Khabib Nurmagomedov emerged as one of the sport’s top lightweights. | Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com
Breakthrough Fighter of the Year
By Jack Encaracao and Chris Nelson
When he donned an especially furry Russian ushanka hat and a T-shirt that read “IF SAMBO WAS EASY IT WOULD BE CALLED JIU-JITSU” before a January weigh-in in Brazil, it was clear Khabib Nurmagomedov was going to make a serious bid for our attention.
By year’s end, he had it. The Dagestan native flashed big power and chain wrestling that soundly defeated three hardened competitors in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s deepest weight class, called out the division’s top dogs and displayed a wink-wink humor that adds up to a unique charisma. For weaving this tapestry of violence and fun these past 12 months, the 24-year-old Nurmagomedov (21-0) is Sherdog.com’s “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year” for 2013.
Born in the Caucasus mountain region when it was under Soviet rule, Nurmagomedov was coached in sambo by his father, a competitor in one of Russia’s national sports. Nurmagomedov won a pair of national championships in sambo, always with an eye toward a mixed martial arts career and picking up where exponents like Fedor Emelianenko and Andrei Arlovski left off.
Nurmagomedov is part of a wave of fighters plucked from the Dagestan region in the past two or so years and imported to American gyms. Nurmagomdeov was put on the American radar by co-manager Samuel Kardan, a Russian from New Jersey who came to America to start a fight gym. Soon Kardan linked up with fight manager and AMA Fight Club head Mike Constantino. Kardan supplied UFC fighter Adlan Amagov for a show Constantino was promoting, and an alliance between the two was soon formed.
After winning his UFC debut, a rear-naked choke submission of Kamal Shalorus in January 2012, Nurmagomedov was pointed to the American Kickboxing Academy on the recommendation of Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, who struck up a friendship with the Russian over their shared international grappling exploits. Since his second UFC appearance, Nurmagomedov has followed a schedule that sees him living and training in Russia until about month out from his fight, when he steps into the storied confines of AKA. There, he feverishly spars and snaps selfies next to the MMA giants who call the gym home.
“My first impression of him was he was just a guy who would not give up, no matter what,” AKA head trainer Javier Mendez said. “For instance, he was sparring one of my guys, and Khabib was having a tough time taking the guy down because Khabib was getting beat up in the standup. He kept looking to take the guy down and he wouldn’t quit, and he finally starting taking my fighter down and started dominating. Before you know it, he’s taking my guys down over and over again. He just doesn’t quit, that guy. He is tremendously physically strong, tremendously motivated mentally, and he is talented as hell; and he’s got skills. He’s got incredible skills.”
By early May -- before Nurmagomedov set what the UFC deemed a new takedown record at UFC 160 by wresting Abel Trujillo to the mat 21 times -- Mendez was touting the Russian as a future champion. Constantino Said Nurmagomedov’s standout fighting qualities are his patience, unorthodox striking and a unique look on takedowns.
“His sambo is just world-class, and it’s also a style that Americans aren’t used to,” Constantino said. “It’s a different style of wrestling. He’s really controlling the hips, where as in wrestling, you’ll suck up a leg. Sambo really focused on getting in on and controlling and manipulating the hips.”
In addition to the win over Trujillo, Nurmagomedov in 2013 also hacked away at veteran Thiago Tavares with elbows to a first-round stoppage and rag-dolled veteran Pat Healy for 15 minutes in his most recent outing. His only hiccup was missing weight for the Trujillo bout. Constantino said the issue was related to excessive water intake and a doctor ordering Nurmagomedov to stop cutting when he stopped sweating. Mendez Said Nurmagomedov suffered a knee injury in camp.
“That was bad, because he really didn’t get the opportunity to train properly,” Mendez said. “He was almost going to have surgery. He took off from camp, and then he came back after two weeks and he was ready to train. That’s what I mean. He’s a warrior, that guy.”
After making weight without a hitch for his fight against Healy, Nurmagomedov came upon a small group of fans from the same region in which he grew up and began carrying on enthusiastically with them in his native tongue. Constantino stood by, worried about rehydration and clueless as to what was being said, but he got a sense when Nurmagomedov’s camp returned to their Toronto hotel.
“All 14 of those fans are standing in the lobby, and Khabib takes them back to his room with him,” Constantino said. “He had this whole pack of fans in his room. He’s got a great personality, Khabib. He’s very enchanting. He’ll light up a room. He’s funny. He gets it.”
Shortly after the win over Trujillo, Nurmagomedov took to Twitter to challenge lightweight demigod B.J. Penn, inviting a whole new set of questions about his ceiling. He went on to digitally target Gilbert Melendez, Nate Diaz, and T.J. Grant.
“Calling somebody out, it’s more like a sign of respect in his country,” Constantino said. “It’s like a wrestle-off. You wrestle for a spot, and whoever wins gets a spot. It’s a competition thing.”
As serious, bold and headstrong as he appeared in 2013, Nurmagomedov was very much enjoying the ride. Constantio relayed one particular scene before the Trujillo fight.
“We’re standing in the MGM [Grand] lobby where they set up that cage. I said, ‘Khabib, look at this. You’re in Las Vegas, you’re fighting Trujillo on TV, in America’” Constanino said. “He’s just beaming ear to ear and smiling.”
Browne’s 2013 campaign was short on cage time but massive in every other sense.
