Abu Dhabi, UAE — “Khabib [Nurmagomedov] is one of the biggest stars in all of sports. Not just the UFC,” boasted Dana White at Wednesday’s UFC 254 press conference.
That’s certainly a massive claim in a sporting world with the likes of LeBron James, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sidney Crosby, and others.
It’s also a statement the creates expectations. White went on to point out the lightweight champion’s undefeated record (28-0), the fact that he’s barely lost a round in the UFC, and espoused that he’s encroaching on Greatest of All Time status.
That sort of pressure is nothing new for the champion, mind you. “The Eagle” told reporters on hand that “it’s always difficult when I fight, when I cut weight, when you have so much pressure on your shoulder. It’s always difficult, it’s never been easy.”
“Right now, it’s a special time for me, fighting here in Abu Dhabi, with all this pandemic stuff, without crowd, without fans,” he added. That’s “a little bit difficult” as well, said Khabib.
His biggest difficulty lies ahead, however. In the form of Justin Gaethje. When it comes to the list of 28 fighters Khabib Nurmagomedov has defeated, “The Highlight” stands out as the most violent. He also stands out as perhaps the most accomplished wrestler the Dagestani has met to date.
In response, Nurmagomedov took the time to illustrate what separates Dagestani wrestling from its American counterpart.
“I think it’s a big difference. I know he knows how to wrestle. But what about wrestling 25 minutes?” questioned the lightweight champion. As an example, he pointed to his own teammate, Daniel Cormier, who struggled in his third fight with Stipe Miocic, after Miocic was able to bounce back up from an early takedown. “Between me and D.C. is a big difference,” warned Khabib. “If I’m going to try to take him down once, and he defends it good, I’m going to go all night.”
“This is the big difference between U.S. wrestling and Dagestan wrestling,” he finished.
That relentless pressure, wave after wave of takedowns, has helped put away all those that came before, in Khabib’s decade-plus career. But it may not even be necessary. Assessing his opponent, Khabib admitted that Gaethje was dangerous — but more so in the early going of a fight.
“I think him and Conor [McGregor] are the two most dangerous guys in the first round,” he stated. “But if you talk about second round, third round, they become a little bit like regular fighters.”
UFC 254 takes place on “Fight Island” (Yas Island) in Abu Dhabi at the Flash Forum on Saturday, October 24. The main card airs live on PPV following televised and online prelims.