Undefeated mixed martial artist Khabib Nurmagomedov is set to return to action after almost a year away from competition, headlining the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) 242 card in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Nurmagomedov, a supreme grappler hailing from Russia’s Dagestan province, will face underdog Dustin Poirier, from Louisiana in the United States, in a highly anticipated lightweight title unification match held on Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
It will be the UFC’s third-ever show in the UAE and Nurmagomedov’s first outing since beating Irishman Conor McGregor in October last year in the promotion’s most-watched event – which ended in a post-fight brawl earning the Dagestani fighter a nine-month suspension and a $500,000 fine.
Just moments after submitting McGregor in the fourth round of their Las Vegas title bout, the typically calm and composed Nurmagomedov scaled the fence and jumped into the crowd to fight his opponent’s entourage. The move, over perceived disrespect during the fight’s heated build-up, set off a prolonged melee inside and outside the octagon.
But this time, no such theatrics are expected
“My last fight, it was a little bit crazy and tough fight,” Nurmagomedov, a devout Muslim, said.
“But now I have an opponent I want to show respect to, and it’s all about respect. That’s why we both show respect. But when the cage closes, it’s going to be a very good, high-level matchup.”
Poirier, a powerful striker who has redefined his career in recent years with a series of high-profile victories, claimed an interim lightweight title belt during Nurmagomedov’s suspension by beating Max Holloway in April.
“It means everything to me,” Poirier said of his upcoming bout. “How many times in our lives or in our careers do we have a chance to really do something great? These guys are building an arena for us to compete in.
“I’m travelling across the world in the biggest fight that I can get, and going out there to do something that’s never been done. I have an opportunity for greatness, and I’m approaching it that way.”
The UFC is returning to Yas Island to showcase Nurmagomedov to audiences outside the promotion’s North American wheelhouse. The 30-year-old, who became a champion in April last year after beating Al Iaquinta, has not fought outside the US since 2013.
“All the time when I fight in UFC, I didn’t have almost 100 percent support in the stadium,” Nurmagomedov said.
“But [in Abu Dhabi], I think I’m going to feel this, because I feel this is my area. This is not Dustin Poirier’s area. These people don’t come to watch fight because of Dustin. These people come because of me. That’s why I feel I’m going to have big, big support from my friends here in Middle East.
“A lot of people are going to come from USSR countries, Russia, from Dagestan, from the Arabic countries. A lot of people are going to come support me.”
Nurmagomedov is a significant favourite against Poirier, and while he is wary of the interim champion’s well-rounded skills, including a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he appears to retain the confidence of a career without a defeat.
“Right now, I feel this hunger,” Nurmagomedov said. “I feel this motivation, this fire, and that’s why I stay focused. I want to stay busy. I want to stay hungry. I want to stay focused, humble. This is the key,” he added.
“When I watch Dustin Poirier, I think it’s going to be my toughest challenge,” Nurmagomedov said.
“I always think like this. I don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want to underestimate any guy.”
The UFC’s first show in the UAE since 2014 also includes lightweight fighters Edson Barboza and Paul Felder, preceded by a bout between heavyweight contenders Curtis Blaydes and Dagestan’s Shamil Abdurakhimov on the pay-per-view portion of the card.