B/R Staff Roundtable: Questions That Need to Be Answered After UFC 254
UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje featured one of the best UFC fighters of all-time in what turned out to be his final professional prizefight.
UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov dumped Justin Gaethje in a vintage "Khabib Time" performance on Saturday at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, then the 31-year-old undefeated Russian dynamo shockingly retired from the sport at the top of his game.
To help sort through all the important questions that need to be answered after Nurmagomedov's big night, Bleacher Report assembled its MMA staff to dive headfirst into all the biggest and most important issues.
Click through to read our takes, and be sure to leave your own in the comments below.
How Stunning Is Khabib Nurmagomedov's Retirement?
I was completely stunned. Usually, when a popular sports figure is nearing retirement, there are things that point in that direction. Sure, Nurmagomedov had openly discussed walking away after his next fight in 2021, but I don't think anybody saw it coming after this one. It was one of the most surprising and deeply emotional things I've ever seen in the combat sports world, and the image of Nurmagomedov falling to his knees in tears is one that will stay with me for a long time.
There were whispers out of his team in California that Khabib might not fight again before this bout, so I wasn't exactly shocked. The death of his father was a life-altering event that changed his entire mentality. So, when they started taking his gloves off, I knew.
Most fighters continue to compete until someone else makes them hang them up. This, instead, was a choice. In a sport so grueling, with physical consequences so significant, I celebrate the idea of someone escaping relatively unscathed. I hope Khabib finds happiness in his new life.
It definitely caught me by surprise. We all knew Khabib's retirement was coming soon, but I don't think anybody expected it to happen right after UFC 254.
I for one figured he'd at least attempt to elevate his record to 30-0, perhaps against Tony Ferguson, or in a rematch with Conor McGregor, or even in a super fight against Georges St-Pierre. Instead, he decided 29-0 was sufficient. It doesn't have quite the same ring to it as 30-0, but it's still one of the most impressive records in MMA history. He's done about all there is to do in this sport, so if he feels now's the time to walk away, who can blame him?
Given the circumstances, the notion that Khabib might retire after this fight was not exactly the stuff of X-Files conspiracy theories, especially if we're looking through the ex post facto lens. That said, the reaction of the fighting public told you all you need to know about the wider sports world's reaction, which was indeed one of surprise.
Unlike other greats like Anderson Silva, BJ Penn, Fedor Emelianenko and others, Khabib is going out on top and on his own terms. The general MMA trend of great fighters hanging on well past their recommended shelf life is enough in and of itself to make this a stunner.
Well, I was certainly stunned. Though revisionist thinking has me wondering just how shocked we all ought to be, based on just how strong the father/son relationship between Abdulmanap and Khabib clearly was. Regardless, it was as unforgettable a moment as I've seen in the UFC. And if you weren't moved by the sight of him sobbing in the center of the cage, you might not have a pulse.
Is Khabib the Greatest of All Time in UFC History?
We're always so quick to rush into making these types of superlatives. I think Nurmagomoev is a one-of-a-kind dominant force, one that the MMA world badly needed and one that won't soon be forgotten. He's one of the most destructive forces that's ever been seen in the sport, and he retires an undefeated and undisputed champ. Right now, I would probably lean GSP or Jon Jones as the greatest of all time, but there's a good argument to be made for Nurmagomedov, too.
I've tackled this question elsewhere, but it was immediately a topic of conversation. That we can even ask this question seriously is an incredible testament to the man's career.
The case for him is built on his unprecedented dominance. The case against him is tied to his retirement and previous long layoffs—what he's done is unimpeachable. But is there enough there to compare him favorably with the other icons of the sport? People will be arguing about it for years to come.
I would say Khabib is definitely the best lightweight of all time, but the best fighter in UFC history? I'm not so sure.
His 29-0 record puts him in the conversation, and he's helped by the fact that many of his UFC wins came against world-class fighters—Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, Conor McGregor, Edson Barboza, Rafael dos Anjos, etc. Yet some of his UFC wins came against less stellar opposition—guys like Darrell Horcher and Abel Trujillo—and that doesn't even begin to cover the people he fought in the earlier chapters of his career.
