The Khabib Era Ends
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Khabib Nurmagomedov balled up on the canvas and broke down into tears. He had just defeated Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi on October 24, 2020, but wept for his father who passed away from COVID-19 complications in July. His father had also been his coach and trainer for the entirety of his career. Leading up to the fight, though, Nurmagomedov remained stoic. He finally allowed himself to mourn publicly on October 24. He then announced it would be his last time in the Octagon—a promise to his mom, who didn’t want him to fight anymore without his father. Nurmagomedov peeled off the tape from his hands and removed his gloves. He left his gloves in the ring, following common tradition for fighters and symbolizing the end of his career. Nurmagomedov would walk away from the sport with a 29-0 record. He finished as the undisputed and undefeated lightweight champion.
Though he was the favorite, Khabib had a lot stacked against him leading up to UFC 254. The loss of his father interrupted and loomed over his training camp. The pandemic further complicated things as Nurmagomedov was forced to train away from his gym at the American Kickboxing Academy in California. Even worse, he endured a broken foot from training. Gaethje was not the average lightweight either. He was a former NCAA Division I All-American wrestler and brought incredible power and striking to the table. Nurmagomedov had never faced a more complete opponent before.
Even through all the adversity, the then 28-0 champion showed the audience why he was undefeated. In round one, Nurmagomedov started off the fight trading punches and kicks with the powerful Gathje instead of relying on signature wrestling. He then brought Gaethje to the ground for an armbar submission, but Gaethje survived until the horn. Shortly into round two, Nurmagomedov brought Gaethje to the ground yet again, and this time, he secured the triangle choke. Gaethje quickly went unconscious, and Nurmagomedov won the fight. After the match, Gaethje knelt next to a weeping Nurmagomedov and embraced him, a beautiful moment for the sport.
Nurmagomedov began his career in September 2008, fighting in Russia. Over the next three years, he went undefeated, finishing 11 out of 12 opponents. He won seven fights in 2011 alone and held an impressive 16-0 record, earning him a call from the UFC. Nurmagomedov quickly made a name for himself in the UFC and earned a title shot against lightweight fighter Al Iaquinta. Nurmagomedov defeated him easily and was king of the division that previously belonged to former lightweight champion Conor McGregor. McGregor returned to MMA fighting after a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, the most viewed fight of all time. Before Nurmagomedov’s fight with McGregor, McGregor made fun of his family and heritage, but Nurmagomedov remained calm. Then, during the fight, when he was on top of McGregor and pounding him, Nurmagomedov said, “Let’s talk now. Let’s talk.” He finished the fight in round three and stepped up in one of the biggest fights of all time.
Nurmagomedov’s aura is undeniable. He is one of the most feared fighters of all time. No one outworks Nurmagomedov and his work ethic is what all MMA fighters aspire to achieve. Hailing from the cold, barren mountains of Dagestan, Russia, Nurmagomedov wrestled a young brown bear at the age of nine to strengthen his grappling. He swam in freezing cold waters against the current to train his endurance. The stories of his Russian training only add to his legendary career.
His masterful grappling and wrestling became iconic. He dominated his opponents with the same game plan every time. They knew the takedown was coming, but no matter how much they trained, they could never get on his level. His wrestling was so good that it made his striking even better. His fight IQ was high and every attack was well-calculated. More importantly, he never allowed his emotions to get in the way of his fights. Whether he felt anger or sadness, he performed to the highest degree with integrity. His pride and faith have resonated with millions of Muslims across the globe.
With his victory in UFC 254, Nurmagomedov has truly cemented his legacy. He is in regard to the likes of Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, and Georges St-Pierre, some of the greatest MMA fighters of all time. Nurmagomedov has only had three title defenses compared to Silva’s 10 and GSP’s nine, but it is hard to deny Nurmagomedov’s incredible zero losses as a fighter. He missed out on many legacy-defining fights in his career due to unfortunate circumstances. The stars never aligned for a fight with Tony Ferguson, a former lightweight champion, who was on a 12-fight win streak. This dream fight was canceled four times. His bout with Max Halloway, the featherweight champion, was also canceled. In the fights he had, however, he always dominated and hardly took any damage. Everyone loses in MMA, except Nurmagomedov.
It all started with a boy and his father simply bonding over wrestling. That hard work and love created one of the greatest fighters the world has ever seen. It made his final moments in the Octagon so special. It felt like Nurmagomedov would trade it all for another moment with his father. He was at the top and only getting better. As entertaining as his fights have been, Nurmagomedov is more than deserving to put his career to rest. He leaves the Octagon as the greatest lightweight fighter to step in the UFC ring and an inspiration to millions around the world.