It would be safe to say time has healed all wounds for Khabib Nurmagomedov and his relationship with UFC brass entering the unbeaten lightweight champion's return on Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
Nurmagomedov (27-0) will enter UFC 242 and a 155-pound unification main event against interim titleholder Dustin Poirier (25-5, 1 NC) armed with a new contract and a strategic opportunity as the A-side of a pay-per-view staged in a developing market for future UFC expansion.
Eleven months ago, after the biggest win of his career was stained by the post-fight melee he initiated by attacking members of Conor McGregor's team at UFC 229, Nurmagomedov was more pariah than breakout star in the eyes of UFC president Dana White.
While both UFC and the health of mixed martial arts in general was lucky that the ugly scene in Las Vegas was quickly extinguished before it had the chance to potentially spill into the T-Mobile Arena crowd, it's easy to forget the uncertainties of Nurmagomedov's fighting future in the immediate aftermath.
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After White intimated publicly that Nurmagomedov's teammates would be banned for life from the Octagon for attacking McGregor during the brawl, Nurmagomedov threatened to quit the sport altogether if so as a way to protest White's refusal to discipline McGregor for the UFC 223 bus attack that escalated the rivalry in the first place.
Nearly one year later, the soap opera is almost completely in the rearview mirror.
Nurmagomedov served a nine-month suspension from the Nevada State Athletic Commission (with McGregor receiving a six-month ban). A pair of Nurmagomedov's teammates, Abubakar Nurmagomedov and Zubaira Tukhugov, also had their one-year suspensions trimmed by 35 days, which conveniently made them eligible to fight on Saturday (with Tukhugov joining a number of Nurmagomedov's Russian countrymen on the card).
Nurmagomedov's featured placement will give the promotion a chance to find out the true strength of his brand following the rub he was given opposite McGregor at UFC 229, which set a new PPV record for MMA at 2.4 million buys. More importantly for Nurmagomedov, Saturday's card might also be a test run to open the door for the promotion to stage a PPV in Russia, a nation where UFC finally made its debut in 2018.
"This is a little bit hard question for me but we'll see," Nurmagomedov said during last week's media conference call about a PPV in Russia. "I think UFC wants to watch too about numbers, because everything is about numbers. They're going to watch, they're going to check. We'll see because right now pay-per-view [is] working a little bit different [due to ESPN+] and it's a big, big question; a big, big question. If me and Dustin [sell] maybe 700,000 pay-per-views, [going to Russia] is going to be good, I think."
What's most obvious about UFC 242, staged in an area of the world where Islam is the dominant religion and Nurmagomedov will likely be hailed as a hero, is that UFC seems committed to giving him every opportunity to realize his full marketing potential. The promotion also appears committed to keeping him happy, as evidenced by news of his multi-fight deal which contains a clause should Nurmagomedov's dream fight against retired UFC legend Georges St-Pierre -- a fight White previously stood firmly against -- come to fruition.
"All the time when I fight in UFC, I didn't have almost 100 percent support in stadium," Nurmagomedov said. "But right now, 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 [former] USSR countries, Russia, from Dagestan, from the Arabic countries. A lot of people are going to come support me and thank you so much for them."
It also seems UFC realizes how close Nurmagomedov is coming to authoring the kind of resume that will almost certainly trend towards G.O.A.T. territory in terms of consideration should he remain unbeaten after running the table in this historically deep division.
Given the dangerous depth of names in front of him, doing so is far from a given. Yet Nurmagomedov continues to outright dominate everyone placed in front of him, even with a largely one-dimensional style as a wrestler with almost other-worldly aggression and technique.
Should Nurmagomedov get past the red-hot Poirier, who enters fresh off an insane four-fight win streak that includes wins over two former champions and the current featherweight king, a larger argument would be made for "The Eagle" to supplant Jon Jones as the current pound-for-pound king of the sport.
"I'm going to finish Dustin Poirier and maybe I'm going to become pound-for-pound number one fighter. Who knows? Nobody knows," Nurmagomedov said. "I think if you want to improve your legacy, changing your weight classes -- I don't think this is help for you. I think the one thing that is helpful for you is you have to beat tough opponents and you have to worry about when you beat tough opponents and you're still undefeated more than 11 years. I think this one can improve your legacy."
Nurmagomedov said he expects Poirier to be the toughest fight of his career and only plans on matching himself tougher should he win by declaring that former interim champion Tony Ferguson, who is riding an absurd 12-fight win streak, would be next. Yet as things stand now, much of Nurmagomedov's legacy is built upon his incredible consistency and an unbeaten record that is almost impossible to maintain given the sport's danger and unpredictability.
"If you lose a couple times in UFC and you win one title or second title then you lose again, even if you win three titles, this does not make you great," Nurmagomedov said. "My opinion, when you are undefeated long time and when you never lose, this one is like, this one is real, real thing. This is my opinion.
"Doesn't matter what people think, doesn't matter what they want. When you go to the cage and again, again, again you win, win, win, they have to talk about, 'This guy is best.'"
Nurmagomedov's consistency is made more impressive by how much he has endured and how often he has returned from inactivity to appear as if he hasn't missed a beat. That's why the idea of cage rust following an 11-month layoff has barely been uttered considering Nurmagomedov previously conquered a two-year gap ending in 2016 following knee surgery and multiple breaks since then that have coincided with injuries, illness and his faithful observance of Ramadan.
The secret to his iron will and stoic resolve is "the fire I have inside," according to Nurmagomedov, who credits his relentless work ethic in training and overall humility with keeping him focused. He also expects to receive a boost this fight by the fact that his father and trainer, Abulmanap Nurmagomedov, will corner his son in a UFC fight for the first time after years of visa issues prevented travel to the United States.
"Finally my father is in the corner with me, I'm very excited about this," Nurmagomedov said. "I feel how my father's excited about this. This is going to be great, great night for us, my father and coach Javier [Mendez], a very good mix. Two great coaches and I think with these two guys, I have to win."
While Nurmagomedov admits having his father present will bring added pressure, he refers to it as "good energy" that will fuel him. So too will having his teammates fighting on the card and being given the opportunity to fight in a region, in UFC's third visit to the United Arab Emirates, where Nurmagomedov will likely be greeted as a returning king.
Unlike last October, where Nurmagomedov played the part of foreign villain opposite McGregor so well throughout the promotion one would think he was pulled from central casting, all of the negative energy that dominated the headlines ahead of UFC 229 is behind the lightweight champion.
Well, most of it, at least. Nurmagomedov understandably can't do an interview without hearing McGregor's name and he did recently keep the fire burningand that even though he won't entertain a rematch against the brash Irishman anytime soon, he would fight him on the street tomorrow if they crossed paths.
But from a promotional standpoint, UFC 242 hasn't been about beefs or flying dollies or whiskey sales or insults about one's culture and religion. Instead, the talk has centered upon how great a fight this lightweight summit is expected to be, the respect each fighter has shown for his opponent and the potential of Nurmagomedov as a worldwide superstar.
From Nurmagomedov's perspective, that's what it has always been about.
"I think this sport, mixed martial arts, this is all about respect," Nurmagomedov said. "We have to respect each other. Even if you don't like your opponent, you have to respect them because this is a very tough, unforgivable sport and you have family and your opponent has family. A lot of people watch on you guys, a lot of kids watch on you and that's why you have to be respect. This is very important.
"My last fight, it was a little bit crazy and a tough fight, 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 cage closes, it's going to be a very good, high level match up in lightweight division."