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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The great Khabib Nurmagomedov era ends on a sensational note

MMA's lightweight legend retires an undisputed, unbeaten champion on Saturday, after a memorable win over Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi, months after losing his father-trainer to Covid-19

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | New Delhi |
Updated: October 26, 2020 3:00:53 pm
Khabib Nurmagomedov reacts after his bout against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi. (Source: UFC)

There’s a perverse enjoyment in watching Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fights from a different era. Watching a boxer face a submission specialist, knowing how it would end in quick agony and a quicker tap-out. A fever dream of ‘what if’ stylistic fantasy matchups in the early 90s, MMA has now evolved into a sport with no one-trick ponies, only masters of all trades. For the large part, every modern fighter can throw hands and move his head, and knows enough wrestling to stuff a takedown. And everybody and their dog has at least a brown belt in jiu-jitsu.

That’s why Khabib Nurmagomedov, the wrestling virtuoso, was special.

On Saturday, after a win over Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi, he retired an unbeaten, undisputed champion. But perhaps his biggest achievement — bigger than the lightweight title or the unprecedented 29-0 record — was that he became a major draw with his unparalleled wrestling, in an era where boos ring out the second a fight goes to the ground.

His wrestling and groundwork weren’t passive at all. The word ‘maul’ has been overused in Khabib’s context but there is no better descriptor. On the ground, he is constantly jostling for positions, transitioning from hold to hold, looking for openings to slide his arm under the chin of an opponent or isolate a limb. And if nothing worked, he’d sit up and start raining down punches. All this while audibly telling opponents to “give up.”

The mat was the quagmire and Khabib a boa constrictor. He made the sport look special, and his opponents ordinary.

Stylistically, the all-out, 22-2 brawler Gaethje was Khabib’s biggest test. The hyper-violent American fights with high volume and pressure, hits hard and has a stellar collegiate wrestling record to boot. But against Khabib, there is no way to chain your strikes because you’re always worried about the takedown. And in the first round, Khabib outstruck a conflicted Gaethje. Just when Gaethje found his range with a couple of punches, Khabib shot for a double leg takedown, secured it, flattened Gaethje against the cage and looked for an armbar before the round ran out.

In the second round, a composed Gaethje troubled Khabib with heavy kicks on the inside and outside lead leg. The Russian pulled out the old get-out-of-jail-free-card, went for a takedown, used Gaethje’s momentum to get the mount, and put him to sleep with a triangle choke; all in one flawless sequence.

It was his greatest performance, after what had admittedly been his worst camp yet. Khabib’s coach Javier Mendez told Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole that his fighter had broken a toe and was out for two weeks because of mumps. For Khabib, physical troubles aside, the biggest tragedy was losing his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, who died of COVID-19 complications in July.

Abdulmanap, who had been the lifelong trainer of his son, once told reporters: “A child always wants his father to see what his son is capable of.”

Perhaps that was on the mind of Khabib, who sobbed inconsolably in the aftermath of Saturday’s title defence. He revealed that he had consulted his mother when UFC approached him for the Gaethje fight.

“She didn’t want me to fight without father and I said this is my last fight — and I have given her my word,” Khabib said after the fight, before addressing his opponent. “Thank you so much Justin. I know you are great, I know how you take care of your people. Be close with your parents, because you never know what is going to happen tomorrow.”

That’s the other aspect of Nurmagomedov’s persona that captured the imagination of the West and made him a global superstar. For a long time, Khabib — who grew up wrestling bears and swimming against the icy currents in the rugged mountainous Russian republic of Dagestan, fought elite training partners until they couldn’t continue, spoke broken English with a thick accent, and wore the papakha, a traditional sheepskin headgear — was an exotic, almost-caricaturish figure to the largely American UFC audience.


In 2017, Abdulmanap was denied a visa to corner his son’s bouts in Las Vegas, coincidentally a month after US President Donald Trump issued a travel ban on citizens of seven countries with predominantly Muslim population. A year later, Nurmagomedov became UFC’s first Muslim champion and the papakhas flew off the shelves.

His immense faith and respect for his religion and family set him apart from the brash, gimmicky fighters. Conor McGregor found it out the hard way, when he offered Khabib a shot of whiskey, called his father “lick-ass O’Hoolihan” and “a quivering coward” for posing with pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, brought up the frosty relations between Dagestan and Chechenya and attacked Khabib’s confidants.

It was a promotional tactic by the Irish megastar, who admitted as much during a four-round stomping at the hands of Khabib. “It’s all business,” said a dishevelled McGregor at the end of a round. “Let’s go, talk now, chicken” repeated Khabib, before choking him out and jumping out of the cage and into McGregor’s entourage.

Was there any truth to what McGregor said? Sure. Khabib calls Ziyavudin Magomedov his “elder brother”. Magomedov, whose wealth is estimated at $1.2 billion, is a combat sports enthusiast currently in detention, charged with embezzling over 2 billion rubles, roughly $35 million, fraud, and the “organization of a criminal community.”

Since his win over McGregor, Khabib has also allegedly been used as a tool of geopolitical diplomacy by Kadyrov, who in 2017 launched what Human Rights Watch called an “anti-gay purge.” In his defence, Kadyrov told HBO: “We don’t have any gays. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”

For now, Khabib retires as the GOAT. There have been others with more title defences, more fights with tougher opponents. But there are no Ls in Khabib’s record, no asterisks of failed drug tests. Khabib was never knocked down, let alone knocked out. And never has anybody looked as dominant in the cage, or undeniably unique out of it.

Retirements are arbitrary in combat sports. Khabib’s nemesis McGregor has retired three times in four years. Khabib had also been angling for a super fight against retired hall-of-famer and Canadian phenom Georges St-Pierre. GSP announced his retirement in 2013 after defending the welterweight belt nine times. But an itch to compete brought him back in 2017, when he won the middleweight belt before vacating and retired again.

Maybe a similar itch would bring Khabib back. But if it doesn’t, Khabib calls time on his MMA career as a proud, unbeaten, albeit conflicting, champion.

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