TNT Sports Reload - Episode 11Sep 26
The Dagestani superstar produced one of the greatest performances of his career en route to submitting 'The Highlight' via triangle choke at the Flash Forum, Abu Dhabi.
But analysis of his masterful display will take a back seat in the coming days as the sport digests the loss of its pound-for-pound king in unexpected fashion.
It comes just months after Khabib mourned the loss of his father, who played an instrumental role not only in his personal life but also guiding his professional career through the world of mixed martial arts.
The main event versus Gaethje was the first time Khabib has competed since Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, 57, passed away after heart complications relating to the coronavirus.
The weight of events clearly hit Khabib in the moments after the fight finished as the 32-year-old collapsed against the canvas broken with emotion and sobbed uncontrollably for a number of minutes while his team consoled him.
If I give my word, I have to follow this
“This was my last fight," he told UFC host Jon Anik.
“After what happened with my father, when the UFC called me about Justin, I called my mother. She didn’t want me to fight without my father but I promised her it’s going to be my last fight. If I give my word, I have to follow this.
“It was my last fight, I know this. 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.”
It would be tough to dispute the outgoing king's comments on the back of his performance.
After a cagey few minutes, the fight burst into life halfway through the first round as Khabib flicked the killer switch and began to bear down on a fleet-footed Gaethje.
Open Mat: UFC 254 post-fight breakdown
Dan Hardy, Nick Peet and Adam Catterall breakdown the incredible UFC 254 card in full, including Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Justin Gaethje and Robert Whittaker vs Jared Cannonier.
The American, who repeatedly spoke of his determination to keep his back off the cage for fear of playing into Khabib's hands, opted to take evasive action for the majority of the round and was breathing heavily as the fight ticked into the fourth minute.
And his worst fears were almost realised in the closing moments of the opening round as Khabib hit him with a level change timed to perfection, shooting a double leg takedown that flattened Gaethje against the cage.
Locking Gaethje's legs together in trademark style as he searched for the Dagestani handcuffs, the champ found an opening to clamber into an armbar attempt that might have caused problems were Gaethje not saved by the bell moments later.
The early stages of the second round looked to hold more promise for Gaethje as he took on board the advice from his corner to slow the pace down.
He caught Khabib with a handful of clipping blows, softening up the Russian's lead leg with chopping kicks but the decisive moment arrived barely halfway through the round when the champion took advantage of an untidy scramble on the mat to take the challenger's back in a flash.
It looked as though Khabib would try for the same submission that he closed the opening round with as he went hunting for a stray arm before transitioning beautifully into a triangle choke that left Gaethje no escape.
Gaethje's subsequent taps somehow went unseen by the referee before the choke rendered him completely unconscious as Khabib finally released him from his vice-like grip.
It capped a virtually flawless performance against one of the lightweight division's most improved, relentless and dangerous operators.
Khabib Nurmagomedov will miss the UFC - but there is no doubt the sport will miss him more.
Elsewhere, in the co-main event Robert Whittaker looked to put himself in prime position for a middleweight title rematch against Israel Adesanya as he saw off the dangerous Jared Cannonier via the scorecards.
Cannonier started the fight the better of the two as he immediately floored the former 185lb king with a powerful leg kick that signalled his intent for the rest of the fight.
Chewing up the outside of Whittaker's lead leg, Cannonier looked to put the brakes on his rival's darting movements in and out of range - but the Aussie gradually began to find his range as the fight moved into the second round.
Cannonier's eye was left swollen midway through the second as Whittaker continued to fire his unorthodox jab from the hip up through the Killa Gorilla's guard.
Coming into the fight promised the next title shot with a win over Whittaker, Cannonier did not lack for desire throughout the contest but looked short of ideas shy of the leg kicks he continued to throw.
In the third round, the 36-year-old was badly rattled when Whittaker slapped him with a dizzying headkick that was partially blocked but still discombobulated the Texan, who somehow survived a perilous onslaught of ground-and-pound in the aftermath.
It almost sparked a stunning revival in the closing moments as he briefly stunned a fatigued Whittaker with a ramrod jab but The Reaper held out to pick up another impressive win.
On the rest of the UFC 254 main card, there were wins for birthday boy Alexander Volkov and Lauren Murphy while Magomed Ankalaev clobbered arch rival Ion Cutelaba to settle their feud in conclusive style.
But the knockout of the night went to UFC newcomer Phil Hawes, who needed just 18 seconds to part Jacob Malkoun with his thoughts in one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory.
London's Nathaniel Wood lost a Fight of the Night bonus winner against Casey Kenney on the preliminary card, which was headlined by Tai Tuivasa's return to winning ways as he stopped Stefan Struve in the first round.