LAS VEGAS — The weight of expectation has brought down many great athletes. Expectations only increase when you’re tied to one of the best in your sport.
This is where Umar Nurmagomedov ends up. His cousin, former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, is arguably the greatest MMA fighter in the sport’s brief history.
Umar shares the name Khabib. Like Khabib, he is undefeated in his MMA campaign. And he wears the familiar Papakha that Khabib has made so famous in MMA circles.
So far, however, Umar has shown no signs of being weighed down by the inevitable comparisons to his legendary cousin, who now serves as his coach.
Umar is 14-0 overall in MMA and 2-0 in the UFC heading into Saturday’s three-round bantamweight bout at Apex against Nate Maness. Nurmagomedov picked up submission victories over Sergey Morozov and Brian Kelleher in his first two UFC fights.
Javier Mendez, one of his trainers, has managed some of the best MMA fighters of all time including Khabib Nurmagomedov, former UFC heavyweight champions Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez and former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold.
Umar has the talent, Mendez said, to eventually put his name to those types of fighters.
“He will beat everyone [in his division]”, Mendez said. “He could fight for the title now, but it’s better to give him a few more fights to give him experience.
Given that he is unranked, he is far from a title shot. The bantamweight division is filled with elite athletes hoping to try their luck against champion Aljamain Sterling, it will soon get even deeper. Former champion Henry Cejudo has returned to USADA’s doping testing pool and plans to compete later this year.
Sterling will next defend against No. 2 TJ Dillashaw, but even fighters 11-15 in the UFC bantamweight rankings are imposing. Ricky Simon and Frankie Edgar are tied for 11th, with Sean O’Malley at 13, Jack Shore at 14 and Adrian Yanez at 15.
Like his cousin, however, Umar exudes confidence. And while he’s not making waves and expressing respect for Maness, he thinks he’s ready for the best. He would like to see ranked fighters next, if possible.
“I think I’m ready for these guys,” he said. “I don’t want to push, but if they give me a Top 15, whoever, I’m ready. I know that. I can compete with these guys. But I don’t know who they’re going to put me against after this fight. We’ll see.”
At the highest levels of MMA, it’s almost as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one. All opponents are highly skilled and capable of doing things most mere mortals can’t even imagine.
It’s always an adjustment for newcomers to the UFC. Regionally, they often overwhelm much less talented opposition with their physical skills. But when they come to the UFC, they face opponents who have skills similar to theirs.
Mendez knows that because of the surname, there will be a microscope on Umar with many comparisons to Khabib.
But Umar grew up in Dagestan, Russia, training with Khabib, top lightweight contender Islam Makhachev and other elite fighters and is familiar with the scrutiny.
“He will succeed and he has 100% the mentality of [deal with comparisons to Khabib]”, Mendez said. “Khabib, Umar and Islam did not need my help with the mental training of the Dagestan crew.”
Umar has the patience to get by. He wants to get to the top as soon as possible and doesn’t think he needs to be fed with less opposition.
But through his talks with Khabib and Makhachev, he learned to understand the business aspects of the sport. Above all, he understands he’s not going to make the calls when it comes to his opposition.
“I want [move] quickly,” he said. “But we have to see how it’s going to go, who [the UFC] put against me. They choose. I have to show my skills and I have to show how I can fight and perform well. That’s it. I have to do my job and they have to do their job.