UFC legend Khabib Nurmagomedov walks away like few fighting greats do: at peak of powers and on his own terms
Dagestan fighter leaves the octagon with his unbeaten record, and reputation, firmly intact after mauling Gaethje in Abu Dhabi
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s victory on Sunday may not have carried the veneered grandeur of that infamous confrontation with Conor McGregor.
It did not play out with what felt like half of his homeland in attendance, as it did against Dustin Poirier.
But it must surely rank as his greatest triumph inside the octagon.
Consider, for the moment, the weight of his father’s death, not only a parent, but lifelong coach, mentor and someone who Nurmagomedov referred to always as his best friend.
Or the promise, hidden from the public, to his grieving mother in the days after Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov’s passing in July, that Sunday’s headline unification bout with a juggernaut Justin Gaethje, his first fight since the tragic loss, would be his last.
Consider, too, in purely sporting terms, the unyielding conviction to conclude one of combat sport’s finest careers without a professional blemish.
All of that collided in the cage in the early hours of Sunday at Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi.
And then, once a one more dominant display was secure, once Gaethje was overrun and eventually overwhelmed in the second round with an expert triangle choke, what had been bottled up spilled out on to the canvas.
Nurmagomedov, unerringly stoic throughout a UFC run of eight years and now 13 fights, let the emotions wash over him, finally, before announcing to the world that he was walking away.
It was a fitting way to bow out, the perfect denouement to a perfect MMA career. Twenty-nine and 0.
That Nurmagomedov could overcome not only an opponent considered by many to represent his sternest challenge, but all of the outside stresses, speaks volumes to the sheer force of his fortitude.
True to form, he “mauled” Gaethje, rendering unconscious the American with the dynamite fists.
Lesser mortals would have been consumed by the personal pressure to perform, the heartbreak and the heavy build-up to this unification bout.
Entering the octagon in the knowledge this would be it, Nurmagomedov pushed back against the private pain to propel himself towards genuine legendary status.
Gallery: Khabib beats Gaethje at UFC 254
It feels somewhat trite to be distracted by the “greatest of all time” debate, but such is the clamour to rank our sporting heroes, to play one against the other.
Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Demetrius Johnson are stellar company to keep and maybe even to climb above, each with their own “Goat” merits, their records longer and by definition for some therefore more luminous.
Nurmagomedov, though, remains the only man to have departed unscathed, with the 0 that did not go. He would simply not allow it.
Not even a broken bone in his foot, later revealed, or a camp disrupted by illness to himself and to members of his tight team – apparently Nurmagomedov sat out training for two weeks midway through last month, bowed by the mumps – could derail the most dominant fighter in UFC history.
At the UFC 254 pre-event briefings, longtime coach Javier Mendez highlighted his star pupil’s strength of character, having been assured that “if anything breaks it’s OK, because my mind is not broken”.
On his ascent to what is surely now the summit of the pound-for-pound standings, Nurmagomedov broke every rival.
Sure, the detractors in the great "Goat" debate point to the calibre of opposition in his earlier days in the UFC, to the clinching of the vacant lightweight crown against late stand-in Al Iaquinta, to the perennially doomed match-up with Tony Ferguson.
But his final three fights cemented without question Nurmagomedov’s place in the pantheon.
McGregor was beaten down in the UFC’s biggest ever bout, the formidable and fearsome Poirier surrendered in front of the Abu Dhabi crowd, and Gaethje walked down and wilted in strange confines amid a pandemic.
The greatest ever UFC lightweight champion reigned supreme when the division reached its deepest.
He might not have the 11 title defences of Jones and Johnson, or GSP’s nine and championship gold at different weights, or Silva’s record six and a half year spell on the throne.
Yet none of that trio can say their particular puzzle could not be solved. Nurmagomedov’s record is pristine.
The outpourings of tributes on Sunday, from "Goat" rival Jones or fiercest foe McGregor, convey the near universal respect the Dagestan native's talent commands from those in the sport.
Respect was a founding tenet of “Father’s Plan”, acted out and accomplished in intimate surroundings on Sunday, with Nurmagomedov’s finest professional triumph guiding the way to his most personal of public moments.
Given all he had to conquer, it makes it infinitely more impressive.
Nurmagomedov achieved what few true greats seldom do in sport: he walked away at his peak, on his own terms.
His father would have indeed been proud.
Updated: October 26, 2020 01:49 PM