LAS VEGAS – He will be the last man to make the long, slow walk to the cage, which will come amid an ear-splitting cacophony of boos, cheers, shouts, shrieks and music.
When Khabib Nurmagomedov gazes around after he enters the Octagon on Saturday, moments before he defends his lightweight title against former champion Conor McGregor in the main event of UFC 229, he’ll see T-Mobile Arena packed to the gills, celebrities in every direction.
It’s a place he never imagined he’d be.
He grew up in Russia, and when he made his pro debut on Sept. 13, 2008, in Poltava, Ukraine, he just wanted to get through it. Being in the biggest fight of the year, the headliner in one of the 10 richest fights of all time, was the furthest thing from his mind.
That, though, is where he finds himself, and it is the logical result of a lifetime of intense training which led to a 26-0 record and a reputation as the best grappler in MMA. Before Nurmagomedov’s arrival in the UFC, Russian fighters were rare. He shouldered the burden of the dreams not only of himself, but of others. He knew there was pressure on him to perform, because if he did, it could open the door for other Russian fighters to make their marks.
“For almost 12 years, nobody from Russia was fighting in the UFC and everybody thought it was impossible,” Nurmagomedov said. “A couple of years ago, I became 16-0 and the UFC signed. People had thought it was impossible. And when they signed me, a lot of people were going to watch. [Other fighters said], ‘If you win, a lot of us can come, too. If you lose, OK, the UFC is a different level.'”
The pressure to succeed, he admitted, was enormous. He submitted Kamal Shalorus in the third round of his UFC debut and, as his friends had predicted, it opened the floodgates. A slew of highly talented and hungry fighters began arriving in the UFC from Russia.
“I’m very proud of it,” he said of opening the door to his countrymen to the UFC. “If you can change someone’s life, why not?”
It was the challenge of a lifetime. When he arrived in the U.S., he didn’t speak English. He knew nothing about the culture. Ordering food at a restaurant was a chore.
One of the most-used apps on his phone was Google Translate.
“When I came to California, I was living alone,” he said. “I’d go to a restaurant and I would say, ‘No meat. No chicken. Fish and something vegetable. No bread, too, because I’m on a diet.’ I was nervous about it, because if she talked with me back, I wouldn’t understand her. I would take Google Translate and say, ‘My English is zero.’ I would say, I want this, this and this, without this. I had to learn, learn and learn, because I know how important English is.”
His English has become quite good, though he still doesn’t understand everything. And that has benefitted him in the build-up to the fight with McGregor, one of the best trash-talkers in combat sports history.
Prior to the news conference in New York last month, those close to Nurmagomedov urged him to ignore what were sure to be a flurry of insults from McGregor.
“When you fight a fight at this level, you have to be prepared for everything,” Nurmagomedov manager Ali Abdelaziz said. “We knew Conor was going to do that and we talked to Khabib and told him, ‘Don’t worry about what he says. He’s going to try to get you upset. Don’t allow that.’ And he was great. You saw him. He just stayed calm and didn’t get involved.”
Part of it was by design and part of it was by luck. McGregor tried everything he could. He insulted Nurmagomedov’s father. He tried to give him whiskey knowing that Nurmagomedov, as a Muslim, doesn’t drink. McGregor taunted him about meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Putin’s suite at the World Cup when Nurmagomedov was watching from the stands.
On and on he went, insults flying at warp speed from beginning to end. Through it all, Nurmagomedov kept saying, “Six October,” and smiled.
Trash-talk can be an effective tool, but it didn’t have the desired impact for McGregor. And part of the reason is something outside of his control.
“I only understood about 50 percent of what he was saying,” Nurmagomedov said.
He referred to McGregor like a drunk guy who is acting out.
“My mind says, ‘It’s OK. He can say whatever he wants,'” Nurmagomedov said. “When some guy comes to you and talks, you don’t care. You just leave it alone. My plan for that press conference, after I talked to my father, my brother, Ali, my coach Javier [Mendez], they all said, ‘You have to be relaxed. If you go back and forth with him, this is his game. Relax and focus on Six October.'”
Nurmagomedov grinned as he told of what he believes is McGregor’s latest plan. He said he has been told that McGregor is looking for compromising photos of him to show at Thursday’s final pre-fight news conference.
Nurmagomedov is hardly worried. He’s a clean-living person who is devoutly religious. He’s in the U.S. at a time when many Muslims are being discriminated against because of their religion, and hopes he can be an example to enact positive change.
He said McGregor was offering up to $10,000 for a crazy photo of Nurmagomedov he can display Thursday, but Nurmagomedov shrugged.
“You know what is interesting?” Nurmagomedov said. “I am not a prostitute like him. He’s like a prostitute because he’s got crazy pictures [of himself] with naked women or something like this. I never go to parties. I’m not like him.
“You have to understand this. He’s asking people for crazy pictures of me, but I don’t have these kinds of pictures. I’m living a different life. I follow rules, like my religion. I’m not perfect, of course. But 100 percent, I’m not like him, so he can try to do what he wants. There is nothing there.”
All the talk will soon be over and all that will matter is what happens when the Octagon door is shut.
That’s been Nurmagomedov’s refuge throughout his life, the place he’s most comfortable. It’s like a second home for him.
“He can’t talk once he’s in there,” Nurmagomedov said of McGregor. “Of course, I’m going to talk to him.”
He’ll make a king’s ransom for the effort. Abdelaziz said he expects Nurmagomedov to make at least $10 million.
While that is life-altering money, the last thing Nurmagomedov says he cares about is money. He said “good question,” when he was asked how he would make certain the riches didn’t change him.
“I know money has changed a lot of people, but I’m telling you, I don’t want to be like those people,” he said. “I don’t want to change who I am, but we’ll see. You never know, but right now, I don’t want to change. People often think, ‘Money, money, money,’ but very often, money is a crazy problem. I want to continue to be the person I am.”
More UFC 229 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• McGregor’s trash-talk game is on point
• 10 moments that made McGregor ‘Notorious’
• Khabib’s 10 defining moments en route to UFC 229
• Dan Wetzel: This time McGregor isn’t faking the hate