Fighting number three-ranked Edson Barboza at UFC 219 on Saturday night, undefeated Russian lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov faces more than just a high-level striker – he heads into the bout knowing his career depends on it.
The day after Nurmagomedov submitted Michael Johnson in the third round of their Preliminary Card bout of UFC 205 last year at New York's iconic Madison Square Garden, he found himself propelled to a whole new level of popularity.
However, it wasn't the Russian’s dominant performance that made the headlines, but rather his post-fight interview.
Demanding a title shot with Conor McGregor, whom he had called “chicken” on numerous occasions for tapping out earlier the same year, Nurmagomedov instantly earned a whole new group of fans, especially among those who were less than impressed with the brash Irishman.
His new role of McGregor’s chief antagonist gained Nurmagomedov attention he had previously not known, despite a perfect record of 8 and 0 inside the UFC – without losing a single round in the world's strongest MMA promotion – as well as an undefeated record in all of his 24 professional MMA fights.
Returning home to Russia, the former Sambo world champion from Dagestan soon realized that he couldn’t walk around the streets like a regular person anymore, with crowds of fans mobbing him and asking for autographs and pictures at every public appearance.
This level of popularity also now followed him in all major Russian cities, as well as those in former USSR states, which he also visits fairly frequently.
On top of this recognition from fans, Nurmagomedov was chosen as the president and leader of the newly formed ‘Eagles MMA’ team containing some of the best Russian fighters, which took its name from his fighting moniker, ‘The Eagle’.
The team's sponsor, a fellow Dagestani, Ziyavudin Magomedov, the head of the private investment company Summa Group, and who had been helping Nurmagomedov even before that, now seemed to expect nothing but a UFC championship belt from his protégé.
The opening of the state-of the-art Eagles MMA Gym in Moscow’s Fili-Davydkovo district was duly planned for the beginning of April 2017, just a month after a scheduled fight with Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight belt, in expectation of even newer heights of Nurmagomedov’s popularity.
As we all now know, that fight did not happen. A drastic weight cut, which resulted in Nurmagomedov's hospitalization a night before the official weigh-in, ended any chance of the much-anticipated fight happening. Fans, including those who had traveled all the way from Russia to Las Vegas for UFC 209, were again left frustrated, with the fight between the two having been scheduled and cancelled two times before – once due to a Nurmagomedov injury, and the other time because of Ferguson's fitness issues.
“I know that a lot of fans are upset with me about this and I agree with these guys. Because this is one of the biggest fights in Russian MMA. For me, I can make history, but I am going to the hospital you know,” said Nurmagomedov talking to RT Sport, taking all the blame for the situation on himself.
"This is my fault. How can I say that this is the coach’s fault or the diet guy’s fault? This is 100 percent my fault," he said in his first interview after the fight was cancelled.
Having spent all the summer restoring his health, and all the fall getting back in fighting shape, Nurmagomedov now carries significant responsibility on his shoulders heading into the fight with Barboza. All of Russia, where MMA is now said to be one of the top three sports, is looking at its most popular fighter as a representative of the nation's martial arts traditions.
Considering the time gap with Nevada, none of Nurmagomedov's team, fellow fighters, or anyone in the Republic of Dagestan are expected to get any sleep overnight between Saturday and Sunday.
Adding UFC's current rankings situation to the mix and the fact that promotion is not likely to give Nurmagomedov another title shot – in case he loses a fight after his cancelled bout due to his weight cut issues – this fight will truly be a 'now or never' moment for the 29-year-old native of the small mountain village of Sildi in Dagestan.
by Denis Geyko for RT Sport