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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“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.”
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