Khabib Nurmagomedov hung up his gloves following UFC 254 and one of the most impressive victories the UFC has ever witnessed.
Having recently lost his father/coach/mentor to COVID-19, and battling a broken foot, Nurmagomedov still managed to deliver a performance for the ages. On paper, Justin Gaethje possessed the tools to cause Nurmagomedov trouble, but the reigning lightweight champ was just too good. His second round submission was a fitting exclamation mark to an MMA career that will never be matched.
The legacy of Nurmagomedov is much more than his professional unbeaten record of domination. It was the way he beat those 29 opponents, the one-sided nature of the dominance. He was never in trouble during any of those fights. He was never dropped. He barely lost a round. He fought all-comers, took them all to the canvas, and went to work.
Nurmagomedov was no normal athlete. He learned to wrestle before he could talk. His body was supernaturally strong and his mind unbreakable. His opponents knew his game-plan in advance but were simply unable to counter his strategy. He just imposed his will and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
The real secret to Nurmagomedov’s success lay in his relentless pressure. This is often the determining factor in many competitive endeavours, be it a game of chess, a tennis match, or a horse race. The best-laid plans count for nothing when your every decision is being pressured, when time is short, or your opponent has a cruising speed that you cannot comfortably match. From the safety of the sidelines, the spectator simply cannot feel the force of that inexorable pressure at work, and champions routinely make second-best contenders look woefully inferior.
The Nurmagomedov vs Gaethje fight followed this familiar trajectory. The fighters stood and traded blows during round one, and Gaethje was reasonably effective. Khabib increased his pressure in round two, got his inevitable takedown, and that was the end, Gaethje was choked unconscious soon after. Nurmagomedov was tearful in his octagon interview, dedicating the victory to his late father. And that is almost certainly the last time Khabib will fight professionally. Promises have been made to his mother, and Nurmagomedov is known as a man of his word.
The last stanza of his fighting career has been particularly lucrative but Nurmagomedov has always seemed completely unaffected by the trappings of wealth and celebrity. He played by his own rules. He was humble and respectful. Many probed for weaknesses in his arsenal, but he retired undefeated, undiminished, as potentially the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
Jon Jones will make his inevitable GOAT claims, but character matters in these discussions. While Jones has disgraced himself repeatedly, running afoul law-keepers and drug testers, Nurmagomedov has not. The Russian did leap from the cage to brawl with Conor McGregor lackey and notorious troll Dillion Danis, but sometimes idiots need a reminder not to trifle with serious people. If you poke the bear, it might just bare its claws and tear you apart.
Nurmagomedov’s legacy is carved in Dagestani stone.
Jackson Byrne – Combat Sports Editor