Photo: Michael Reaves (Getty)

On Saturday, Conor McGregor will return to the UFC for the first time in two years to challenge Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title. The highly anticipated matchup, which pits one of the most popular athletes in the world against an undefeated champion, has been billed as the biggest fight in UFC history.

The promotional hyperbole surrounding the fight is warranted—UFC 229 is expected to shatter the UFC’s pay-per-view record—and much of it is due to McGregor, whose reputation and notoriety precede him, and who is known for his uncanny ability to sell fights. He is brash, arrogant, and brimming with confidence and a thirst for attention—a stark contrast to his opponent. Unlike McGregor, Nurmagomedov shies away from the spotlight, and is protective of his private life. This, coupled with his endearingly imperfect command of English—which gave us gems such as “too much movie make your heart weak” and “this is number one bullshit—has left us with a captivating and enigmatic champion.

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To better understand Nurmagomedov, you should start with his wrestling match with the bear. On a September morning in 1997, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov informed his second-born son that he would be put through a test. He approached Khabib—three days removed from his ninth birthday—and led him out towards the edge of the forest, where a bear cub was chained to a nearby tree.

Abdulmanap then turned on a handheld camera, pointed it at his son, and ordered him to the wrestle the animal. Even at age nine, Khabib was well accustomed to the Dagestani culture and patriarchy, which demanded respect for one’s father and elders in general. The boy knew better than to question his father’s wishes. So he bent down, tucked his chin into his chest, and lunged after the bear.

It would take 17 years for the video to surface in the United States. Leaked footage of Khabib wrestling an un-muzzled bear went viral across MMA sites in 2014, and added to the Dagestani’s mystique as the undefeated fighter from Russia’s southwest mountain range. Though Khabib’s upbringing may appear strange or even alarming to a western audience, it was not uncommon in Dagestan.

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Khabib was born in the modest mountainside town of Silde in Dagestan, a small republic in the North Caucasus region of Russia. Born to Avar parents in an ethnically diverse, troubled republic—one home to an exceptional amount of corruption and the highest number of terrorist crimes in the entire Russian Federation—the fighter grew up in a region that saw the rise of Islamic insurgency, separatist militias, and outbreaks of conflict between different Islamic sects. Children raised during this era of insurgency were at risk of radicalization at the hands of militant Islamists, particularly given the republic’s poor social mobility and limited economic vitality. Sports were one of the few alternative avenues available to young men from Dagestan and other parts of the North Caucasus.

Aware of the risks facing disenfranchised youth, Khabib’s father founded a combat sambo and wrestling school in Dagestan. A hardened coach with a list of accolades from his glory days as a champion grappler for the USSR, Abdulmanap trained young fighters from the basement of his home, giving them hope for a future outside of guerrilla warfare. According to Abdulmanap, Khabib literally came of age on the wrestling mats in the basement of their home.

“Khabib was constantly with me, crawling around the room,” Abdulmanap said. “There is nothing surprising about the fact that he took the first steps precisely on the wrestling mat. By the age of five, he knew all the basic exercises, all the wrestling movements.”

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In the two decades following his fateful encounter with the bear cub, Khabib accumulated an undefeated record over 26 consecutive victories, 10 of them in the UFC. His unblemished resume is matched only by his relentless pace and wrestling acumen, which he uses to demoralize his opponents. His uncanny ability to repeat this process on a consistent basis is why he is arguably the most dominant fighter on the UFC’s roster.

When Khabib arrived in the UFC in 2012, his reputation preceded him. The Dagestani fighter had compiled an undefeated 16-0 record in three years, including six submissions and six technical knockouts. His resume included a highlight reel of painful hip tosses and rag-dolled opponents, but there was little else for Western fans to latch onto. Khabib was calm and friendly with the media, which is not the best way to achieve superstar status in a sport that values spectacle above all else.

Khabib made his UFC debut in January 2012 against Kamal Shalorus, an Iranian fighter coming off his first professional loss. Shalorus lasted two full rounds with Khabib before being submitted in the final round. Perhaps the most significant moment of the fight occurred late in the opening round, when Khabib landed a perfectly placed left hook that dropped his opponent. It was the first time that fans were given a taste of Khabib’s power.

