Khabib Nurmagomedov is focused on lightweight title even after last-minute change of opponent

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Khabib Nurmagomedov didn’t blink when asked if he’d fight Max Holloway at UFC 223 when Tony Ferguson had to pull out. (Getty)
Khabib Nurmagomedov didn’t blink when asked if he’d fight Max Holloway at UFC 223 when Tony Ferguson had to pull out. (Getty)

For nearly as long as he can remember, he pushed himself, tortured his body, blew past what he thought his limits might be, in anticipation of this night.

All the hard work, all the suffering, all the sacrifice, was to get to this moment. From his pre-teen days, virtually everything he did growing up in Dagestan, Russia, was toward the end of becoming a world champion.

That moment is now here, days away, and not even the momentous last-minute change of opponent has the 29-year-old flustered.

Tony Ferguson tore his lateral collateral ligament while tripping on a broadcast cable at Fox last week, forcing him to pull out of the bout with Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in the main event of UFC 223.

Featherweight champion Max Holloway agreed to take the bout on just six days’ notice, earning the grudging respect of a fighter who is penurious with compliments.

“He’s a good fighter,” the 25-0 Nurmagomedov said of Holloway, the burgeoning star who is on a 12-fight win streak. “Tough guy. Very tough guy.”

Nurmagomedov didn’t blink when asked if he’d fight Holloway when Ferguson had to pull out. Of course he would, because it’s not only what he does, it’s who he is.

His only request was a half-hearted attempt at a joke, knocking rival Conor McGregor.

“I want the Burger King,” Nurmagomedov said of McGregor, who will be stripped of the title so that the winner of Saturday’s belt can become the regular champion. “The Burger King is not a fighter, or he would be here. Where is this king?”

McGregor, who recently signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Burger King, was never an option to replace Ferguson, UFC president Dana White said.

That, though, didn’t slow Nurmagomedov, who always thinks big and knows there’s nothing bigger than a bout with McGregor, who along with boxers Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, are the only men ever to take part in a four million sales pay-per-view bout.

The change in opponent brings about a lot of last-minute work, given different styles, different strengths and weaknesses and different physical dimensions.

Nurmagomedov, though, brushes them off with a dismissive way of the hand.

“I already told you how hard I work, every day,” Nurmagomedov said. “Everyone who watches knows this. How many can do what I do? How many? But I don’t worry too much about this guy or that guy. I worry about me, and I focus on what I can do.

“I want to become a much better grappler, in better condition, better with striking, boxing. I know that I get better if I focus on me and don’t worry about opponent. It’s Ferguson? OK. Not Ferguson and now Holloway? OK, too. It doesn’t matter. My focus is on me and trying to be better every day.”

Nurmagomedov stands poised to become a massive star with a victory. His support among Russians will likely force the UFC to strongly consider a bout in Moscow at some point, and a win over a formidable foe like Holloway would only increase his legend.

The key for Nurmagomedov, as it is for so many potential stars, is health. He’s almost as well known for his injuries during his UFC stint as he is for his other-worldly talent.

If he can put together a run in which he defeats the likes of Holloway, Ferguson, McGregor and some of the other killers in the UFC, he’ll become one of the sport’s biggest stars.

He’s the right kind of a yes man. He’ll fight anyone, anywhere, any time and in any place. Fans flock to that kind of guy, particularly a guy who is as dominant as Nurmagomedov and has unmatched grappling skills.

All that stands between Nurmagomedov and UFC stardom is getting to the post time after time. It’s a tall order, but it’s one that he can handle.

“I’m not worried about this,” Nurmagomedov said of injuries and being able to fight on a regular basis. “You will see what I do and you know what? You will not believe what you see.”

More UFC 223 coverage on Yahoo Sports:

Kevin Iole: Don’t give up on Ferguson-Nurmagomedov
Holloway plans to do something McGregor didn’t
Abdelaziz: McGregor scared of Nurmagomedov
Nurmagomedov finally set to break through

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