Is Khabib’s threat to potentially keep the UFC out of Russia a realistic one?

On Tuesday, October 4, Khabib Nurmagomedov appeared on The Luke Thomas Show to discuss a variety of topics, including his frustration with being overlooked…

By: Karim Zidan | 7 years ago
Is Khabib’s threat to potentially keep the UFC out of Russia a realistic one?
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

On Tuesday, October 4, Khabib Nurmagomedov appeared on The Luke Thomas Show to discuss a variety of topics, including his frustration with being overlooked for a long-awaited title shot. During his heated interview, Khabib revealed that he would never fight for the UFC again if he wasn’t rewarded a title fight after UFC 205, and even threatened to keep the promotion out of the Russian Federation permanently.

“UFC thinks Conor has power?” Khabib said on the show, “Ireland only has like 6 million people. I am from Russia, 150 million people. If UFC don’t give me the title fight after this fight, I’m going to show how I have power in Russia and I know if I don’t fight for the title next fight, UFC will never ever go to Russia.”

While Khabib’s statement may appear to be nothing more than a blatant bluff from a frustrated fighter, they are certainly far more significant than they seem. The lightweight contender is remarkably popular throughout Russia, including his native republic of Dagestan. His dominance in the UFC enthralled Russian fans who longed for one of their own to trounce American fighters. And as his popularity skyrocketed within his own country, so did his opportunities to join the social elite.

Following Khabib’s victory against Darrell Horcher, he was gifted a brand new Mercedes AMG GT by Dagestani oligarch Ziyavudin Magomedov. The gift is particularly significant because Magomedov is a majority owner of the Eurasian Fight Nights promotion and the man responsible for paying Fedor’s enormous fight purse for the Fabio Maldonado fight last June. Magomedov also attempted to purchase the UFC several years ago.

Magomedov rose to prominence and became a billionaire with the help of state contracts during the ascent of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Between 2009-13, Magomedov’s fortune rose sharply to $2.1 billion, which coincided with the start of Medvedev’s first year as president. However, when Putin regained power, he removed all oligarchs whom he considered loyal to another president. Magomedov’s net worth suffered significantly and he was forced to look for alternative sources of investment and income. This led him to mixed martial arts.

Over a three-year period, Magomedov used his influence in sports to diplomatically work his way back into the Russian political elite (documented in detail here) and eventually signed a deal with the Russian government to bring Elon Musk’s HyperLoop One tube-transportation system to the Russian Federation. He is now considered a Putin loyalist and a powerful ally for MMA and Khabib.

Khabib’s comments are particularly timely because they coincide with several statements from another of his powerful allies, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

During the World Fighting Championship of Akhmat (WFCA) event on Tuesday, Kadyrov addressed the crowd in attendance and turned his attention to the UFC and Conor McGregor. He stated that the UFC is only focused on show business and that Khabib is the true contender in the division but was overruled because of the promotion’s interest in money instead of pure sport. Less than three hours later, Khabib regurgitated many of the same sentiments on The Luke Thomas Show.

Kadyrov expressed interest in having Khabib compete on his shows in the past. It is likely the future that awaits the contender if he chooses to leave the UFC. The Chechen ruler is more than capable of paying Nurmagomedov to fight for Akhmat and has the leverage to make the UFC’s entry into Russia particularly difficult. Given his traditional tactics of fearmongering and public humiliation, Kadyrov can easily utilize both strategies to ensure others are too scared to help the UFC with their Russian venture.

Khabib’s friendship with Magomedov is also essential to his threat to keep the UFC out of Russia. The oligarch funds EFN and has a vested interest in the promotion’s success. He could apply his wide network of contacts to ensure that the UFC has a difficult time finding sponsors or partners in Moscow. Magomedov has already resumed his position within Putin’s political elite and that sort of influence in the Kremlin will ensure that the UFC never set foot in Russia. What would already have been a hostile environment for the UFC will result in a near-impossible attempt to host an event.

Khabib’s statements are a reminder that the beloved UFC lightweight is backed by some unsavory people who are capable of barring the promotion from easy access to one of the largest markets in the world.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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