Dubai: UFC fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov is now “100 times bigger” than Liverpool striker Mohammad Salah to Middle Easterners after sticking up for his faith against Conor McGregor, according to Dubai-based MMA practitioners.
McGregor openly taunted Nurmagomedov for his Muslim beliefs ahead of their UFC229 lightweight world title fight in Las Vegas on Saturday, before the Russian won the bout by a fourth round submission.
Post-fight the man from Dagestan scaled the octagon to attack McGregor’s teammates, and some of Nurmagomedov’s team attacked McGregor.
Many believe they were justified in the face of the Irishman’s provocation, ultimately casting the Russian in better light across the region, regardless of possible sanctions. After all, McGregor started the animosity by attacking Nurmagomedov’s team bus in April.
In the days since the fight, hashtags #UFC229 and #Khabib have continued to trend on Twitter locally, leading to talk that the region may have a new sporting idol after Egypt’s Salah, who broke the Premier League record for most goals in a 38-game season last term with 32 strikes for Liverpool.
"A lot of people who don’t watch or know anything about UFC tuned in because there was so much trash talk, because Khabib’s a Muslim, so everyone wanted to watch Conor lose."
- Mohammad Yahya | UAE MMA fighter
“He’s a 100 times bigger than Mo Salah now,” said the UAE’s first professional MMA fighter Mohammad Yahya, who fights in Bellator, which is a feeder promotion to UFC.
“A lot of people who don’t watch or know anything about UFC tuned in because there was so much trash talk, because Khabib’s a Muslim, so everyone wanted to watch Conor lose.
“That’s one of the biggest cues as to why Khabib got so popular. I don’t think it’s because he’s a Muslim, but that’s another thing too, yes, but I think religion should have nothing to do with it.”
Former Brit-Afghan MMA fighter Tam Khan, who now runs his own gym in Dubai Media City called TK MMA Fitness, said: “Khabib is a hero because Muslims feel in this day of age with politics, and how the world is in turmoil a bit with Islamophobia, what he did was kind of like a hero act.
“It kind of shut up the bully, and that’s what people see it as, the bully was bullied. I’m westernised and understand the word banter, but there’s a certain line you don’t cross and what Conor did was below the belt.”
Khan said a surprising twist to the outburst had been the regional reaction. “Khabib is now the talk of everyone, lots of women and girls are Instagraming and Facebook posting about him, people that wouldn’t usually watch UFC.
“He’s become a hero overnight here because he speaks with grace, is humble and respectful. He did act inappropriately, but we understand why, and hopefully he can still show people who may have insecurities that you can stand up to them, and still be a role model.
“Muslim, Arab kids and local Emiratis, people that have never really followed UFC, all their statuses on Facebook are about the fight and they are calling and messaging me to celebrate.
“Khabib now is on top, whatever happens with his paycheque [being withheld] or his title [being stripped], he’s come out a champion worldwide and I don’t think it will affect his stock.”
Factfile: Khabib Nurmagomedov
• Born: September 20 1988, aged 30 in Dagestan, Russia
• 27 wins
• 8 KOs
• 9 submissions
• 10 decision
• 0 losses
• Twitter followers: 544.2K
• Instagram followers: 10.9M
• UFC229 became the promotion’s first PPV event to exceed two million buys