising Russian. Undaunted, Nurmagomedov started rattling off wins, including a victory over Abel Trujillo at UFC 160 in which he landed a record 21 takedowns over three rounds; and had a memorable slam of Pat Healy over the course of a one-sided decision win at UFC 165. Nurmagomedov was next linked to fights with big names Gilbert Melendez and Nate Diaz, neither of which came to fruition, which caused the Russian to comment “If they want, I’ll take them on both at once in the cage.”
4. Victory over Rafael dos Anjos
He finally got a name opponent at UFC on Fox 11 on April 19, 2014, when he met future UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos in Orlando. Nurmagomedov was his usual wolverine-like self against dos Anjos, and survived a hairy moment in the second when RDA sunk in a guillotine choke. But he survived and shut dos Anjos down the rest of the way to earn 30-27 scores across the board. That marked dos Anjos’ only loss in an 11-fight stretch which led him to the lightweight crown.
5. Injuries and thoughts of retirement
While the win over dos Anjos appeared to put Nurmagomedov square into the lightweight title picture, injuries nearly derailed his career and it would be nearly two years before he returned to the cage. The Russian was twice expected to face Donald Cerrone, at UFC 178 and 187, and both times knee injuries kept him out. Then he busted a rib, causing him to pull out of a fight with Tony Ferguson scheduled for Dec. 2015. The latter injury caused the then-25-0 Nurmagomedov to say on “I’m not sure if I will ever be back” on Instagram:
Хочу извиниться перед моими болельщиками, я сломал ребро и опять выбыл с боя, я очень хотел вернуться, я не уверен вернусь ли я вообще когда нибудь, спасибо большое Всем моим болельщикам, моим спонсорам, хвала Аллаху в любом положении. I want to apologize to my fans. I broke my rib, and again I am out of the fight. I really wanted to come back, I'm not sure if i will ever come back. Thanks to my fans and my sponsors. Praise to Allah. #Alhamdulillah #khkmmateam #reebok #ufc
A post shared by Khabib Nurmagomedov (@khabib_nurmagomedov) on Oct 29, 2015 at 10:31pm PDT
6. Tony Ferguson saga begins
Rarely has a fight between two fighters as talented as Nurmagomedov and Ferguson been teased to MMA fans so often without being delivered. The two superlative lightweights were first linked at “The Ultimate Fighter 22” finale, but the previously mentioned rib injury shelved Khabib. Then Ferguson had to pull out of the rescheduled date due to a lung issue. As the duo continued climbing the ranks, however, it was clear the fight would have to be signed again somewhere down the road.
7. Khabib shines at MSG
Nurmagomedov’s injury return was a one-sided victory over Darrell Horcher, a last-minute replacement for Ferguson, at UFC on Fox 19 in April 2016. Then, “The Eagle” returned at the legendary UFC 205 in November 2016, the company’s long-awaited debut at Madison Square Garden, which was headlined by Conor McGregor’s victory over Eddie Alvarez to claim the lightweight belt. Nurmagomedov not only absolutely pummeled one of the sport’s toughest fighters in Michael Johnson before submitting him in the third, but he also had a dialogue with UFC president Dana White, who was seated cageside, while he dished out the ongoing beating. The evening’s events led to chatter of a McGregor-Nurmagomedov fight on a mass scale for the first time.
8. UFC 209 fiasco
The fourth attempt at Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson happened when the duo were scheduled to fight at UFC 209. With McGregor angling for a fight with boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather Jr., the UFC created an interim lightweight belt which was supposed to go to the winner. Nurmagomedov fell ill during his weight cut, however, and had to be pulled from the bout. Ferguson would go on to fight and defeat Kevin Lee for the interim belt at UFC 216; while Nurmagomedov changed nutritionists and had no problems weighing in for his next fight. Speaking of which …
9. UFC 223 fight week bedlam
Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov was put on the schedule an astonishing fifth time, this time as the main event of UFC 223 in Brooklyn. The full championship was on the line, as McGregor had been stripped of the belt due to inactivity. Ferguson, however, tripped over a production cable on the Fox lot during a media tour of Los Angeles and suffered a torn LCL. Featherweight champion Max Holloway stepped in on six days’ notice, only to be pulled from the bout by UFC doctors during his weight cut. Nurmagomedov ultimately fought Al Iaquinta and scored a dominated five-round win to claim the title and improve to 28-0.
10. The van attack
Of course, we skipped over a detail during an insane week in Brooklyn, but that’s because it merits its own mention. A few days before UFC 223, Nurmagomedov and his crew had a run-in at a hotel with McGregor’s friend and confidante, Artem Lobov. McGregor responded to this by chartering a private jet with a posse of friends and wreaking havoc on UFC 223 media day. McGregor and Co. attacked a van carrying Nurmagomedov and several other fighters on the card, shattering a window with a thrown cart and injuring several competitors. McGregor was charged with a felony and three misdemeanors as a result. He pleaded no-contest to the charges and was ordered to undergo community service and attend anger management classes. Meanwhile, while UFC president Dana White referred to the incident as “disgusting,” this being the fight game, the footage of the incident has been incorporated into promotion for UFC 229, which many expect will be the biggest-selling in UFC history.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Fitz’s jersey put in Hall of Fame at most ironic time
• Fan hit at Ryder Cup said to have lost sight in right eye
• Kanye’s new sneakers may be banned by NBA
• MLB postseason predictions: Experts pick wild-card winners