Unbeaten Russian lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov is fueling an aggressive push by the UFC to expand into his home country, a move that would be fraught with political intrigue.
Trying to capitalize on the massive popularity of Nurmagomedov, UFC President Dana White and Ari Emanuel of Beverly Hills-based parent-company WME-IMG have made personal treks to Russia about staging the first UFC event in the country.
It's no secret that Russian President Vladimir Putin, a combat sports fan who counts his country's mixed martial arts legend Fedor Emelianenko and U.S. boxing great Roy Jones Jr. as friends, has been a leading advocate for bringing major sporting events to his country, including the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and next year's soccer World Cup.
How much it helps the UFC-Russia dialogue is unknown, but White spoke on behalf of President Trump at the Republican National Convention and also attended his election night celebration.
In the face of allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, Trump has often praised Putin's leadership and expressed an interest in forming closer relations between the countries.
Reached Wednesday by text message, White showed the sensitivity of the Russia talks by answering only "someday" to the question of when he'll bring Nurmagomedov (24-0) to Russia.
Should No. 1-rated Nurmagomedov defeat Orange County's Tony Ferguson (23-3) for the UFC's interim lightweight belt Saturday night in the UFC 209 co-main event at T-Mobile Arena, he'll be in position to fight current lightweight champion Conor McGregor, the charismatic Irishman on leave while awaiting the birth of his first child in the spring.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last month while driving to an appearance before fans in the Russian-heavy town of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., Nurmagomedov said his popularity in the country of 143 million people is such that he could sell out Russia's largest soccer stadium.
"Everywhere I go there, there are so many people — many thousdands," Nurmagomedov said. "It would be such a huge thing. The UFC understands I have a big fan group — the most of anyone in the world. If Conor has Ireland, I have 30 times more fans than that.
"UFC has to make a plan."
A major step toward amplifying his popularity was sealed recently, according to Nurmagomedov and his manager, when Russia's Match TV sports network agreed to show his fight against Ferguson live for the first time Sunday morning.
Instructed in wrestling from a young age by his judo- and sambo-trained father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, a distinguished coach of several notable international grapplers, Khabib has dominated since his 2012 UFC debut.
He's 8-0 with a 2014 victory by decision over former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos and a punishing, head-pounding November triumph over Michael Johnson.
Before he clinched the submission, Nurmagomedov showed the brashness that has drawn him attention. While atop Johnson, he barked to White at ringside to provide stiffer competition.
"Finish this fight first," White said.
"This fight already finished," Nurmagomedov answered.
In Ferguson, he meets a well-rounded fighter riding a nine-bout winning streak.
"Who wins this fight should be the real champion," Nurmagomedov said at last month's public event. "My style is not like anyone's. I'm not a typical wrestler. I can beat [Ferguson] easily and people will recognize who's the real champ.
"I don't think [McGregor] wants to defend his title against me. I don't give a … about Conor. I think only about the belt."
While McGregor flirts with the concept of a novelty boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr., Nurmagomedov said it's "very important" to him to make his future fights accessible to his countrymen.
"I've talked with Ari, I've talked with Dana … they say they're going to make a fight in Russia. They're working on it," Nurmagomedov told The Times in a Monday telephone interview. "Nobody knows how it will happen, but if they bring a title fight to Russia, that's a crazy opportunity for me."
Asked if he could talk to Putin about the matter, Nurmagomedov let out a coy chuckle and said, "I never meet him. I hope to. Why not?"
Elaborating Wednesday, Nurmagomedov said, "I don't know about politics so much. I'm a professional athlete."