By the time UFC lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov fights Tony Ferguson on April 16 in Tampa, Florida, it will have been nearly two years to the day since the Dagestani fighter (and noted bear wrestler) last entered the Octagon. Since his 2014 defeat of Rafael dos Anjos, Nurmagomedov's professional life has been defined almost entirely by heartbreak and disappointment, watching others pass him by as he's had to pull out of fight after fight with injuries. Two long, long years in the prime of his fighting life spent pondering the betrayals of the body and what might have been. Now, just when it seems like things are okay again anatomically and the road to the lightweight belt (now worn by, of all people, Rafael dos Anjos) is coming back into focus, Nurmagomedov is facing a new and bizarre kind of challenge, a distraction so strange as to be without precedent in MMA history.
On Saturday Nurmagomedov posted on Instagram footage of his avatar from the just-released EA Sports UFC 2 video game celebrating after a victory over (who else?) Rafael dos Anjos. In the video, the virtual Khabib lifts his hands triumphantly as virtual Bruce Buffer announces his win. Then, in a virtual shot sure to be heard 'round the world (our very real world at this very real and contentious point in history) Nurmagomedov casually touches his right hand to his head then his chest, followed by his left shoulder and his right. The sign of the Christian cross. Virtually.
The problem is that Khabib Nurmagomedov is not a Christian but a devout Muslim, and devout Muslims surely appreciate their video game doppelgängers showing the sign of the Christian cross about as much as a devout Christian would appreciate his double waving a flag with the star and crescent. From such small sparks are great crises born. So Nurmagomedov quickly took to social media asking EA Sports to respect him and his fellow Muslims and change the footage of his celebration:
So far EA hasn't responded to the controversy, and let's hope the whole incident is just the result of a technical glitch rather than the religious fervor of some anonymous Christian EA staffer looking to save souls, even virtual ones. But if EA was ever going to make a religiously insensitive error in the development of one of their games, Nurmagomedov was among the worst UFC fighters they could have chosen to screw up with. A devout Sunni Muslim raised in a deeply religious area of Dagestan, the lightweight wrestler famously turned down a big-money title-contender fight with Donald Cerrone back in July 2014 because it had been scheduled during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast daily from dawn til dusk. And earlier this month Nurmagomedov was offered a chance to fight at the sure-to-be-historic UFC 200 but once again refused because the event is scheduled for July 9, just a few days after the Eid al-Fitr feast that signals the end of Ramadan. So while most fighters might have just been excited that they'd made it to a level of success in life where it's a even a possibility for a video game company to generate religious controversy using their image, Khabib Nurmagomedov is not one of them. Better to have footage of Sandy Koufax sitting in the dugout sipping communion wine.
Let's just hope that this whole mess doesn't distract Nurmagomedov from his upcoming fight. After all, this is not just any fight. He's returning after two long years, with no way of knowing how his body will respond to the rigors of the Octagon and with all kinds of expectations on his shoulders. Plus, he's coming back to face Tony Ferguson, a talented fighter in the midst of a seven-fight winning streak who is not only unburdened by outsized expectations and anatomical paranoia, but who spent his last weekend bathing in the glow of religious contentment, not drowning in a sea of religious controversy. Yesterday, while Khabib Nurmagomedov was on social media trying to head off a potential calamity, Ferguson was celebrating Palm Sunday, the Christian holiday commemorating Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem a week before his resurrection, by preparing a room for his soon-to-be-born son. Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like what god was probably doing on Palm Sunday 2000 years ago. Score one for Tony Ferguson.