His run of dominance definitely puts him in the top five or six, but I don't think he's done enough to surpass the likes of Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Demetrious Johnson.
No, he isn't. I'm going to go out on a limb and make a firm recommitment to my guy Mr. Georges St-Pierre.
The 0 at the end of Khabib's record is certainly very sparkly, as is the attendant recency bias. But let's dig a little deeper. Khabib defended his title three times against McGregor, Poirier and Gaethje. GSP defended his welterweight title nine times against Jon Fitch, BJ Penn, Thiago Alves, Dan Hardy, Josh Koscheck, Jake Shields, Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz and Johny Hendricks. He also defeated Hall of Famer Matt Hughes twice.
Let's also not forget he held the UFC middleweight title. Khabib is in the GOAT convo and is easily the best lightweight ever. But the all-time best? That's gonna be a hard pass from me.
He's no worse than a deserving part of the conversation. Not only was he never beaten in the Octagon, he was as far ahead of his contemporaries as anyone's ever been. Case in point, Gaethje came in having dismantled a guy who'd not lost in several years, yet Khabib beat him like a middling contender. Based on individual fight excellence or prolonged body of work, he's got as good a case as anyone.
What's Next for UFC's Lightweight Division?
Before Nurmagomedov retired, Tony Ferguson had a "dope" tournament idea, so I'd like to see the UFC try something like that. Sure, they could simply make the upcoming Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier rematch for the vacant title, but that would leave Ferguson out as well as Gaethje. Another name that might fit in the title picture is the newly signed lightweight Michael Chandler. I also think Dan Hooker deserves to be involved somehow. If anything, even if the company takes the lowest hanging fruit and makes McGregor vs. Poirier 2 for the vacant 155-pound title, I would like to see the winner get fed a steady diet of the top contenders in the stacked division.
Even with the king stepping away from his throne, this division remains one of the deepest and best in the sport. There are half-a-dozen fighters worthy of competing for the championship—but until UFC figures out a way to do a pro-wrestling style scramble match, we'll likely be limited to two. Luckily for UFC, two of the absolute best in the world are already signed for an upcoming bout. Considering one of them is the biggest drawing card in the sport, I see both McGregor and Poirier getting an important call from a Las Vegas area code soon—if it hasn't happened already.
I would like to see the UFC promote a four-man tournament to crown a new lightweight champion. Matchmakers could put McGregor and Poirier on one side of the bracket, Gaethje and Chandler on the other, and use Ferguson and Hooker as alternates. It makes all the sense in the world—so, of course, the UFC won't do it.
A far more likely option, as Jonathan suggested, is that the UFC adds championship stakes to the already planned McGregor vs. Poirier rematch. Gaethje, Chandler and even Ferguson arguably deserve the opportunity to fight for the vacant throne, too, but I think we can be pretty certain that McGregor will have a starring role in the next lightweight title fight, and he seems committed to rematching Poirier.
McGregor vs. Poirier. As they say, that's it, and that's the list.
As disappointing as it might be to lose the gold standard, it does open the floodgates for a series of competitive matches that will move the fan needle. Gaethje against anyone—particularly McGregor—is a can’t-miss proposition, not to mention Ferguson and Poirier and less-heralded but dynamic studs like Charles Oliveira. Everyone in the top 15 just got a smidge closer to championship possibilities.
Should Robert Whittaker Be Next for Israel Adesanya?
I already made the case for this on Saturday night, and I think it's pretty obvious that Whittaker is the No. 1 contender now. Bobby Knuckles put on a brilliant performance over Jared Cannonier in the co-main event of UFC 254. That's two stellar wins in a row because Whittaker looked just as formidable a couple of months ago against Darren Till. Whittaker looks like a new man now, and he should definitely get the chance to recapture UFC gold against Adesanya next.
If it feels like just yesterday that Adesanya decimated Whittaker to take his place as the best 185-pound fighter on the planet, well, that's because it practically was. It was just last October that Izzy usurped the throne and made a strong push as the best fighter in the entire sport.
