Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje was the perfect swan’s song to a storied career

From a sentimental standpoint, you couldn’t have asked for a better retirement announcement than what we saw at UFC 254 from lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov.

He had long spoken about his intention to retire at age 32, and since he acquired the UFC lightweight belt in 2018, his father Abdulmanap often alluded to wanting Khabib to fight Conor McGregor, Tony Ferguson, Georges St. Pierre, and the welterweight champion before retiring at 30-0.

From a legacy standpoint, that would have been unparalleled. However, of those names, he only ended up fighting McGregor, after which he notched two title defences against Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. These are high level opponents and quality wins for Khabib without a doubt, but they did not have the big name appeal that perhaps most of us were hoping for.

As a fan, I certainly held on selfishly to the hope that a fight against Ferguson or GSP was still possible. But it looks like that ship has sailed.

Nurmagomedov gave a promise of retirement to his mother, and as much as we are all aware of the close relationship Khabib shared with his late father, he has actually mentioned that his mother was his favorite.

With his father gone, and considering his level of deference toward his only living parent, I just don’t see him coming back after making such a promise.

So we’ve likely seen him fight for the last time ever, and that’s quite sad. But his performance against Gaethje was truly the perfect way to go out.

We need to give credit where it’s due: Gaethje fared better than any of Khabib’s previous opponents. After a bit of a feeling out period in the first round, the two eventually engaged. Gaethje landed lots of leg kicks, as was to be expected from “the Highlight.”

Very rarely does Khabib get hit cleanly, but Gaethje got him quite a few times in this first round, and not just leg kicks. But Khabib landed some damaging strikes as well, including a flying knee to the body.

But it was the jab of Nurmagomedov that proved most effective for the champion. Daniel Cormier mentioned during the broadcast: Gaethje could not keep up a high guard if you wanted to defend Khabib’s takedowns. This opened up a lot of opportunities for Khabib to work with his hands, and thus he landed the jab at will.

Gaethje was trying to stay in the center of the octagon, because as we all know, Khabib’s loves to get his opponent’s back to the fence.

But Khabib manages to take Gaethje down in the final minute of the round with a beautiful double leg off of a perfectly timed level change. He immediately ties up Gaethje’s legs, and quickly advances his position. Before we know it, he was in full mount. He then isolated Gaethje’s arm and attempted an arm bar. Gaethje is aware that there is not much time left, so he just holds on until the end of the round, but Khabib demonstrated how quickly he can get the finish after taking Gaethje down.

This was a very close round before that takedown. But with Khabib taking Justin down, mounting him, and then attempting a submission, all in under a minute, there should be no doubt as to who won it. It is completely inexplicable that two judges would score this round for Gaethje.

Gaethje lands some nice shots in the second round too, including a leg kick that threw the champion off balance. But once again we were able to see what makes Khabib so good. As Gaethje throws a leg kick, Khabib just grabs onto his leg and attempts a double leg, Gaethje sprawls (and was mindful enough to sprawl away from the fence), but Khabib immediately takes his back, gets the body triangle, and ends up mounting Gaethje. This is all in a matter of seconds.

While he’s in mount, he has Gaethje in what looks like an arm triangle, then transitions to a triangle arm bar and finally, to a triangle. Gaethje taps, but referee Jason Herzog inexplicably doesn’t see it. It takes a good five seconds before Herzog realizes that Gaethje is tapping and calls the fight.

Only 24 seconds separated Khabib’s double leg attempt, and Gaethje tapping. That’s how quickly he was able to get the finish. This was a grappling clinic.

With all Khabib’s ground and pound and gradual destruction of opponents that we had grown accustomed to through the years, we forget that Khabib can do more than just smash his opponents. We saw his submission skills on full display against Gaethje. He wasted absolutely no time at all.

At first, when I saw Khabib fishing for early subs, I thought that perhaps he was doing this to avoid a protracted stand up war with Gaethje, who showed himself to be more than competent and had quite a bit of success on the feet. Or perhaps his toe, which was later revealed to have been broken during his camp, was bothering him, and that’s why he wanted to end the fight quickly.

But a friend of mine made an interesting observation that I hadn’t even considered: Abdulmanap was a big appreciator of judo, seeing it as a more gentlemanly sport than MMA or even wrestling.

Khabib has also mentioned in interviews that his mother doesn’t like to see him beat up on his opponents. She, too, prefers that he just get a quick tap out of them.

So, could his early fishing for subs have been a way of trying to follow his father’s legacy, or to please his mother? We can’t really know for sure, but he certainly is a devoted son, and his parents are very important to him.

After securing the victory, he fell to his knees and was overcome with tears. Ariel Helwani compared it to Michael Jordan crying on the locker room floor after winning the NBA title after his own father’s passing.

And it’s a very apt comparison, because in MMA, Khabib is on that level. He’s on the level of a Jordan or a Ronaldo. For a swan’s song, it was really the perfect performance, the perfect celebration, and the perfect post-fight speech. And it certainly resonated with many people who have lost a parent.

Of course, because we are all insufferable bores, we proceeded to use this as an opportunity to argue about whether Khabib is the GOAT, whether he belongs in the GOAT conversation, and so on. All I will say is this: Khabib was a fighter who every single one of his opponents knew exactly what he wanted to do, but they still couldn’t stop him.

That’s the reason why he belongs in this discussion. Trevor Wittman is a brilliant MMA mind, and Justin Gaethje is a remarkable talent and a very coachable fighter. Wittman wrote up what I trust was a perfectly legitimate game plan against Khabib, because he knew exactly what Khabib wanted to do. But you still can’t stop him. That’s what made him great.

Luke Thomas mentioned something that is very relevant: Khabib was never knocked down or cut, in his entire MMA career.

While the likes of Fedor, Jon Jones, GSP, and Anderson Silva had longer title reigns, they can’t say this. Khabib can. That’s what makes Khabib’s career so special.

Nitpicking about his competition level, likewise, makes no sense. Dos Anjos, Michael Johnson, Barboza, McGregor, Poirier, Gaethje: are these low-level opponents? What’s more is that he beat them all in dominant fashion. He was the first to knock down McGregor. He was the first to submit Gaethje.

And if we are going to get caught up in title defences, well, he just tied the record for most UFC lightweight title defences. So while his title reign wasn’t the longest overall, it is certainly comparable to that of other great fighters in this storied weight division.

In the big picture, it doesn’t matter. I think most observers understand that this was a truly great career and a truly unique career. Those of us who appreciated it, are quite sad to see it come to an end. Khabib changed our very idea of what a “well-rounded fighter” is. He changed our idea of what good solid striking defence looks like.  

We will likely never see another Khabib. But, he’s done with fighting and that makes me sad.

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