Changing the game? Khabib the MMA promoter
Khabib Nurmagomedov reached the top of the mountain during his time as a fighter but as the legendary Russian champion moves into life as a promoter with his Eagle FC fight league, he will have to avoid many potential pitfalls.
One only has to look towards mixed martial arts' burial grounds to read a litany of eulogies for some of the sport's missteps.
Outside of the tremendous success of the UFC, many (or most) of the other promoters who have attempted to step into the space have been met with a cascade of problems brought on by various reasons, from shady dealings to financial woes to haphazard booking – but most have one thing in common: they are no longer in business.
Affliction, the apparel brand who fancied themselves as a fight entity, folded almost as soon as they held their first event in part, one would think, for a series of financial missteps, not least of which was paying the hulking corpse of former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia the outrageous sum of $800,000 for the privilege of not landing a punch on Fedor Emelianenko before being submitted 30 seconds in their fight.
Elite XC, another doomed fight league, hitched their trailer to the questionable fighting skills of Kimbo Slice and subsequently went out of business when their street-fighting star was knocked out 14 seconds into the first round by unheralded short-notice replacement Seth Petruzelli in 2008.
Strikeforce (which was admittedly a well-run organization) was also put to sleep after being bought out by the UFC, with the WEC meeting a similar fate. Even PRIDE, a promotion cherished by MMA hipsters and which gave exposure to the likes of Fedor, Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua, couldn't last despite regularly holding sold-out events in the 55,000 capacity Tokyo Dome – a symptom some speculate which was due to rumored links to the Japanese Yakuza.
So with the UFC's continued success and the the growth of the Viacom-backed Bellator, there hasn't been much room in the sport's ecosystem for other entities.
The PFL has chugged along solidly, while ONE Championship has admirably filled the gap opened by the crumbling of PRIDE – so why then does one of the sport's biggest names, Khabib Nurmagomedov, feel that his Eagle FC will be any different as they move towards hold their first event in the United States next month? And is this move an open declaration of war on Dana White?
Eagle FC have suitably signaled their intentions in recent weeks. They have inked deals with former UFC champion Renan Barao, a fighter once described by White as the best on planet earth. Another former champ, Rashad Evans, will end his retirement at compete on an upcoming card for Khabib. Kevin Lee has also signed up.
Nurmagomedov has also extended welcomes to rivals Tony Ferguson, Dustin Poirier and Cody Garbrandt, breaking White's supposed rule of never speaking publicly about fighters contracted to other promotions.
But speaking after his most recent UFC event last Saturday, White predicted that Nurmagomedov is in for a steep learning curve in his new gig.
"I haven’t talked to Khabib about his promotion at all. He’s going to find out what it’s like to be on the other side and you know, it’s not as fun as it seems. He’s going to learn.
"If he doesn’t know, he’s going to know," added White with a wink and noting a previous statement from Khabib, who had borrowed the UFC chief's catchphrase at a press conference.
"Listen, if he calls me and wants advice, I would absolutely give him advice. But I think he’s going to learn the hard way."
Khabib has already signaled that he wants to bring his fight league down a different route to that previously walked by White and the UFC.
Perhaps the most apparent right off the bat is that there will initially be no female divisions in Eagle FC, something which perhaps casts further light on his previous comments regarding ring card girls.
Khabib's tone as a fighter, with some high-profile exceptions (here's looking at you, Conor McGregor), was largely of respect for the sport and his opponents. That may be something that rubs off onto his promotion: more fighting, less talking.
That's not to say, however, that Khabib is not acutely aware of how fights are sold – he has previously held his former UFC employers as 'the masters' of hyping a contest, noting that promotions back in his Russian homeland are way behind in comparison.
Eagle FC will also introduce the so-called light welterweight (165lbs) division, and set the welterweight limit at 175lbs. This is a move which has been called for by MMA fans and fighters for some time and was likely a key factor in Kevin Lee's decision to sign the dotted line, as the American was often considered to be too big for for 155lbs and too small for 170lbs.
It will remain to be seen just how long this accord exists between White and Khabib, the fighter whom this time last year he was frantically trying to persuade to reverse his decision to retire. As things stand the offers of advice and help are there but will that still be the case if and when Eagle FC gains a bigger foothold? White has proven in the past that he can be as vengeful as they come when his territorial instincts kick in.
For now though, the UFC boss will be watching with interest to see if Khabib rules his promotion with the same type of iron fist that White typically does, particularly after the heavily financially-backed Eagle FC announced its intentions to hold numerous events in Miami– the first of which will be Eagle FC 44 on January 28.
Khabib has said his aim for Eagle FC to be the best new promotion of 2022.
“We’re going to become very big around the world. The US, here in former USSR countries, in Russia of course, the Middle East,” Khabib said earlier this month ahead o his maiden Eagle FC’s maiden US press conference.
"Of course we know how big the UFC is, I don’t want to say some crazy things… but for leagues that are just beginning, we’re going to become promotion of the year."
Khabib always kept a tight-knit team during his fighting days, and is joined in his promotional endeavors by his trusted partners Shamil Zavurov and Rizvan Magomedov. They will form the primary ruling triumvirate of Eagle FC.
If Dana White begins to feel the heat, you can bet your bottom dollar that any tersely-worded offers of advice to his former fighter will recede into nothingness.
As for Khabib the promoter, the blueprint is set and must be followed lest his fight league be consigned as yet another ambitious league to be laid to rest in the MMA graveyard.
But from fighting to coaching and now to promoting, when Khabib sets his mind to something, he is rarely anything other than a force to be reckoned with.