If a rematch feels off, that's why—Adesanya's clear victory is still fresh in our minds. Still, it's hard to make a better case for another middleweight. UFC, as it often does, has had the top contenders savage each other en route to a title shot. Cannonier seemed an obvious option until Whittaker got his hands on him. Jack Hermansson could have made for a good challenger, but he got done by Cannonier in a second-round knockout.
So, Whittaker it is.
This is a tricky one. Whittaker has definitely earned a rematch with Adesanya, but like Jonathan said, his knockout loss to the champ is still clearly visible in the rear-view mirror, so it's a bit of a tough sell.
I'm not sure it's an opportunity Whittaker wants, either. He's previously told ESPN's Ariel Helwani that he didn't enjoy being the champion, and when asked about an Adesanya rematch at the UFC 254 post-fight press conference, he expressed that he's in no rush.
I think he prefers the freedom of contendership to the stresses and obligations of being a champion. So while he's definitely earned another title shot, I think it's more likely we see him fight somebody like Paulo Costa next.
Adesanya and others did Cannonier a disservice by handing him a title shot before he could earn it. That was too much pressure for a guy who had just recently transcended journeyman status.
A full year ago, I wrote that Adesanya should strike while the iron was hot and move up to light heavyweight and fight Jon Jones. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. But light heavyweight would offer more interesting matchups than another run with Whittaker or the Derek Brunsons of the world. That's especially true with Kelvin Gastelum—the man who gave Adesanya his toughest test to date—having dropped three straight. I wouldn't be mad at a Whittaker-Adesanya rematch, but it's not exactly sending me into my 401K to cover the pay-per-view, either.
He's the No. 1 contender and has rebuilt the brand with two straight wins, but it doesn't seem like anyone's excited for a rematch anytime soon. Adesanya called for Cannonier after beating Paulo Costa, and Whittaker never mentioned the champ's name after beating Cannonier. I'm OK if Adesanya tries to entice fighters from neighboring divisions rather than facing anyone at 185 anytime soon.
Was UFC 254 the Best Card of the Year so Far?
It's been an incredible year, and the fact that I don't know if UFC 254 was the best card of 2020 is quite the testament to that. Kudos to the UFC for consistently putting on quality cards packed with good fights all year long, even amid the pandemic.
UFC 254 was a stellar card from top to bottom. But so was UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje, UFC 250: Nunes vs. Spencer, UFC 251: Usman vs. Masvidal and UFC 252: Miocic vs. Cormier 3. I guess if I had to pick one out of those to be called the best card of the year, I would pick UFC 249, because it was the first big sports event that happened after the lockdown.
I loved everything about this card. The fights were fantastic, the main event memorable and the two-man announce booth was a breath of fresh air. The morning start time was the icing on a spongy cake. It was wonderful to watch the fights and not have to immediately try to sleep with the vicarious adrenaline still racing. I could go about the rest of my day, fueled by a great morning of cage fighting theatrics. Best of the year? Why not? It was pretty fantastic.
I'll start by echoing another one of Jonathan's comments—a recurring theme for me today. There are few things sweeter than afternoon MMA. The UFC could promote a fight between a hotel concierge and a guy from the arena's concession counter, and if it went down in the afternoon, I might well pick it over a legitimate fight later at night. So UFC 254 has a leg-up on other cards for that alone.
It was also just really good. From Khabib's swan song to Whittaker and Cannonier's scrap to the rousing debuts of prospects like Shavkat Rakhmonov and Phil Hawes, it had a bit of everything. There have been some good cards this year, but nothing off the top of my head that stands out as better than UFC 254, so I'm comfortable calling this one the best.
It was a great card, no doubt about it. The timing was novel, but its benefit was subjective. One person's Saturday night is another person's Saturday afternoon, to coin a phrase. But the action was terrific top to bottom, the storylines were thick, and it certainly stood out from the grey line of filler cards that dominate the sport's weekly consciousness. Make of that what you will.
It was pretty good from top to bottom, but the co-main was more tactical than titillating and the main was more memorable for the post-fight exit rather than anything that occurred in the fight itself. So I'll go with no. I thought the Jones-Reyes main at UFC 247 was better, not to mention Ferguson and Gaethje at UFC 249. All that said, if you demanded I watch the 12 bouts again this weekend, I'd be OK with it.