Umar Nurmagomedov explains difficulty finding UFC foes, predicts Sean O’Malley smashes Chito Vera

Umar Nurmagomedov plans on becoming UFC champion one day, but for now he’s just anxious to get back into the cage and resume his climb up the ranks.

The undefeated bantamweight and cousin to UFC legend Khabib Nurmagomedov hasn’t fought in more than a year due to an injury that kept him out of his most recent scheduled appearance against Cory Sandhagen this past August. As he prepared to return, Nurmagomedov hoped to compete before the end of 2023 but ultimately had to wait until the upcoming UFC Vegas 87 card on Saturday to find a willing opponent.

Despite his place in the division, Nurmagomedov won’t face a ranked fighter or even an experienced UFC veteran. Instead, he draws newcomer Bekzat Almakhan because that’s all he could get.

“They make me think I’m the champion in this [division],” Nurmagomedov said during UFC Vegas 87 media day when asked about the bantamweights who refuse to face him. “They really make me think [that], and then I’m going to the gym and Khabib [Nurmagomedov] or someone else smashes me and they bring me back to Earth.

“I hope they will take this fight, they will [accept] it, someone in the top five maybe after this fight.”

Nurmagomedov admits it gets a little frustrating when his undefeated record somehow gets dismissed while he’s seeking out better competition. He’s perfect at 16-0 overall in MMA, including four straight wins in the UFC with three finishes along the way.

Despite that résumé, Nurmagomedov hears fighters complain that he hasn’t done enough to deserve higher-ranked opponents yet. The 28-year-old Dagestani native then can’t help but wonder what exactly he’s supposed to do to get those opportunities?

“They’re just talking about, ‘He doesn’t deserve it, he didn’t beat nobody.’ How didn’t I beat nobody?” Nurmagomedov said. “4-0. It’s not bad. How many fighters begin like this? I don’t want to be cocky. I’m not going to say I’m top high level or nothing or something like that.

“If somebody comes to the UFC and he’s showing a good performance and he smashed all his opponents, it means this guy has to fight with somebody strong. You can’t just say he didn’t deserve, he has to beat somebody. OK, how am I going to beat somebody? Merab [Dvalishvili] talks about this. How am I going to beat somebody if they don’t [accept] it?”

Rather than complain, Nurmagomedov prefers to just keep moving forward. Almakhan now stands as the biggest obstacle in his way to staying undefeated. Nurmagomedov is an overwhelming favorite to win on Saturday, but the odds don’t matter once the cage door closes.

“I didn’t think this fight is going to be very easy fight for me and I didn’t train,” Nurmagomedov said. “No, I trained very hard. I’m training like I will train for the title. For my opponent, it’s a big opportunity, and I think he’s doing a very great job too. We will see this Saturday.”

Every fight in the UFC serves as a chance to make a statement, but Nurmagomedov doesn’t feel any undue pressure to deliver some kind of highlight-reel finish just to get attention.

In fact, he promises that he’s never going to bat an eye at comments made about his performance — positive or negative — because that’s never really mattered to him.

“I don’t care about what they’re going to think,” Nurmagomedov said. “I really don’t care. They have their life, I have my life, and I’m doing nothing so somebody will be nice with me and they will say, ‘This guy is very good.’ I don’t care. I have a family I have to take care of. I have my way and I’ll be doing what I want.”

If he does get an impressive win, Nurmagomedov will almost assuredly draw a bigger fight and better name for his next opponent. Sandhagen already acknowledged that he’ll be watching, and if Nurmagomedov shines in victory, he would consider revisiting that matchup again.

Whether it’s Sandhagen or somebody else, Nurmagomedov’s end goal remains the UFC bantamweight title. That belt next goes up for grabs at UFC 299 when reigning champion Sean O’Malley clashes with Marlon “Chito” Vera in the main event.

Nurmagomedov knows he’s not getting the next shot at the title, but he expects a familiar face will be holding onto that belt — at least for a little while longer.

“I think Sean O’Malley is going to smash this guy,” Nurmagomedov said. “Their last fight, Chito won because O’Malley was injured. We don’t know what was going to happen in this fight if he’s not injured. Because until he was injured, O’Malley was smashing him.”

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