Father’s Plan: Khabib Nurmagomedov’s Dominant Journey

Austin Collette, Volunteer Writer

 Khabib Nurmagomedov cemented his legacy on Oct. 24 as one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time, defeating Justin Gaethje via leg triangle choke 1:34 into the second round to retain the UFC lightweight championship and keep his perfect 29-0 MMA record intact.

Nurmagomedov made even more headlines announcing his retirement after the fight, saying in his post-fight interview, “there’s no way I’m going to come here without my father.”

If this truly was his last fight, “The Eagle” put an exclamation point on an incredible career. Khabib didn’t just win all of his fights, he dominated every single one of them. The Russian lost just one of the 60 rounds he’s fought in. 

He was relentlessly persistent in completing takedowns. He controlled his opponents’ ground position with ease. The words “maul” and “smash” are often descriptions associated the way he used ground and pound against his foes.

Nurmagomedov’s technique was phenomenal. He had arsenal of trips and slams to finish takedown attempts which made him extremely difficult to train for. He could tire out opponents by making them carry his weight.

Khabib had all of these skills packed into a 5’10” frame that competed in the 155-pound division of the UFC. The man responsible for shaping this one-of-a-kind fighter? His father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.

The bond between the two is truly special. The love and respect Khabib has for his father cannot be put into words. He lit up at the opportunity to talk about his father in interviews.

Not only was Abdulmanap Khabib’s father, he was also his head coach.

Abdulmanap molded his son from the time Khabib was a child growing up in Dagestan, Russia. An early method of him training his son was having Khabib at 9-years-old wrestle a circus bear cub. 

A few years later, watching a video of mixed martial arts inspired Khabib to train for the sport. He was working on his wrestling at the time. Abdulmanap then got his son in to work with renowned judo coach Jafar Jafarov, who trained Khabib for two years. 

The next sport for Khabib is the one he is most famous for prior to MMA: combat sambo. Sambo essentially covers these four elements of fighting: striking, wrestling, groundwork and submissions.

How difficult is sambo? “If sambo was easy, it would be called jiu jitsu,” according to Khabib, who won the combat sambo world championship in 2009 and 2010 and is considered today as a master of the sport.

By the time Khabib won his two combat sambo titles, he was 9-0 in his professional MMA career. He competed in both the welterweight (170 pounds) and lightweight (155 pounds) divisions while fighting in six different MMA promotions in Ukraine and Russia.

Khabib fought 16 times in these promotions from Sept. 13, 2008 to Oct. 22, 2011 and put up incredible statistics while winning each one of those fights.

On Oct. 11, 2008, he won three fights in that one day. All six of his fights in ProFC ended with him victorious in the first round: three by triangle choke submission, one by kimura submission and the other two by technical knockout.

There was one constant in all 16 of those fights for Khabib. His father was in his corner every time.

That would change when Khabib went to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the top MMA fighting organization in the world. Abdulmanap was routinely denied a visa to America, preventing him from attending his son’s UFC fights. 

Khabib’s father figure in the states became Javier Mendez, head coach of American Kickboxing Academy. AKA is one of the top MMA training gyms, producing notable UFC champions: Daniel Cormier (light heavyweight and heavyweight), Luke Rockhold (middleweight), Cain Velasquez (heavyweight) and Miesha Tate (women’s bantamweight).

One adjustment Khabib had to make is the time bouts last in the UFC. Non-title fights are three rounds and main events and championship fights are five rounds. Each round lasts five minutes. Fortunately for Khabib, his conditioning was at an elite level.

While Khabib may not have had his father in his corner, it didn’t change his winning. Another thing that remained the same was his fight style.

He pressured opponents from the moment the referee started the match. The eagle would stalk his prey, closing distance to where he could grab hold of a leg and press opponents against the fence. From there, Nurmagomedov would patiently wait for the right moment to take his opposition down, whether it be by a trip or using great strength to pick them up for a slam to the mat.

Once his opponent was grounded, the mauling began. Khabib had a way of trapping his opponent’s by wrapping both legs with his own and grabbing a wrist, making it near impossible to escape. After that, Khabib would begin to ground and pound with high intensity.

