Khabib Nurmagomedov talks UFC 254, turning down TUF vs. McGregor and why retiring at 30-0 is appealing

UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov tells Yahoo Sports' Kevin Iole he's focused on his upcoming title defense versus Justin Gaethje and explains why a rematch against Conor McGregor isn't in his future.

Video Transcript

KEVIN IOLE: Hey, folks. I am Kevin Iole from Yahoo Sports. And one of my favorite fighters to interview-- I don't know if it's Daniel Cormier or this guy, the UFC lightweight champion of the world, the GOAT right now, I think, the King, Khabib Nurmagomedov. Khabib, how are you, my friend?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Thank you. Good. Good to see you, Kevin. I'm good.

KEVIN IOLE: Good to see you as well. You are on Fight Island doing a little coaching and getting ready October 24 for the fight that everybody is really excited to see, you against Justin Gaethje. So let me start with this. Are you a little surprised that it's Justin Gaethje you're fighting and not Tony Ferguson? Did you expect Justin would be able to do to Tony what he ultimately did?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: I'm a little bit imp-- not little bit. I'm-- I'm very impressed about his last victory. You know? Like, before the fight, I think honestly, it's like first, maybe, two rounds he have chance and if he knock him out-- Tony Ferguson. And after, like, my mind, I think he gonna make him tired. But everybody see how improved Justin, how he fight very-- how he make very smart fight, how his-- he improved a lot. He improved a lot.

I'm very impressed about his footwork, about his timing on boxing, about his leg kicks. You know? It was great performance from him.

KEVIN IOLE: You know, the thing that a lot of people talked about was how, in fights before, you know, he kind of went too fast and sort of was over overaggressive and left himself open. Did you see that difference in him, where maybe he dialed it back a little bit and wasn't leaving himself open for shots from his opponent?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Like, I think-- I think his coach gave him great plan for beating Tony Ferguson. This is my opinion. I think-- I think he, like-- well, remember, like, after-- I think after second round or after first round, his coach tell him, hey, like, take off from your shot, like, 10%. You're just trying to kill him. Please, touch, touch, punch.

It's like he gave him very good advice, because on his foot, on his, like, clean boxing, he was-- he was very good. You know? And he was much faster than Ferguson. He was much-- his punching accuracy was very well. And he give him good advice, because he tell him, you have to fight like you have 15 more minutes. That's why you have to take off a little bit from your punch, because you're trying to kill him. You know?

He give him very good advice, and Justin Gaethje follow him. And I think that's why he win.

KEVIN IOLE: I don't know if you've seen any of the ads the UFC has been putting out to market this fight. But one of the things I think is really interesting and I wanted to get your reaction to-- when Joe Rogan goes to interview Justin, and he takes the belt off and drops it down. And Joe said, you don't want that belt? And he said, no, I want the real belt fighting Khabib. And I wonder, when you see that, what your reaction is to that.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Well, I respect his mind, because he don't want to be interim champ. He want to be a real champ. You know? And of course, everybody love UFC belt. And it was very good promote for his next fight versus me. But anyways, if you champion, you don't want to be interim champ. You need real belt. And this is our real champion thinking. And I think it's-- it's not bad. I'm good with this.

KEVIN IOLE: You were the interim champion at one period. When you're interim champion, and you're going-- you know, so you're putting yourself into his mindset, because you were there before. Do you feel like, you know, he's gonna have to step his game up even more than he did before, because, you know, he-- he knows that there's one more rung to climb on that ladder?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Yeah, I think-- I think right now, he have good energy. Right now, he have very big motivation. And, like, before Tony Ferguson, maybe he think, oh, maybe I'm gonna lose, maybe I'm gonna win, because he take this fight, like, three-- three weeks before the fight.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: And right now, when he beat opponent like Tony Ferguson, this has give him confidence. You know? This has give him experience. This has give him, like-- he believe in himself more than before Tony Ferguson fight. Right now, he is-- he understand this is biggest fight in his life, and he gonna do everything what he can.

And I have to be careful with this, because he's very hungry. He's young. He's not, like, 37 years old, like Tony Ferguson. Or he's not like GSP, like 40 years. He's 32, 31. He's young like me. He hungry. And I have to be careful with this.

KEVIN IOLE: You know, obviously, things are different in-- in your camp now with your father's passing. How did you prepare at the beginning of camp? I know Javier Mendez wasn't there the entire time. So you know, you prepared yourself largely in the first part of your training camp. Was-- was that difficult? Or did you bring in some coaches in Russia that helped you?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Yeah, it was very hard. It was very hard my training camp. You know? I stay in village. I stay in my home. You know? I training twice in the day. And sometimes, I don't understand what I'm doing. You know? And it was very hard time for me. It's very hard. Like first, my-- half my training camp, like, beginning my training camp-- it's like August, all August and that little bit July. You know? It was very-- very tough time.

