Khabib Nurmagomedov says he will feel pressure stepping into the Octagon at UFC 242 but has no option other than winning in front of his family, friends, and a raucous “home” crowd.
The 27-0 lightweight champion puts his gold on the line against Dustin Poirier at The Arena in Abu Dhabi next Saturday night, as the UFC returns to the UAE for the first time in six years as part of Abu Dhabi Showdown Week.
For the bulk of his career, Khabib fans from his homeland of Dagestan, as well as those in wider Russia and the Middle East, have found it difficult to follow him to the United States. But that will all change next weekend on Yas Island.
Thousands are expected to make the journey and while it will create a bear-pit like atmosphere for the American Poirier, Khabib admits there will be some nerves ahead of the unification bout.
“I feel pressure, but at the same time I feel good energy,” he told Sport360. “If I say I don’t feel pressure, it’s not true.
“A lot of people are coming here to support me. A lot of my friends are going to come and watch at The Arena.
“They all come because of me, they don’t come because of Dustin, that’s why I feel a little bit of pressure, because I cannot lose, I have to win.
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Эти сборы прошли очень хорошо Альхамдулиллах, почти 100 дней я отпахал, теперь осталась ровно неделя до боя и я готов ИншаАллагь. На следующей неделе уже сбавим нагрузки и начнётся уже целенаправленная сгонка веса. @alhadaya.ru @alhadaya_karazere #ufc242 #mma #ufc #alhadaya
“I feel here like I do at home in Dagestan. There is a pressure but as a fighter you can control pressure, stay relaxed, stay focused – this is something for champions.
“I have felt this pressure before many times, but when I got to the cage everything is going to be finished.”
In Poirier, Khabib faces a fighter who has paid his dues in a 30-fight professional career, and one who has evolved in the last three years, rising to the rank of interim champion on the back of a six-fight undefeated streak.
The Diamond, 25-5, has two losses on his record inflicted by men who Khabib has beaten comfortably. But the champion doesn’t think this has any significance going into the fight.
“If you watch the last couple of fights you will see how Dustin has improved,” Khabib explained. “He has improved a lot his striking game, his experience, his fight IQ – he has changed from when he lost to Michael Johnson and Conor (McGregor).
“I never think about these two guys finishing him, I always think this is the toughest fight of my life, and the toughest opponent of my life. Right now, I am focused and I think it is going to be the toughest 25 minutes of my life.
“I will never underestimate my opponents, and Dustin Poirier is a great fighter.”
Poirier’s striking game has improved immeasurably as his career has developed, and Khabib has been the first to compliment his skills on the feet, however he does not see this bout as the cliched grappler versus striker.
“Anything can happen,” he said. “I am ready for striking, I am ready for grappling, ready for 25 minutes, or five minutes. I am ready for anything.
“This is a high level fight with two of the best fighters in the world, you cannot say I am going to take him down and hold him for all 25 minutes, or I am going to stand with him for 25 minutes. This is a fight and in the last almost 100 days I trained so hard to focus on 25 hard minutes.”
A lot has been made of the near 12-month layoff from the Octagon Khabib has had since the well-publicised fallout following his stoppage win over Conor McGregor.
In that time, Poirier captured the interim title with a career-defining win over Max Holloway and some have questioned whether Khabib may suffer from ring rust on his return. It is something he absolutely dismisses.
“When I was injured and had three surgeries in a row, watch how I came back,” he said. “Between me and other people there is a big, big difference.
“I am the champion. I am undefeated. Why? Because all my life I am focused.
“What is going to happen on September 7, nobody knows, but my plan is to finish this guy. That’s why I am here.
“When I go to the cage with Dustin, he is going to try to finish me too but we will see what’s going to happen.”
Part of Khabib’s preparation for the fight has seen him arrive in the UAE early to finish his camp. It’s a country he feels very comfortable in, and receives a lot of adulation.
“I have just finished my last hard sparring session and I feel great. I can’t wait, my weight is good, my mentality and physical shape feel great – I feel very good energy.
“We had planned to come here almost 20 days before the fight because I have come to the UAE many times before and always train, and I feel happy here so that’s why we came here a little bit earlier.
“We have been here for ten days now, the first couple of days were the worst but now I feel great. We have one more week and I am going to feel even better by then.
“We are going to make weight and then finish this guy – this is the plan.”
Should things go as per that plan, Khabib will find himself at 28-0, and with only one real contender left in the 155lbs division in Tony Ferguson. With the majority of the weight class cleared out, there has been talk of a possible super-fight in the future with former welterweight and middleweight king Georges St-Pierre.
