At UFC 254, Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov retired as the undisputed Lightweight Champion of the World with an impressive 29-0 record. Boasting wins over elite fighters such as Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, and Conor McGregor, Khabib is in good standing for the symbolic title of Greatest of All Time. Nurmagomedov’s aggressive fighting style coupled with the grappling skills he’s been perfecting since childhood led to his dominance in the Octagon during his 8-year run in the UFC.
What is arguably most impressive about Khabib is how his cultural identity shaped him as a fighter. Hailing from Dagestan, a region in Russia’s Northern Caucasus, “The Eagle” grew up wrestling under the tutelage of his late father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, who passed away this July due to complications from COVID-19. Khabib prides himself on being Dagestani, and his commitment to the Muslim faith has won him the respect of many fans and athletes. Though we may never see him don his iconic papakha hat in the cage again, Khabib remains the path through which Dagestan entered the world stage.
Born to be a warrior: Dagestan’s fighting culture
With Chechnya and Georgia to the west and Azerbaijan to the south, Dagestan has been embroiled in political turmoil involving Russia since the 1990s. Efforts by Chechnya to secede from the Russian Federation often bleed over the Dagestani border. While this separatist sentiment did not gain much popularity in Dagestan, there was a rise in extremist Islamist movements and increasing numbers of jihadi fighters tied to Chechnyan insurgents. Street warfare has been part of everyday life since 2003, with state security forces striking back against Islamic militants.
Consequently, survival has become integral to the Dagestani identity. For Khabib and generations of young men from this turbulent country, becoming a wrestler is the alternative to getting entangled in religious warfare.
Training is physically rigorous, with wrestlers running routes along the Caspian Sea and up mountain trails as part of their cardio routine. As a low-cost sport where athletes only need a singlet and shoes to participate, wrestling doesn’t impose a significant financial burden for local families. Wrestling gyms also provide a sense of structure within the community, serving as daycares for school-age boys and places where young men can develop under their coaches’ guidance.
In Dagestan, being a coach is a highly revered position. These men, most of whom are former wrestlers, not only help foster their athletes’ skills on the mat, but they also serve as father figures and mentors. Their role extends beyond the mats too. Coaches and athletes often pray together, harkening back to their historical lineage in which followers of the prophet Muhammad also trained in wrestling.
The Eagle’s flight
Khabib’s journey to the top began in the same fashion as many world-class MMA fighters: starting in the small regional circuits and moving his way up the promotional ladder. He competed in the Combat Sambo Federation of Ukraine, the Pankration Atrium Cup, and the Tsumada Fighting Championship. By 2012, Khabib entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship with an undefeated 16-0 record and continued to gather wins over top lightweight contenders like Michael Johnson and Edson Barboza. In 2018, he fought Al Iaquinta for the vacant lightweight title. Nurmagomedov won the bout via unanimous decision and currently has three successful title defenses to his name.
As a fighter, Khabib is known for aggressively controlling his opponents from the top. He not only uses effective takedowns but utilizes his superior grappling techniques to trap his opponents against the canvas or the cage, where he unleashes his signature “mauling.” A good ground game is the basis of Khabib’s success, as he will first try to gain a dominant position by taking his opponent’s back or trying to get into a top mount. If his opponent tries to escape, Khabib will typically stop the ground-and-pound and reestablish a secure dominant position. Many of the techniques he uses originate from the training he received in his home country, including the Dagestani handcuff exhibited in his bout against Michael Johnson.
In the Octagon, Khabib honors his Avar culture (one of Dagestan’s numerous native ethnic groups) by donning his signature papakha hat during post-fight interviews. After a bout, he always thanks Allah first, followed by his father and head coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. Khabib is confident in his abilities, yet never fails to be humble and give his team and his family credit.
The Eagle’s post-fight speech at UFC 254 was different. Once again, Khabib put his title on the line, this time against interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje. After putting his opponent to sleep via triangle choke, an emotional Khabib announced his retirement from mixed martial arts. His father’s death earlier this summer served as the impetus for this choice. Standing in the Octagon, the champion emotionally told UFC commentator Jon Anik that he promised his mother he would not fight again if his father was not by his side.
After his father’s death and the victory over Gaethje, Khabib could retire knowing he had secured his place in UFC history. Nurmagomedov had accomplished all his UFC goals, which included going undefeated and being ranked as the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Despite Khabib’s tearful and convincing retirement speech, UFC president Dana White believes that The Eagle will soar once again. The two men are set to meet in Abu Dhabi sometime soon, presumably to discuss the possibility of Khabib taking one more fight to extend his record to 30-0. Nurmagomedov hinted at a possible return when he captioned a recent Instagram post, “See you soon,” and tagged White in it. Perhaps this is a promise to the UFC president and a message to his millions of fans worldwide. If his discussions with White do not lead to a triumphant return, Nurmagomedov retires undefeated and unbroken with a legacy that will inspire Dagestan’s aspiring athletes for decades.