Wildly popular Russian fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov has given the UFC a “huge” boost in the Middle East, according to UFC executive vice president Lawrence Epstein.
A native of Russia’s Dagestan, 30-year old Nurmagomedov is the first Muslim to win a UFC title. On Saturday, he maintained his perfect record – now with 28 wins and no losses – against US fighter Dustin Poirier.
He is widely considered the Middle East’s favourite UFC fighter.
In an interview with Arabian Business ahead of Saturday’s clash, Epstein said that the UFC’s business in the region has benefited significantly by the success of Nurmagomedov.
“We’ve done events here in the past, bringing in global UFC stars, and that’s been very successful,” he said. “But having an athlete that’s both a star and has a local following is even better.
“He’s a Muslim athlete and has spent a lot of time in the region. That makes him really attractive here,” he added. “Our goal is to expose as many people to the sport of MMA and the UFC brand. Having an athlete cut through and that gets people interested in a particular region is going to help us accelerate that growth.”
According to Mohammed ‘the Hawk’ Shahid, CEO of Bahrain’s KHK MMA – Nurmagomedov’s former team – much of the fighters popularity in the region stems from the years of exposure he has already had in the Gulf.
Among his earliest supporters in the region was KHK MMA’s founder, Bahraini royal Khalid bin Hamad Khalifa.
“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,” Shahid told Arabian Business.
“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,” he added.
Following Saturday’s fight with Poirier, Nurmagomedov acknowledged his popularity in the region, and said he’d be open to fighting in Abu Dhabi again.
“I love these people and they love me. I hoped they liked my performance,” he said. “Maybe next year. We’ll see.”
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