This past Saturday night, my friends and I coughed up $65 to watch grown men hurt each other in five-minute increments at UFC 229. Like most people, we were drawn in by the unavoidable hype machine that is Connor Mcgregor’s return to MMA against the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov. Just as most oddsmakers predicted, Khabib dominated McGregor into submission inside of four rounds, continuing his reign as UFC’s lightweight champion.
After the match, in a scene akin to the infamous Malice in the Palace, Khabib and his entourage leapt into the crowd and began assaulting McGregor and some of his affiliates. Within 30 seconds of Khabib’s victory, UFC’s greatest success had become its most damning blemish.
While the dust is still settling and new information on what provoked the skirmish could be released in the coming days, Khabib’s actions speak volumes on his character and motivations. The incident also recontextualizes some of the accusations Connor McGregor levied against Khabib during the pre-fight press conference, raising questions about the suspect company that Khabib surrounds himself with. Though McGregor lost the fight, he managed to expose the corruption and immorality that fueled Khabib’s ascension to the top of the UFC.
To understand Khabib’s rise in UFC, it’s important to know where he came from. Born on September 20th, 1988 in the war-torn village of Silde, Dagestan, Khabib had to learn to defend himself at a young age. Threatened by violence from Chechnyan separatist groups and terrorism, he quickly gravitated towards mixed martial arts. Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap Nurmegomedov, trained his son relentlessly, eventually developing Khabib into one of Russia’s best MMA fighters. Ironically, Khabib’s fighting ability became his ticket out of poverty and violence.
By the time Khabib was in his early 20’s, he had caught the attention of billionaire Russian oligarch, Ziyavudin Magomedov. Magomedov is a notorious business owner and investor who amassed much of his fortune because of his relationship with prime minister Medvedev. In hopes of eventually being elected president, Magomedov viewed funding Khabib as an opportunity to improve his public image.
Fully aware of Magomedov’s problematic persona, Khabib took Magomedov’s offer and accepted the funding. The sponsorship halted this past May when Magomedov was arrested on embezzlement and organized crime charges, as well as charges relating to his use of contracted hitmen. Still awaiting trial, Magomedov faces up to 20 years in prison.
Outside of Magomedov, Khabib has accepted funding and support from the authoritarian Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov. Appointed by Putin as his father’s successor, Ramzan Kadyrov is infamous for his involvement in the Chechen military’s violent persecution of homosexuals. During his time in office, Kadyrov has worked tirelessly to consolidate power and dissuade Chechen separatist groups by means of military force and political coercion. Having been widely regarded as one of the toughest leaders in Russia for the last 15 years, Ramzan is well versed in the art of public manipulation. Similar to Magomedov, Ramzan viewed Khabib as an asset that he could use to bolster his public image. Since his initial investment in Khabib’s career, Ramzan’s popularity has grown parallel to Khabib’s. For Ramzan, Khabib’s success has acted as a smokescreen to distract the public from the atrocities and human rights violations he commits on a regular basis. As long as Khabib continues to dominate UFC, Ramzan will continue to settle in as Chechnya’s permanent de facto leader.
As an MMA fighter, Khabib Nurmagomedov is undoubtedly deserving of the success he’s enjoyed, but his business affiliates cast an overwhelming shadow over his achievements. While his decisive win over Connor Mcgregor was incredibly impressive, it’s difficult to support a champion who sacrificed morality for an opportunity to compete at the highest level. For the majority of his professional career, Khabib has merely served as a political pawn for Ramzan Kadyrov and Ziyavudin Magomedov. Regardless of whatever success Khabib experiences moving forward, his reputation will remain skewed by his highly immoral professional affiliations.