Khabib Nurmagomedov doesn’t fight during Ramadan, so UFC 249’s timing is crucial


If Dana White seems obsessed with not postponing UFC 249, consider that a delay of even one week would likely mean the card’s biggest star would be unavailable to fight for several months.

UFC lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov is a devout Muslim, and he won’t fight during the month of Ramadan, which this year falls from April 23 to May 23. In fact, Nurmagomedov said he needs at least 45 days after Ramadan in order to fully recover — because of the fasting — and then begin training.

Nurmagomedov is scheduled to defend his title against Tony Ferguson on April 18 in one of the most anticipated fights in UFC history. After UFC 249 had to be relocated from Brooklyn because of the coronavirus pandemic, White searched all corners of the globe to find a place to hold the event. White said on Monday that he has the venue, although he wouldn’t reveal it.

“I know my body, how it feels,” Nurmagomedov recently told ESPN. “That’s why I don’t fight during Ramadan and right after Ramadan. …

“We need minimum 45 days to recover. We compete at such a high level. That’s why we have to watch everything.”

Forty-five days after May 23 is July 7. If he were to begin preparing for a bout at that point, Nurmagomedov would start a training camp that lasts about eight weeks and would likely culminate in a return in September. Last year, Ramadan ended June 3 and the undefeated Nurmagomedov returned to the Octagon against Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 on Sept. 7.

Nurmagomedov’s quickest turnaround from Ramadan to the cage was in 2013. Ramadan ended on Aug. 7 that year and Nurmagomedov fought Sept. 21 — a span of exactly 45 days.

Nurmagomedov said he does some training during Ramadan, but more as a martial artist and not as a fighter going into a competition. During the month, Nurmagomedov fasts from sunrise to sunset. That means no food and no water for about 15 hours per day. Obviously, that makes it almost impossible for Nurmagomedov to train at the level he normally does.

“It’s very hard and very dangerous, too,” he said. “All day you don’t drink, don’t eat. Injuries can come. That’s why [you can’t have] too much contact. Even without sparring, it’s still hard.”

Which is why Nurmagomedov asked the UFC to book this fight before April 23.

“I tell them, ‘Please, make any time — but before Ramadan,'” Nurmagomedov said. “I asked them. And one week before Ramadan, they make this fight.”

Welterweight BBelal Muhammad is another practicing Muslim who is booked for UFC 249. Muhammad acknowledges he doesn’t have Nurmagomedov’s clout, so for three straight years — from 2016 to 2018 — Muhammad fought during Ramadan.

“I’m not at the level of Khabib where I could say ‘no’ to a fight,” said Muhammad, who trains out of Roufusport in Milwaukee. “UFC calls you, you say ‘no’ and they’re like, ‘We’re gonna put you on the shelf for a little bit.'”

Muhammad, who is scheduled to face Lyman Good on April 18, is hoping he soon gets to a juncture where the UFC will give him better timing when it comes to fight bookings. But for now, he is willing to sacrifice. That means fighting and training camps during Ramadan.

“Every year, I’m getting better with it,” Muhammad said.

During Ramadan, Muhammad gets up every day at 4:30 a.m. — before the sun rises — to eat a meal and hydrate. If he’s in camp, Muhammad will usually consume eggs, Ezekiel toast and a protein bar along with one gallon of water and a bottle of Pedialyte. He’ll then go back to bed for a few hours before starting his day in earnest at 9 a.m. for training.

Muhammad’s training regimen doesn’t change much during Ramadan — three workouts per day. He’ll do a regular session in the morning for a few hours, then work on technique drills at 6 p.m. Right before the sun goes down, he hits pads with a coach to wrap up the day’s work.

As soon as he’s able to eat and drink again, Muhammad chugs a whole bottle of Pedialyte. He’ll follow that with a protein shake and eat two more small meals before bed.

Muhammad has learned a few things over the years of training and fighting during Ramadan. One is not eating big, heavy meals. The other is to treat nearly every night like he just finished a weight cut. Nutrients need to be received quickly, but not with something that could be hard on the stomach. Hence, the Pedialyte and protein shakes. Muhammad said he spends about $300 on Pedialyte during Ramadan.

The results in the cage have been pretty good. In 2017, Muhammad beat Jordan Mein at UFC 213, 14 days after Ramadan finished. Muhammad beat Chance Rencountre on June 1, 2018, right in the middle of the holy month, which spanned from May 15 to June 14 that year.

“Sometimes I actually feel like I do get stronger as the month goes on,” Muhammad said. “My energy gets to another level. Even my coaches, when they hold pads for me, they’re like, ‘Dang, it doesn’t feel like you’re fasting.’ The body is so crazy. It adapts to so many different situations. It’s just basically how you treat it.”

Lightweight Islam Makhachev, Nurmagomedov’s longtime friend and training partner, said he has Muslim friends who fight during Ramadan but he doesn’t believe an elite athlete can be at his or her best in that situation.

“It’s not about eating,” he said. “If you’re training, you need to drink water. That’s why it’s very hard. … I don’t think anybody can train [adequately] if you’re not drinking water for 15 hours.”

Like Muhammad, Makhachev said he’ll wake up around 4 a.m. during Ramadan to eat and drink before the sun comes up. He said he’ll train a few times per week. Most of his energy is put toward being with family and concentrating on his faith.

“We have just Ramadan when we can rest and do what we want, eat what we want,” Makhachev said. “It’s a good time. This month is very important for our religion. We need to just do good things.”

Makhachev also believes some time is needed after Ramadan to recover and fight again. In the UFC, Makhachev’s shortest span between Ramadan and fighting was 44 days in 2018. He submitted Kajan Johnson on July 28, 2018.

Makhachev and Nurmagomedov train at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, before fights. But with California’s shelter-in-place policy, they flew back home — they’re both from the Dagestan region of Russia — so Nurmagomedov can finish his camp and both can spend time with their families.

Nurmagomedov will return home — from wherever his bout against Ferguson takes place — for Ramadan.

“This is more [time] to pray,” Nurmagomedov said. “I spend this time with my family, parents. But foremost, pray. Day and night, fasting. Of course, we’re training, too.”

White has postponed three cards because of the pandemic, but he has been adamant that Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson — which has fallen through four times for a variety of reasons — won’t be canceled again.

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