Javier Mendez knew he was witnessing something special almost from the moment he saw him.
“The very first day he came into my gym. He destroyed everybody. He just smashed everybody,” the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) founder says, recounting the day, back in San Jose in 2012, when Khabib Nurmagomedov walked through his door.
“He didn't really understand any English whatsoever. The funniest thing is that people would ask, ‘How good is Khabib?’ I'd go, ‘Man, that guy's unbelievable. I just wish he'd listen. Because every time I tell him relax, relax, the guy goes crazy on me’.
“Well, later he comes back and goes, ‘Coach, I don't understand. I thought that meant go harder. So I used to go harder’."
Not that Nurmagomedov was particularly equipped for that - literally. At one point, some time in the early days, a fellow student brought to Mendez’s attention that Nurmagomedov didn’t wear a mouthpiece. The coach insisted always upon the use of protective gear, so the Russian resolved to add it. The same went for headgear.
“He didn't used to wear headgear, so I said, ‘You're a professional; you’ve got to wear this’. I gave him an Everlast one. Now he won't get rid of it. He won’t spar with anything but that.
“That’s going to retire with him. And I believe I’m probably correct when I say that headgear's worth a couple million dollars. But he won't sell it.”
At AKA, everyone bought into Nurmagomedov from the outset. Daniel Cormier remembers seeing him on that first day, impressed immediately by his desire for self-improvement. Like Mendez, he knew right away he was watching an extraordinary talent.
“He was just a really nice kid, by himself, that was there to learn,” Cormier says. “He was a sponge. He didn’t speak much English, but you could always tell he was processing and trying to understand and get better, and he had work to do.
“Now he has it so completely locked in and well trained that it makes him one of the best fighters in the world. He doesn’t take shortcuts. He is 100 per cent committed to everything he does.”
That much was evident from the early sparring sessions at AKA. Nurmagomedov was already a fighter of some repute – he had amassed an 18-0 run through the professional ranks - but he was intent on soaking up the knowledge and the cage know-how passed down from the likes of Cormier, Luke Rockhold and Cain Velasquez. All three became UFC champions; Cormier at two different weights.
Even as the new kid on the block, Nurmagomedov held his own. It has sustained until now, as the still-undefeated Dagestani, 28-0, gets set to defend his lightweight crown against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi.
“He’s never lost a sparring session,” Mendez says. “Never been choked out. He came close a couple of times. One of my guys, Kyle Crutchmer, who is a Division-One wrestler, almost had him choked.
“I was running to get my camera, thinking, ‘Man, I got to film this’, but he got out. I couldn't believe it. And Kyle was so upset.
“People don’t really understand when I tell him I’ve never seen him lose a sparring session. Everybody loses sparring sessions. Not him. You might win a round or so. I've had that happen, but they don't win the session. Either he'll tap them out later, or he'll dominate them to the point where he's a winner. That's unbelievable.
“That's why I always say, ‘If you can't stop the ground game, you're not beating this man’. I don't care who you are. You're done.”
And so it has proved. Through his UFC career; through the 12 fights and the 10 since he first stepped foot in AKA; through the challenges presented by Rafael dos Anjos, Michael Johnson, Edson Barboza, Al Iaquinta, Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier.
Ranked: Khabib's top fights
To this point, Nurmagomedov has surrendered a solitary round in the promotion: the third against McGregor in their ill-tempered clash in October 2018. Even then, Mendez says Nurmagomedov went toe-to-toe with the Irishman simply to prove his stand-up, much underrated, could rival the best.
Cormier attended that night at the T-Mobile Arena with his son, unable to sit down, screaming and yelling throughout as Nurmagomedov railed against the notoriously contentious build-up to submit the Notorious in the fourth round. It exists still as the biggest bout in UFC history.
The event, though, was marred by a post-fight brawl, incited when Nurmagomedov scaled the cage and crashed down in the middle of McGregor’s team. Both camps became embroiled in the melee, with two of Nurmagomedov’s group, fellow fighters Abubakar Nurmagomedov and Zubaira Tukhugov, later suspended for a year. Nurmagomedov, meanwhile, was banned for nine months and fined $500,000.
For Cormier, Nurmagomedov’s reaction to his teammates’ punishment says everything about him.
“There’s a story out there about Khabib that the whole world has, and we need to focus on that,” he says. “Because it truly identifies who he is. I believe it’s in the bad is how you measure a man.
"When Zubaira and all these guys who got suspended and fined, they were acting in Khabib’s defence. They just wanted to protect their brother.
