Inside the hat that helped shape Khabib's identity

Editor's note: This story was originally published ahead of UFC 242. It has been updated to include references to Nurmagomedov's upcoming fight against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV WAS walking through an airport in Dagestan eight years ago, on his way to catch a flight to the United States for his UFC debut, when he noticed a store selling unique souvenirs.

It was January 2012 and Nurmagomedov was about to board a flight from his homeland to Nashville, Tennessee. His then-manager, Sam Kardan, told him to bring something that would make him stand out in front of the U.S. audience. Nurmagomedov's friends suggested something that would be true to his heritage in Dagestan, a mountainous republic of Russia in the North Caucasus region. They told him he should wear a papakha, a traditional headdress worn by men -- often while going to war.

"UFC is very big stage, very big platform," Nurmagomedov said, recalling his friends' advice. "You can show around the world our culture."

So he bought one. And it has ended up being one of the most influential impulse purchases in UFC history. At the time, it seemed like Nurmagomedov was just plopping down about $50 for a hat at a nondescript airport gift shop. What he ended up purchasing was a tangible part of his identity. When many people hear his name, the first thing they think of is the large sheepskin hat. It has become an article of clothing of great significance.

"It's an honor to me to represent my traditional headgear around the world, my culture, my history," Nurmagomedov said. "... I have an opportunity. People know me and I want people to know where I am from. I want to show people Dagestan, Dagestan culture, Dagestan history, because we have very, very big history in Dagestan. If I have opportunity, why not? Why not?"

Twelve consecutive wins later, Nurmagomedov is the UFC lightweight champion. He'll defend his title against Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 254 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi (2 p.m. ET on ESPN+).

And when Nurmagomedov walks to the Octagon, he'll be wearing the same papakha (pronounced: pa-PAH-hah) he bought eight years ago. But it won't be the only one in the arena as his loyal and growing fan base has embraced it as a show of support.

A 12-year-old girl in San Diego named Kylie Meade has built a social-media campaign around Nurmagomedov and his hat. At the UFC 209 open workouts in Las Vegas in March 2017, Nurmagomedov participated in a question-and-answer session with fans. Meade asked him why he wears the papakha, and Nurmagomedov explained that it represents his Dagestani culture and symbolizes him going to war. Then he called her up on stage and gave her an authentic papakha of her own.

Meade, who uses the social media handle "Mini Khabib," attends UFC events with her father, JC Cannegieter; fighters and other notable people in MMA pose with her while wearing a papakha. It's dubbed the "Khabib Time Challenge," and UFC stars such as Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier and Max Holloway, among many others, have taken part. Meade posts all the photos and videos of her papakha interactions on social media for her more than 96,000 followers on Instagram and more than 10,000 YouTube subscribers.

"I wanted to show Khabib that a lot of other UFC fighters support him," said Meade, who won't be in Abu Dhabi for Saturday's card. "I wanted to spread Khabib's culture with MMA fans and other fighters."

Meade said few UFC fighters have turned down her request to do the "Khabib Time Challenge," but Tony Ferguson, a longtime Nurmagomedov rival, wasn't interested in playing along.

"He just declined," Meade said. "He was really nice about it, though."

NURMAGOMEDOV IS PROTECTIVE of the papakha, although he has let other people try it on, most notably UFC analyst Joe Rogan. After his debut win over Kamal Shalorus on Jan. 20, 2012, in Nashville, Nurmagomedov let Rogan wear the papakha during their postfight interview in the Octagon. Nurmagomedov then brought Rogan his own papakha during the UFC 219 weigh-ins on Dec. 29, 2017.

"Of course I let people wear this, because a lot of people come [and say], 'This is like famous papakha,'" Nurmagomedov told ESPN recently. "They try to wear this."

Nurmagomedov, whose team invited Meade into the Octagon after his UFC 219 win over Edson Barboza, will have fun with the papakha, but he won't get careless, especially when he's traveling.

"I always take care of this and I never put this to baggage," he said. "I always take this with me. Because sometimes you can lose your baggage. You never know. That's why I always bring this with me."

When he's training at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, Nurmagomedov keeps the papakha at home in Dagestan. Khabib entrusted his father, Abdulmanap, with the important task of bringing it to Abu Dhabi for fight week.

While Nurmagomedov is fighting Poirier, the papakha will be in the care of his cousin Abubakar, according to AKA coach Javier Mendez.

"The papakha is to honor their traditional values -- mountain cowboys," Mendez said.

THE HISTORY OF the papakha in the Caucasus could stem from Greek mythology, according to British author and historian Robert Chenciner, who has written multiple books on Dagestan. In the myth, Prometheus is punished by the gods and chained to a rock in the Western Caucasus, where his liver is eaten daily by an eagle. That goes on for years until Hercules slays the eagle and frees Prometheus.

Hercules wears a lion hide as a hat and it is theorized that the sheepskin papakha was derived from that, Chenciner said. Nurmagomedov's nickname is "The Eagle" because of the bird's prominence in the region. The eagle is on Dagestan's coat of arms, and in the myth, the eagle is a symbol for Zeus.

The first accounts of the papakha being worn were by horse-riding raiders called jigits -- "extraordinary warriors" -- representing Caucasus republics like Dagestan and Chechnya in a war against Russia during the mid-19th century, according to Chenciner. The papakhas were used as "scare armor," to strike fear into the opposition.

"It was reckoned during this war that one Dagestani could take on a hundred Russian troops," Cheniciner said. "These are historically serious people."

There are 13 UFC fighters who were born in Dagestan, which has gained acclaim in MMA circles for producing quality combatants. Nurmagomedov, who is 28-0 and one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world, is the most successful and he's the only one to wear a papakha.

His popularity and reach -- nearly 16 million Instagram followers -- has allowed him to meet several world leaders, including Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The popularity of the papakha is rising along with Nurmagomedov's success. Papakhas "like Khabib Nurmagomedov wears" are available on Amazon for $34.99, and replicas are being sold on site in Abu Dhabi. The thought of an arena full of fans wearing papakhas while cheering him on against Poirier made Nurmagomedov let out a light chuckle. "It's gonna be cool," he said.

Looking back, Nurmagomedov is glad that he decided to make that airport gift shop purchase in 2012. It has worked out better than he could have ever imagined.

"I am very successful in this, because [for] more than seven years I use this platform for my papakha, and for more than seven years I am undefeated," he said. "Now I am undefeated, undisputed UFC lightweight champion. Now everybody knows about papakha, everybody knows about Dagestan, where I'm from. A lot of people know about Dagestan culture, history. I think my plan is working."