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The rise of the Eagle

When he steps into the Octagon on October 6th to defend his UFC Lightweight crown, Khabib Nurmagomedov will do so as a fighter that already boasts a frightening record of 26 consecutive victories and a reputation as one of the sport’s very best.

Widely recognised as the most fearsome grappler & wrestler currently fighting, Khabib will provide the controversial Conor McGregor with his toughest bout yet. In McGregor Khabib odds, it is the Russian who is the current favourite, at a price of 4/6.

It’s been a tough journey to the top for the Russian, however. Here we assess how he reached where he is today.

Small town beginnings

Khabib was born in the unassuming village of Sildi in the Russian republic of Dagestan, forming part of the Northern Caucuses. This complex region, composed of hundreds of different ethnic groups, is a hotbed of geopolitical & religious tension formed through decades of conflict both within and against successive Russian governments.

Those that are successful beyond Dagestan – of which Khabib is the most high-profile – carry with them a balancing act between representing a unified Russia abroad whilst remaining true to the independent spirit of their home region.

Indeed, racism and a lack of cultural awareness has often been levied at both the Western MMA media and the ethnic Russian press at home. “Sports is the only time that Russia loves North Caucasians” is a widely-held sentiment amongst cynical North Caucasians online.

As both a Dagestani and devout Muslim, Khabib has had to carry with him the pressures of expectation from a variety of sometimes conflicting audiences.

Yet that adulation has come as a result of a gruelling journey.

His father, Abdulmanap, housed a wrestling training centre in the family basement and, along with other rural youths, pushed Khabib hard from an early age. He has said that his son “learned to walk on a wrestling mat”. A former fighter and veteran himself, he is been the constant mentor and motivator for the UFC champions ever since.

There is no greater encapsulation of the mentality instilled into Khabib in his youth than the infamous video of him – aged 9 – wrestling a bear cub.

Road to the UFC

Years of wrestling, Sambo, and Judo training lead to Khabib beginning his professional MMA career in September 2008. Within one month, he had quickly compiled 4 straight wins.

A blistering run through the circuits of Russia – including an impressive disposal of Shahbulat Shamhalaev in his M-1 debut – caught the attention of many and, within 3 years of turning pro, Khabib was signed to the UFC.

His grappling and wrestling stood him apart from the rest, with his pick-up and slam technique earning high praise from UFC president Dana White. “We’re going to do big things with this kid”.

The course was set for the boy from Dagestan. Testing but impressive bouts against Rafael dos Anjos, Michael Johnson, and Edson Barboza all followed. His status as Lightweight champion was secured – after a protracted weighing process – with a domineering fight against Al Iaquinta.

His biggest challenge

Weight has been a constant thorn in the side of the Eagle. He was forced to share a portion of the purse in his fight with Abel Trujillo at UFC 160 and then pulled out of a planned match against Tony Ferguson altogether after an extreme botched weight cut.

There are some that suggest weight will continue to be a concern for Khabib ahead of his bout with McGregor. Dan Hardy has cast suspicion that the reason the fight – set to be the biggest in UFC history – is being organised so rapidly is so that Khabib will struggle to reduce his weight in time.

With the fight now three weeks away, the pressure is certainly on the Eagle to get down to size.

Either way, it has been a gruelling road to the Lightweight championship for the boy that learned to walk on a wrestling mat. On October 6, we will see if he is deserving to truly write his name into the history books.