No fighter is a bigger favorite on the UFC 272 fight card than Umar Nurmagomedov. The undefeated Dagestani fighter is — as of this writing — as high as a -800 favorite over Brian Kelleher. Meanwhile, Kelleher is a +500 underdog ahead of the featherweight bout, which is scheduled to close out the early prelims portion of UFC 272.
The UFC signed Nurmagomedov in February 2020. At the time, the young fighter was 12-0. Nurmagomedov was coming of a November 2019 submission win on a Gorilla Fight Club card. He had five submission wins, one knockout victory, and six decisions to his name.
Although the UFC hoped Nurmagomedov would make his debut on the UFC 249 fight card opposite Hunter Azure, that bout was cancelled. The promotion then booked Nurmagomedov to matchup against Nathaniel Wood at UFC Fight Island 3, but he withdrew from that fight following the death of his uncle, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. A third UFC debut fight was called off when a staph infection left Nurmagomedov hospitalized and unable to compete against Sergey Morozov at UFC 254.
Nurmagomedov eventually made his octagon debut in January 2021 against the more experienced Morozov. Nurmagomedov was a -500 favorite in that bout.
The then 24-year-old used a very robust arsenal of kicking techniques in the early portion of that contest. He mixed his targets and his stances well and he looked much more comfortable with his striking on the feet than say a Khabib Nurmagomedov or Islam Makhachev did in their early UFC outings. As expected, Nurmagomedov also showed good wrestling skills, but they were not his strongest asset in the Morozov fight.
Although he walked away from his first fight with the UFC with a second-round technical submission win, Nurmagomedov was unsatisfied with his octagon debut.
“He’s a little bit sad because it was his not best performance and he believes he can show you guys more good performances than it was this night,” Khabib Nurmagomedov said while serving as Umar’s interpreter at the post-fight press conference.
The UFC seemed to disagree with Nurmagomedov’s assessment of his work in his debut, as they awarded him with a $50,000 “Performance of the Night” bonus.
With that being said, there were some areas the young Nurmagomedov fell short in during his first fight with the UFC. The largest knock against him was that he relied on naked kicks. By not setting up his kicks, Nurmagomedov exposed himself to counter strikes. He displayed good head movement and defensive speed, but he played a dangerous game by throwing those techniques without a setup. That’s something a veteran like Kelleher will look to exploit.
Nurmagomedov also showed his lack of experience in the Morozov fight when he seemed to rush his attack when he hurt his opponent in the early moments of the second stanza. That surge could have cost him in the cardio department and also opened him up to potential counters. That rush is something his team surely addressed after the fight and it will be interesting to see how Nurmagomedov reacts if he puts Kelleher in a similar predicament.
Another error Nurmagomedov made in his UFC debut was that he seemed to force his back takes and more than once ended up being shaken off by Morozov. Again, that was an error of inexperience and overexuberance.
I expect most of the issues Nurmagomedov had in his UFC debut will be erased with time and experience both in his training camp and during real fight experience. He just turned 26 earlier this week, so he has plenty of time to grow and learn. His matchup with Kelleher on Saturday will be a good indication of how much he has progressed since his first fight with the UFC.
Nurmagomedov’s coach, Javier Mendez of American Kickboxing Academy is high on the future of his fighter.
“He’s the heir. I am sorry. He’s the heir, he’s gonna with the title. And he’s gonna be a UFC champion. He is the nest heir. I’m sorry. He is. He’s just that good, he’s that good,” Mendez told The Schmo.
The AKA coach added that he expects Nurmagomedov, who normally competes at bantamweight, to claim the UFC’s 135-pound crown and then compete for the featherweight title.
“He’s gonna win that title. And to be honest with you, I don’t think I have been wrong every time I say someone’s gonna win that title they win. And Umar is gonna be that titleholder at bantamweight… He will be the future bantamweight king,” said Mendez.
Daniel Cormier, who Mendez also coached at AKA, had extremely high praise for Nurmagomedov. The two-time UFC champion turned UFC commentator said in a December edition of the DC & RC Podcast that Nurmagomedov’s UFC debut was “the most elite prospect debut in the UFC” in 2021.
And yes, if you are wondering, Umar Nurmagomedov is related to Khabib. He is the former UFC lightweight champion’s cousin.
UFC 272 takes place on Saturday, March 5 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The main card streams on ESPN+ pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN and early prelims on ESPN+.