LAS VEGAS – It is infinitely more difficult for a fighter to go 24-0 in mixed martial arts than it is in boxing, given the numerous ways there are to lose in MMA.
But Khabib Nurmagomedov isn’t getting the acclaim that a fighter who is 24-0 overall and 8-0 in the UFC might otherwise get for one simple reason: He doesn’t make it to the post all the time.
He was supposed to face Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title at UFC 209 in March in what had Fight of the Year written all over it. Nurmagomedov had a kidney issue, failed to make weight and the bout was canceled.
He hasn’t fought since, but the 13-month delay shouldn’t be much for him to overcome. He’ll face explosive Edson Barboza in the co-main event of UFC 219 Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in a bout that will put him back into the title picture.
But his coach, Javier Mendez of the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, sees Nurmagomedov work every day and believes he’s already made his mark in MMA history, despite the lack of widespread public acclaim.
“To me, Khabib is the best lightweight there has ever been,” Mendez said. “By the time he’s done, he’s going to be considered one of the greatest of all-time.”
Mendez has coached Nurmagomedov since 2012, and said he’s dominated every sparring session he’s ever taken.
“Since 2012, I’ve watched him spar three times a week in camp and he has never – and I repeat, he has NEVER – lost a sparring session,” Mendez said. “I can’t say that about other guys. The other thing, and I want you to print this, as well, is that he’s never been tapped. Never.
“If people doubt him or question him, trust me, they’re making a mistake. But I can tell you that after this fight with Barboza, who is a great fighter and a really tough guy, they’ll believe. When they see what Khabib does, they’ll believe.”
UFC president Dana White loves what he has seen of Nurmagomedov, but he puts the brakes on the talk of him being the greatest ever.
White said Nurmagomedov’s inability to fight regularly has hurt his standing with the public.
“You saw some of what he could do in that Michael Johnson fight [in 2016], but other than that, what’s the last Khabib fight you remember?” White said. “Guys who are remembered are the ones who get in there and fight and win regularly. People were doubting [lightweight champion] Conor McGregor a long time. Look at how fast he beat Jose Aldo and look at how great Aldo had been for so long. Eddie Alvarez, he had that great, unbelievable war with Justin Gaethje, just an incredible fight, but remember how easy Conor made it look with him.
“And people were still doubting Conor. It takes time. Khabib has a lot of talent and it’s [expletive] mind-blowing that he is 24-0. But he needs to be in there and put together a string of fights to get that [widespread public acceptance].”
Nurmagomedov spent much of Thursday’s media day at T-Mobile Arena answering questions about his weight. That’s what happens when you get ill while cutting weight and have to pull out of one of the most high-profile bouts of the year.
“I’m healthy,” he said, simply, saying it was health issues, not problems making weight that led to his withdrawal against Ferguson.
He weighed 163.4 pounds Thursday and insisted he’ll have no problems making the 156-pound limit on Friday.
He was tired of the weight questions and dismissed them.
“People make an issue and say this and say that,” he said. “I know what I have to do. I’m a lightweight, not a welterweight. When I’m in good shape, my weight is 174. Going to 155 is not hard. A lot of fighters who are fighting at 145, they are at 180. I feel good at 155.”
When he feels good, he usually performs.
Mendez is expecting a jaw-dropping performance against Barboza.
“I’m betting the house on Khabib,” Mendez said. “Barboza is a super, super tough guy, but he has one way to win the fight. He has to get the KO. Khabib has many ways to win. He can knock him out. He can submit him. He can ground-and-pound him. Edson’s not going to ground-and-pound Khabib, no way. That’s not happening.
“He’s 24-0 now and he’s going to be 25-0 and I think he’ll go on to 30-0 and people will remember this kid as one of the best who’s ever done it. I am not just saying that. I see it every day in the gym and you’ll see it on Saturday.”