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The Hunt for Khabib’s Zero

How UFC lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov’s undefeated streak became the most coveted target in the sport

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Six years ago, UFC president Dana White wasn’t sure what to do with Khabib Nurmagomedov, the Dagestani juggernaut who turned everyone he faced into tackling dummies. After Gilbert Melendez and Nate Diaz reportedly turned down offers to fight him, White all but threw up his hands during an interview with FOX Sports 1, unsure what else he could possibly do.

“Nobody wants to fight this guy,” he said, mostly as side-eye to Diaz, the fighter the UFC really, really wanted to face Khabib. To make sure everybody got the message—including Diaz—he then tweeted out to his millions of followers the exact same message: “Nobody wants to fight Khabib!”

Of course, back then that was pretty understandable. Why would anybody in his right mind want to take on a dogged, zero-emotion wrestler, who essentially loots whatever human property he goes up against just for sport? This was the guy who put Pat Healy on tumble dry for 15 straight minutes in Toronto, and took down Abel Trujillo a record 21 freaking times. Khabib was 21-0 and had never lost a round in the UFC. You could understand why a potential opponent might think there wasn’t a lot of upside to taking on a guy who is virtually guaranteed to make you question why you ever bothered to become a fighter to begin with.

The champion at the time, Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, wanted nothing to do with Khabib. Neither did any contender within earshot of Pettis, for fear of losing their standing in the rankings. Eventually, the UFC found him a dance partner in future champion Rafael dos Anjos, who gave it his best shot, yet (predictably) got trampled for three rounds. If Dana thought booking him was difficult before, Nurmagomedov’s presence became something of an existential dilemma for UFC matchmakers after that. It would be another four years before Khabib would win the vacant title against Al Iaquinta at UFC 223.

Cut to today and Nurmagomedov is the UFC’s reigning lightweight champion. He is set to defend his title for the third time against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 on Saturday on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi. The only difference between the Nurmagomedov of then and the Nurmagomedov of now is that he’s a little older at 32, his record now stands at a ridiculous 28-0, and he finally lost a round. That came against Conor McGregor back at UFC 229, when—realistically—Nurmagomedov took the third round off to recover and set up his fourth-round finish of the Irishman.

Oh, and there’s one other major difference that should be pointed out: These days, everybody wants to fight him, just for a crack at that zero in 28-0. Nurmagomedov went from being the most avoided fighter in the world to the most coveted to conquer. He is now the benchmark by which surrounding greatness measures itself.

It helps that he has the lightweight title, which means all roads have to go through him to reach the top. Yet it’s not just that he’s a champion. It’s that he’s the indomitable Nurmagomedov, whose sheen of invincibility is viewed as something to be taken. He is a kind of Everest that adventurers can’t help but daydream about one day conquering. Just as an up-and-coming prospect can become a divisional kingpin with a few well-timed fights, the man nobody wanted to fight became the man everybody wanted to fight for exactly the same reason nobody wanted to fight him—his undefeated streak. Now, the downside has been flipped upside down.

The biggest allure to Saturday’s pay-per-view with Gaethje isn’t just that the challenger is a forward-pressuring berserker with a shark’s conscience, which might prove helpful in trying to overthrow Nurmagomedov. No, it’s that Gaethje has a golden ticket. He arrives on Fight Island just as Veruca Salt arrives at Wonka’s chocolate factory. As Khabib’s zero has taken on an outsized role in the minds of so many great fighters, Gaethje actually has a chance to do what they can only dream about. He’ll get a crack at becoming the guy who beat Nurmadomedov.

Back when he was traded to the UFC in late 2018, Ben Askren—an 18-0 welterweight champion from Bellator and ONE Championship—devised a plan. He wanted to win three fights in 2019, the third being the UFC’s welterweight title, and then face Nurmagomedov in a superfight before calling it a career. It wasn’t conquering the welterweight division that was his end goal—it was taking the zero from Nurmagomedov’s record. That zero is the most coveted jewel in the game. It gleams and glistens and mesmerizes. It calls to fighters from distant places.

It even calls to those who are otherwise happily retired, like longtime welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. St-Pierre is considered by many to be the greatest of all time, having won 13 straight bouts going back to 2007, with nine title defenses. After retiring and staying away for four years, St-Pierre came back in 2017 to win the UFC middleweight title from Michael Bisping at UFC 217 (which he just as casually vacated a month later), thus cementing his place atop the pantheon of all-time greats. What’s the one fight that would tempt another return to the Octagon for the now 39-year-old St-Pierre?

