Fight fans will look back on Khabib Nurmagomedov’s win at Saturday’s UFC 254 as the moment when mixed martial arts crowned a new pound-for-pound kingpin.
And then lost him five minutes later.
Fighting for his father, Abdulmanap, who died this summer from complications related to COVID-19, the Dagestani Russian ran Justin Gaethje (22-3) out of the cage and ran his own pro record to 29-0. The dominant win ended in a triangle choke submission at 1:34 of the second round. Somehow, it didn’t even seem that close. The win made Nurmagomedov the undisputed UFC lightweight champion, as Gaethje held the interim strap coming in.
Shortly after, an emotional Nurmagomedov shocked onlookers by announcing his retirement.
“This was my last fight,” the 32-year-old Nurmagomedov told broadcaster Jon Anik in the cage after the fight. “After what happened with my father, when the UFC called me about Justin, I talked with my mother for three days. She don’t want me to fight without [my] father, but I promised her it’s gonna be my last fight. And if I give my word, I have to follow this. It was my last fight here.
“I know only one thing I want from [the] UFC Tuesday: You guys have to put me on No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter [rankings] in the world, because I deserve this.”
Done and done. In fact, we could easily take it a step farther. He's probably the best lightweight ever after unifying the titles in Abu Dhabi. Could he be the great fighter ever, hard stop? The thought merits consideration.
With Conor McGregor off doing all that Conor McGregoring, Israel Adesanya still somewhat on the ascent and other fighters simply lacking the dominance or star power to capture the public imagination, Nurmagomedov was the UFC’s best hope as it stands to establish a transcendent star.
But the undisputed champ at 155 pounds had other plans. Given the devastation and emptiness that comes with losing a parent so suddenly—a feeling so many hundreds of thousands of people have come to know during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic—all you can do is give this living legend his due and wish him all the best. His legacy, his call.
Let’s get to the fight, which was just another ho-hum Nurmagomedov master class against a previously fearsome opponent. Gaethje was universally considered a stiff challenger, summarized by the 19 knockouts he’s collected in 22 of his pro victories. If he could slow the champ with his signature leg kicks and touch his jaw—something that hadn’t really happened to Nurmagomedov before—the Colorado native could be a live dog.
The first round was mainly a feeling-out exercise. Both men landed offense but nothing to write home about. Gaethje’s highlights included a counter left uppercut and a few nice leg kicks, but Nurmagomedov earned the scoring edge in the final minute with that familiar double-leg takedown along the fence. It was notable to see Gaethje, known for a pressure-oriented attack, now taking the heat instead of dishing it out. He grew visibly tired from second to second as the champ relentlessly walked him down. A last-second Nurmagomedov armbar attempt went begging, but the round was his.
As you know at this point, though, it was all academic. Gaethje was too far in his own head, moving too fast and trying too hard to react rather than implement his own plan. Nurmagomedov has a way of sapping confidence out of even the greatest and toughest fighters.
With about a minute gone in the second frame, a Nurmagomedov takedown attempt led to a brief scramble, which saw the champ alertly take the challenger’s back. This was not a good development for the challenger. Gaethje tried to roll free, but unfortunately for him that meant rolling right into full mount. The action was right along the fence, precisely where Nurmagomedov likes it. More bad news for Gaethje! The transitions happened so effortlessly for Nurmagomedov that it almost felt like the forces of nature were doing it for him.
Nurmagomedov has gotten plenty of run from pundits and media members (including myself) for his inimitable ground-and-pound. But perhaps hoping to up the degree of difficulty for himself, seeing as no one else can do that for him, Nurmagomedov threw his legs up and around Gaethje’s neck in a bid for the triangle. Gaethje attempted to roll away but again only made matters worse for himself. The tap came and that was all she wrote. Sadly, referee Jason Herzog was out of position or not paying attention or something, so missed the first two or twelve of Gaethje’s taps, meaning the challenger took a lot more oxygen deprivation than was probably necessary. Oh well. It’s just his brain, right?
Facing the inevitable questions about his father and longtime trainer, Nurmagomedov stayed cool and collected during fight week, repeating variations of “it is what it is.” Understandable. But with the job done, Nurmagomedov let it in and let it out, collapsing in the center of the cage, his body wracked with sobs.
In retrospect, the emotion was even more understandable. Nurmagomedov appeared wistful about laying his gloves in the center of the cage, even as he seemed certain about the promise he made to his grieving mother. It’s just a bittersweet story all around.
Assuming this is indeed the end for Nurmagmedov’s fight career, he’s instantly in the conversation for MMA’s GOAT. That’s a conversation that will unfold in the days and weeks to come, but a spotless 29-0 record is very hard to argue against. Even Georges St-Pierre had his Matt Hughes and his Matt Serra. Jon Jones is undefeated in the cage, but has defeated himself at frequent intervals. Fedor Emelianenko suffered from lower-level competition—a charge that will never follow Nurmagomedov thanks to wins over McGregor, Dustin Poirier, now Gaethje, and a who’s-who of other top opposition.
Even if he’s not the out-and-out GOAT, he’s enjoyed a remarkable career, and one that ended on a sad note. Could we wonder what might have been? The way I see it, there’s not much point in that. Because we saw what was, and with Nurmagomedov, that was more than enough.