He wound up each punch and landed them with vicious force. He would continue to do this until one of the three things happened: the round ended, the referee stops the match or his opponent was susceptible to submission from being worn down.

Nurmagomedov had other brilliant methods to fatigue opposing fighters.

If an opponent was on all fours, Khabib would make sure his upper body was higher than their body position. This made opponents carry his weight on their arms which were already holding themselves up in prevention of being taken down. If opponents were grounded on their back, Khabib would put pressure on the chest, making it difficult to breathe. 

Nurmagomedov’s incredible strength combined with his elite technique made it very difficult for opponents to get him off. He could position opponents to where they couldn’t defend themselves and knew how to prevent escape routes.

What made Nurmagomedov so terrifying is that he did this in every single fight. What’s even more frightening is the fact that opponents knew what he was going to do and they still couldn’t stop him.

When Khabib came to the UFC, he returned to competing as a lightweight and ran rough shot over the division. He proved he could go a full 15 minutes, winning four of his first six fights by unanimous decision.

After a TKO of Darrell Horcher in a catchweight bout at 160 pounds, the world’s most famous arena would be Nurmagomedov’s next stage.

Nov. 12, 2016, UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden. The UFC’s first event in New York City. A fight card UFC President Dana White described as “the biggest baddest fight card in UFC history.”

Miesha Tate fought for the last time in her career, former middleweight champion Chris Weidman got to fight in front of his hometown crowd and to top it off, three titles would be on the line that night.

The headliner: Conor McGregor vs. Eddie Alverez for the UFC lightweight championship.

Khabib fought Michael Johnson on the preliminary card and won by submission via kimura in the second round. Khabib made it clear who he had his sights set on in his post-fight interview.

“Irish only six million. Russia 150 million,” Nurmagomedov said. “I want to fight with your chicken, because this is number one easy fight in lightweight division.”

That chicken Khabib was talking about was McGregor, who would defeat Alverez the same night to become the first UFC fighter to ever hold to championships simultaneously (featherweight and lightweight).

After Nurmagomedov beat Edson Barboza at UFC 219, an opportunity at the lightweight championship was up next. However, it would not be against McGregor.

After defeating Alverez to win the title, McGregor did not fight again in the UFC for nearly two years. In the middle of this hiatus was the famous boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr. As a result of the long layoff, McGregor was stripped of the championship.

With Khabib set to fight for the vacant title, it was unknown as to who he would face.

Originally it was set to be Tony Ferguson, a devastating striker who at the time had an MMA record of 22-3 with a 10-fight win streak. Ferguson was unable to fight Nurmagomedov after suffering a knee injury.

After unsuccessfully attempting to fill the vacant slot with Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis, Al Iaquinta would be Nurmagomedov’s opponent for the lightweight championship at UFC 223.

This was the first time Khabib would be in a five-round fight. It was no problem for the eagle. The fight went the full 25 minutes and Nurmagomedov did not lose a single round on the scorecards.

Finally, on April 7, 2018, Khabib Nurmagomedov was the UFC lightweight champion.

The pot kept getting sweeter. His first title defense would come against the Irish chicken he called out two years prior, Conor McGregor.

McGregor is one of the biggest superstars the UFC has ever seen. The combination of his trash talk and his performances inside the cage have made him one of the most recognizable names in all of professional sports.

McGregor is never shy about telling media and fans how he is going to beat his opponents. He even nicknamed himself “Mystic Mac” because he often predicts which round he would defeat his foes.

Just as he’s a showman on the microphone, McGregor is as much of one inside the cage. He’s a highlight machine, repeatedly finishing fighters with the same deadly weapon: the left hand.

It’s a lethal punch McGregor delivers with devastating power and pin point accuracy. UFC commentator Joe Rogan says, “It just seems to be one of those punches that fighters just get shocked by. Like they can’t believe how hard he can hit you.”

Oct. 26, 2018, UFC 229 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Conor McGregor for the UFC lightweight championship. “Without a doubt, the biggest fight in the history of the lightweight division,” Rogan said. “And in my opinion, the biggest fight in the history of the UFC.”

This was more than just two men fighting for 5.5 pounds of UFC gold. It was Russia vs Ireland, grappling vs striking, technical vs flashy, humility vs brash. Two polar opposites were set to collide in the UFC’s fight capital.

