On May 23, 2019, the Professional Fighters League (PFL) featured an anticipated featherweight bout between Season 1 featherweight champion Lance Palmer (22-3) and runner-up Alex Gilpin (14-4) in the main event of PFL 2. However, it was an unexpected dynamo from Dagestan, Russia, who stole the show.
30-year-old Movlid Khaybulaev, then 13-0, had signed with the PFL after a longtime career in his native Russia’s Fight Nights Global (FNG) and a singular appearance in Singaporean-based ONE Championship, which saw him defeat eventual Contender Series and UFC fighter Herbert Burns.
Introduced ahead of his promotional debut by ring announcer Lillian Garcia as a “wrestler” hailing from Dagestan, Russia – the home of UFC great and Khaybulaev teammate Khabib Nurmagomedov – it would be easy to assume that Khaybulaev’s gameplan would be a similarly aggressive grappling attack, but few in the MMA world were prepared for what the aptly-nicknamed “Killer” had in store for ex-LFA champion and eventual UFC signee Damon Jackson (then 16-2-1).
As the opening seconds of the fight played out, Jackson pressed forward, forcing the -185 favorite back toward the cage. The American threw a front kick, which was just inches away from Khaybulaev’s face.
Ten seconds into the fight, Khaybulaev launched a flying knee that instantly faceplanted Jackson, leaving him folded in the center of the cage. The commentator responded in kind, with former UFC standout Yves Edwards exclaiming, “I can’t believe what I just saw, and I’ve seen a lot of fights!”
The knockout brought Khaybluaev to 14-0, scoring him a whopping six points under the PFL scoring system.
With the hype of the knockout behind him, Khaybulaev drew Season 1 semifinalist, ex-WSOF champion, and former Titan FC titlist Andre Harrison, who brought an illustrious record of 21-1 to the fight.
In the closing frames of the first round, Khaybulaev again landed his now-signature flying knee, nearly putting away his most experienced opponent to date. Over the next two rounds, Harrison would claw his way back from the 10-8 round one, forcing the majority draw.
It was a fight that saw Khaybulaev affirm his status as a true contender in the PFL featherweight division.
The Dagestani would next face Daniel Pineda, a former and future UFC competitor. Pineda, it seemed, wanted to show Khaybulaev that sub-minute finishes were not unique to him.
Twenty-one seconds into the fight, Pineda scored a hard low kick that dropped Khaybulaev momentarily. Pineda followed up with punches to the head of his opponent reminiscent of those landed by Bellator welterweight champion Douglas Lima on then-undefeated Michael “Venom” Page.
Pineda swarmed the semi-conscious Khaybulaev, battering him against the cage en route to a TKO victory. “The Pit” would go on defeat Jeremy Kennedy later that night in the semifinals, positioning him for a tournament championship bout against Palmer.
However, Pineda tested positive for elevated levels of testosterone from a drug test administered that night. The Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended Pineda for six months, fined him $12,500, and overturned his wins over both Kennedy and Khaybulaev to No Contests.
With his undefeated record restored, the 2020 PFL season presented as a perfect opportunity to recapture his knee-inspired hype and return to the win column under the PFL banner.
Unfortunately for Khaybulaev, 2020 would not be a year to remember.
It was a difficult year for Khaybulaev, the man.
In July, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov – the father of Khabib and a mentor and coach to Khaybulaev and countless other athletes from the region – passed away, reportedly due to complications from COVID-19.
Khaybulaev posted a heartfelt tribute to Nurmagomedov on Instagram, writing, “We belong to ALLAH and our return to him ☝️Abdulmanap Magomedovich may the Almighty guide you to the Gardens of Eden, you were more than a coach for me, we will remember you,” according to a translated version of his remarks.
It was also a difficult year for Khabulaev, the competitor.
In April, at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PFL – along with nearly all major sporting leagues – postponed their season over coronavirus concerns.
As such, PFL athletes have largely been absent from MMA competition this year. Several athletes, such as the aforementioned two-time featherweight titlist Lance Palmer and Contender Series standout Brendan Loughnane, have publicly aired their frustration with inactivity as other MMA organizations slowly returned to promoting events.
Palmer even went as far as to threaten legal action against the promotion on Twitter.
Myself, as well as other fighters, are moving forward with lawsuits against PFL for the way things have been handled this year. @AliAbdelaziz00
— Lance Palmer (@LancePalmer) October 5, 2020
According to ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, however, the PFL is “allowing its fighters to seek fights outside the promotion since they are on hiatus until next year,” though not under the banners of competitors UFC and Bellator.
Enter Movlid Khaybulaev.
Khaybulaev is one of at least two PFL fighters – alongside fellow Russian Islam Mamedov (18-1-1) – featured on the upcoming UAE Warriors 14 event, which takes place on November 27 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
He will look to return to the win column against Tajikistan’s Muin Gafurov (15-3). The 25-year-old Gafurov is best-known for his time in ONE Championship, a promotion for which he fought six times.
Gafurov’s 3-3 record with ONE is deceiving; he holds wins over 6-2 Casey Suire, then-10-2-1 Toni Tauri, and Brazil’s Leandro Issa (17-8), while his only losses have come at the hands of Grand Prix standout Reece McLaren (14-7), former champion Kevin Belignon (20-8), and ex-UFC fan-favorite John Lineker (33-9).
Like Khaybulaev, Gafurov is a true finisher; of his 15 wins, all 15 have come by way of stoppage (8 by (T)KO, and 7 by submission).
In short, the fight between Khaybulaev and Gafurov is sure to be an exciting one, with the winner likely returning to form in a big way.
The stacked UAE Warriors 14 event features two title fights, PFL standouts, and a litany of other notable names.