While this would certainly raise pulses of fight fans around the world, Khabib, in his own understated way, is keeping things very much in the present.
He said: “We have a lot of options but I have to be focused on Dustin. I don’t want to think about what’s going to happen in the future, we will see.”
Dustin Poirier is a man who has served his time, and paid his dues to the sport of mixed martial arts.
At 30 years of age, and 30 professional fights under his belt, there is a nice symmetry to a career that has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs.
Having been in the UFC for almost nine years, and with 22 of those 30 pro fights having been with the world’s premier MMA organisation, Poirier’s journey to the top of the mountain has been an arduous one.
His current six-fight unbeaten streak is what has brought him to the lightweight interim title and a shot at Khabib Nurmagomedov and the undisputed crown, but this is no flash-in-the-pan.
Poirier has built unbeaten runs in the past – an initial four-fight run was derailed in 2012 by the Korean Zombie Chan Sung Jung. Three wins on the bounce was ended by a certain Conor McGregor in 2014, while Michael Johnson was the man who ended another four-fight streak in 2016.
Since that point three years ago, there is no L on the record. Five wins and an unfortunate no contest have taken Poirier from a skilled and respected fighter who couldn’t quite get that into the title picture, to one who will stand across from the unbeaten Nurmagomedov at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi with a chance to do what 27 men have so far failed in, and it is not lost on the American.
“It means everything to me, how many times in our lives, or in our careers do we have the chance to really do something great,” he said. “These guys are building an arena for us to compete in, I am travelling across the world in the biggest fight that I can get, and I am going out there to do something that has never been done. I have an opportunity for greatness, I am approaching it that way and I am very excited about all this. I can’t wait. I am very anxious to get the fight week rolling.”
Experience doesn’t necessarily mean climbing the ladder in any sport, but as Poirier has matured he has grown exponentially as a fighter – never more seen than in his last outing against 145lbs king Max Holloway who moved up a weight class to challenge for the interim title but was dominated by the best Diamond we have seen to date.
“The biggest thing is consistency and self-belief,” he said. “Showing up every day whether the day before was good or bad. Staying true to the path of becoming the best fighter I can push myself and evolve into. I think self-belief and consistency is what has got me here.”
Khabib has defeated two of the men who inflicted losses on Poirier’s record, Johnson and McGregor, and no matter how much the Louisiana native has evolved this test will be above and beyond anything previously.
“I have been counted out a lot of time and at this point in my career this is just another fight,” he explained. “People are counting me out once again, and for good reason – the guy’s undefeated, I’m travelling across the world to a place we would say he is more favoured, but I am embracing this.
“I am going to go out there and do what hasn’t been done and put a loss on Khabib’s record for all the underdogs across the world. I am going to show that if you believe, if you work hard enough, if you are focused enough, if you are determined enough, in that 25 minutes you can be great. I will not let this slip through my fingers.”
Khabib has had a high-profile absence from the Octagon after his suspension following his win over McGregor, while Poirier’s April outing against Holloway was the perfect tune-up. The Diamond doesn’t see this affecting the Dagestani’s performance in Abu Dhabi.
“That’s more of an individual thing, everybody is different,” he said on the issue of layoffs. “Recently we have seen Nate Diaz come back and beat Anthony Pettis. Anthony has been pretty active and Nate hadn’t fought in three years. Ring rust is a term people toss around but I think it is more individual. It depends how hard you are working in the gym and how focused you are and how ready to compete you are, and I believe Khabib is one of the guys who works all year round and is always working on his craft and I think he is going to be the best he has ever been come September 7.”
This fight will present a unique challenge for Poirier in the fact it is in Abu Dhabi, his first time fighting in the Middle East. As with his fight-plan, no stone is being left unturned – this is terms of both the climate, flight recovery and nutrition.
“I have been doing a few different workouts in this camp,” he said. “I got out and did a lot of work under the sun, a lot of sprint work and a lot of stadium work. I did a lot of hard pushes under the sun, not that we are fighting outdoors but just to get my body in that heat. As far as the time changes, we are leaving nine days ahead of the fight, I think that’s going to be plenty of time.
“I am also bringing a nutritionist and chef with me. He has been in camp the last two weeks, and I am flying him to Abu Dhabi with us. I have housing sorted there with a full kitchen, so I am just taking a lot of guesswork out. I am going to have my team with me, we are pre-planning for all those challenges that come with food and time changes and trying to combat that as best we can.”