Like even now-- even now, you know, of course, I'm still thinking about him. And what we can do, Kevin? What we-- we have to keep going. And like only patient help us. That's it.

KEVIN IOLE: That's life. You know, it's sad-- very sad, but that's life.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Yeah.

KEVIN IOLE: I know in talking to Javier Mendez a lot, you know, he said that he felt a really close bond with your father and that he-- that he and your father shared a similar philosophy.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Yeah.

KEVIN IOLE: So does the fact that Javier has that kind of thought process that your father-- does that make the transition easier from-- you know, from a fighting standpoint, because they're seeing the same things and they believe in the same fundamentals?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Yeah. Like, they have, like, very simple, very similar thinking about MMA, about all mixed martial arts, because they almost-- they was almost the same age. and they-- both of them, they was old school style. You know? They all the time say to me, you have to do this, you have to do this, you know, like even father, even coach Jav.

And you know, and sometimes I think, OK, but sometimes I am not agree with these people, with these guys, you know-- with my father and with coach Javier. But I say, OK, I'm gonna follow this. I'm gonna do this. OK, if you guys think it's gonna help for me, let's go. And when I always believed these guys. And even if I don't agree, I do this. Like, that's why I'm here. I'm undefeated. I am the champion. I'm gonna defend my title third time after 11 days.

You know, sometimes you don't like something, but you have to do this. You know? That's why-- that's why very important listen to your coaches. Listen to your big brothers. You know? Because a lot of people and a lot of mind, like, everybody think different. But you guys have to be together and give good advice. If someone give you good advice, you just-- you just have to follow this. You know?

But for me-- because I have my mind, you know? Coach Jav, he have his mind. Father, he have his mind. You know? And always, like, something, like very small things, like, different. But I'm thinking different. They think different. But they told me, hey, you a young guy. You have to listen to us. For people, you champion. For us, no. Just follow this. I say, OK, I'm gonna follow this.

KEVIN IOLE: I-- that was one of things I wanted to follow up on and ask you. You know, historically over the years, maybe more in boxing than in MMA, father/son combinations didn't do really well, because when the son became successful, he became sort of the boss, and, you know, it didn't work out. You, in a way, humbled yourself, right, because you never said, I'm going to be the boss. You always continue to let Abdulmanap and-- and Javier be the boss.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Yeah.

KEVIN IOLE: Is that-- was that something that you consciously thought of?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: You know, this is like father philosophy. OK, even if you champion, even if you black belt, even if you have gold belt, you can't be boss. You never can be boss. When you keep competition, doesn't matter, like, where you compete. Like even if you compete high level, you need boss. You have to be with your coach. You have to be with your father. Like my father was, for me, like, coach, brother, friend, you know, like everything. And he never let me be a boss. He say, when you become boss, you're gonna lose. This is very dangerous things.

You know, you have to stay, in your mind, white belt always. You have to learn always, because like, in people mind, like, athlete mind, athlete body, this is unlimited. You can improve yourself to unlimited. You know? Like never be-- it never is gonna be limited. You can-- like, even if you become like 32, 33, 34 years old, you champion, you can improve something.

OK, it's gonna be leg kicks. It's gonna be knee. It's gonna be your timing. It's gonna be your punching, wrestling, conditioning, top control, grappling. Work with middle of cage or very close to the wall. You know, it's, like, a lot of things. You know?

And that's why I cannot be boss. I cannot be. I never gonna be boss, because I don't like this. Of course, for my small brothers, for my kids, I'm gonna be boss. But for my coaches, like, how I'm gonna become boss? And it's never happened. You know?

KEVIN IOLE: I wanted to ask you that, though, because, you know, let's take Zubaira Tukhugov's fight. You're working in the corner then. And it was a fight-- I think you would agree-- he probably could have won, maybe should have won that fight. And it kind of fell away. So you're acting as the coach in that situation. Does it help you as a fighter because you sense the frustration as a coach, right? You know, he's not necessarily doing what you want him to do. And does that help you as a fighter when you go back and think about it later?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, it was very good experience for me, because, like, I'm-- I'm flying to Fight Island. I see everything about how cutting weight, how weigh in's going, how fight-- like, how they-- how they warming up in hotel, then 1 and 1/2 hour before they fight they move to arena. Like, I see everything. You know? This is very good experience for me. I am very happy I was there.

Like, if you talk about Zubaira Tukhugov, like this fight, when you have, like, this close three round, you can't lose last round. Last month most important than first rough. And that's why I told him, hey, I don't know what's the score-- maybe 1-1, maybe 2-0 you winning, maybe 2-0 you losing. You never know, because judges, like, sometimes crazy.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Be careful. This round you have to win. Please push. You know? It's like what happened, what happened. You know, it is what it is. Now we can't change nothing. But it was very good experience for me. Very good.

