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

Alex Rea 4/09/2019
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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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UFC 242: Khabib v Poirier isn't the only fight on card to shake-up lightweight division

Dan Owen 4/09/2019
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UFC Leightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov

When the UFC rolls into Abu Dhabi on September 7, all eyes will be on headliner Khabib Nurmagomedov and his lightweight title fight with Dustin Poirier.

However, it will not only be the top end of the 155lbs-ers we are talking about, with no fewer than six bouts in that division at The Arena on Yas Island we could see a significant shake-up in the rankings.

Here is how things could shape up on the back of UFC 242.

Khabib Nurmagomedov v Dustin Poirier (undisputed lightweight title fight)

Khabib has ripped through the lightweight division with unerring dominance, and will start as heavy favourite against one of the UFC’s most experienced campaigners.

Since a 2016 loss to Michael Johnson, Poirier has looked excellent – never more so than in his last outing against Max Holloway when he picked up the interim belt.

The 27-0 record of Khabib speaks for itself, with pretty much everyone at 155lbs now lying in his wake.

Should the Dagestani get the win over Poirier, the next logical route is a bout against Tony Ferguson.

‘El Cucuy’ is on a 12-fight win streak of his own (nine of them finishes) – with his last seven victims being turned into a meme such has been the bloody mess he has left them in.

He is unquestionably the next in line for a tilt at the title, but this could be complicated should Poirier pull off the upset – which he is capable of, especially if he can keep the fight standing.

There is no such thing as an automatic rematch in the UFC, but if anyone deserves it Khabib is that man, which would mean Ferguson having to wait in line just a little bit longer.

Edson Barboza (ranked 7) v Paul Felder (ranked 10)

Two highly respected lightweights, this bout offers the pair an opportunity to get into the upper echelons of the division.

Barboza is keen to get back to his peak, and holds a win over his American opponent from 2015, but this is a pretty different landscape now.

Felder has won four of his last five, while Barboza has dropped three of his last four – albeit to higher level opposition, including Khabib.

A win for either would put them in among the likes of Al Iaquinta, Justin Gaethje, and Kevin Lee jostling for position waiting for the Khabib/Poirier/Ferguson puzzle to be solved.

A defeat would throw them into the also-rans pile in what is a stacked division.

Islam Makhachev (ranked 15) v Davi Ramos (unranked)

This will be a great chance for the Abu Dhabi fans to see Makhachev up close as he looks to be the latest Dagestani to be a big hit in the lightweight division.

Statistically, he is least hit fighter in the UFC – taking less than one significant strike per minute he has been in the Octagon.

That said, he does have one loss on his 18-fight record – a KO defeat in his second UFC bout, but he has won five straight since then.

Well versed stood up and on the ground with seven submission wins and seven knockout/TKOs, he will be looking to make his way towards the lightweight top 10 by downing Brazilian Ramos.

This submission expert has also only lost once in the UFC and twice overall in a 12-fight career albeit against a lower caliber of opposition.

Makhachev will be a strong favourite here, and then hunt a sizable scalp in his next outing.

Mairbek Taisumov (unranked) v Diego Ferraira (unranked)

Two unranked lightweights will kick off the main card in Abu Dhabi with the experienced Taisumov expected to get some healthy support.

The experienced Chechen has amassed more than 30 fights in his career, with seven wins from eight in the UFC, including his last six.

Ferraira is 6-2 in the UFC with an impressive win over Dagestan’s Rustam Khabilov in his last outing in February.

With both men in their 30s it is unlikely either will be staging a push towards the top end of the division regardless of the result here.

Prelim bouts

Before the main card gets under way, the lightweights will again be represented in the form of two interesting matchups which will not exactly shake up the division right away but could pave the way for future forays.

Look out for exciting South African Don Madge who takes to the Octagon for the second time on the back of five consecutive stoppages with hands, feet, and submissions. Expect fireworks when he meets 14-2 Magomed Mustafev.

Finally Germany’s Ottman Azaitar will put his unbeaten record on the line as he ventures into the UFC for the first time. His last four fights have come under the Brave banner, the Bahraini promotion, so he will be used to the Middle East. His opponent, Finland’s Teemu Packalen struggled since making the move to the UFC, losing two of his three fights after previously being unbeaten.

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Dana White: Middle East will have a UFC champion in next six-seven years

Dan Owen 2/09/2019
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UFC President Dana White is in Abu Dhabi for UFC 242

UFC President Dana White is adamant there will be a Middle East champion in the organisation over the next six-seven years.

Speaking ahead of UFC 242 which takes place in Abu Dhabi this weekend, White pointed to other territories and the success that has been seen in a relatively short space of time.

Michael Bisping, Robert Whittaker, and Zhang Weili are examples of English, Australian and Chinese fighters who have gone on to lift gold following growth of the organisation in their countries – and with a five-year deal penned for events in Abu Dhabu, White thinks the same can happen in the Middle East.

“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.

“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.”

The much anticipated lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier will headline this week’s event, which is part of Abu Dhabi Showdown Week – and White promises the blockbuster fights will keep on coming.

“We have a really close connection with Abu Dhabi because we’ve already been there a few times, and the fights we’ve done there before,” said White. “The people of the UAE have been so good to the UFC. We are going to continue to come back and bring big fights to the Middle East.”

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