Khabib Nurmagomedov retires – Is The Eagle the greatest fighter in UFC history?

Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his shock retirement from mixed martial arts in the aftermath of the most impressive performance of his career against Justin Gaethje in the main event at UFC 254 on Saturday night. Should the Russian superstar be considered the best the sport has ever seen?

By George Mills Published: 26 October 2020 - 4.11pm

Perhaps the fight may have lasted longer had Justin Gaethje broken a promise made to himself on Saturday night not to let Khabib Nurmagomedov pin him to the fence.

It was in his over exuberance to stuff the champ’s takedown attempts that Khabib found an opening to take Gaethje’s back – but to suggest it the fight was lost entirely in this moment would be to ignore the most complete performance of ‘The Eagle’s’ career.

Gaethje, one of the lightweight division’s most feared strikers, had been fancied by many to cause an upset on Fight Island in dethroning the long-time king.

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But instead, ‘The Highlight’ was left diminished, doomed prey to the predatory might of the man before him as the cage appeared to shrink in size with every sideways step.

A late scare in the dying moments of the first round almost saw the contest come to close without Khabib breaking a sweat as he wrenched at an arm before Gaethje found mercy in the bell.

But barely a minute into the second round, Khabib’s slick grappling teed up the finish in masterful fashion as he took advantage of an explosive sprawl by the challenger to mount Gaethje’s back before ending up in full mount.

From an array of attacking weaponry, it was a triangle arm choke that the champ deployed to devastating effect as Gaethje was relieved of his consciousness in just seconds to end the contest in emphatic fashion.

It was Khabib’s third defence of the 155lb title – and, unexpectedly, his last.

Reduced to tears in the centre of the Octagon as his team consoled him, an emotional Khabib revealed a promise made to his mother that he would fight for the final time after losing his father, to Covid-19 earlier this year.

“You guys have to put me as the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world because I deserve this”
- Khabib

A legendary martial arts figure in his native Dagestan, Abdulmanap was much more than just a father to Khabib; the 57-year-old was his mentor, coach and best friend.

“It was my last fight, I know this,” Khabib told UFC host Jon Anik after laying his gloves on the canvas.

“There’s only one thing I want from the UFC. You guys have to put me as the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world because I deserve this.

“Undisputed UFC lightweight champion. 13-0 in UFC. 29-0 in my pro MMA career. I deserve this.”

Having witnessed a performance as close to perfect as is possible in the chaos of MMA competition, few could find reason to disagree with Khabib’s request.

UFC boss Dana White certainly appeared to endorse the champ for that very title as he sat down with reporters in the aftermath of the evening’s events.

“What a night. Wow. He is the baddest motherf***** on the planet,” White said.

“The pressure that Khabib puts on you is unbelievable. Literally did not respect [Gaethje’s] punching power, just walked right into everything.

“Then he goes for that submission, locks him up, and gets it. Unbelievable.”

2/60
Rounds lost during Khabib's MMA career

But could Khabib’s claim to greatness transcend simply those active fighters around him on the pound-for-pound list? Should the 32-year-old be considered the greatest fighter of all time?

A quick look at the statistics seems to bolster his credentials in that conversation too.

Unbeaten through 29 fights across his professional MMA career, including 13 in the UFC, Khabib has lost only 2 of the 60 rounds he has competed in – one of which was generously scored to Gaethje during the opening frame at UFC 254 on Saturday night.

He has never been knocked down, never been cut and never really even come close to losing.

Of those names who could be considered Khabib’s contemporaries in the conversation for the greatest of all time, some could claim to possess a superior record but none could match the manner in which the Russian has come to rule his division.

“I definitely think he’s in the top three,” Khabib’s long-time coach Javier Mendez told Submission Radio this week.

“The fact of the matter is the dominance of his performances… compared to some the other ones like Anderson [Silva], Georges Saint-Pierre and Jon Jones. They might have more longevity in terms of title defences and title fights but I don’t think there has ever been a more dominant fighter in the history of the sport. I really don’t. 

“I really can’t think of a fighter who has been more dominant”
- Javier Mendez

“Show me on video if you think I’m wrong. I really can’t think of a fighter who has been more dominant. Everybody knows who the clear cut winner is. I’ve never seen it.”

Former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones gave his thoughts on the matter in typically combative fashion this weekend, writing on Twitter: “[I’ve won] 15 world titles, numbers don’t lie.

“Definitely a powerful moment [Khabib’s win], but my logic is definitely not clouded. I’ve won 15 world titles, he just won his 4th. The fact that this is even a conversation is mine blowing to me.

“When I signed with UFC I was one of the youngest fighters on the roster, youngest champion in the history of the sport and have only had three competitive fights.

“I understand most people have never been number one in their community, state, let alone the world. My competitive nature won’t allow me to just stand by and see someone ask to be considered the best. I’ve sacrificed too much blood.

“I mean if I get out ranked by a man with only three title defences, I don’t really know what to think anymore. Over 50% of my career has been title fights. LeBron James is allowed to win a game by one point but not Jon Jones. Man I have really spoiled you guys.”

Speaking to ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, former two-weight champion Georges St-Pierre gave a markedly different response when asked where Khabib ranked among the best ever.

“There are many guys that have been the greatest fighter of all time,” the Canadian answered philosophically.

“It is an impossible thing to be the greatest fighter of all time. We all have moments where we shine and share the greatest of all time. Khabib with his performance tonight was the greatest of all time.

“Anderson Silva, he knocked out Vitor Belfort. One of the greatest of all time. Jon Jones when he knocked out Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson was greatest of all time. [Israel] Adesanya when he beat Paulo Costa the last time was the greatest of all time. B. J. Penn had this moment when he beat Matt Hughes…”

“We all have a window where we are the greatest of all time…But it is just a fugazi. It will appear and then disappear in a second… Because that moment will never happen again. It’s a fugazi, and that is why I don’t believe in this debate. It’s a silly way to look at things in a way.”

As legacies continue to be forged while others are celebrated in memory, the debate is sure to rage on for years to come.

But whether Khabib is crowned the GOAT or not, MMA fans will forever remember the indelible mark The Eagle left upon the UFC.