KEVIN IOLE: I want to ask you something. One of your teammates kind of been in the news the last couple of days. Ali Abdulaziz, your manager, has actually written checks for $100,000 or $200,000 checks to Tony Ferguson to fight Makhachev. As far as you know, is there anything to that? Do you think that may happen, as far as you know?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: I think, like-- I don't think Tony Ferguson gonna take this fight--

KEVIN IOLE: No.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: --because to soon. And maybe because of money, maybe he can take. Or maybe someone like Cowboy can take this fight. But anyways-- anyways, I told Islam, I been in your situation five years ago, when people-- when people talk about like, oh, we don't know who this guy. But right now, all these guys trying to-- trying to mention my name and for promote themselves. You understand?

And I told him, hey, don't worry. Just keep going. Cut your weight. UFC gonna give you opponent. Doesn't matter who. Beat your next opponent. Become 7 win streak. And nobody can say nothing to you. And they have to-- they gonna fight with you. Just be patient. Be patient.

Right now, he have, like, position-- you know, it's like he's very tough guy. OK? He's ranked not very high. He's like 12-- number 12 in lightweight division. And a lot of people say, oh, I don't know this guy. Of course they know him. How you don't know Islam Makhachev? If you're in MMA, if you fight in this division, of course-- of course you know all your top 15 guys.

But they say, oh, I don't know this guy. Like-- like Michael Chandler, you know, he say, I don't know him. But who are you? Who are you? Two-- two fights ago, Freire would knock you out. Freire would knock you out. Then your fight-- your contract is finished, and you're very lucky, like, Dana give you a contract. You know? Now you're talking about, I don't know a guy who have six win streak in UFC lightweight division. You know?

And it's OK. They're gonna talk about him. Like, believe me. Trust me. After one year, they gonna try to find-- they gonna to try to make Islam mention they name, because they really want to promote they self. But after one year, he's gonna-- Islam gonna be top three.

KEVIN IOLE: Kind of where you are after you fight Darrell Horcher, right?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Yeah. When-- when I fight with Darrell Horcher, I supposed to fight with Tony Ferguson. He have injury then. I can't find opponent, like, nine days before the fight. And I sent all of them message. Hey, where are you guys? I'm here. When I injured, you guys talked so much. When I'm here, what happened? But you know, it's like time change everything. You just have to be focused. You just have to be in always train, cut weight, make weight, and every opponent who give you UFC, just smash him. And that's it. And everything gonna be good.

KEVIN IOLE: I know this is a big fight for you. I don't want to look ahead too much. But you know, obviously, Dana White's talked about you coaching on "The Ultimate Fighter" with Conor McGregor. You've now, I've heard, said you're not gonna do that. You wouldn't want to do that. And I'm just curious. You know, fans were excited when the rumor leaked out that it may happen. Why don't you want to do that?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: For what? I smash him.

KEVIN IOLE: For coaching on "The Ultimate Fighter" against Conor. Why not?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Because I've finished with him everything. I smash him. He tap. I smash him. I beat him in every round. You know, it's like no question. Only because of money. This is only money fight.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: But-- but you know, big money, big problem. I'm good. We never eat more than one bread in one day. Right, Kevin?

KEVIN IOLE: It's true.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: How much money--

KEVIN IOLE: Although some of us eat a little more than others.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Yeah. It's like-- like, how much money you need like for living very good life for next 30 years? How much money you need? What do you think? Like $50 million or $15 million?

KEVIN IOLE: $15 would be good. $15 would be good.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: But you know, it's like next-- but you never know when you're gonna die too. You never know. Maybe 35, maybe 45, maybe 75, but you never know. That's why let's living this day. Let's living this life, this day. I don't want to think about what's gonna happen future. After 10, 11 days, I'm gonna fight with Justin Gaethje.

And after Justin Gaethje, who else? Conor McGregor? I beat him already. Why-- why I have to fight with him? He have to come back and be busy. Tell him, be busy, and that's it. And I don't think he ever gonna deserve this title shot, because he's not focused, drunk too much, smash old people. You know? He-- he don't deserve my attention. Like give him, like, coaching with me "Ultimate Fighter" or something like this. Forget about him.

KEVIN IOLE: So I guess one of the things I would ask you is, you know, you've been supposed to fight Tony so many times. And it's a fight that people were excited, you know, to have and to see. Do you think that Tony would ever be in your future given how many times the fight-- I know it's nobody's fault. But the fight's fallen apart so many times. Do you think that that fight will ever happen, or do you think you've moved on from that and will go in a different direction after this?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Everything can happen. If he come back and show us a couple good performance, why not? Why not? He's gonna be always there. You know, he's tough opponent. But only one thing, Kevin, like, when you fight in lightweight division when you 37 years old, it's very hard to compete with high level guys.

