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Daniel Cormier: This is the Khabib Nurmagomedov I know



Editor’s note: Some content has been edited for clarity and brevity.

More than anything, Khabib Nurmagomedov and I are friends.

I’ve watched this guy grow from a young, Russian kid who didn’t speak English to a global superstar.

He came with a dream, not much money. American Kickboxing Academy teammate Shawn Bunch picked him up at the airport, took him to McDonald’s and fed him because he was hungry. And then he took him to the gym.

Khabib was undefeated at the time (18-0) and we would talk to him a little bit, because he couldn’t really speak much English. You saw how intent on getting better he was. You watch the kid, and then you see Luke Rockhold showing him something. And then Cain Velasquez would be showing him something. And then I would be showing him something. Everybody drew to him because he was different, like a kid who wanted to learn and was going to do whatever you told him. He never questioned anything.

Even today as the global superstar that he is, you’re a coach, he will not question anything you tell him to do. He will not question the way you tell him to do it. He’s a sponge for knowledge. I just remember him always being in there, trying to learn and everybody being drawn to him because of that real key part of his personality that made him want to learn.

One thing that I used to always enjoy, was before he was called “The Eagle of Dagestan,” he wasn’t just “The Eagle,” and he fought in the UFC, and he somehow copied the audio of Bruce Buffer introducing him, so he would just play that all the time. Go up to the locker room, and you’d hear “Eagle of Dagestan, Nurmagomedov,” and that was some of the first English the dude learned, was how to repeat Bruce introducing him in the Octagon.

‘Brother, I’m going to be world champion’

You know what he told me one time, years ago, “Brother, I’m going to be world champion, and I’m going to fight for $10 million every fight.” I promise you. Years ago, and we all go, “No chance.” Because nobody was making $10 million at the time. And I’m sure right now Khabib is fighting as the world champion at 28-0 for $10 million, straight.

He sure doesn’t need the money, but he told me that, because he said it was going to change. He was going to be so big that things would change. And now, it has happened. He has done all the stuff he said he would do.

Living in Dagestan, he doesn’t need much. It doesn’t cost much over there. We sent some kids to wrestle there in January, and Khabib paid for their hotels. He took care of them, because they were my little wrestlers. Hotels weren’t very expensive. He doesn’t need much, he does it because he loves it.

I think a lot of stuff about his background is very guarded, and it’s guarded purposely. He’s a guy who’s a bit of a mystery, and I think part of the intrigue to him is the mystery. So I’m not going to blow the top off that.

If I’m going to share anything, I think about his father, Abdulmanap, and the intensity his dad lived with. I could only imagine little Khabib growing up as that kid in that house. When I was light heavyweight champ of the world, one day I was cutting weight, Khabib’s dad jumped on me to grapple with me and the dude was actually trying to win. He was wrestling, trying to win. Just an intense man, very knowledgeable man. I know that he raised Khabib pretty hard.

‘I’m so nervous, I’ve never done an English interview’

Around 2015, 2016, Khabib came to Fox to do an interview. And I was doing “UFC Tonight,” and I was like, ”You can do it. Just try it.” He was like, “I’m so nervous, I’ve never done an English interview.” I thought he did well, but I remember, he would talk, but he would only talk s—. It was like all he did was talk trash, because we made fun of him all the time. We made fun of him for his little widow’s peak, we used to call him Eddie Munster. And he hated it. And he just learned to talk trash back. And now, that’s all he does is talk s— the whole time.

There have been times when Khabib was short on training partners, and I’ll go in there and spar him, light, I’m not going hard. I’m just kind of working, but honestly, you can’t go as light with Khabib as you’d want. He’s not the normal 155-pounder. He’s big and he’s strong. He can wrestle, so you kind of have to give him a little bit more than you would generally give a little guy, but that’s what makes him so special. He can be standing across the Octagon from me, and that’s when I was the heavyweight champion of the world, and I would go in there and spar with him a little and that dude had no fear. I kind of have to give up a little bit more than I would normally give a little dude, because this dude’s actually trying to win. He’s like his dad.

He grapples so much, it’s wild. He grapples more than anybody I’ve ever seen. He’s getting better at controlling, which is absurd, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy better at top control in my life. He’s better at chasing the finishes once he gets on top, because for a while, he was just beating up guys. He wasn’t finishing them as much as he wanted to. But now he’s getting finishes. All that control that Khabib does with his legs now, it wasn’t like that before. He was a wrestling guy, like me, and we were trying to control everything with our arms and squeezing, and over the years he developed the ability to control with his legs, and it completely changed the game.

Knocking down Conor McGregor, and eyeing Georges St-Pierre

Khabib takes a lot of pride in the fact he knocked down Conor McGregor. It was supposed to be the wrestler vs. the striker, and for him to be the one who scored the knockdown, was a big deal for him.

He doesn’t really say Conor’s name, though. I don’t ever think I’ve ever heard him say Conor’s name. It’s always ‘this guy.’ which I think tells you how he feels about him. And I try to trick him into saying it. He won’t do it.

I don’t think he’ll be around very much longer. I think you have to take it in right now. Obviously, he doesn’t need to fight. I’m sure he has enough money, living in Dagestan, for the rest of his life. I think he’ll fight for maybe a year or two, max. And then move on, spend time with his family. I know he does not like whenever he comes to camp because he misses his kids and his wife.

“I went into the locker room before he fought Conor and I couldn’t believe the stillness of the room. The room wasn’t filled with nervous energy. We walked in there, me and my son, and he started wrestling with my son, before the match.”

Daniel Cormier

I think part of Khabib going away sooner rather than later, is part of the reason why we all love him so much. It’s that he understands that as long as he’s champion, his teammate Islam Makhachev can’t be. And he feels like Islam is the champ if he’s not fighting. Even if it’s for that, to give Islam that, he won’t be that long.

And it’s going to suck. It’s going to be a terrible day for all of us at AKA when Khabib walks away, because he brings a different vibe to the gym, a different feel. And he always has. Not just as the champion now. When he was a kid who didn’t know anything, everybody liked Khabib, because he just brought something different to our gym. He was like our Russian little brother who had a ton of potential. Now he’s our Russian little brother who’s a global superstar.

When he’s done, I think it will be over. I think you’ll see him on social media occasionally. But I think he’ll be gone. I don’t know if he’s one of those guys who loves fame. Some guys love fame. Maybe he will. I think he’ll be around with his teammates. But I don’t know if he’ll be a guy you see him randomly.

He loves the competition. He loves the ability to go out there and do something special, leave people talking. I think fight week, to him, means getting in there and being able to do something. I don’t know about all the interviews, and everything that leads up to it, but he has gotten really good at it.

I went into the locker room before he fought Conor and I couldn’t believe the stillness of the room. The room wasn’t filled with nervous energy. It wasn’t like I walked into a room with people so nervous because a guy was getting walked out to lose. It was still. We walked in there, me and my son, and he started wrestling with my son, before the match. I think he lives for those moments, to go out there and compete.

GSP will be the one he leaves on. If Khabib ever gets scheduled to fight GSP, know that will probably be the last time you see him. Because I know how much he respects him. He respects Georges, and wants to fight Georges for all the right reasons.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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