In this new series for Pundit Arena MMA, we have a bit of fun with some of the narratives that surround Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor.
As fans, we only get to see glimpses of our favourite athletes – snippets of them in action that can barely do justice to the hours, weeks, and days of preparation that go into being a top-tier mixed martial artist.
If someone seems slightly off in a five-minute interview – they’re seemingly mentally unsettled.
If a flush overhand connects in the first minute of a striking exchange – someone clearly needs to work on their striking defence.
These are the narratives that are commonly drawn by the fans and the media and while they’re inherently questionable – this is how we support this sport and get ourselves hyped and engaged in the fights we tune in for every month.
I can’t recall a fight that has had such a wide and varied selection of commonly held opinions as the UFC 229 pairing of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor and for that reason, I’m going to dedicate a series to delving into some of them and judging their validity.
Today I’m going to put one of the most widespread criticisms of Khabib Nurmagomedov under the spotlight and give my take on how much merit there is to it.
Khabib’s record is padded as a result of a ‘can-heavy’ regional run before his ascent to the UFC lightweight title.
26-0 is one helluva record to hold in this sport. I’m not going to get into it too much but everyone loses in this sport, it’s a commonly known fact. They often say it’s better to get your losses out of the way early in order to experience the less-than-desirable side of competing in such a multi-faceted game before you reach the top levels.
All the greats sustained losses before hitting their peak run.
Anderson Silva entered the UFC with a record of 17-4. Georges St-Pierre began his legendary reign atop the 170lb division with two recent defeats in his back pocket. Even the great José Aldo – who went undefeated for ten years – was submitted back in Brazil before his name was known.
An undefeated record in some ways is cherished but in other ways, is often looked at slyly as it is plainly understood that these things just do not last forever.
It’s all well and good when you can maintain that aura of invincibility around you but when you actually lose, you seem very beatable.
Khabib hasn’t run into much in the way of adversity thus far in his MMA career but I don’t think that it’s right to criticise him for his ability to dominate inside the octagon.
Everyone fights a few less-than-fantastic opponents during their rise through the regional scene – so if Nurmagomedov has taken, say, six fights less than he had and entered the promotion at 10-0, would there be as much of an issue?
I don’t think Khabib is under any illusions about his record. His confidence doesn’t stem from the fact that he has beaten 26 men on his road to the lightweight title – his confidence comes from the manner in which he has been able to do it.
If he did come into the UFC at 10-0 – as many do – and then won a further ten – as he did, would we still call his record padded?
I’m not sure if the issue is with his pre-UFC run or with the ten wins he had inside the octagon because to be honest, if he felt that he needed to win sixteen fights in order to hone his grappling ability to its fullest potential before taking the step up in competition, who are we to say he should have jumped the gun sooner?
I mean, it clearly worked!
In the UFC, he has had a fairly standard – albeit interrupted – road to the belt. Fighters have gotten title-shots for far less than beating Rafael dos Anjos, Gleison Tibau, Pat Healy, Edson Barboza, and Michael Johnson.
It’s not like the UFC were exactly dying to get him into a championship fight. He’s a grappler and not particularly marketable (on the surface). Look at Cody Garbrandt. He got his shot at Dominick Cruz on the back of KO win over the fading veteran Takeya Mizugaki – but he’s young, he’s fiery and he has the image.
Khabib tried on many occasions to fight Tony Ferguson, he battled with injuries over a long period of time and he would have even shared the octagon with either Max Holloway or Anthony Pettis at UFC 223 under different circumstances.
I think he has had an odd road to the top. I don’t think anyone is claiming that he has a GSP-esque record with names that any casual fan can point to – even Khabib himself is more focused on the fact that he has never lost a round more than anything else.
The UFC promotional machine will latch onto anything they can to sell a fight and with a big number like ’26’ next to a ‘0’, why not hype this guy up because in fairness to him, he fights like a guy who looks practically invincible.
His record shouldn’t be the focus, the manner in which he has been able to achieve it is a much more impressive feat.
So is his record ‘padded’?
Sure, why not! I really don’t care, to be honest. He could’ve taken three regional fights, jumped straight into the UFC, won ten straight and sat here as the 155lb king at 13-0 and we’d all still be singing this guy’s praises.
He used his time as an up-and-comer to improve his skills back home in Dagestan against fighters who – let’s be real – were pretty poor. I just don’t think that it matters that much.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena