The tears flowed immediately. Khabib Nurmagomedov had just let go of the triangle choke he used to render Justin Gaethje unconscious, and all that was left for the UFC lightweight champion was a different release, one of a painfully personal nature. As medical staff moved in to attend to Gaethje against the cage, Nurmagomedov stepped to the center of the Octagon and dropped to his knees.
This would not simply be his usual postfight prayer. Nurmagomedov remained balled up on the canvas, his back heaving, hands covering his face. He was weeping.
Emotions that had been pent up for months spilled out of him. Nurmagomedov had shown none of it publicly in the leadup to this fight, wearing the stoic face for which he had become known during his undefeated mixed martial arts career. But there was no need for that anymore. His father and primary coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, died in July from a heart condition complicated by COVID-19, and Khabib was finally allowing himself the opportunity to mourn publicly. There would be no more fighting for Nurmagomedov after Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
That became clear even before his UFC 254 main event victory was announced. As the official result was being read by Bruce Buffer — a technical submission by triangle choke at 1 minute, 34 seconds of Round 2 — and UFC president Dana White waited to wrap the shiny title belt around his champion once more, Nurmagomedov was already trying to peel away the red tape that secured his fighting gloves.
Those who regularly watch combat sports knew what was coming, and what it meant. When a fighter takes off his or her gloves and lays them at the center of the cage, that symbolizes the end of a career.
Nurmagomedov, speaking softly as his coaches and cornermen stood transfixed behind him, confirmed that he was walking away from a 29-0 career that will be remembered as the most dominant run in MMA history. The 32-year-old from Dagestan spoke of his late father. He spoke of his mother, and a promise he made to her.
“Today, I want to say this was my last fight,” Nurmagomedov said. “No way I’m going to come here without my father. After what happened with my father, when the UFC called me about Justin, I talked with my mother, three days, she don’t want I go fight without father. But I promised her this is going to be my last fight. And if I give my word, I have to follow it.”
On Saturday night in the United Arab Emirates, there was a lot stacked against Nurmagomedov. If ever there was a fight that was going to end differently from the usual Nurmagomedov beatdown, this was it. For years, he had mowed down lightweights, one after another, fighting much the same fight every single time — a relentless, smothering, takedown-based attack — and even though everyone knew what was coming, no one could do a damn thing to stop him.
Most difficult of all, Nurmagomedov would be feeling the loss of his father, which hung over his entire training camp. Everything was further complicated when the coronavirus pandemic forced Nurmagomedov to train away from his American Kickboxing Academy team in California, and on top of all that, his team revealed that Nurmagomedov had suffered a broken foot and, according to a report from Yahoo Sports, a bout of the mumps in the leadup to the fight.
Dana White tells the media that Khabib Nurmagomedov broke his foot three weeks ago and never told anyone.
And then there was the matter of his opposition. Gaethje couldn’t have had more momentum coming into this fight, and brought explosive punching and kicking power along with NCAA Division I All-American wrestling prowess — a combination that Nurmagomedov had never dealt with before in an opponent.
Nurmagomedov, it turned out, didn’t settle for producing just another in a long line of smothering performances. This time he stood and traded punches and kicks with Gaethje, boldly playing right into the game of his most dangerous opponent. And when he finally took the fight to the canvas, with 40 seconds to go in Round 1, Nurmagomedov immediately went for an armbar submission. He didn’t soften up Gaethje with ground-and-pound, as he had done to every other opponent he had faced in the UFC. He just went for it — like an athlete or artist might be wont to do the final time he is plying his trade.
Gaethje survived to the horn that time, but when Nurmagomedov got the fight back to the ground early in the second round, he quickly secured the tight triangle. It was a spectacular go-for-it moment. Referee Jason Herzog jumped in to call the fight when Gaethje lost consciousness.
Gaethje was out only briefly. He was the first one to reach Nurmagomedov at the center of the Octagon. As Nurmagomedov wept, the man he had just choked out knelt beside him and hugged the champ.
It was a wild swing of emotions for all involved, fighters and fans alike. Before Nurmagomedov started peeling away his gloves, the immediate thought was that this was his biggest win to date, and the gateway for him to build an even greater legacy as one of MMA’s all-time greats.
His primary competition would no longer be in the lightweight division. It was time to acknowledge that Nurmagomedov’s most consequential measuring sticks would be a welterweight, a middleweight and a light heavyweight.
Those are the names you hear most often in a discussion of who’s the greatest MMA fighter of all time. Nurmagomedov was building his case for his spot on that short list with a full head of steam. Then, without warning, his gloves were off and sitting in the middle of the cage.
With his career now over, it will be debated where Nurmagomedov stands among those all-time greats. This win over Gaethje was just his third title defense. Jones successfully defended his UFC belt 11 times. Silva did it 10 times in a row during a record 2,457-day reign. GSP defended nine times in a row and won a championship in a second division.
Of course, none of those all-time greats can match the number that leaps off the Nurmagomedov résumé. It’s a big, bold zero. Everybody loses in MMA — except for 29-0 Khabib.
Nurmagomedov’s aura made him a singular star. He was relentlessly stoic to the end — until he no longer saw a need to contain his emotions. And his personal style matched his no-nonsense fighting approach. He mauled every single opponent put in front of him, and he did so in much the same way every time. Plan B? If there was one in the Nurmagomedov playbook, we never saw it enacted. Not one of his 29 foes foiled Plan A and forced him to turn the page. That’s something none of the other all-time greats could say — not Jones, not Silva, not GSP.
And while no one would label Nurmagomedov as a man with a flair for the dramatic, he did save his signature win for the career swan song. Nurmagomedov will be remembered for the brilliance that picked up steam in his final three fights. His 2018 beatdown of Conor McGregor, a former champ, was the biggest spectacle in UFC history, and Nurmagomedov followed that up with last year’s submission of Dustin Poirier. The Poirier win, much like this victory, was eye-opening, in that “The Diamond” had been on a roll and was thought to be well-versed enough in grappling to pose a threat.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) October 24, 2020
But the fight turned out to be just another smashing performance by Nurmagomedov in a long line of them.
Nurmagomedov’s thorough beatdowns of McGregor and Poirier did the unthinkable and dropped the great Jon Jones out of the No. 1 spot in ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings. Saturday’s win over Gaethje seemed to be the next step, a play for the long term. It was not the same old, same old in its execution. Nurmagomedov showed the most urgent pursuit of a finish that he ever has, without sacrificing the dominant position game that made him what he was.
He was showing us something new with that level of aggression, something to get even more excited about. And then it was all over, in an instant.
No way I’m going to come here without my father.
Those words came as a surprise in the moment, but anyone who ever saw Khabib stand pridefully next to his dad, or heard him speak about the man who raised him and nurtured a champion, surely understood. It was a miracle that the champ was able to perform as brilliantly as he did on Saturday. And now that Abdulmanap is gone, there is no fight left in Khabib.
Nurmagomedov has done all he needs to do inside the Octagon. Is he the greatest ever? That is a debate for some other day. For now, Khabib Nurmagomedov must be recognized, in awe, for unprecedented dominance as a fighter, and for the nearly universal respect and admiration he earned from others in the game.
As for the fans, Khabib always left us wanting more. We’ll have to settle for memories. They are glorious ones.