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Nurmagomedov has strong claim to be the greatest

Russian mixed martial artist and UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (right) with his father and coach Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov at a news conference in 2018
Khabib Nurmagomedov became the UFC lightweight champion under the tutelage of his father Abdulmanap, who died in July following complications caused by coronavirus

UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has stunned the mixed martial arts world by announcing his immediate retirement from the sport.

The news came moments after Nurmagomedov had extended his perfect professional record to 29-0 with a second-round triangle-choke submission of interim champion Justin Gaethje at UFC 254.

The 32-year-old Russian had already been touted as the greatest MMA fighter of all time but his retirement immediately reignited the debate over where he ranks in the history of the sport.

Here, BBC Sport digs deeper into the conversation…

GOAT or not, Khabib leaves a lasting legacy

As a fighter who competed at the highest level of the sport, in arguably the most talent-filled weight class, his undefeated record has put him right in the middle of MMA’s ‘Greatest of All Time’ (GOAT) conversation, alongside fellow UFC legends Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson and Amanda Nunes.

Nurmagomedov’s three-fight title reign at lightweight may not match the lengthy championship tenures of some of his peers, but his sheer dominance of the cage, plus that zero in his loss column, means he’s undoubtedly in that elite group of fighters who can be considered the sport’s all-time greats.

But perhaps more important than his reputation as a great fighter and champion is the legacy Nurmagomedov leaves.

Together with his late father Abdulmanap, Nurmagomedov helped open the doors for Dagestani fighters to excel on the world stage, with the nation’s reputation for producing world-class amateur wrestlers now extending into the sport of mixed martial arts.

Nurmagomedov proved that Dagestani fighters can make it into the UFC and go all the way to the top, and a host of fighters are looking to follow in his footsteps.

It would be no surprise to see Nurmagomedov take up the mantle left by his father and become the figurehead and leader of his team as he helps develop and mentor the next generation of Dagestani fighters.

It may have been the last time we see him fighting in the octagon, but we may well see him in the corner for many years to come.

Respect from his peers

Heading into his fight with Gaethje, the topic of Nurmagomedov’s potential retirement was already being discussed, but most believed the Russian would look to take his career to 30-0 – and potentially compete in a superfight with Canadian UFC legend St-Pierre – before deciding to hang up his four-ounce gloves for good.

But that decision came one fight early as he revealed to the world that his win over Gaethe in Abu Dhabi would be his final appearance in the UFC.

Nurmagomedov’s retirement was met by tributes from fellow fighters.

Former two-division UFC champion – and Nurmagomedov’s team-mate – Cormier called his friend “the greatest champion in UFC history”, while former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt agreed, calling him, “the best to ever do it”.

Some of the sport’s other all-time greats weighed in with their tributes, with former light-heavyweight champion Jones tweeting: “I want to congratulate Khabib for an outstanding career. I know he made his father along with millions of fans around the world incredibly proud today.”

Former two-division champion St-Pierre congratulated Nurmagomedov for “a perfect career”.

A spectacular career

The reason for the tributes is simple. In a sport where there are so many ways to win and lose, undefeated records are incredibly rare. And in the UFC, where the best fight the best, they’re even rarer.

Fighters often arrive in the UFC with unblemished records, and eventually leave with a host of losses to their name. But Nurmagomedov is a notable exception. His 29-0 record includes 13 straight victories under the UFC banner.

The manner of his victories plays a part in his legacy. He didn’t just win fights – he dominated them.

His high-pressure approach and ability to neutralise anyone by taking them off their feet and dominating them on the ground was unmatched.

He fought against all styles. From powerful strikers to decorated wrestlers, from knockout artists to submission specialists, Nurmagomedov beat them all.

His rise to the top eventually saw him fight for the UFC lightweight title at UFC 223, where he defeated late replacement Al Iaquinta by landslide unanimous decision to capture the title in Brooklyn, New York.

He went on to defend it three times, against Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and, most recently, Gaethje. He submitted all three as he cemented his place as the most dominant lightweight champion in UFC history.

Why retire now?

With the world at his feet and his record still intact, the opportunities were undoubtedly there for Nurmagomedov to make an incredible amount of money by continuing.

A rematch with McGregor would have been the biggest fight in the sport, while his dream fight against retired St-Pierre was one that both men were keen on, but never came to fruition.

Nurmagomedov’s reason for retiring went far beyond sport and money.

His father, coach and mentor Abdulmanap – a father figure not just to Nurmagomedov, but to the sport of MMA in his native Dagestan – died in the summer following complications arising from Covid-19, and his mother told Khabib she didn’t want him to fight again.

Nurmagomedov then made a promise that his fight against Gaethje would be his last.

“She didn’t want me to fight without father, but I promised her it was going to be my last fight,” he explained.

“If I give my word, I have to follow this. It was my last fight here.”

Quite often, fighters will go back on their retirement announcements and return to the cage, and some have used retirement announcements to gain leverage to get the fight, or contract, they want. But this felt different.

This was a fighter who went out at the very top, on his terms, and had made a promise to his family after the most tragic episode in their lives. While other retirement announcements are sometimes treated with suspicion, this one certainly seems genuine.

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