“After, he paid all their fines. And he sat on the sideline for as long they would sit on the sideline. They all got into that issue together, which was a bad situation. But he sat it out with them even when he didn’t need to. That pretty much exemplifies who he is. He’s that person to everybody who’s important to him.”
Speak to Cormier, or Mendez, or manager Ali Abdelaziz, and they all describe Nurmagomedov in the same way: fiercely loyal, unwaveringly protective, but with a kindness to everyone around him. He is a devout Muslim.
“Khabib is such a beautiful person,” Mendez says. “The things he does for all his guys; it's unbelievable how he takes care of all the fighters on his team, his family. You'll never meet another person that's as generous as him with his family. And he looks for jobs for them. He puts them on the payroll.
“He's never just about himself. For me, when you look at a Muslim man, the definition of what they stand for, look at Khabib. And it’s real."
Cormier sees that inherent good, as well.
“He’s a loyal guy,” he says. “He loves his family, very devout in his religion. All the boxes that you’d want checked in a person you want to be a friend with. He’s just one of those guys that you can look up to.
“Our relationship hasn’t changed. He came into AKA kind of like the little brother, man. Like the little brother that we all just loved: our little Russian brother. It’s the same now. I appreciate him. He’s a real good guy.”
That likeability extends to the top of the UFC.
“He’s a really nice kid,” Dana White, the promotion’s president, says. “I’ve never had a problem with Khabib. Ever. There’s never been any type of situation, business-wise or any of that. He’s just always been a real good guy and easy to deal with.”
It helps, of course, when you’ve grown into one of the UFC's most marketable athletes. Nurmagomedov has more than 23 million followers across Instagram and Twitter, while his net worth is estimated to fall somewhere in the vastly broad range between $30m and $100m.
Not that fame and fortune necessarily sits easy.
“When he blew up and became a huge superstar it was hard on him at first,” White recalls. “He couldn’t go anywhere, he couldn’t do anything.
“Even in the States, when he would show up in San Jose, there’d be so many people waiting outside the gym for him that it would take him 35-40 minutes just to get inside.
“Everybody thinks being famous is awesome, but it can be a huge pain in the ass too. Especially when you’re trying to live your life and do the things you like to do.”
Mendez has seen first-hand the clamour, both in San Jose and in Nurmagomedov’s native Dagestan. The former kickboxing champion has travelled there on numerous occasions, each time observing more the celebrity that has attached itself to the home hope made great.
“It's tough in Dagestan because he's so famous,” Mendez says. “Let's put it this way: I'm very famous there. If I walk down the street, I'm getting flagged down. People will stop their cars, come up, and take a photo with me. That's how popular I am, because of him.
“So imagine him. He's the national hero of all Russia, and then Dagestan, he's their beloved everything. He can't go anywhere.
“I talked to him, asked him how he deals with it, and he says it's hard. Khabib just likes having his people around; he doesn't thrive off the attention.”
With the success and the superstardom, the scrutiny has grown. Now 32, Nurmagomedov stands currently as the UFC's No 2 pound-for-pound fighter and, should he defeat interim-champion Gaethje on Saturday night at Flash Forum, White believes he will ascend the summit.
For the company’s chief, retaining that unblemished record, and the pressure that undoubtedly brings, says as much about Nurmagomedov’s mettle as it does his might inside the octagon.
“One hundred per cent,” White says. “Just like Jon Jones, if you look at what he’s done. They’re two of the greatest ever. What happened is Khabib's gone undefeated so long and at the level he’s been fighting at.
“Obviously beating a superstar like Conor the way that he beat him doesn’t hurt either. If you look at the lead-up to the Conor fight, the way the fight went down, the [stuff] that happened after, all that helped turn him into a huge superstar. It’s the same way Conor was built.”
McGregor and Nurmagomedov, forever entwined by that infamous match-up two years ago, appear polar opposites in personality. Yet they live together as the sport's two most high-profile athletes.
“It takes all different types,” White says. “If everybody acted like Conor, Conor wouldn’t be special, right? I think the appeal of Khabib is that he’s such a nice guy, he’s so respectful, and his relationship with his father.”
A father to his son
The connection with his father has been a constant narrative during Nurmagomedov’s rise. Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov was parent and coach, honing his son from an early age, instilling the discipline and determination that carried Khabib to the pinnacle. A revered trainer, Abdulmanap is responsible for a succession of Dagestani fighters graduating to the UFC.
The importance of that relationship with his son has only accentuated ahead of Gaethje, after Abdulmanap died in July from heart complications made worse by contracting Covid-19. He was 57.
