He was gone but not forgotten, out of sight but certainly not out of mind.
Khabib Nurmagomedov spent nearly two full years on the sidelines convalescing from various injuries, as the undefeated Dagestani brute watched the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight division move on without him. He was Cain Velasquez at 155 pounds, an uncrowned king who could not stay healthy. In his absence, Rafael dos Anjos, Eddie Alvarez, Tony Ferguson and others rose to the top of the division.
As it turns out, Nurmagomedov was simply biding his time. His return bout was booked for UFC on Fox 19, where he was slotted opposite Ferguson in the headliner. However, 11 days out from the event, Ferguson withdrew with an injury and left UFC officials scrambling to fill the vacancy. They settled on Cage Fury Fighting Championships titleholder Darrell Horcher as a replacement, matched him with Nurmagomedov and elevated Glover Teixeira-Rashad Evans to the main event position.
The change in plans had no effect on Nurmagomedov, Sherdog’s “Comeback Fighter of the Year” for 2016. The American Kickboxing Academy star blew away Horcher with second round punches, drawing their abbreviated clash at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, to a close 3:38 into Round 2.
Nurmagomedov executed a high-amplitude takedown in the first round, passed guard and sliced away with elbows before achieving full mount. The bell saved Horcher from being finished, but it only prolonged the inevitable. Nurmagomedov secured another takedown inside the first minute of Round 2, unleashed punches from the mounted crucifix position and climbed to the back. From there, he battered Horcher with unanswered lefts and rights, forcing referee James Warring to step in. It was as if Nurmagomedov never left.
For a brief time, it appeared as though he had done enough to secure a long-sought title shot at 155 pounds. It was announced on “UFC Tonight” that the promotion was targeting a showdown between Nurmagomedov and lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez for UFC 206, this after Alvarez missed a deadline to sign a bout agreement for UFC 205. Instead, Alvarez signed to face Conor McGregor, and Nurmagomedov was none too pleased with how the situation played out.
“I’m a little bit upset because I already had two contracts to fight for the title at [UFC] 205 and UFC 206. I signed both of them, and after that, the UFC makes this bulls--- decision,” Nurmagomedov said on Sirius XM’s “The Luke Thomas Show”. “I’m a little bit upset, but it’s OK. Sometimes s--- happens, you know.”
Nurmagomedov instead settled for a match with Blackzilians export Michael Johnson on the Alvarez-McGregor undercard. He made his position clear.
“If I don’t fight [for the title], I’m gonna show how I have power in Russia,” he said, “and UFC, I don’t fight in UFC ever and UFC never, ever go to the Russia. UFC think Conor have power. I have power, too. This is not all about pay-per-view. I have power, too. I’m gonna show this power. After this fight, I have to fight for the title. UFC thinks Conor has power? Irish people only like six million people. I am from Russia, 150 million people. If UFC don’t give me the title fight after this fight, I’m going to show how I have power in Russia. I know if I don’t fight for the title next fight, UFC will never, ever go to Russia.”
Alvarez found himself in the crosshairs, as Nurmagomedov questioned his legitimacy as champion.
“Eddie understands who is who,” he said. “Eddie and Eddie’s coaches, everybody know ‘this a very tough fight for me.’ That’s why he don’t take this fight. He even said, ‘I want an easy fight.’ You’re champion, UFC champion. You’re supposed to fight [the] No. 1-ranked [contender], and [the] No. 1-ranked [contender] is not easy. For me, it’s a crazy situation, but it’s OK. Life is going and I’m going to keep going, and I’m going to finish Michael Johnson at UFC 205; and after this, I want to fight for the title.”
Nurmagomedov made an example of Johnson on Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden in New York. He landed 140 of his 190 total strikes, executed two takedowns and passed guard six times. Johnson was reasonably competitive in the first round. The same cannot be said for the second and third. There, Johnson found the mark with just four of his 26 attempted strikes; Nurmagomedov connected on 91 before submitting “The Ultimate Fighter 12” finalist with a third-round kimura. Rarely has such a high-level fight been so one-sided.
In the UFC 205 main event, Alvarez surrendered his title in a second-round technical knockout to McGregor. Nurmagomedov, now 24-0, took his case to Twitter.
“I want to fight for [the UFC] title for respect, but if I don’t get my title shot next, I have different plan,” he wrote. “I won’t be fighting in [the] UFC.”
In the two months since, talk of a McGregor-Nurmagomedov showdown has swirled, along with the idea of an interim lightweight title match between “The Eagle” and Ferguson. Either way, the UFC appears to have gotten the message.
“We’re focused very heavily on Russia right now. We’re working on Russia,” UFC President Dana White told Fox 5 in New York. “First of all, there’s tons of talent coming out of Russia and a lot of fans. There’s a fighter named Khabib who’s from Russia, and he’s insanely popular.”