It was the first of many victories for Khabib, but despite establishing himself as one of the most accomplished fighters in the UFC, true stardom continued to elude him. This was largely due to his lack of showmanship and a series of injuries that have riddled the last few years of his career with frustrating starts and stops.

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During his first two years under the UFC banner, Khabib was as active as he had been during the early part of his MMA career. But after reeling off those six straight wins in the UFC, the last of which was a decision victory against Rafael dos Anjos in April 2014, the Dagestani native suffered a series of injury-related setbacks. Following his win against dos Anjos, Khabib was sidelined with a knee injury that required surgery. After completing rehabilitation, Khabib suffered a second knee injury that forced him out of a match-up against Donald Cerrone at UFC 187.

The following year, Khabib suffered a broken rib in training that prevented him from competing in a highly anticipated matchup against Tony Ferguson. The injury was Khabib’s third consecutive setback and almost brought about his retirement from the sport altogether. “I broke a rib and once again retired from the fight, I really wanted to come back, I’m not sure I’ll be back at all ever,” Nurmagomedov wrote on his Instagram account.

Though Khabib eventually returned to the UFC in 2016, his troubles did not end. Following victories against Darrell Horcher and Michael Johnson—the second of which took place on the UFC 205 fight card in New York City headlined by Conor McGregor—Khabib was slotted into a lightweight title contender bout against Tony Ferguson at UFC 209. But Khabib was forced to withdraw from the bout less than 48 hours beforehand after being hospitalized during his weight cut. Though it remains unclear what happened, he later revealed that he felt close to death. The incident, which threw the UFC’s pay-per-view event into disarray, looked as though it might prevent Khabib from ever reaching his goal of becoming a champion.

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Those concerns were finally put to rest in April 2018, when Khabib stepped into the octagon at UFC 223 to fight Al Iaquinta for the vacant lightweight title. In many ways, it was an uncharacteristic performance from Khabib. Instead of using his grappling skills to control the fight and steer it in a more comfortable direction, the he opted to strike with the heavy-handed Iaquinta. Though he won the fight without dropping a single round, it was hardly the dominant performance most were used to seeing from Khabib. It wasn’t a sparkling performance, but it was one befitting the hard slog that he had been through in the years leading up to it. After all those fights and all those setbacks, he was finally at the top.

Khabib’s victory left western UFC fans with a champion they didn’t know much about, but it gave the people from his home a new icon. The escape plan Abdulmanap crafted for his son worked to perfection, but even though Khabib got away from Dagestan’s hardships and violence, he has always gone out of his way to exhibit pride in both his cultural and religious heritage. Ahead of each of his UFC fights, Khabib dons a distinctive piece of headgear—a woollen hat reminiscent of a blonde afro wig—as he makes his way towards the octagon. The hat, known as a papakha in his native Dagestan, represents the history of his people. It is a powerful gesture, one that serves as as a symbol of the strength and struggles of the North Caucasus. It is worn by the descendants of the mountaineers, the warriors that once resided in the mountains of Dagestan; the same ones who once fought against the Russian Empire several centuries ago.

When Khabib returned home after beating Iaquinta, he was greeted by a sea of local Dagestani men who braved the cold weather to give him a hero’s welcome upon his arrival at the Uytash Airport in Makhachkala, Dagestan. A troup of entertainers were performing traditional folk dances on the tarmac while his fellow Dagestanis cheered him on. As the fighter emerged from the plane, he allowed himself to be surrounded by the thousands in attendance. It had been less than 48 hours since he’d claimed the UFC lightweight title, and his people were eager to celebrate their champion.

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The scene highlighted Khabib’s popularity in his native republic. The champion stood alongside his beaming father and mentor, and appeared humble as he soaked in the moment. He addressed the crowd and thanked them for their support before being greeted by the Chairman of the People’s Assembly of Dagestan, Saigidahmed Akhmedov, as well as the interim minister for physical culture and sports in Dagestan, Magomed Magomedov. The entire homecoming was streamed live and captured on video.

