Khabib Nurmagomedov is not the perfect mixed martial artist, though you could be forgiven for believing it so after a brief glance at his unparalleled career. With a third-round submission win over Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, the lightweight champion's record stands at an incredible 28-0.
More impressive than the number of victories is the manner of his wins, each one a masterclass of grappling, discipline and pure destructive willpower.
Compared to other elite fighters, however, his stand-up game is rudimentary, reckless and often seemingly lacking rhyme or reason. Sometimes his takedowns border on the irresponsible—his head high on the hip, waiting for a potential bout-ending guillotine. Poirier, in fact, attempted to capitalize on that defect in the third round before Khabib's head popped free, to the crowd's delight. All too often, he allows himself to be backed into the cage, with only his ruthless aggression, surprising quickness and fearlessness saving him from disaster.
None of this matters, of course, unless someone makes it matter. And, in almost 30 fights, no one has. More than that, they've never come close. It's not just that he's never lost a fight; except for a single blemish in his win over former champion Conor McGregor, Khabib's never even lost a round in UFC competition.
Poirier, Nurmagomedov's latest victim, was his complete opposite in many ways—both inside and outside the Octagon. Khabib is defined by his political affiliations and sometimes offensive comments. Poirier is a noted philanthropist. Nurmagomedov is a grappling wizard, a specialist somehow surviving in a multifaceted world. Poirier, by contrast, is a combination striker who looks to finish on his feet.
While Nurmagomedov often dominates all but a few seconds of his fights, Poirier has earned a performance bonus from UFC for five of his last six bouts, usually shorthand for the kind of life-altering slugfests that fans love and most fighters dread.
As Poirier learned in each round, Nurmagomedov's wrestling game and subsequent top control on the mat are so overwhelming, suffocating and brutal, that the striking game is little more than an appetizer. You might catch him with a flurry, as Poirier did in the second round after a right hand landed squarely, but eventually, he'll clear the plates off the table and serve the entree—in this case, minute after minute of unrelenting ground-and-pound.
Eventually, no matter how hard they've prepared to do anything but, Khabib sucks his opponent into the quicksand, breaking both body and spirit over time. Grappling wears you down, each minute movement an aerobic and anaerobic test that every opponent inevitably fails. While some of his dynamic knockdowns, such as a punch that floored McGregor, have been used most often in highlight films, it's his ground game, as analyst Jack Slack explains, that makes Khabib such an overwhelming force:
"And here we get to the real strength of Nurmagomedov's game: when he has a hold of his man. He is exceptional at shucking his way to a back bodylock and from there he will happily spend a round dragging his man to the mat, allowing them to get back up, and then either falling to the mat with them or tossing them to the mat and landing on them. Round after round in the octagon, Nurmagomedov has shown himself to be a step ahead of everyone who ends up with him around their waist."
Mortals always wear down. But Khabib never stops wrestling, never stops looking for submissions, never stops looking for incremental improvements in his positioning and never stops telling you about it. Twenty-eight opponents have gone into the cage fully intending to be the man who prevents Nurmagomedov from imposing his will on the fight.
Not only does that possibility feel more remote than ever, it also barely even seems worth considering. His dominance is so thorough, his wins so decisive, that the long walk to the cage must feel like a death march for each unlucky opponent.
It had been almost a year since Nurmagomedov last stepped into the cage as he served a suspension for his wild aerial assault on McGregor's corner after their UFC 229 bout last October. The Poirier fight, though less combustible than the McGregor mess, was, as ESPN.com's Marc Raimondi reported, just as important to Nurmagomedov:
"The bout was significant for Nurmagomedov, because of the location. Nurmagomedov is a devout Muslim from Dagestan, a republic of Russia, and it was his first UFC fight in a Muslim-majority country. There were loud chants of 'Khabib!' throughout the main event and many fans wearing Nurmagomedov's signature papakha sheepskin hat."
Next in line, seemingly, is Tony Ferguson, a fighter who might challenge Khabib through his sheer unorthodoxy if nothing else. But that particular bout appears snakebitten, having been canceled four times over the years for a number of reasons.
Meanwhile, in Dublin, an Irish fire burns for a chance at redemption. Will fate lead McGregor and Nurmagomedov into the cage once more for a battle much bigger than sport? With the UFC, it's impossible to predict. But one thing seems certain: Betting against Nurmagomedov is a fool's gambit until someone proves otherwise.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.