How Nurmagomedov responds to the personal tragedy provides another intriguing subplot to Saturday.
“I think he's keeping a lot of that bottled inside,” Mendez says. “We didn't really talk about his father, but his father's in him, and his father's wishes are in him and all of us.
“I wish he was still here. He trained so many great up-and-coming guys who will become names in the world. He deserves to be in that scenario. He was way too young.”
In his father’s absence, Khabib has stepped up, taking a more prominent role in training.
“I would say almost everything Khabib is, he got from his father,” Mendez says. ‘His father was a disciplinarian; he was loyal; he had compassion for everybody; he always looked to help people.
“He was always building projects, and Khabib's doing the same thing. So he's following in his father's footsteps, carrying the legacy of what his father represented.”
Cormier sees that also.
“Khabib’s dad was the pillar of their household, obviously, but the entire Dagestan region,” he says. “He was almost like a godfather of that region. And him being gone will thrust Khabib into a different role, for sure in the house, but all the lessons he took from his dad will carry him through and on to being the same type of person.
“Khabib’s got a lot to give back, especially to the region: building his gym and being who he is and using that platform to help and uplift other people.
“I think that’s going to be his purpose. We do things as athletes and we try to leave our mark on the world, but I believe it’s what you do after, when the lights aren’t as bright. And I believe Khabib will elevate so many people from the Dagestan region, just as his dad started to.”
The conclusion to that career has crept more into view following his father’s passing. He and Nurmagomedov spoke often about reaching 30-0, culminating in a “legacy fight” with Georges St-Pierre. For his part, Nurmagomedov has remained largely non-committal as to what the future may hold. Gaethje, he says, forms his sole focus.
Cormier spent time with Nurmagomedov this week in Abu Dhabi – “he seems very ready to fight” - and concedes he will have a difficult time on Saturday, when in his role as ESPN’s colour commentator, he calls his close friend’s fight for the first time.
Instead, Cormier plans to celebrate with Nurmagomedov once he has climbed closer to that hallowed 30-mark.
If Nurmagomedov does eventually get there, perhaps next April against “GSP”, and then in fact calls it a day, Cormier believes he will be sorely missed. Even, that he could slip almost completely from view.
“I think that, if Khabib leaves when he says he’s going to leave, at 30-0, it’ll be like a whirlwind, like a tornado came and flipped the world up on its axis, and then just went away,” Cormier says. “That’s kind of the way it is with these guys from Dagestan.
“I know a lot of wrestlers who became Olympic champs and then just kind of disappeared. I think he would be with us, flip the world upside down and then be gone.
“It’s unsure times. You don’t want him to leave, but when he does he’ll leave with fond memories from all around the world.”
Irrespective of at which juncture Nurmagomedov departs, come through this weekend and then potentially one more test, and White says his place in the pantheon is cemented.
“Khabib needs to beat Gaethje,” he says, glancing through the lightweight rankings. “He’s got a couple more fights here to go; 30 and 0. Maybe he goes 31 and 0 or something.
“If he gets through these fights I’m talking about, he’ll be the greatest lightweight ever and one of the greatest mixed martial artists that’s ever lived.”
Mendez can see the finish line for Nurmagomedov, but only because of the conversations he was privy to between father and son. There were rumours Nurmagomedov considered retirement not long after Abdulmanap died.
“I didn't have concern because to me it's God's will,” Mendez says. “If that's what he wanted to do, I'd just move on. And him and I, doesn't change our relationship. I still love him. Whatever's good for him is good for me.
“But I never thought he would just stop. Because his father wanted him at 30-0. And they would talk about, ideally, the 30th guy being GSP. I look at him as achieving 30-0, then we'll see what happens. Could very well retire - great chance of that happening. "But there's a possibility he might want to prove more because, in all honesty, as a fighter, you impact more people when you're in the spotlight than when you're not.
But first we got to get to 29-0, and Justin Gaethje is an extremely tough opponent.”
Abdulmanap will not be there in person come Saturday night, like he was against Poirier at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi 13 months ago, but Mendez knows he will be in spirit. And that, he says, promises to push Nurmagomedov towards triumph; to thrust the unassuming guy with no English who walked through his door eight years ago and took away the breath, towards truly legendary status.
“Let me put it to you this way: a father's will, to please your father, can do so much for you,” Mendez says. “It can break you or make you. If I'm Khabib, I'm going to use what my father said to make him more proud of me.
“He’s going to use what his father wanted of him to propel him to victory. I genuinely believe that.”