The 6-foot-7 Hawaiian disposed of three big-name foes in a combined 6:19, inserting himself into discussion for the UFC heavyweight title in the process. When the year began, Browne was coming off the first defeat of his career, an October 2012 stoppage loss at the hands of Antonio Silva. That memory was quickly erased in April, when Browne demolished Gabriel Gonzaga, knocking the former title contender senseless with a barrage of vicious elbows to the head.
In August, it was Dutch striker Alistair Overeem who felt the power of the Greg Jackson-trained heavyweight. While “The Demolition Man” put Browne in danger with knees and jackhammer ground-and-pound early in their contest, Browne showed heart and stayed in the fight long enough to catch Overeem with a devastating front kick to the face. A few hammerfists later, Overeem had become Browne’s second victim of the year, while “Hapa” collected his second “Knockout of the Night” bonus.
The best was yet to come, and Browne closed out his banner year with the biggest win of his career. At UFC 168, he went up against Josh Barnett, a rightful betting favorite as an experienced former champ who had not been knocked out clean since Pedro Rizzo leveled him in 2001. After only 60 seconds, Browne caught Barnett shooting against the cage and proceeded to relieve “The Warmaster” of his consciousness with the very same elbows that took out Gonzaga.
It was a year of highlight-reel finishes for Browne, and with little competition left for Cain Velasquez atop the division, the breakthrough could not have come at a better time.
There was never much question as to whether Teixeira had the skills to become a force in the UFC light heavyweight division; it was only a matter of when he would have the chance.
In 2012, after years of struggling with visa issues, the Brazilian finally made his way inside the Octagon and promptly rattled off wins over Kyle Kingsbury and Fabio Maldonado. Clearly, the 34-year-old, who has not lost since 2005, was due for a step up in competition, and that is precisely what Teixeira got in his first bout of 2013 against ex-champion Quinton Jackson. As it turned out, the fight was not even close: Teixeira sent “Rampage” out of the UFC in decisive fashion, using hooks, elbows and half a dozen takedowns to secure winning scores from all three judges.
UFC 160 brought a fight against James Te Huna, who made it only halfway through the opening round before Teixeira pulled guard and forced a tap with an airtight guillotine choke at the 2:38 mark. Teixeira’s next opponent, Ryan Bader, lasted only 17 seconds longer, though the win did not come without a scare.
Bader knocked down Teixeira with a short left hand but failed to finish his wounded opponent. Teixeira responded by dropping the wrestler with a heavy, two-punch combination and then pounded out Bader on the mat after only 2:55.
The win not only extended Teixeira’s unbeaten streak to 20 straight but also ensured that he will have a chance to make reigning champ Jon Jones number 21 in the coming year.
“Emanuel Newton, Bellator champion” was not a phrase most MMA fans expected to hear at the start of the year, but here we are in 2014, looking at Emanuel Newton, Bellator champion.
It was not that Newton was a bad fighter; in fact, many fans and pundits thought he should have been in the final of Bellator MMA’s 2012 Summer Series light heavyweight tournament, having dropped a split decision to Atila Vegh in the semis. It was simply that the company’s Season 9 tournament already had a presumed winner before it began: former Strikeforce champion and high-profile free agent signing Muhammed
Newton turned that notion on its head when, midway through the opening round of their Feb. 21 semifinal matchup, he upset Lawal with a spinning back fist to the jaw. The march of “King Mo” had been halted on his way to the throne, and in his place went Newton, who went on to capture the tournament crown in March with a decision victory over Mikhail Zayats. Still, the question persisted. Was it, as Lawal said, a fluke? If they met again, could Newton repeat the feat?
In November, Newton got the chance to prove it was no mistake when an injured Vegh was forced from their scheduled rematch and Lawal stepped in as a replacement. Newton did not score another knockout, but he did show his worth over the course of five rounds by confounding Lawal on the feet with a variety of kicks and spinning attacks. The final decision was well-deserved, with scores of 49-46 for Newton across the board; more importantly, it meant Newton could put Lawal in his rearview mirror and look forward to unifying his newly won interim title with Vegh in the coming year.
Moraes probably was not supposed to win his World Series of Fighting debut. The unheralded Brazilian was a young fighter with a good record, brought in as an opponent for one of WSOF’s big-name signees in Miguel Torres.
Needless to say, things do not always go as expected in MMA, and Moraes used a speedy and diverse striking attack to outwork the former World Extreme Cagefighting champion and earn a split decision at WSOF’s first show in November 2012.
The win set up Moraes for a bout with another of WSOF’s prized signings, Tyson Nam, who made a name for himself by stunning Bellator champ Eduardo Dantas with a knockout. Moraes got one back for Brazil, as he took out the highly touted prospect with a head kick and follow-up punches in less than three minutes.
In August, Moraes rolled to a lopsided unanimous decision over Brandon Hempleman, ending the Idahoan’s six-fight winning streak in bloody fashion.
Moraes’ final bout of the year lasted only 32 seconds, with a short left hook and piston right hands wiping out former “Ultimate Fighter” competitor Carson Beebe at October’s WSOF 6.
World Series of Fighting may have gotten more than it bargained for when it put Moraes up against Torres. Fortunately for the promotion, it also got one of the sport’s most promising young stars.
Continue Reading » Comeback Fighter of the Year