Public workouts are one of many peculiarities of a UFC fight week. Perhaps the most peculiar ritual.
Held midweek in any of the myriad venues tucked away inside the mega-casinos of Las Vegas, they usually entail four fighters from a card’s main and co-main events going through a physical tune-up for the gathered horde, writes
Wednesday afternoon’s instalment at the Park Theatre featured the leading quartet from UFC 229, Saturday night’s card that is on track to be the biggest in the company’s history. The returning Conor McGregor was the final man to the stage — just the 35 minutes late, finally improving with age — with co-main adversaries Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis preceding the Dubliner. All three went through pretty intense drills.
Before them, it had fallen on UFC 229’s only champion on show, lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov, to get the show going. In front of a crowd largely decked out in the colours and kit of his rival, the lightweight champion didn’t seem all that enthused. He grappled and wrestled members of his entourage for a few minutes, stood up and took a microphone. He looked out at the crowd, let the boos rain down for a moment and finally got animated.
“I have a question for Ireland…please. What about your language? What about the Irish language?” he goaded those gathered near the front. Some were Irish but the majority were American or British in McGregor gear, and none looked inclined to give him thespeech. So on he went.
Where is your language right now? Are you guys with England? You guys change your language? Give me answer someone
Since moving to the US in 2012 and debuting in the UFC the same year, Nurmagomedov built a cult following on the back of punishing, dominant victories in the octagon but also his particularly droll form of trash talk outside the cage. His taunting of McGregor foot soldiers over a mother tongue left on life support may fall into that category. But it was hard to escape the sense that there was more to this.
At last month’s pre-fight press conference in New York — the same city in which McGregor physically attacked Nurmagomedov, smashing up a UFC fighters’ bus in April — the Notorious launched a verbal assault. The most pointed barbs focused on something Nurmagomedov protects fiercely: his cultural identity.
Saturday night’s showdown is on track to destroy the UFC’s pay-per-view records and its gate records here in Las Vegas. On one side of the octagon is a returning challenger whose life story has been pored over, amplified, and at times exaggerated breathlessly by US media. On the other, however, is a champion whose own journey is much less known.
Khabib Nurmagomedov seems largely fine with that. Married with two children, he keeps his private life exactly that. We know snatches of his backstory — a couple of which helped propel his UFC career in its early stages. But there are huge gaps too.
Nurmagomedov was born in 1988 in Dagestan, one of the most troubled republics in Russia’s North Caucasus, and learned to walk on a wrestling mat. Half of the family home was taken up with a gym run by his father Abdulmanap, a prolific Soviet-era wrestler. Nurmagomedov Sr, a harsh disciplinarian in keeping with the norms of the deeply patriarchal Islamic republic, sent a nine-year-old Khabib into the backyard for ‘a test of character’. The video is part of the Nurmagomedov legend as the child takes on an unmuzzled, hulking bear cub in a wrestling match — and largely gets the better of the beast.
The national symbol of Russia, the bear video is promotional fodder UFC reach for with relish. The largest country on the planet is a huge growth market for UFC, with Moscow hosting its first fight card just last month. In all UFC material, the lightweight champion is presented as merely Russian, and the pride of the country. It’s far from that simple however. As an ethnic minority athlete, Nurmagomedov falls victim of one of Russian sport’s lesser-known racism problems.
North Caucasian athletes are only popular or even acceptable as long as they present themselves as Russians rather than as Dagestanis or Chechens,” Joanna Paraszczuk, a researcher on the North Caucasus, said in a brilliant 2016 deep dive on Nurmagomedov in SB Nation.
Nurmagomedov doesn’t fit that model. He surrounds himself with fellow North Caucasians, speaks loudly about his devotion to Islam, adopted the nickname The Eagle and enters the cage wearing a fluffy papakha hat, both nods to the mountain warrior heritage of his region. It irked many working at this summer’s World Cup; we encountered numerous ethnic Russians who, upon hearing we were Irish, professed wild support for McGregor, expressing hopes that he would ‘destroy Khabib’. Both fighters were at the World Cup final: Nurmagomedov in a media capacity; McGregor, pointedly, at the invitation of Vladimir Putin.
Nurmagomedov has the track record — never beaten as a pro — and the brilliant, smothering skill to potentially turn McGregor’s UFC return into an embarrassment. Such an outcome may be cheered by a higher percentage of his rival’s homeland than his own. Just this past weekend in the Russian top flight, Anzhi Makhachkala, the team based in Dagestan’s capital, hosted Zenit St Petersburg. The away fans’ choice of goading chant? A drawled out ‘Oh Conor McGregor.’