Opinion: Khabib Nurmagomedov and the Terror of “What If?”

I don’t want to get carried away or be melodramatic about the future of Khabib Nurmagomedov at this point, but I can’t say that I begrudge those doing just that.

We’re two weeks removed from the disintegration of his bout with Tony Ferguson at UFC 209, the third time the bout had been scheduled. By now, we all know the story of him getting six pounds out from finishing his weight cut, about him being taken to the hospital by his team, Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White complaining they didn’t call the UFC’s medical staff, et cetera.

Since then, Nurmagomedov’s future has only become even hazier, while many seem poised to move on without him. Tony Ferguson — a brilliant personal and stylistic foil that Nurmagomedov has invested so much in training for on three occasions now, the man that could’ve given him a slice of the UFC lightweight title, albeit an interim one, and made him the first Russian UFC champion ever – called Nurmagomedov “disrespectful” for blowing weight and has already taken to calling out Nate Diaz.

It’s both a calamitous and cryptic situation. Since the UFC 209 debacle, Nurmagomedov has been scarce. On March 6, he posted a message to Instagram, with a stock photo of himself, apologizing to fans, Ferguson and the UFC, thanking Allah. A week ago, he reposted an advertisement for fellow Dagestani fighter Shamil Zavurov doing seminars across Russia. That’s been it. Instead, it’s been his trainers who have fed the insanity.

Almost simultaneous to the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight fizzling, Russian media outlet Life.ru ran a video with Nurmagomedov’s father and primary trainer Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, where he stated he expected his son to retire by the age of 30, under two years from now, but after winning the UFC title, of course. In conjunction with the third dissolution of Nurmagomedov-Ferguson, plus “The Eagle’s” generally infirmed pro career, it was a handful of bitter pills to swallow, with the dread of an even larger one to come.

In the days following UFC 209, one of Nurmagomedov’s other coaches, American Kickboxing Acacdemy’s Javier Mendez, who said in an interview with “Submission Radio” that the 28-year-old was headed to Germany for medical testing and that ultimately any decisions about his career would depend on the medical advice he receives and most importantly, the input of his father Abdulmanap, reaffirming him as his son’s primary advisor on all matters, professional and personal.

There’s a strange “otherness” about a Dagestani athlete who splits time between the Russian land mass and California headed to Germany for medical treatment. It’s not for any insidious or dubious reasons, but in the five years since basketball legend Kobe Bryant brought his Orthokine treatments in Germany to public attention, headed to Deutschland for any medical purpose unconsciously suggests level of severity, even if Nurmagomedov is only theoretically going for diagnostic purposes.

(Inconsequential trivia note: Both Dana White and new UFC big big boss Ari Emanuel of WME-IMG are Orthokine patients. Emanuel credits it for ending years of nagging back pain, while White used it to combat Meniere’s Disease.)

Wednesday, the Russian media reported comments from Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov that Khabib had returned home to Dagestan and would resume light training, cardio work and the like, later this month. He gave no timetable for his son’s return. It’s ironic, too, given that so much of the mystery and drama in the situation is that Khabib has been largely silent and has allowed others to frame the narrative around him, albeit with very little in the way of facts of clarity. In the meantime, the constantly clashing, yet ever-uncertain narratives surrounding him have festered, created a world where MMA forums are filled with folks playing Dr. Gregory House, hypothesizing that the undefeated lightweight has Budd-Chiari Syndrome, a rare condition that involves blockages in the liver’s hepatic veins.

The creativity and pessimism of the MMA community never fails to impress. But, as I said, I can understand some of the mania that goes with this enigmatic predicament. Nurmagomedov has been on the scene as an obviously elite 155-pounder for basically five years now, yet he’s spent most of it hamstrung by injuries, including the full two years he spent on the shelf due to repeated knee injuries. If Nurmagomedov’s career does end sooner rather than later, especially if he never gets the chance to fight for a UFC title, whether for personal reasons, his father’s whims, injuries, illness or any other possible reason, he would easily be MMA’s most tragic “What if?” athlete.

MMA is a weird racket for a lot of reasons, but among them is that many of the hardships that sink athletes in other sports are far from death knells in this one. Sure, it’s generally better to be young than old, but look at the average MMA heavyweight age, the career of Randy Couture or even a fighter like Yoel Romero. Yes, a major injury can really set you back in your career, but Dominick Cruz came back from an unfathomable string of knee injuries plus a groin injury — maybe the most mind-bogging and devastating consecutive string of injuries we’ve seen to an elite MMA fighter — and still came back to win the UFC title again. Frank Mir flew off a motorcycle, almost died, came back and won a piece of the UFC heavyweight title again. Michael Bisping won the UFC middleweight title after a career of people scoffing at that notion and after he was nearly blinded in one eye from his nasty detached retina nightmare.

The majority of MMA’s “What could have been?” conversations actually feature fighters who made it to the top, weirdly enough. People have said things like “What if Vitor Belfort’s sister was never kidnapped?” and “What if Kevin Randleman learned how to submission grapple?” for years, but both were UFC champions. David Terrell might have been unreliable and a bit of a head case, but he was still absurdly talented and got to fight for a UFC title. Maybe Paulo Filho and his personal demons are worth mentioning, but you’re kidding me if you don’t think Nurmagomedov is twice the fighter MMA’s sleeveless flannel king was.

Last week, I wrote that Nurmagomedov was among a modern sort of promotional prisoner as a result of the way his situation has developed and the fact that nothing is ever guaranteed in this sport, i.e. a UFC title bid. I mentioned that maybe the most dismaying and upsetting example of how circumstance can conspire and ruin an athlete is what happened to Karo Parisyan, whose hamstring injury knocked him out of his UFC title fight with Matt Hughes set for UFC 56, ultimately made him dependent on painkillers and really helped sink his career. Parisyan was a fine fighter, but we’d already watched him lose to superior welterweights. He was notoriously lazy in training and didn’t take fight prep seriously, from diet to actually putting in gym time. He would’ve probably lost a 25-minute decision to Hughes if he’d fought.

On the other hand, 24 men have tried to stop Nurmagomedov and they’ve failed. When we saw him last, just four months ago, he was as good as ever, pulverizing Michael Johnson in the years most lopsided high-level beatdown, verbally accosting him the whole way. He has a style that makes the notion of him soundly beating Conor McGregor an accessible, believable one. Russia may never be a lucrative market for the UFC, but becoming a champion would damn sure makes Nurmagomedov a major Russian sports star. And speaking of lucrative, if Nurmagomedov fought in the era of Conor McGregor and just passed him like a ship in the night … well, that’s maybe the greatest of all modern MMA tragedies, as least to the fighter in question and their bank account.

This is MMA, so if Nurmagomedov gets healthy and fights until he’s 35, color me unsurprised. But, MMA fans are dreamers and this is an unnerving, unsettling sport sometimes, so often, those dreams are nightmares. Until Khabib himself speaks out, in Russian, English or both, and can give a definitive medical update and frame his own public message, we’ll be in the dark with a small, heartbroken contingent of fans researching his reported symptoms on WebMD, looking for clues. Even if he gets a clean bill of health, it’s nothing to insulate him from another injury, another blown weight cut, another proclamation from his father.

It’s a maddening way to live, but it beats that spectre, that hypothetical tragedy of Nurmagomedov turning into the foremost “What if?”