TODAY'S PAPER
56° Good Morning
56° Good Morning
SportsColumnistsMark La Monica

Khabib Nurmagomedov exits mixed martial arts as an undisputed all-time great with no true rival

Khabib Nurmagomedov prepares to face Al Iaquinta for

Khabib Nurmagomedov prepares to face Al Iaquinta for the lightweight title at UFC 223 in Brooklyn's Barclays Center on April 7, 2018. Credit: Mario Gonzalez

Khabib Nurmagomedov walks alone, undefeated and undisputed.

Many mixed martial arts fighters speak about going undefeated for their career. No one ever did it. Until Saturday. That’s when Nurmagomedov capped off his 29th victory in as many opportunities, submitting Justin Gaethje in the second round at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi.

And with that win, a technical submission via triangle choke against the interim lightweight champion, Nurmagomedov let his emotions go. Kneeling on the canvas, he wept for his father, taken from him by the coronavirus at age 57, the man who raised him, coached him, shaped him.

This was his first fight since his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, died in July. And now, his last. Nurmagomedov put down his gloves in the center of octagon, the sign of his retiring from the sport.

"This was my last fight. No way am I going to come here without my father," Nurmagomedov said. "It was first time, after what happened with my father, when UFC called me about Justin. I talk with my mother three days, she don’t want that I go fight without father. I promised her, it’s going to be my last fight, and if I give my word, I have to follow this. It was my last fight here."

The numbers attached to Nurmagomedov are staggering, even more so when coming directly from the 32-year-old Russian.

"I know only one thing I want from UFC, you guys have to [rank] me No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, because I deserve this," Nurmagomedov said. "UFC undisputed, undefeated lightweight champion, 13-0, 13 in UFC, 29 in all pro MMA career. I think I deserve it."

Nurmagomedov belongs in that conversation, as well as the ones about dominant champions and the one about the greatest of all time. His name sits alongside Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson and perhaps a couple others. What order you place them in depends on which criteria you choose to emphasize more.

But Nurmagomedov left out one significant number of his, one that enhances his dominance and strengthens his grip on the history books. In 38 rounds across 13 UFC fights over eight years, he lost a total of one round on judges’ scorecards. One. It was the third round against Conor McGregor at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, 2018. That round was preceded by a 10-8 round for Nurmagomedov and proceeded a submission victory.

In his retirement, Nurmagomedov leaves no true rival, just a bunch of dudes clamoring for a second opportunity at the champion while largely ignoring or trying to rewrite the first mauling they received at the hands of a man who wrestled with bears as a boy growing up in Dagestan. (And, of course, Tony Ferguson, against whom Nurmagomedov was paired five separate times, with all five never materializing because of weight-cut issues, injuries, or a life-altering pandemic.)

We are conditioned to never quite believe an athlete right when they retire, especially at age 32 and in the prime of his career. Michael Jordan, Brett Favre and Floyd Mayweather taught us that. Even McGregor has announced his retirement on multiple occasions. He is supposed to fight Dustin Poirier in January. Nurmagomedov's retirement feels completely believable.

A certain sadness came with Nurmagomedov’s retirement announcement Saturday night beyond the subtext of his father’s passing. The lack of fans in the Flash Forum on "Fight Island" in Abu Dhabi left Nurmagomedov without the adulation of thousands of fans in the arena there to cheer on the hero, to send him off into the night air as the triumphant gladiator. That type of love cannot be artificially pumped into an arena or a broadcast.

Such love emanated through social media, as almost every fighter who ever took a photo with "The Eagle" posted it on Instagram or Twitter and followed it with kind and congratulatory words.

Even McGregor, Nurmagomedov’s biggest nemesis, found positive words. "Good performance @TeamKhabib," the former UFC lightweight champion wrote on Twitter. "I will carry on. Respect and condolences on your father again also. To you and family. Yours sincerely, The McGregors."

Jones even relinquinshed his spot atop the pound-for-pound throne for a few moments before taking it back on Twitter.

"Until I take that heavy crown, I grant you the spot," Jones tweeted. "Enjoy Champ."

In many ways, Nurmagomedov’s departure feels sudden, like he just walked in the front door of the grand ballroom on New Year's Eve, grabbed a few hors d’ouevres, glad-handed a couple of dignitaries then slipped out the backdoor before midnight.

Nurmagomedov became the champion in April 2018, when he beat Wantagh’s Al Iaquinta in Brooklyn. In the two-plus years since, he defended the belt three times, submitting McGregor, Poirier and Gaethje. He reached true superstar status with the win over McGregor in October 2018.

He was greatness, dominance and humility rolled into one Russian mauling machine. He made no mistakes, not in the cage, not out of the cage. (OK, maybe one over the cage when he incited that melee at UFC 229 by leaping over the octagon and attacking McGregor’s cornerman Dillon Danis.)

The man never needed a Plan B. Opponents never got the chance to move him off Plan A. In mixed martial arts, where every fighter is one strike away from losing, Nurmagomedov's perfection may never be equaled.

He did what he wanted, when he wanted, how he wanted. And, on Saturday night against a man many figured was the toughest obstacle he had faced, Nurmagomedov ran through him … with a broken foot.

"What this guy’s been through – we’re all lucky that we got to see him fight tonight," UFC president Dana White said. "Apparently he was in the hospital – he broke his foot three weeks ago. So he has two broken toes and a bone that was broken in his foot. [He] never told anybody walking around. He is one of the toughest human beings on the planet and he is the No.1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Seriously, you have to start putting him up there in GOAT status."

When you get to witness greatness unfold in front of you, put your phones down, delay for debates and appreciate what lies before you.

As Nurmagomedov said Saturday, and as he learned from his summer of sadness, "You never know what is going to happen tomorrow, you never know."

Fly, "Eagle," fly.

New York Sports