Khabib Nurmagomedov undeterred by opponent switch ahead of UFC 223

Khabib Nurmagomedov enters the fight with a perfect 25-0 record, including nine UFC wins.
Khabib Nurmagomedov enters the fight with a perfect 25-0 record, including nine UFC wins. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Don Emmert

Conor McGregor’s reign as UFC lightweight champion won’t end quietly. His antics in Brooklyn on Thursday made sure of that.

But, make no mistake, his time is over. Khabib Nurmagomedov’s rule over MMA’s 155 pounders, on the other hand, could be imminent.

The undefeated native of the Russian republic of Dagestan will meet Max Holloway in Saturday’s UFC 223 pay-per-view main event at Barclays Center for the lightweight crown. McGregor, who has yet to defend his title since winning it at Madison Square Garden in November 2016, had already been scheduled to relinquish the crown the moment the fight in Brooklyn begins, according to UFC president Dana White.

Nurmagomedov, whose tenacious takedowns and relentless ground-and-pound tactics have keyed his nine-fight UFC unbeaten streak, told amNewYork on Monday that, thanks to his connection with Brooklyn’s sizable Russian contingent, the UFC shifted plans away from holding this event in Seattle. And while he said he loves to fight in the city, championship glory comes first.

“For me, it’s more special even [than to be fighting in Brooklyn], because I fight for the real belt,” he said. “Finally, after 10 years in MMA, I’m going to fight for the title.”

The Dagestani fighter, known to wear a traditional wool hat called a papakha — which resembles a blond wig — to the cage, values his legacy over money. He aims to make a bit of history with a win Saturday.

“It’s very important for me to become the first Russian champion, first Muslim champion,” Nurmagomedov said.

Change of plans

Originally, the 29-year-old was scheduled to face interim lightweight champ Tony Ferguson in the headliner. However, a freak injury away from training last week forced him out. In his place — on six days notice — stepped Holloway (19-3), the reigning featherweight king. He was one of the few championship-level options with a chance of getting down to the 155-pound limit for Friday’s weigh-in.

Nicknamed “The Eagle,” Nurmagomedov was surprised to hear Holloway was his new opponent. He had been scheduled to defend his 145-pound title on March 3, but an ankle injury a month earlier forced him to withdraw.

“One week ago, I watched him [on social media] drink beer, vacation, traveling,” Nurmagomedov said of his Hawaiian opponent. “And now, UFC asks him [to fight me]. I think [it was] about money.”

Still, Nurmagomedov isn’t taking his new opponent lightly. Holloway, 26, has won 12 in a row since dropping a decision to McGregor five year ago.

“I don’t underestimate this guy,” he said. “He’s a very good guy on [his] feet. Very good accuracy, boxing, good kicks, spinning back kicks. He [is] a champion for a reason. Twelve-win streak: Who, right now, has a 12-win streak?”

That said, the Dagestani grappler notes that all of Holloways biggest wins came against fighters known more for their stand-up skills.

“All these guys he beat, these guys [are] not like me,” Nurmagomedov said. “These guys [are] all striking guys. I don’t understand what he’s gonna do with my pressure, with my wrestling … I think he hopes to [land] one lucky punch.”

Nurmagomedov doesn’t know what challenges the featherweight champ can offer him due to the lack of recent footage fighting off his back. Regardless, he’s taking no chances.

“When I come to the cage, I’m going to take him serious like he [is] a black belt, [like] he’s a world champion [in] wrestling,” Nurmagomedov said.

Looking ahead

Conventional wisdom dictates the winner would want to fight McGregor later this year and clear up any doubt over who’s best in the division. Thursday’s incident, in which several videos shared on social media show the Irishman throwing a large object at a van carrying several UFC 223 fighters being transported from a media event at the arena, clouds McGregor’s future.

However, Nurmagomedov said earlier this the week he’d rather his potential first title defense come in November — at what he believes will be the third annual visit to the Garden — against all-time great Georges St-Pierre.

“I hear about Georges St-Pierre wants to fight again,” he said. “He already has [won] belts before at 170 [pounds], 185. Now, I hear he wants to fight [at] 155, and I can give him this opportunity.”

Like Nurmagomedov, St-Pierre and those close to him have spoken about wanting only to take fights that will grow his legacy. The longtime welterweight champion had returned from a four-year hiatus to win the middleweight crown in New York last November. Many, Nurmagomedov included, believe GSP would want to become the UFC’s first three-division champion.

Nurmagomedov stressed that he is not looking past Holloway, but he made it clear St-Pierre is a more appealing opponent than McGregor.

“I hope he [is] interested,” he said. “Georges St-Pierre is [a] true mixed martial artist, a legend inside the cage and outside the cage. He is [the] best UFC athlete ever, in my opinion.”

Scott’s UFC 223 championship picks

Lightweight: Khabib Nurmagomedov over Max Holloway

Women’s strawweight: Joanna Jedrzejczyk over Rose Namajunas