KEVIN IOLE: Right.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: It's very hard. You know? But maybe Tony can do this, but I don't believe. After like this-- when you take like this damage like he take last fight, it was, like, crazy damage. You know? You see his face after fight inside the cage, you know? It was like-- I don't believe he ever-- he ever gonna come back.

KEVIN IOLE: He won't be the same because of the beating he took in the fight?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Who knows? Who knows? We'll see.

KEVIN IOLE: All right. Well, let's-- let's just wrap up on this. Have you thought about how many more fights? There was talk that, you know, 30 fight was gonna be it for you. You're 28-0, which is an unbelievable record. Are you still open-ended, or is 30-0 gonna be it?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Honestly, I don't know. 30-0 is gonna be great. You know? It's looking good, like, sounds good. You know? 30-0. OK. It's like-- it's gonna be great record. You know? This is like Mayweather in MMA. You know? 30-0. We'll see. I'm very close on this. You know? What do you think? If I beat Justin and one more guy and become 30-0 and finish career, what do you think? Where are you gonna put myself in legacy?

KEVIN IOLE: Well, I have-- I think right now-- and I know Malki Kawa, who is the manager of Jon Jones, disagrees with me. I have you right now as the best fighter in the world and Jon as number two. But I have Jon as the greatest pound for pound champion of all time and you number two. So I think that, you know, long-- long term, I think Jon is still ahead of you, because he's had more fights, you know, more big wins. He's beaten champions over the years. I think, you know, he's beaten more elite champions. But on recent performance, I think you're over him.

So I would say, you know, that if you beat somebody like Justin, who is a high level opponent, and then, you know, whoever may be next, whether it be a rematch with Poirier or, you know, somebody in that line, or if you take a Georges St-Pierre on, you know, that you're gonna go a long way toward maybe catching Jon in the all-time status. And I wonder-- do you care about that?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Yeah. Like, who knows? Like it-- it was like, OK, I finish Justin Gaethje, and I finish one more guy, like, you know, like, dominate, I think my name is gonna be, like, always in history. You know? And I think it's like-- already, my name is gonna be history.

KEVIN IOLE: Or course.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: --because-- because two years ago what happened is never gonna forget. Like even after 50 years, people gonna watch this fight, and people gonna be impressed from from-- from this fight. You know? This is like when Muhammad Ali and-- you know--

KEVIN IOLE: Joe Frazier.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: It's like Muhammad Ali. Yeah. When Frazier fight in Manila. You know what happened, never people forget it, like this fight. And you know I'm already in history, but I need legacy. I need legacy. I want very good legacy. And for legacy, Justin Gaethje is a great opponent right now.

KEVIN IOLE: Right. And you know, I'll end with this. You know, you mentioned Floyd Mayweather. He's 50-0. You also mentioned something I agree with, you know, when you talk about, hey, Conor is just a money fight. Right? But you've talked and you've been open or receptive to the idea of potentially boxing Floyd Mayweather. What would that be other than a money fight? So like aren't you contradicting yourself, Khabib, in a way, because on the one hand, you're saying, well, I don't want to fight Conor 'cause it's a money fight, but yet you would be willing to fight Floyd Mayweather. And what is that if nothing but a money fight?

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Like Mayweather is a more exciting fight for me. You know, it's like Mayweather is new challenge. Mayweather is one of the greatest of all-time. And you know, 50-0, you know, it's like-- I don't know. Like always, like every month, people call me and they ask me, you gonna fight with Floyd Mayweather if we pay you $100 million? It's like crazy. Hey, please give me-- give me-- give me-- I want to be focused on Justin Gaethje. Please.

You know, it's like every month people just-- some people from Saudi Arabia, from Emirates, from a lot of countries, like, always try to-- try to make contact with me. You know? And we have a lot of ways. And it's, like, crazy. I say, right now, I am UFC fighter. Please give me-- I want to be focused on my career in UFC, because I have contract. I signed contract. I have to follow contract. I have to be loyal with these people, because, like, eight years ago, I signed with these guys contract. And these guys gave me, like, almost everything what I have in my career.

But right now, I don't want to be like snake. You know this is not my style. Please, if I finish contract, OK, we're gonna talk. Or if you have question, please talk with UFC, because I have contract with UFC.

KEVIN IOLE: It'd be interesting. That would be interesting if you pull that off. Khabib, I appreciate you so much. Great job today, and obviously great job up to this point in your career. Best of luck against Justin Gaethje on October 24th on ESPN Pay-Per-View here in the US.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: Thank you, Kevin. Take care. Take care of yourself. See you soon.

KEVIN IOLE: Be well, my friend. Thanks, Khabib.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV: See you, Kevin. Thank you.