- Brett Okamoto
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In 2010, Dagestani lightweight Rustam Khabilov traveled halfway around the world to ask a very specific man a very specific question.
The man was martial arts guru Greg Jackson. The question: Am I good enough?
"The first time I came to the United States, I walked into Greg Jackson's gym to see if I could continue my pro career," Khabilov said, through an interpreter. "I wanted to know his opinion -- what he thought of me and if I had potential for the future."
Four years later, Khabilov (17-1) is still with Jackson in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Suffice it to say Jackson saw potential for the future.
"Honestly, that first conversation is only between me and Greg," Khabilov said. "The only thing I can say is that he has always believed in me."
Khabilov will look to answer another question this weekend in New Mexico when he meets former UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson in the main event of UFC Fight Night 42 at Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque.
Regarding whether Khabilov is capable of fighting professionally, that has been answered -- he is 3-0 in the Octagon thus far. The question this time: Just how good is he? A win over Henderson (20-3), who defended the UFC title three times before losing it to Anthony Pettis last year, would say a lot.
"I think he has a combination of being able to handle himself outside the cage, talent, he's a good athlete and very coachable," Jackson said. "All of those elements it takes to win. If he deals well with pressure, he'll have the ingredients to be a champion."
To hear Khabilov tell it, Jackson is largely responsible for where he's at today and it goes beyond the advice the head trainer feeds him between rounds.
Khabilov valued Jackson's assessment of his talent because in Russia, the trainer's name had become synonymous with winning. Khabilov read about the work Jackson did with UFC champions Georges St-Pierre and Rashad Evans.
If anyone was capable of saying if he could make it in the sport long term, it was Jackson. But Khabilov didn't expect him to invest so heavily in seeing it happen.
Upon arriving in the U.S. and hitting it off with Jackson-Winkeljohn, Khabilov turned his attention to signing with the UFC. He was undefeated, but says his management at the time made little progress with the world's largest fight promotion.
Khabilov says he was relatively broke and couldn't afford to stay in Albuquerque. He started to plan a permanent move back to Russia, where he would hopefully be able to cram 10 fights onto his resume in a relatively short time period.
Jackson stepped in and made arrangements to keep Khabilov in the States.
"Greg Jackson is like a brother to me," Khabilov said. "At one point in my career, I went through a hard time. Greg helped me out not only with training. He invited me to his house to say at his place. I love this man.
"He said, 'If you need anything -- home, money, food -- I'll do everything for you. You're not going anywhere.' After that, I fired my old manager and hired a new one and we've been moving really good."
Khabilov signed with the UFC in 2012 and quickly caught the sport's attention with his powerful takedowns. He knocked out Vinc Pichel after suplexing him to the floor in his UFC debut and then injured Yancy Medeiros during a takedown attempt.
That grappling ability, which Khabilov picked up alongside world-class wrestlers in Dagestan, will surely be tested this weekend. Henderson is a former NAIA collegiate All-American wrestler and one of the more physical lightweights in the UFC.
Khabilov, for one, likes the matchup. He should, as he was the one who requested the fight. Is he good enough to beat Henderson? So far, that kind of question has been met by a positive response for Khabilov.
"I'll try to finish this fight every single second," Khabilov said. "I don't want to leave it to the judges.
"We're going to check whose wrestling is better in this fight. I'm really excited about it. Ben Henderson is one of the best in the division and in the world."
In 2010, Dagestani lightweight Rustam Khabilov traveled halfway around the world to ask a very specific man a very specific question.The man was martial arts guru Greg Jackson.