As the first round of their title fight at UFC 254 came to a close, Justin Gaethje wore an expression familiar to Khabib Nurmagomedov's previous 28 opponents. He appeared befuddled, shell-shocked and overwhelmed, a fighter put into positions he'd never experienced before.
Nurmagomedov (29-0) fights like a movie monster, endlessly walking forward, ruthlessly hunting, refusing to allow his prey an inch, a breath or even a prayer. That indefatigable pursuit is paired with an otherworldly athleticism and explosive speed and power that can shock the system of even the most accomplished opponents.
"That pace and pressure of Khabib is what separates him from most guys," former champion and color commentator Daniel Cormier said as Nurmagomedov backed Gaethje down with a force as inexorable as the tides. And, though Cormier is Khabib's teammate and friend, he's also exactly right.
There is no one in the sport like Khabib—and there may never be anyone like him again.
With just over a minute left in the first round, Gaethje landed a left hook, the kind of haymaker he's used to earn a title opportunity in the UFC's most competitive division. But, where other opponents have fallen backwards in the face of such a mighty blow, Nurmagomedov appeared to barely notice he'd been hit at all.
From there, the fight was all but over. Without the power of respect forcing Nurmagomedov to be cautious, the Dagestani grappler only increased his pace and pressure, taking Gaethje down with a speedy double leg and nearly submitting his frazzled foe in the few seconds remaining in the round.
When he scored a takedown in Round 2, nothing could save Gaethje. In less than 10 minutes, Nurmagomedov once again proved he was on another level from everyone else in the sport, retaining both the lightweight title and maintaining his undefeated record.
"He is," UFC President Dana White said at a press conference after the fight, "the baddest motherf--ker on the planet."
At the end of the bout, after demonstrating his BMF credentials, Khabib shocked many by announcing his retirement from the cage. The death of his father, legendary coach Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, in July had shaken the fighter to his core. His mother, he told announcer Jon Anik, had extracted a pledge from her son that he wouldn't compete again.
"I promised her it's going to be my last fight," Nurmagomedov said, removing his gloves and leaving them in the center of the cage. "And, if I give my word, I have to follow that. It was my last fight here."
Walking away is hard enough—leaving in the midst of unprecedented dominance is impossible to even fathom. But, if any retirement should be taken seriously in this most fickle of sports, it's this one. Nurmagomedov seems intent on living up to his vow to his mother. I'll take him at his word and consider the book on his career closed—which leaves us now to grapple with his place among the best to ever do it.
Determining the UFC GOAT (greatest of all time) is a tricky, subjective business. Most of the fighters considered for the honor are nearing the end of long, distinguished careers or retired from the sport.
Anderson Silva's artistry stands alone, a movie fight scene come to life, his thin, long limbs reaching out to smite his opponents from all angles. The Brazilian striker (34-10 ) defended the middleweight title 10 times and racked up a record of 11-2 in championship contests. Performance-enhancing drug busts and a 1-6 (1) record in the final frame of his Hall of Fame tenure are the only black marks that potentially mar his claim.
Jon Jones (26-1 ), similarly, exists under the cloud of PED accusations and a seemingly constant state of scandal. But he's lost only once in a 12-year career, a disqualification in a bout he was easily winning. The long-time ruler of the UFC's most prestigious division, he dispatched six other UFC champions and went 14-0 (1) in title contests before giving up his belt to pursue a run at heavyweight.
Georges St-Pierre, the legendary welterweight, is arguably the closest comparison point for Nurmagomedov. A strong, top control grappler who worked behind a stiff jab, GSP rarely lost a round after winning his championship back from Matt Serra after a shocking upset. Unlike Silva and Nurmagomedov, however, St-Pierre adopted a risk-averse approach that led to a lot of easy decision wins but fewer highlight-reel moments.
The truth is, his abrupt retirement means Khabib will never match his elite peers when it comes to title wins and championship longevity. His position is unique. Very few fighters leave combat sports on top. Almost no one departs quite like the undefeated Nurmagomedov, at 32 just entering what many would consider his physical prime. That makes it difficult to compare him to the other iconic fighters the sport has produced.
What separates Nurmagomedov isn't the number of wins he accumulated or the length of his title reign. It's his dominance that makes Nurmagomedov unique even among his legendary peers.
Lots of fighters, of course, win consistently in the Octagon. But few pitch the kind of shutouts Nurmagomedov managed routinely. He's not only never seen an opponent's hand raised in his career—in his 13 bouts in the UFC, he's only lost a single round.
When history is written, it's likely that Nurmagomedov's career will include an asterisk meant to ask "what might have been?" Retiring at his best, unfortunately, means he was never able to demonstrate consistent, championship-level mastery or an ability to maintain his position atop a sport that is notorious for eating fighters up and spitting them out.
Is Nurmagomedov the best to ever do it? No. But he might have been. And that's enough to guarantee entry into the GOAT conversation for years to come.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report and is the author of Total MMA, a comprehensive history of the sport's early years.