The two fight camps had a great disliking for each other. Leading up to the fight, McGregor made comments about Nurmagomedov’s family and religion. The fued was magnified after McGregor threw a dolly into a bus window after a press conference for UFC 223, a bus which Nurmagomedov was aboard.

It was a rivalry unlike any other. All the animosity between the two fighters was going to be released inside the octagon.

The first two rounds went as they usually did for Khabib in fights past. He took McGregor down, trapped him on the mat and pounded away. In the second round, he repeatedly told McGregor, “Let’s talk now,” while he delivered his malicious ground and pound.

Then in third round, fans saw something that had never happened before, Nurmagomedov lost a round. McGregor out struck him and stuffed two takedowns. For once, Nurmagomedov finally seemed human as a mixed martial artist.

Nurmagomedov wanted to beat McGregor at his own game. But Khabib’s head coach Javier Mendez had to convince him to stick to “father’s plan.”

What is father’s plan? The ground game. And that’s exactly where Khabib went in the fourth round. He took down a fatigued McGregor, put him against the against the cage and eventually locked in a fulcrum choke that forced the Irishman to tap.

What happened next is something nobody could have predicted.

After a shouting match between McGregor’s jiu jitsu coach Dillon Danis and Khabib moments after the fight ended, Nurmagomedov threw his mouthguard at McGregor’s corner and jumped over the cage to attack Danis.

As security proceeded to break up the scuffle, two of Khabib’s teammates jumped in the octagon and attacked McGregor from behind.

Both brawls were stopped not too long after they began thanks to an abundance of security. 

“We went above and beyond anything we’ve ever done in the history of the company tonight to make sure that this didn’t happen,” Dana White said. “And it happened.”

After the mayhem was brought under some amount of control, McGregor was taken back to his dressing room. Khabib was in the cage surrounded by his team trying to calm him down. He was very adamant about having the championship belt put on him inside the cage.

White told him no out of fear that if he did give him the belt in front of everybody, fans would throw things into the octagon at Khabib. Nurmagomedov, surrounded by security, was then escorted to his dressing room. As he entered the tunnel, fans threw objects at Khabib, just as White was afraid of.

Punishments soon followed from the Nevada State Athletic Commission, not the UFC. This is because the UFC is regulated by the athletic commission of the state they are in on the night of an event.

Nurmagomedov was fined $500,000 and suspended for 9 months. McGregor was fined $50,000 and suspended for 6 months.

Khabib would not fight again until Sept. 7 2019 at UFC 242. He would defend his lightweight title against Dustin Poirier, a southpaw who loves to keep distance close between his opponents to land a flurry of punches.

 This fight would be extra special for Nurmagomedov. The event was being held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Khabib’s Muslim faith connected with the people of Abu Dhabi. It was practically a home crowd away from home for Nurmagomedov.

But there was one person in particular that was more important than anyone else in attendance that night. This time, there was no visa preventing travel to Abu Dhabi.

Finally, for the first time in Khabib’s UFC career, Abdulmanap got to watch his son fight in person. He watched Khabib execute father’s plan to perfection, submitting Poirier in the 3rd round via rear naked choke.

The father who trained his son from the time he was little boy got to witness him perform as a champion at the highest level of mixed martial arts.

After Khabib finished his post-fight interview with UFC commentator Jon Anik, he and his team posed for a picture inside the octagon. Khabib gave his father the title belt to hold for the picture.

Fast forward to April of this year. A year in which the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be the epicenter of the world. The disease would further complicate a heart condition for Abdulmanap, leading to him being hospitalized. His condition got worse as time went on.

Then, on July 3rd, the announcement came. Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov died.

An outpouring of support came Khabib’s was, including from his bitter rival, Conor McGregor.

“The loss of a father, a coach, and a dedicated supporter of the sport,” McGregor tweeted. “Condolences and rest in peace Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.”

The 57-year-old Abdulmanap was a highly respected combat sports coach. Many fighters and coaches tweeted out their condolences and mentioned how great of a coach he was. He is responsible for the development of a number of high-level Russian athletes in the MMA world, including 18-1 Islam Makhachev, a title contender in the UFC lightweight division.