The adoration was well-earned, not just because Khabib had finally become a UFC champion, but because everything about Khabib’s persona as a fighter—from the papakha headpiece to his stoic demeanor to his nickname, “The Eagle”—is meant to signify his national pride. The things that sometimes make him so inscrutable to casual American audiences are precisely what brought all those Dagestanis to the airport.

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Now, Khabib’s stardom has finally begun to extend beyond the borders of his republic. Over the past few years, the UFC lightweight champion has been invited to host seminars and press conferences in countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Thousands of locals flood auditoriums and gymnasiums to attend Khabib’s seminars and talks, and he’s become particularly popular in countries with Islamic majorities.

“I feel I represent my country. Not only my country, but all former USSR countries, because I have very big fanbase here and I have more than a billion Muslim fans,” Nurmagomedov told the Guardian. “I feel I represent these guys all around the world. My fans. This gives me very good energy. When I go to the cage I think about these people.”

Nowhere has support for Khabib, the first Muslim champion in UFC history, been as intense as it is among his Muslim supporters. Many of these fans are the ones who crowded the Makhachkala airport to welcome Khabib home, and the same ones who rioted in a Moscow mall when a planned Q&A did not begin on time. They attend Khabib’s fights wearing the same papakha headpiece he wears, and chant “Khabib Time” in unison. Khabib detailed his strict adherence to the Muslim faith in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, and he even chided the makers of a UFC video game for failing to include his Muslim identity in the game:

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Khabib’s popularity among Dagestanis and fellow Muslims extends to several questionable figures within Russia, including Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov. The controversial strongman invited Khabib to host a training seminar at the Akhmat MMA fight club, the training facility funded by Kadyrov himself. Khabib was also a guest of honor at several MMA events organized by the dictator. He has also been associated with Ziyavudin Magomedov, a Dagestani oligarch who was arrested in April 2018 on charges of embezzlement and is currently facing a potential 20-year sentence in prison. The oligarch sponsored Khabib’s career, which included paying for a back surgery in 2017, covering training camp expenses, and buying luxury sports cars.

Khabib may have the undying support of Russia’s Muslim minority, as well as the endorsement of many of the surrounding countries, but his relationship with his home country isn’t free of bitterness. Given Russia’s troubled history with the North Caucasus—one that includes colonization, civil wars, and forced migration—Khabib’s ethnicity and religiosity has put a ceiling on his popularity across Russia. This became evidently clear when Russian president Vladimir Putin posed with McGregor at the 2018 World Cup final instead of with Khabib, who was also in attendance in the Moscow stadium. The snub was impossible to ignore, but Khabib responded to it with good humor, posting a photo of himself posing alongside a Putin lookalike with the caption: “For this photo, I paid 500 rubles.”

The buzz for Saturday’s fight is understandably derived primarily from McGregor’s return to the UFC. He is one of the most famous athletes on the planet and exactly the kind of electric, loud-mouthed fighter who can drive PPV buys. Big-money fights are as much about selling narratives as they are good competition, and McGregor has brought a lucrative story with him. Here is the UFC’s biggest star, fresh off his valiant but doomed attempt to conquer boxing, returning to the octagon after two years away to take on the most dangerous opponent available to him.

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Khabib fits neatly into this hero’s tale. Given his perfect 26-0 record, his quiet menace, and his mystique, Khabib is a Final Boss straight from central casting. Even his fighting style, a claustrophobic wrestling approach that relies on unparalleled grappling acumen to suffocate his opponents over long periods of time, is the perfect foil to McGregor’s balls-out striking, which seeks to end fights as quickly as possible. By now someone has surely told you that this will be McGregor’s “toughest test yet,” and that you need no other reason to tune in.

But Khabib is more than just the bad guy in McGregor’s hero’s journey. His path to this fight began when he took those first steps across his father’s wrestling mats, and it wound through the dangers to which so many young Dagestani men fall prey. Along the way, he’s not only established himself as an elite fighter and a national hero, but as someone capable of overcoming the sort of setbacks that could have easily ended most UFC careers. All eyes will be on McGregor when these two stand across from each other on fight night, but he won’t be the only one with a story worth telling.