UFC 242: Khabib Nurmagomedov shouldering big responsibility for growth of MMA in the Middle East

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The giant hands of construction continue to adorn and mould Abu Dhabi’s shape-shifting skyline as the clusters of cranes point to a city in perpetual expansion.

But when the UFC brings a numbered event to the Emirate for the first time in almost a decade, the sport and its premier promotion arrives with its foundations firmly in place.

Indeed, MMA has never been more established in the region and the UFC begins its five-year residence in the capital with a celebration of that fact, reflected in showcasing the biggest fight of 2019 here.

Saturday’s blockbuster main event between lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim belt holder Dustin Poirier at The Arena on Yas Island represents a sweet spot in timing.

In contrast to its emerging status back in 2010 as was also the case in 2014 when the promotion last graced these shores with a smaller Fight Night event – the UFC returns emboldened by the evolution of its fighters and embellished in the minds of a mainstream audience.

Expectations are naturally enormously high. The UAE audience is far better equipped to grasp the significance of this event than it has at any time before.

The development of MMA, through the expanding community of gyms and the country’s multi-cultural identity, has never been greater.

It means that Khabib is not only defending his crown as the most dominant MMA fighter on the planet, but also as the physical manifestation of an entire generation.

The 30-year-old’s career arc has witnessed its own rapid assembly over the last 12 months, one equal to the impressive construction of the purpose-built 13,000-seater arena on Yas Island.

On Saturday, the unbeaten Muslim champion will stand in the Octagon as a skyscraper enveloping the rest of MMA, immovable and so far indestructible.

His merciless mauling of Conor McGregor at UFC 229 last October, his 27th professional win, has become a trophy for the Muslim community, launching the Dagestan-native into the stratosphere of global recognition.

That victory, during a time when Islamophobia is so rife across the world, something which was handled as a psychological tool by McGregor in the build-up to their mega-fight, was a triumph against the bully.

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In the immediate aftermath, Khabib became a structure for Islam and housed within him is an entire religion.

There is arguably no other fighter in the world who can count on that type of support, and it’s completely justifiable because Khabib represents a great role model for the 1.5 billion Muslims on this planet, a respectful and humble athlete who speaks with great poise and exports his religion’s values.

His reputation has remained untarnished by the ugly scenes post-fight last October with Khabib serving out a suspension and being handed a hefty fine for his role in the T-Mobile Arena melee.

They were inexcusable actions, but mitigated by the intensity of a contest which transcended the spectacle.

And so nearly 12 months on he is back in action, looking to unify the division against the slick and high-volume striking ability of Poirier.

Right now Khabib, albeit a towering presence, stands alone on the MMA landscape, but there is great hope that by him competing in Abu Dhabi, others, particularly in this region, will look up and be inspired to erect their own residence in the sport alongside him.

Ultimately, the success of September 7 won’t necessarily be measured right away, through tickets sales nor pay-per-view numbers, but rather in the years to come when MMA fighters emerge from the Middle East to compete and thrive under the sport’s most prestigious banner.

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UFC president Dana White is hyper-aware of this aim.

“Since we have done events in Abu Dhabi, and it happens everywhere we go, it kick-starts the market, gyms pop up and people are training. Talent is coming out of the area,” said White this week.

“I won’t be surprised – I said this about England, I said this about Australia, Canada and every country we have gone to – there will be a champion from the Middle East probably within the next six to seven years.”

It’s a bold prophecy from White given there is only one professional Emirati fighter in the form of Bellator’s Mohammad Yahya.

But like Abu Dhabi’s horizon view, that could soon change and Khabib knows he has the ability to help that push.

“I feel pressure, but at the same time I feel good energy,” he told Sport360 earlier this week. “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.”

UFC 242 was built for Khabib. It’s a massive responsibility to carry, but a victory on Saturday can see him leave his own permanent landmark in Abu Dhabi, one a new generation will point to as a source of inspiration.

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