While he was a fantastic coach, he was also a father that meant very much to a son.

“I think if my father’s not my coach, I think maybe I’m like a different guy,” Khabib said. “Maybe I never come to UFC. Maybe, but father all the time push me, all the time, all my life.”

That work ethic Abdulmanap instilled in his son would be put to the test one more time.

Oct. 20, UFC 254. The 2nd stint of UFC Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. Khabib would defend his championship for a third time.

His opponent: Justin Gaethje. He’s nicknamed “The Highlight” for good reason. He came into the fight 22-2 in his MMA career. Gaethje won nine bonuses in his seven fights in the UFC: five Fight of the Night and four Performance of the Night.

He was riding a 4-fight win streak in emphatic fashion. The first three were first round knockouts. The fourth was ending the 12-fight win streak of Tony Ferguson by TKO in the fifth round.

Many thought Justin was finally going to be the one to end Khabib’s unblemished record. His leg kicks are elite, his punches are brutal, and he was an All-American wrestler in college. It seemed as though he had the skillset to pull off the upset.

Gaethje didn’t just lose, it was Khabib’s second shortest fight in the UFC. Nurmagomedov controlled the fight from the word go. His grappling was such a threat that Gaethje kept a distance father than usual so he could react if Khabib shot for a takedown. 

Nurmagomedov kept the pressure on. He constantly walked down Gaethje. If Justin got away, Khabib chased him right back down. While Gaethje landed his fair share of punches and leg kicks, he could not escape the wrath of the lightweight king.

The eagle landed a takedown with 41 seconds left in the first round. He ran out of time before he could lock in an armbar, his father’s favorite submission, to finish Gaethje.

The second round lasted just 1:34. Khabib took down the highlight and put him to sleep with a leg triangle choke.

After the fight was called, Khabib was on his knees in tears. He no longer had to bottle up the emotion he felt from his father’s passing. A was soon comforted with encouraging words whispered in his ear from Gaethje and a pat on the back from Justin’s head coach Trevor Wittman, one of the most well-known MMA coaches today.

Khabib not only fought with emotional pain, but also physical. Dana White was told by Nurmagomedov’s corner that Khabib was in the hospital three weeks prior to the fight with two broken toes and a broken bone in his foot. 

“What this guy’s been through,” said White, “We’re all lucky that we got to see him fight tonight.”

Through all that adversity, Nurmagomedov persevered to remain unbeaten. Shortly after his hand was raised, he announced his retirement. 

“It was my last fight,” Khabib said. “There’s no way I’m going to come here without my father.”

Khabib also talked about choice to go through with the Gaethje fight.

“I talk with my mother three days,” Nurmagomedov said panting heavily. “She don’t want I go fight without father. But I promised her it’s going to be my last fight. And if I give my word, I have to follow this.”

Nurmagomedov has earned so much respect that many consider him one of the greatest of all time, putting him in the category of greats like Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones.

If this is the end for Khabib, what a career it has been. He walks away 29-0 as the UFC lightweight champion. That perfect record came by utilizing father’s plan, something Nurmagomedov’s head coach Mendez constantly reminded him to follow.

While father’s plan was a fight strategy, there was mark attached to it: 30-0. Abdulmanap wanted to see his son reach this number in his career. Many people speculated that Khabib would retire once he reached 30-0.

Will Khabib attempt to climb that mountain? Only he has the answer to that.

If he does, who will it be against. Will it be Tony Ferguson, an opponent that has fallen through five times? Will it be Nurmagomedov’s favorite growing up St-Pierre?

Whether he chooses to or not, his legacy is already solidified. He is unquestionably one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time. Nobody has been as dominant as he has over the course of an entire career.

But he wasn’t just a fighter. He was also a teacher. While we can take lessons from his fighting style, we can all learn from how he carried himself as a human being.

He exemplified hard work, toughness, humility and, respect, traits his father trained him in at a young age. He showed us how special and important a relationship between a father and son is. And he taught us to value family.

So, keep your parents close. Give them a hug and tell them you love them. Hold on to the memories made and lessons learned along the way. Value every moment you get to spend with them.

Take it from Khabib.

“Be close with your parents, because one day it’s going to happen something. Because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”