NEW YORK (AP) — Khabib Nurmagomedov put out the call to his fans in papakhas that were crammed inside an indie rock club like they were in a mosh pit buzzing for an encore.
“Hey, I want to ask you guys, what time is it,” Nurmagomedov said.
The fans then chanted for a sustained period, “Khabib! Khabib! Khabib!”
Nurmagomedov was a clear fan favorite.
But the native Russian is hoping to leave New York with more than his papakha — a hat that looks like a powdered wig native to his homeland in Dagestan — on his head and the winner of a popularity contest.
After 25 straight MMA victories, including nine in UFC, Nurmagomedov (25-0) has escaped the injuries and a slew of canceled bouts that plagued chunks of his career to get a title fight in the main event of UFC 223 at Barclays Center on Saturday night.
Check the card’s promotional video that played on an endless loop at the music hall and challenger Tony Ferguson is still in the highlight reel. Ferguson’s freak knee injury knocked him out of action and nearly derailed the main event of the card.
But Max Holloway (19-3) stepped up on six days’ notice for what might be a better bout on Saturday.
Holloway vs. Nurmagomedov. Streak vs. Streak. And this time, for the undisputed lightweight championship.
“I respect him,” Nurmagomedov said. “But it’s going to be a long night.”
Holloway, winner of 12 straight UFC fights, earned some respect from UFC fans for accepting the fight on short notice. Holloway already reigns as UFC’s 145-pound champion and could become the rare two-division champ should he win the 155-belt.
“Everybody keeps talking about six days’ notice,” Holloway said. “He’s taking a short-notice fight against me. How are you going to get ready in six days against me?”
Holloway said he accepted the bout because he was still training and becoming a two-division champ would stamp him among UFC’s greatest fighters. Holloway hasn’t lost since August 2013, a unanimous decision to Conor McGregor.
Almost every topic in UFC these days somehow comes back to McGregor.
McGregor has not fought for UFC since he won the 155-pound title at UFC 205 in November 2016. McGregor last fought in a boxing loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Aug. 26, 2017.
UFC President Dana White said this week that McGregor would be stripped of the title and the winner of Saturday’s bout would become the undisputed champion in the division. McGregor profanely responded on Twitter and wrote, “You’ll strip me of nothing.”
The winner of the bout was likely to be among the top contenders for the next big-money fight with McGregor. Ferguson, still the No. 1 contender, remained in the mix.
White said McGregor, UFC’s biggest box office attraction, would fight this year. Throw in the likely return of former UFC heavyweight champion and current WWE star Brock Lesnar, and UFC’s solution to finding a new crop of stars could instead be promoting some returning favorites.
White had said he didn’t want McGregor defending belts in two divisions when he was the champ in two weight classes.
Holloway said he was ready to defend at 145 and 155 pounds.
“We’re going to hold two, we’re going to defend two,” Holloway said.
White said if Holloway was willing to fight that much, than “anything is possible.”
The 29-year-old Nurmagomedov (-470) opened as a heavy favorite against Holloway and knows this is finally his time to prove he’s a champion after he missed two full years of competition before April 2016 due to a persistent knee injury.
“Ten years, nobody beat me,” Nurmagomedov said. “I think I deserve this.”
His undefeated streak stretches to when he was just 9 and his father had him wrestle a bear . The bear was chained but the video became an MMA viral sensation and only added to his mystique.
His last name is a bit of a tongue-twister (Nurm-a-go-med-ov) which it makes it easier for fans to chant “Khabib.”
Nurmagomedov — who looks like “The Office” beet farmer Mose Schrute — was the only fighter in New York who skipped the open workout and instead turned the session into a Q&A with fans. He tossed T-shirts to fans asking the best questions and posed for a selfie with a kid in a papakha.
One fan shouted if he would call out McGregor after the fight.
“We’re going to make him a little bit humble,” Nurmagomedov said.
All he has to do first is the win the fight of a lifetime.