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Faith comes before fists for Khabib Nurmagomedov

Khabib Nurmagomedov is the most dominant fighter in the UFC.

The Russian's 25-0 record has been maintained by years of training on the wrestling mat, the marks on his face proving his dedication as he prepares for Saturday's UFC 223 lightweight-title main event against featherweight champion Max Holloway at Brooklyn's Barclays Center.

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But true perfection, the type Nurmagomedov strives to attain as a human being, brought him to an overflow mosque in San Jose on a recent Friday afternoon.

As the imam spoke of achieving purity, Nurmagomedov listened intently, pressing his forehead down firmly to a thin, beaded fabric covering a rocky slab of concrete to send private thoughts skyward.

"You go to mosque because nobody's perfect," Nurmagomedov explained to a visitor he invited to observe. "Everybody makes mistakes, and we have to ask Allah to forgive us. This is very important mentally, to be clear with Allah. This is not about the UFC. There is nothing else more important to me than being clear with Allah. And being clear with Allah is the No. 1 most hard thing in life."

Nurmagomedov, 29, pursues the clarity vigorously.

When home in southern Russia, he follows familial tradition by residing with his wife and two children in the same apartment as his mother and father-coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. In San Jose, he keeps a routine of training, prayer, eating and sleeping. Down time is spent listening to Russian music and checking news events while updating his activity on social media; he has more than 4 million Instagram followers.

Told his devotion to noble pursuits reveals no obvious imperfections, Nurmagomedov poses the question that pierces him: "If I'm perfect, why do I fight?"

He certainly knows how to hurt people. The last time he fought in New York, Nurmagomedov was pummeling Michael Johnson so badly he had time to ask ringside-sitting UFC President Dana White for stiffer competition. In December, his one-sided beating of No. 4-rated contender Edson Barboza received the judges' extra credit in lopsided scores of 30-25, 30-25, 30-24.

Before interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson tore a knee ligament Friday while walking through a Fox television lot, scrapping their scheduled meeting for a fourth time Sunday, Nurmagomedov bluntly predicted his mission was to "go to the cage, smash this guy very bad, take the belt and go home."

The mass appeal gained by operating that way in the cage has allowed Nurmagomedov to find peace in the purpose of what he does for a living.

"If I fight and I become famous, now I can talk to people more," Nurmagomedov said. "I can say, 'Do this, this and this,' because a lot of people are watching. I want to be a good example, a good role model."

Thus, he's built disdain for some of the behavior of his peers, starting with foul-mouthed lightweight rival Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz.

"We see a lot of guys who are very good inside the cage. But outside the cage, they're garbage — very dirty guys," Nurmagomedov said. "You can't say, 'I'm the champion' inside the cage and leave it at that. You have to be one outside the cage too. This is my goal."

"I watched Nate Diaz smoking marijuana on TV. I don't want my kids smoking marijuana. Some people think we're to live like an animal. No. We're here for a reason. I never drink or smoke. Not because I'm an athlete, but I'm Muslim.

"I have a family, kids, friends, a job. I don't want to be like this. I'm almost 30. How many years will I live? Seventy? Eighty? I don't want to live crazy. I believe when I die, I'll come to the God and he'll ask us everything we've done … ask us, 'Why you do this?'"

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Nurmagomedov, who's trekked to Mecca four times and journeyed for Hajj once, said his story is impossible to tell without addressing the importance of his beliefs.

"It's for peace, for good. You don't need to talk about it. Just do good things," Nurmagomedov said. "Friends sometimes don't want to be with me because I don't do this or that, but I'm OK. If I'm too religious, bye-bye."

Last year in Brooklyn, the UFC arranged for him to visit the strong Russian community of Brighton Beach for a question-and-answer session that drew a full house, with adoring fans clamoring around his SUV.

Javier Mendez, his trainer at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, said Nurmagomedov attracts more visitors to the gym than his other three star fighters — light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold — combined.

"This kid has people come down here to get a picture and autograph from other states — seven-, eight-hour drives," Mendez said. "They're not just Russians. The majority are Muslim."

Ali Abdelaziz, Nurmagomedov's manager, said the UFC is seeking to place a Sept. 15 "Fight Night" card in Russia thanks to the popularity of mixed martial arts in the country, a testament to the influence of Nurmagomev and his father.

Nurmagomedov's stand-up fighting has developed sharply since arriving in 2012 at American Kickboxing Academy, enhancing the world-class wrestling honed under his father, whose brilliance in combat Sambo has pipelined nearly 20 active Eastern European fighters into the UFC stable.

In a recent sparring session, Nurmagomedov smoothly pressed his right arm to his foe's neck, restricting an airway and holding down the foe's arm while damaging him with left-handed punches. Next, Nurmagomedov grabbed another's left leg and rode the guy backward and down to the canvas to seize control.

Nurmagomedov's demeanor was most pleasant as he engaged in a morning FaceTime conversation with his enthusiastic father, who hasn't been able to leave Russia for the last few years due to unexplained visa problems.

"Every time I talk to him, I get good energy, talking sport, business, life, everything," Nurmagomedov said. "We always have something to talk about. It's not normal — a little bit hard — to not see my parents.

Nurmagomedov has a policy not to discuss his wife and children publicly, but to the general question of experiencing sadness in training so far from home, he responded, "Yes, of course, you think I no have heart? I'm like everybody."

His preparedness for the sudden opponent change to Hawaii's Holloway, who has won 12 consecutive fights since a 2013 loss to McGregor, is built by his turbulent dealings with Ferguson and his religion.

"You never know what's going to come tomorrow," he said.

A UFC belt might be on its way, too.

"It's like a dream come true. It's why I'm in MMA, to become UFC lightweight champion. Undisputed, undefeated," Nurmagomedov said. "A lot of things will come."

One is a surge of fame, akin to the attention in Russia, where police oficers would pull him over for an autograph. ,

As he munched on a light lunch of vegetables at a Whole Foods Market, Nurmagomedov was asked if he'll ever be able to do this wearing the lightweight belt.

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"I'm scared about [fame]. It's good, but, for the most part, it's very, very bad when you're popular. Everybody watching you, following you, you cannot do nothing.

"Why, brother, does that have to change? Maybe we'll just have to go to the Cheesecake Factory from now on ... ."

Twitter: @latimespugmire

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