A bout against Nurmagomedov. He has mentioned this on many occasions, and even dabbled with the idea of cutting down to lightweight to get it done. It bothers St-Pierre that there’s a guy out there who can dominate the way he did during his reign, and maybe better. He wants to solidify himself as the GOAT by becoming the first to defeat the great Nurmagomedov, and—let’s face it—score one last massive payday. In his favor, Nurmagomedov has made it clear that he would welcome a challenge from St-Pierre, too.

That’s meaningful, because the one fighter Nurmagomedov has next to no interest in facing again is the guy who wants him worst of all: Conor McGregor. McGregor, who scored a 40-second TKO of Donald Cerrone back in January, has been lobbying for a rematch with Nurmagomedov for the last two years. Though he has reluctantly agreed to face Dustin Poirier in January—even going so far as to insist it be held at AT&T Stadium in Dallas—no deal has been officially signed yet. Why? Nurmagomedov.

McGregor has tried everything in his power to get a rematch with Nurmagomedov. He has harassed Dana White privately and publicly. He has retired. He has flirted with the idea of fighting Manny Pacquiao in a boxing ring. He has offered to do a “for charity” fight with Poirier in Ireland, that he’d promote himself. He has tried to get a fight in either November or December to better sync with Nurmagomedov’s schedule. He has very loudly—and very frequently—expressed where he went wrong in the first fight with Khabib, selling the idea that the second fight would be different.

In short, McGregor is obsessed with fighting Nurmagomedov again. Even if there’s some legitimacy to the other scenarios, much of it is posturing. Fighting Poirier is a Plan B that would be tough for a superstar fighter who’s used to getting his way. The great Conor McGregor fighting Poirier, who Nurmagomedov beat in his more recent title defense last year? Hell no. McGregor doesn’t want Nurmagomedov’s sloppy seconds, he wants Nurmagomedov himself.

That is the only fight McGregor truly cares about. It’s the big money fight, but it’s also the fight that would put him in a class by himself. McGregor is at his best when he’s faced with proving people wrong. When people say that a rematch would inevitably play out like the first fight—that anybody who faces Nurmagomedov will lose—he knows just how deeply an upset would resonate with the fan base. Beating the man means beating the perception. He has always been able to predict the awe in his own feats, but now, suddenly, he can’t quite prophesy his way into the main event.

Problem is, Nurmagomedov insists he has no real use for McGregor, and he’s tired of hearing that name. When Stephen A. Smith of ESPN asked him this week if it was true that he didn’t want to give McGregor the attention that would come with a rematch, Nurmagomedov deadpanned, “Right now, even I don’t want to talk about this shit.” He has pretty much expressed some variation of this response for the last two years when asked about McGregor.

But for all his fame, McGregor isn’t alone. Everybody wants to fight Nurmagomedov. Tony Ferguson has wanted him for a long time, yet, after five different bookings fell through for increasingly unbelievable reasons, will likely never get the chance. Poirier had his chance last September and lost. He knows there will never be a rematch. As for Dan Hooker, Charles Oliveira, and Paul Felder, the guys in the rankings who should be closing in on a title shot? They’d like a crack, too, but they’re aren’t likely to get it.

As a Muslim who observes Ramadan from mid-April to mid-May, Nurmagomedov has averaged about a fight a year since 2014. Should he get by Gaethje on Saturday to raise his record to 29-0, there’s a good chance Khabib will be down to his last fight. Khabib and his late father, Abdulmanap—who passed away in July—had mapped out a career plan. The goal was to get his record to a perfectly round 30-0, then do the rarest of rare in the fight game, which is to walk away on top. Khabib was very close to his father, who was his trainer and a mentor to him in every way. Some in his camp believe that is still the goal.

If that’s the case, this weekend’s fight with Gaethje could end up being one of the final showcases of a generational talent in the UFC, as well as a sweepstakes to find out who might get to face him in his swan song. It’s funny how things can change over the course of a career. For a guy that for the longest time nobody wanted to fight, a lot of people will be left kicking themselves wishing they had. Especially if he takes that zero with him when he goes.