The laser focus of Poirier is fixed on Khabib, but should he fly out of the UAE as undisputed king, there is only one man who he sees as being next in line.
“One hundred per cent it’s Tony Ferguson,” he says emphatically. “Without any argument, it is Tony Ferguson. Honestly I don’t even think about that stuff because 25 minutes with Khabib is all I can focus on right now, I can’t disrespect the work that needs to be done on September 7.”
Stipe Miocic regained his place at the top of the heavyweight division with a thrilling fourth round stoppage of Daniel Cormier in the UFC 241 headliner in Anaheim.
The Cleveland native earned a TKO victory to avenge his loss from UFC 226 over thirteen months ago.
Cormier had the better of things until that point, but could not contend with a change in Miocic’s tactics, and a vicious right hand.
Earlier in the night, the co-main event saw a return to the Octagon for Nate Diaz after a three-year hiatus.
He showed no effects of the lengthy break as he downed Anthony Pettis in a resounding unanimous decision win.
Paulo Costa moved to 13-0 in the middleweight division following a fight of the night with Yoel Romero. There were fireworks from the start as the pair traded relentlessly for 15 minutes, but it was the Brazilian’s pace and willingness to come forward that scored him the win.
The California card also saw victories for the explosive Sodiq Yusuff, Derick Brunson and Cory Sanghagen.
Here are the key talking points.
Work the body
Heading into the fourth round, Miocic needed something special if he was going to prize the heavyweight title from the grasp of Cormier.
DC was arguably three rounds ahead, having manhandled him in the first, and found his target with the hands with alarming regularity from then on – closing distance and nullifying Stipe’s long-range weapons.
The champ had been chastised by his corner for not sticking to the game plan, which was obviously to try and wrestle the life out of Miocic, but he was still in firm control.
Stipe threatened to establish himself early in the third with some solid jabs from range, but again Cormier would do enough to win it, closing the gap and being able to stay in the pocket.
However, he would have no answer for the change up in the fourth, with Miocic switching to ripping left hooks into the body that clearly took their toll.
The old adage of working the body to open up the head came to fruition with a minute of the round to go as another left found a home in Cormier’s ribs before two rights up top finished the contest.
It was a masterful change in approach from Miocic, while Cormier will be left ruing the fact he didn’t take his wrestling dominance from round one further into the fight.
Normally, we would be looking for a trilogy to see who would get bragging rights for these two greats, but with Cormier and Miocic things feel a little different.
At 40, Cormier has a lot of other opportunities available to him both in and out of MMA, and you really question now if he has the desire to go on.
A win here could have set up another showdown with Jon Jones, but there is certainly no appetite for that now.
For Miocic, another fight with DC would bring him the best pay day the heavyweight division can offer. Otherwise, he is likely to face a resurgent Francis Ngannou – a man he schooled at the start of last year.
Diaz doesn’t miss a beat
Diaz said he had been out of the Octagon for three years because there wasn’t anyone for him to fight – if his performance against Anthony Pettis was anything to go by, they won’t exactly be lining up to face him now.
With no sign of ring rust, the Stockton slugger, hunted down Pettis for a dominant 15 minutes. After the fight he called out Jorge Masvidal – a fight that would be a huge amount of fun, but you can’t imagine Conor McGregor’s name will be out of this conversation for too long.
The two have one win apiece from their two fights to date and a rubber match would certainly pull in the audience.
Masvidal has the right to claim to a welterweight title shot and may want to head down that route before taking on Diaz.
Counting the Costa
When the two most physical specimens the middleweight division has to offer clash you expect fireworks, and Paulo Costa and Yoel Romero did not disappoint.
Despite the lop-sided scorecards, it was Romero who landed the most significant head strikes, while the Brazilian had more success to the body and certainly pushed the pace of the fight. The reaction by the crowd to the result said a lot.
Costa may think his 13-0 record now opens the door to a title shot, but this is by far his biggest win to date and he may still need another victory to secure a tilt at either Robert Whittaker or Israel Adesanya who meet in Melbourne in October.
A 42-year-old Romero has now lost three of his last four but the Soldier of God shows no sign of slowing down just yet.
A rematch won’t happen, but nobody would complain if it did.
Abu Dhabi, get ready
We are now just three weeks away from UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi – the next showpiece event in the company’s calendar.
Headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier for the undisputed lightweight crown, September 7 is going to be spectacular.
If you’re not excited, you should be.