In an era where the UFC is becoming more and more involved in handcrafting its own stars, the rise of Nurmagomedov simply couldn’t have been predicted. There was something refreshingly unsculpted about the scruffy 27-year-old Dagestani as he cut a swath through the company’s lightweight class from 2012 to 2014.
Nurmagomedov raced to 6-0 in the UFC (and a stunning 22-0 overall) before one injury after another forced him into a lengthy hiatus. Assuming he makes it to the cage for his 160-pound catchweight fight against Darrell Horcher on Saturday at UFC on Fox 19, it will be the first time in almost exactly two years that fans will see him do his thing.
The biggest question isn’t whether he’ll beat Horcher—he almost certainly will—but whether Nurmagomedov will still look like his old, fearsome self in his comeback bout.
And if he does, then how long might it take him to reclaim his status as perhaps the UFC’s scariest 155-pound fighter?
During his first six fights in the Octagon, Nurmagomedov established himself as the anti-Sage Northcutt, Paige VanZant or CM Punk. He was a fun little throwback to the days when you became Octagon royalty by actually winning a bunch of fights in the Octagon.
These days it’s becoming more and more common for fans to charge the UFC with protecting its emerging stars. For at least the first act of his career with the organization, Nurmagomedov got the exact opposite treatment.
He slogged through a gauntlet of increasingly difficult competition, and it didn’t always go perfectly. Nurmagomedov barely squeaked out a victory against the powerful and wrestling-savvy Gleison Tibau at UFC 148 in July 2012. He missed weight for his fight against Abel Trujillo at UFC 160 in May 2013.
Those proved to merely be bumps in the road, however. Against Tibau, he demonstrated his ability to survive a 15-minute war. Against Trujillo, he set a UFC record for takedowns (21) in a bout.
There’s no way to overstate how good he was during this introductory stretch. To come into what is largely regarded as the UFC’s most competitive weight class and distinguish yourself the way Nurmagomedov did—without a blemish, with barely a scratch—is about as impressive an accomplishment as there is in MMA today, short of winning a major championship.
If he were able to be more consistent and spend a little less time on injured reserve, he would likely be safely ensconced on the pound-for-pound list right now. Nonetheless, with a half-dozen fights under his belt he was duly forged as one of the world’s elite lightweights, not because he seemed marketable or some executive liked his look, but because he beat every single person the promotion put in front of him.
As an added bonus, his deadpan trash talk, wide-open style and North Caucasus cool made him a darling of hardcore fight fans.
If you want a quick taste of the sort of ice-grill hilarity Nurmagomedov brings to the table, here’s him giving his thoughts—such as they are—on the impending rematch between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, during a UFC-sponsored Q&A with fans this week (warning: NSFW language):
In addition to stone-cold one-liners, Nurmagomedov is that rare hard-nosed grappler who is actually fun to watch. If you are a spectator, he has rapidly become a guy you don’t want to miss.
If you are another lightweight? Well, let’s just say there have been rumors.
“Nobody wants to fight Khabib,” UFC President Dana White posted to Twitter in early 2014, amid a stretch where the fight company appeared to struggle finding him a fight.
Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch this week broke down the complete MMA game that makes Nurmagomedov so potent in the cage and also so entertaining to watch:
“If Khabib’s takedowns and ground game are his meat and potatoes, then [his] left and right fists are his knife and fork…Though his technique isn’t always pretty, the careful deliberation with which Nurmagomedov strings his attacks together is simply marvelous. It would look an awful lot like mind control if you couldn’t analyze it and break his process down piece by piece.”
On Thursday, I discussed with Bleacher Report’s Patrick Wyman the extent to which ring rust might plague Nurmagomedov in his return. Luckily, even if he isn’t quite at his best against Horcher, smart money says he’ll still take care of business.
That makes Horcher a departure from the opponents Nurmagomedov is used to facing in the Octagon—but it also arguably makes him the perfect foe at the perfect time. For Nurmagomedov, the mission here won’t just be to win but to prove he’s still the guy “nobody wants to fight” in the 155-pound division.
Since his non-title win over current champion Rafael Dos Anjos in April 2014, fans haven’t seen much from him besides the occasional social media appearance. A spate of potential matchups were announced and then quickly pulled off the table as he struggled to get healthy.
When first revealed, this weekend’s intended bout against Tony Ferguson was met with an outpouring of glee. Not only did it mean that Nurmagomedov was finally fit to return to active duty, but he would immediately be slotted into a potential No. 1 contender fight.
Last week, however, Ferguson was forced out of the fight with what he described on Twitter as “fluid/blood in my lung.” In a scramble to keep Nurmagomedov on the card, matchmakers turned up Horcher, the Cage Fury Fighting Championships lightweight champion who will be making his UFC debut.
Horcher is undefeated in his last five fights and boasts a three-bout stint with Bellator MMA on his resume but is largely considered a sacrifice to Nurmagomedov’s return. The rookie is going off as more than a 6-1 underdog, according to Odds Shark.
So instead of the final step before a potential rematch against Dos Anjos with the gold on the line, Nurmagomedov finally gets his chance at a classic tuneup.
Still, all eyes will be on the potential top contender to see if he’s still the sort of suffocating grappler and high-octane striker he was before his injuries. Even if this bout is not particularly competitive, how Nurmagomedov fares should tell us a lot about what to expect from him moving forward.
If all goes as planned, then a meeting with Ferguson is still waiting in the near future. A win here and a win there might mean Nurmagomedov can come out of nowhere a second time to reclaim top-contender status.
In the short term, this weekend’s fight might also be instructive in telling us whether he’s still going to strike fear in the hearts of the competition.