Champion Khabib returns to cage, faces Gaethje at UFC 254

AP – Although Khabib Nurmagomedov hasn’t been inside the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) octagon in 13 months, the life and mind of the unbeaten lightweight champion have been fully occupied.

He was scheduled to take on Tony Ferguson in April in the culmination of their epic fighting feud, but he couldn’t get out of Russia due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nurmagomedov then endured the tragic loss of his father and lifelong coach, Abdulmanap, in July to a heart problem exacerbated by COVID-19.

Although he kept his grief mostly private, Nurmagomedov reportedly returned to training only a week after the death of his beloved father. He returns to the cage early tomorrow (2am Brunei time) to face interim champion Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi.

“Of course, it’s a little bit difficult when you have so much pressure on your shoulders,” Nurmagomedov said. “But it’s never easy.”

Nurmagomedov (28-0) achieved superstar status in 2018 by stopping Conor McGregor, and he gained worldwide notoriety a few seconds later by jumping out of the cage to fight members of McGregor’s entourage. Known mostly for his wrestling-based dominance before that raucous night in Las Vegas, Nurmagomedov’s bravado caught millions of fans’ attention, while his vocal Muslim faith endeared him to millions more sports fans not often reached by mixed martial arts (MMA).

File photo shows Russia’s Khabib Nurmagomedov fighting with Dustin Poirier during their lightweight title bout at UFC 242. PHOTO: AP

But Nurmagomedov had already earned the respect of fighters like Gaethje (22-2), who see the champion’s discipline and determination as examples. The two fighters have been mutually respectful throughout their promotion of this bout on Fight Island, the UFC’s secure Middle East bubble.

“I know he’s ultimately confident in what he does,” Gaethje said. “He’s done it 28 times. I expect him to believe that’s going to happen again. (But) I’m a performer. I always show up under the lights. I’ve been doing this as long as he has. It’s ingrained in us. I’m going to give everything I have and be proud of my performance.”

The UFC’s ninth show in the United Arab Emirates over the past 15 weeks is headlined by the single most anticipated bout in recent months, and Nurmagomedov’s global celebrity ensures it will be widely seen.

Former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker takes on Jared Cannonier in the co-main event after heavyweights Alexander Volkov and Walt Harris.

But the main event is a fascinating clash between arguably the UFC’s greatest wrestler and one of its most passionate brawlers.

Nurmagomedov’s striking abilities have been responsible for only two of his UFC victories. Instead, the Dagestan-born champion wears down his opponents with wrestling and persistent, mauling pressure leading invariably to submission wins or one-sided decisions.

“He has a lot of good skills, and everything is unorthodox,” Gaethje said of Nurmagomedov. “Everything in there is (about) timing and space, and I believe he’s world-class in that regard. Doesn’t sound like he’s planning on striking much, though. He said (we’ll spend) 25 minutes on the ground, so we’ll see.”