Editor’s note: Daniel Cormier discussed his American Kickboxing Academy teammate and friend Khabib Nurmagomedov with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto earlier this year. Nurmagomedov will defend his UFC lightweight belt against Justin Gaethje on Saturday in the main event of UFC 254 on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. Some content has been edited for clarity and brevity.
More than anything, Khabib Nurmagomedov and I are friends.
I’ve watched this guy grow from a young, Russian kid who didn’t speak English to a global superstar.
He came with a dream, not much money. American Kickboxing Academy teammate Shawn Bunch picked him up at the airport, took him to McDonald’s and fed him because he was hungry. And then he took him to the gym.
Khabib was undefeated at the time (18-0) and we would talk to him a little bit, because he couldn’t really speak much English. You saw how intent on getting better he was. You watch the kid, and then you see Luke Rockhold showing him something. And then Cain Velasquez would be showing him something. And then I would be showing him something. Everybody drew to him because he was different, like a kid who wanted to learn and was going to do whatever you told him. He never questioned anything.
Even today as the global superstar that he is, you’re a coach, he will not question anything you tell him to do. He will not question the way you tell him to do it. He’s a sponge for knowledge. I just remember him always being in there, trying to learn and everybody being drawn to him because of that real key part of his personality that made him want to learn.
One thing that I used to always enjoy was originally, he was called “The Eagle of Dagestan,” he wasn’t just “The Eagle,” and he fought in the UFC, and he somehow copied the audio of Bruce Buffer introducing him, so he would just play that all the time. Go up to the locker room, and you’d hear “Eagle of Dagestan, Nurmagomedov,” and that was some of the first English the dude learned, was how to repeat Bruce introducing him in the Octagon.
‘Brother, I’m going to be world champion’
You know what he told me one time, years ago, “Brother, I’m going to be world champion, and I’m going to fight for $10 million every fight.” I promise you. Years ago, and we all go, “No chance.” Because nobody was making $10 million at the time. And I’m sure right now Khabib is fighting as the world champion at 28-0 for $10 million, straight.
He sure doesn’t need the money, but he told me that, because he said it was going to change. He was going to be so big that things would change. And now, it has happened. He has done all the stuff he said he would do.
Living in Dagestan, he doesn’t need much. It doesn’t cost much over there. We sent some kids to wrestle there in January, and Khabib paid for their hotels. He took care of them, because they were my little wrestlers. Hotels weren’t very expensive. He doesn’t need much, he does it because he loves it.
I think a lot of stuff about his background is very guarded, and it’s guarded purposely. He’s a guy who’s a bit of a mystery, and I think part of the intrigue to him is the mystery. So I’m not going to blow the top off that.
If I’m going to share anything, I think about his father, Abdulmanap, and the intensity his dad lived with. I could only imagine little Khabib growing up as that kid in that house. When I was light heavyweight champ of the world, one day I was cutting weight, Khabib’s dad jumped on me to grapple with me and the dude was actually trying to win. He was wrestling, trying to win. Just an intense man, very knowledgeable man. I know that he raised Khabib pretty hard.
‘I’m so nervous, I’ve never done an English interview’
Around 2015, 2016, Khabib came to Fox to do an interview. And I was doing “UFC Tonight,” and I was like, ”You can do it. Just try it.” He was like, “I’m so nervous, I’ve never done an English interview.” I thought he did well, but I remember, he would talk, but he would only talk s—. It was like all he did was talk trash, because we made fun of him all the time. We made fun of him for his little widow’s peak, we used to call him Eddie Munster. And he hated it. And he just learned to talk trash back. And now, that’s all he does is talk s— the whole time.
There have been times when Khabib was short on training partners, and I’ll go in there and spar him, light, I’m not going hard. I’m just kind of working, but honestly, you can’t go as light with Khabib as you’d want. He’s not the normal 155-pounder. He’s big and he’s strong. He can wrestle, so you kind of have to give him a little bit more than you would generally give a little guy, but that’s what makes him so special. He can be standing across the Octagon from me, and that’s when I was the heavyweight champion of the world, and I would go in there and spar with him a little and that dude had no fear. I kind of have to give up a little bit more than I would normally give a little dude, because this dude’s actually trying to win. He’s like his dad.
He grapples so much, it’s wild. He grapples more than anybody I’ve ever seen. He’s getting better at controlling, which is absurd, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy better at top control in my life. He’s better at chasing the finishes once he gets on top, because for a while, he was just beating up guys. He wasn’t finishing them as much as he wanted to. But now he’s getting finishes. All that control that Khabib does with his legs now, it wasn’t like that before. He was a wrestling guy, like me, and we were trying to control everything with our arms and squeezing, and over the years he developed the ability to control with his legs, and it completely changed the game.
Knocking down Conor McGregor, and eyeing Georges St-Pierre
Khabib takes a lot of pride in the fact that he knocked down Conor McGregor. It was supposed to be the wrestler vs. the striker, and for him to be the one who scored the knockdown, was a big deal for him.
He doesn’t really say Conor’s name, though. I don’t ever think I’ve ever heard him say Conor’s name. It’s always “this guy,” which I think tells you how he feels about him. And I try to trick him into saying it. He won’t do it.
I don’t think he’ll be around very much longer. I think you have to take it in right now. Obviously, he doesn’t need to fight. I’m sure he has enough money, living in Dagestan, for the rest of his life. I think he’ll fight for maybe a year or two, max. And then move on, spend time with his family. I know he does not like whenever he comes to camp because he misses his kids and his wife.
“I went into the locker room before he fought Conor and I couldn’t believe the stillness of the room. The room wasn’t filled with nervous energy. We walked in there, me and my son, and he started wrestling with my son, before the match.”
I think part of Khabib going away sooner rather than later is part of the reason we all love him so much. It’s that he understands that as long as he’s champion, his teammate Islam Makhachev can’t be. And he feels like Islam is the champ if he’s not fighting. Even if it’s for that, to give Islam that, he won’t be that long.
And it’s going to suck. It’s going to be a terrible day for all of us at AKA when Khabib walks away, because he brings a different vibe to the gym, a different feel. And he always has. Not just as the champion now. When he was a kid who didn’t know anything, everybody liked Khabib, because he just brought something different to our gym. He was like our Russian little brother who had a ton of potential. Now he’s our Russian little brother who’s a global superstar.
When he’s done, I think it will be over. I think you’ll see him on social media occasionally. But I think he’ll be gone. I don’t know if he’s one of those guys who loves fame. Some guys love fame. Maybe he will. I think he’ll be around with his teammates. But I don’t know if he’ll be a guy you see him randomly.
He loves the competition. He loves the ability to go out there and do something special, leave people talking. I think fight week, to him, means getting in there and being able to do something. I don’t know about all the interviews, and everything that leads up to it, but he has gotten really good at it.
I went into the locker room before he fought Conor and I couldn’t believe the stillness of the room. The room wasn’t filled with nervous energy. It wasn’t like I walked into a room with people so nervous because a guy was getting walked out to lose. It was still. We walked in there, me and my son, and he started wrestling with my son, before the match. I think he lives for those moments, to go out there and compete.
GSP will be the one he leaves on. If Khabib ever gets scheduled to fight GSP, know that will probably be the last time you see him. Because I know how much he respects him. He respects Georges, and wants to fight Georges for all the right reasons.