With momentum finally on his side, Khabib Nurmagomedov is set to break through at UFC 223

·Combat columnist

Conor McGregor casts an immense shadow over every fighter in the UFC, not just those in his division. The UFC lightweight champion – former lightweight champion? – has sold more pay-per-views in his last five bouts than anyone in the history of combat sports, other than Floyd Mayweather Jr.

With his 2017 boxing match with Mayweather included, McGregor’s last five pay-per-views have combined to sell roughly 10 million.

No one other than Mayweather and McGregor – not Manny Pacquiao, not Mike Tyson, not Oscar De La Hoya, not Canelo Alvarez nor Ronda Rousey – has ever averaged two million pay-per-view sales a fight over a five-fight span.

Doing that will frequently obscure that there are other elite talents in the division. Hardcore boxing fans knew that the welterweight division was loaded with talent before Mayweather’s 2017 retirement, but it wasn’t until after he walked away that the depth in the division came to light, with fighters like Errol Spence Jr., Keith Thurman and Terence Crawford leading the way.

So it is in the UFC’s lightweight division. Khabib Nurmagomedov has suffered not only from being in McGregor’s immense shadow, but also from frequent injuries. Every time he’s gotten close to a breakthrough, he’s gotten injured, pulled out of a fight and blunted his momentum.

He’s healthy now, though, and on April 7 in the main event of UFC 223 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn will fight for the second time in four months when he meets Tony Ferguson for the undisputed lightweight title.

Nurmagomedov took a star turn in his one-sided beating of Edson Barboza at UFC 219 in December, when his grappling overwhelmed the powerful Brazilian.

“I think the only thing that has held him back has been his injuries,” UFC president Dana White said. “His trajectory was crazy. People were going nuts about him. They tore apart the Reebok store in Russia when it opened and he was there. The list goes on and on. He has a huge following, and he was right on the brink of exploding for that Ferguson fight [at UFC 209] last year, and he had to pull out and that killed it.”

His manager, Ali Abdelaziz, said 35,000 people showed up to watch Nurmagomedov give an MMA seminar at a nutrition expo in Moscow.

He’s never looked better than he did in his fight with Barboza, when he not only walked through Barboza’s powerful strikes but landed several good punches and kicks of his own.

Khabib Nurmagomedov (R) takes a swing at Edson Barboza at UFC 219 on Dec. 30, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo)
Khabib Nurmagomedov (R) takes a swing at Edson Barboza at UFC 219 on Dec. 30, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo)

If he has a weakness – and it’s hard to say a guy has too many weaknesses when he’s 25-0 overall and 9-0 in the UFC, given how many ways there are for one to lose in MMA – it’s that his striking wasn’t as high-level as his grappling.

It may never be, but it’s vastly improved since his win over Michael Johnson at UFC 205 in New York on Nov. 12, 2016.

“He’s a perfectionist and he got hit in that fight some and he had never gotten hit before,” Abdelaziz said. “He’s spent a lot of time on his striking with Javier Mendez [of the American Kickboxing Academy] and his father [Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov]. Khabib is the kind of guy who wants to be the best in everything and after that fight with Michael Johnson, he really spent a lot of time on his striking.”

Nurmagomedov laments the injuries that have held him back, and understands it’s why he hasn’t gotten a title shot sooner.

But he said the time away has helped him to a degree.

“For me, the last three years have been very hard years,” he said. “I was always going, ‘Injury, surgery, comeback, fight. Injury, surgery, comeback, rehabilitation.’ But it’s made me stronger, both mentally and with my body.

“I’m very excited. It’s only four weeks until the fight, with a tough opponent. … The UFC in its history has never made a fight like this fight. This is a high-level fight.”

If he defeats Ferguson – and he’s a little better than 2-1 to do so – White expects his stardom to explode.

It’s his style, White said, that appeals to fans everywhere.

“When you have a fighting style like his, seek and destroy, people are going to be into you,” White said. “His last fight with Barboza was unbelievable. Barboza is nasty. He’s a very nasty striker, very dangerous, good takedown defense and Khabib walked right through his punches. Ran right through them, actually. He did whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it.

“He’s a ballsy, bad-ass fighter and people love those types of fighters. People don’t want to hear this [expletive], ‘Oh, I’m waiting my time. I want to get the right fights. I’m looking for the money fights and I’m looking for this and that.’ All that [expletive], people don’t want to hear that [expletive], Guys who do that know who they are. People hate those guys. People don’t want to watch them. People don’t want to buy their fights. Khabib is the type of fighter people love.”

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