Khabilov won a world championship in combat sambo in 2007. | Photo: Wilson Fox/Sherdog.com
Raised in a small village that was some distance away from any type of gym and structured coaching environment, Khabilov made due with running sprints and hitting a heavy bag filled with sand in his formative years. His older brother, who wrestled before injuring his knee and later picked up kickboxing, pointed his younger sibling in the direction of combat sports. His career path really began to accelerate while he was in college, as he joined a gym and trained under the guidance of what he says was his first official coach, current UFC competitor Khabib Nurmagomedov, who Khabilov had known since they were kids.
Khabilov remains close with Nurmagomedov and chuckles at the memory of his countryman’s most recent bout, a victory over Thiago Tavares in which Nurmagomedov unveiled a T-shirt that said: “If sambo were easy, it would be called jiu-jitsu.”
“Sambo is a brilliant sport and so is jiu-jitsu,” Khabilov said. “Both of the sports are really beautiful. I don’t think he wanted to offend anyone. It was just a mean joke.”
Khabilov has had but a few growing pains since making his professional debut in 2007, as his 15-1 record can attest. Two bouts in particular stand out. The first, a 2009 pairing with Vener Galiev at an M-1 Global event, gave him a dose of his own brand of punishment.
“When I first got in the ring with him, I really felt what suplexes were, because he started throwing me around. He was No. 1 in Russia at that point, one of the toughest opponents I ever had,” he said. “After a while, I started getting thrown around a little bit and feeling my own suplexes. I won the fight after I started [focusing] on him.”
The second came in his lone setback, a split-decision defeat to Rusian Khaskhanov, also under the M-1 Global banner. According to Khabilov, it was a contentious verdict that he asked promotion officials to review. The request was refused, and although Khabilov was told that M-1 was no longer reviewing fights, he claims that several other bouts were looked over after he was denied. To this day, the ruling still bothers Khabilov.
“Now I know that I need to be more aggressive in the Octagon and show the judges that I will never make the same mistake ever again,” he said.
That would turn out to be Khabilov’s final fight before making the transition to Albuquerque. He has since returned to his winning ways, notching four consecutive victories, including the impressive stoppage of Pichel.
“Out of all the guys in our gym, he’s one of the top two or three that I think will be a UFC champion shortly,” Winkeljohn said.
That is high praise considering the wealth of talent that inhabits the Southwestern gym, especially in the lower weight classes. It should not be all that surprising that Khabilov possesses the skill and drive that he does, as Dagestan is well-known for producing accomplished combat sport athletes.
“The people there are very good at wrestling; they’ve all wrestled since they were kids,” said trainer Greg Jackson, who traveled to Dagestan to corner Khabilov against Nazir Kadyzhev in 2011. “There’s this wrestling culture there; they’re all very tough. It breeds great fighters.”
As a kid, Khabilov watched as many UFC events on VHS as he could get his hands on, vowing to join his heroes in the Octagon when he got older. Despite his interest in MMA, Khabilov’s athletic idol is three-time Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medalist Buvaisar Saitiev, who was born in Dagestan.
“I’m amazed what he does with his work. I always like to see him grapple and wrestle,” Khabilov said. “Of course, I try to do a couple of moves like him from wrestling. I’ll look it up on the Internet. I never had a chance to practice with him, [but] I always look at the videos.”
“He’s a very good person,” Khabilov added in English.
Saitiev was known to repeat a poem from Nobel prize winning poet Boris Pasternak’s anthology “My Sister, Life,” before each of his matches. An excerpt from the translated version of that poem goes as follows:
Not this could ever elevate,
You needn’t to make your archive active,
You needn’t your scripts to be all saved.
Self-offering’s aimed by creation,
But ballyhoo or cheap success,
It is a shame, if worthless persons
Are talks of towns’ populace.
Although Khabilov does not mention the poem directly, it is not difficult to see how its words might apply to a budding lightweight contender who came from humble beginnings. However, fame tends to seek its targets more aggressively in MMA than in wrestling, and in a social media-savvy era, the good can be countered by the bad almost simultaneously. Having already encountered only a small taste of what teammates like Jones and Condit deal with on a regular basis, Khabilov is ready to move forward with his promising career.
“I just want to let [the people who posted the video] know, no matter how hard they will try, I’m following my dream. I’m working,” he said. “I’m a step closer, and they weren’t able to stop that because I’m going to keep on going.”
When all is said and done, where Khabilov ends up is his business.