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Wed 28 Aug 2019 08:07 AM

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Exclusive: How Bahrain helped make Khabib Nurmagomedov a global UFC star

Russian fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov trained with Bahrain's KHK MMA as he recovered from injuries several years ago

Exclusive: How Bahrain helped make Khabib Nurmagomedov a global UFC star
Former UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in Bahrain

Russian fighting superstar Khabib Nurmagomedov will mark his return to the Octagon in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, September 7 for UFC 242, with thousands of fans in the region - and a MMA team in Bahrain - firmly in his corner for the hotly anticipated bout.

Nurmagomedov hasn’t competed since he defeated Irishman Conor McGregor at UFC 229 in October 2018. Having now served his nine-month suspension for a controversial post-fight brawl at the event, he will look to regain the lightweight title from interim champion Dustin Poirier at the purpose-built Yas Island venue.

Despite his months of inactivity, Nurmagomedov is still widely considered the sport’s most prominent star – and it has paid off for him, with an estimated net worth of $11.5 million according to Forbes Russia. 

Largely unknown to most Western fight fans, Bahrain had an important role to play in propelling Nurmagomedov to stardom, making his upcoming fight “a proud moment” for the region, according to Mohammed ‘the Hawk’ Shahid, CEO of Bahrain’s KHK MMA.

Give fighters a chance

Established by Bahraini royal Khalid bin Hamad Khalifa in February 2015, KHK MMA is a mixed martial arts organisation which has had a number of high-profile fighters under its belt, including Nurmagomedov, who joined the same year.

In an exclusive interview with Arabian Business, Shahid – himself a veteran pro MMA fighter with a 4-1 record – said that KHK was founded with the mission of giving fighters like Nurmagomedov a chance to reach higher levels within the sport, even if they were already fighting at a professional level.

“It’s a tough sport, and it’s an English-speaking sport. If you can’t market yourself, and aren’t a person that can go trash talk or doesn’t know the English language, you’re going to be in a little bit of trouble, no matter how much talent you have,” Shahid said.

“We wanted to try give the resources to MMA athletes that athletes from other sports get, so that they can perform at the best of their abilities,” he added.

Nurmagomedov was one of a number of what Shahid termed “top tier” fighters brought on by KHK at the time, which also included former UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar.

‘Almost quit’

At the time, however, Nurmagomedov was battling a series of injuries which had led him to pull out of fights and contemplate publicly on his social media accounts that he was unsure of whether he would be returning to the Octagon.

“Khabib at that point had almost quit fighting. He had a ligament injury [in his knee]. He was out for a year or so,” Shahid recalls. “We did the rehabilitation for him, to get his recovery programme done here in Bahrain, to make sure he was taken care of the right way.”

Shahid compared to level of care and rehabilitation that Nurmagomedov received to that given to injured professional footballers playing for the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona.

“With doctors, supplements, the proper training, everything,” he said. “This actually got him back to where he should be. When he got back to fighting – and through to today – he looked like he never had a problem at all.”

In the past, Nurmagomedov has also credited KHK with helping him get back in fighting shape in time for a hotly anticipated match against US fighter Tony Ferguson in April 2016. Ferguson, however, was replaced by rookie fighter Darrell Horcher – whom Nurmagomedov beat by second round TKO.

“I went through some tough times but I did a lot of my rehab in Bahrain with KHK MMA and they helped me so much,” Nurmagomedov was quoted as saying by FloCombat.com in June 2016. “They gave me the best doctors in the world and they never let me keep my head down for long.

“It was always getting tough getting the news of my injuries but I have them to thank for getting me back to full health,” he added.

Fan favourite

Looking back at Nurmagomedov’s career, Shahid said he believes that it was his time in Bahrain that helped make him “the most popular” fighter among fans in the Arabian Gulf and the greater Middle East, long before he gained prominence in the West for his highly publicised rivalry with McGregor.

“His popularity and the relationship with His Highness led a lot of people in the Middle East to know who he is, and to back him,” he said. “When people in the US and the West began to see him as a superstar, he was already a superstar within this region.

“We were all rooting for him, every fight he fought.”

Arabian Business digital magazine: read the latest edition online