SAN JOSE, Calif. — Khabib Nurmagomedov is sitting in the corner of a nondescript Chinese restaurant, nursing a small plate of salmon and steamed broccoli. It was the only option on the menu he’s currently allowed to eat.
It’s a Monday afternoon, Dec. 11, 2017. In 18 days, Nurmagomedov needs to weigh no more than 156 pounds for a nontitle lightweight bout against Edson Barboza at UFC 219 in Las Vegas.
There is a lot of interest — and, frankly, a lot of concern — around Nurmagomedov’s ability to make that weight. He knows this and cracks a faint smile as he acknowledges it.
“Everybody is about weigh-in. I’m excited, too,” Nurmagomedov says. “All the time, everybody is excited about the fights. Now, everybody is excited about the fights and the weigh-in. It will be interesting.”
A win over Barboza would more or less salvage Nurmagomedov’s 2017, which is a disappointing thought. There is no smile on the Dagestani’s face as he acknowledges that.
Because this could have been Nurmagomedov’s year. He closed 2016 with a remarkable performance in New York, literally demanding a title shot from UFC president Dana White as he beat up a respected opponent in Michael Johnson.
The UFC gave Nurmagomedov what he wanted after that: an interim lightweight title fight against Tony Ferguson at UFC 209 on March 4.
That event had the MMA world buzzing. Nurmagomedov was on the verge of UFC gold — and perhaps a dance with Conor McGregor. At the very least, a dominant win by Nurmagomedov would have put enormous pressure on McGregor to respond in some way.
But Nurmagomedov never made it to the fight. He was hospitalized on the day of the weigh-ins with severe abdominal pain, which turned out to be coming from his liver.
“To be honest, I don’t remember this time,” Nurmagomedov says. “I don’t remember what happened. They brought me to the hospital and I only remember feeling something so bad. I almost died.”
According to Nurmagomedov’s manager Ali Abdelaziz, the team cut weight the day before the UFC 209 weigh-in and had returned to the MGM Grand Hotel to rest. The plan was to cut an additional 5 pounds the following morning, but complications arose.
“We were going to wake up the morning of the weigh-in and make 155 pounds,” Abdelaziz said. “When we went to the room, he couldn’t sleep. He was in a lot of pain. It was an ugly, ugly night. I don’t even want to talk about it.”
And in the time since, Nurmagomedov and his team have talked very little. What looked like a loud, landmark year coming in turned into a nearly silent one.
UFC lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov discusses what’s at stake in his upcoming fight against Edson Barboza at UFC 219 in Las Vegas. Nurmagomedov has not fought yet in 2017. He was supposed to fight Tony Ferguson last March, but was hospitalized during his weight cut.
Nurmagomedov quietly returned to Russia after UFC 209 and rehashed things with his father Abdulmanap, who is unable to travel to the U.S. because of visa issues. He underwent back surgery in Germany, unbeknownst to the public and even some UFC officials.
When he returned to his adopted home at American Kickboxing Academy, however, his weight was lower than usual.
“This fight is very important because people are talking about how I cannot make weight,” Nurmagomedov says. “The last time, this was my fault. That’s why people are waiting — to see if I can make weight and stay busy.
“Now, my weight is good. Three weeks out, I will lose 3 or 4 pounds. Two weeks, another 4 pounds. The last week, I’m going to cut, like, 13 pounds. I have never been this light. The last week will be 13 to 15 pounds.”
What Nurmagomedov wants now is a reset. He knows he can’t overlook Barboza, but he is already talking about a rebooked interim title fight against Ferguson in the first quarter of 2018.
Ferguson (23-3) went on to claim that interim title in October by submitting Kevin Lee at UFC 216. Ferguson’s eyes are now on McGregor, but Nurmagomedov doesn’t believe the Irish star is rushing back for that fight.
“Conor made $100 million [to fight Floyd Mayweather in August]? Why would he come back for $10-15 million?” Nurmagomedov said. “I think Conor needs big motivation to fight because he has money. He’s already a two-division champ.
“In the lightweight division, the most important fight is me and Tony. I have to fight with Tony. This weight division is a little bit weird right now, but I’m going to change this at the end of the year. In March or April, I’m going to fight Tony for the title.”
Of course, in any discussion regarding the UFC’s lightweight division, there is always a McGregor-sized elephant in the room.
Nurmagomedov shakes his head when McGregor’s name is brought up. For years, he’s said he doesn’t care about McGregor and is focused only on becoming a legitimate UFC champion. And he sees Ferguson as the legitimate champion to take the belt from.
But if Nurmagomedov accomplishes that, would he unintentionally become the biggest fight for McGregor? With his dominant grappling-based style and nearly 3 million followers on social media — many of whom are based in Europe and Asia — Nurmagomedov has always been an attractive opponent.
Dana White has talked about the two fighting in Russia. McGregor’s head coach, John Kavanagh, once referred to McGregor and Nurmagomedov as a “perfect collision.”
If Nurmagomedov, who’s only fought twice in the last three years due to injury and the UFC 209 debacle, can just make it to the Octagon and do what he does in 2018, there’s a world of possibility ahead.
“I think the UFC does want that fight because we can make a lot of money in pay-per-view,” Nurmagomedov said. “Of course, Russian people cannot pay $100 for a pay-per-view, but maybe the UFC can make it in Russia for $10. It’s a very big sport in Russia. If UFC makes this pay-per-view, 10 million people in Russia will buy it. The UFC has to make business in Russia. Maybe they are waiting for me to take the belt and have me fight Conor in Moscow.
“It’s a very big fight, but I came here to take the belt and make history. You can’t make history only with money. I want to win this fight and stay busy. This is my crazy dream. Others will fight so many times in a year. I can do this, too. I have to stay healthy. This is a perfect moment for me.”
No wonder so many are looking forward to UFC 219 weigh-ins.