To retire from professional mixed martial arts at the very highest level with an unblemished record these days is largely unheard of. The old adage tells, “nobody’s perfect“, “the bigger they are, the harder they’ll fall“. Neither of these antique statements can be applied to Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov.
Taking flight for the final time as a professional mixed martial artist, the unrivalled Khabib knocked back arguably the sternest challenge on paper to his lightweight kingdom in the form of Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje – in undoubtedly the most poised, dominating, and downright composed performance in the former’s thirteen-fight Octagon stint.
Battling with the unfortunate passing of his father, renowned Sambo coach, Abdulmanap earlier this year, Khabib admirably chose to follow through with ‘father’s plan’: retire from the sport as the undisputed lightweight champion, undefeated.
As pointed out by UFC president, Dana White – there was a certain feeling in the air ahead of this one. Khabib may have entered as a betting favourite, but his route to last night’s UFC 254 headliner with Gaethje would either ultimately break him, or as displayed with the latter – it was business as usual come the locking of the Octagon door.
Elevation Fight Team mainstay, Gaethje had risen through the lightweight ranks after a couple of knockout losses, and was largely presented as the most intriguing challenger to Khabib’s unbeaten record – even more so than both Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor.
An accomplished amateur wrestler with some of the most damaging boxing in the history of not only the lightweight division but in the sport as a whole, Gaethje had laid devastating waste to James Vick, Edson Barboza, Donald Cerrone, and shockingly, Tony Ferguson on his way to last night’s Abu Dhabi main event.
From the opening exchanges over the first couple of minutes, however, it was clear for both the avid spectator and the newcomer that Gaethje was struggling with the smothering pressure of Khabib on the feet.
Gaethje should’ve really presented a much more skilled, technical, and overall, dangerous package on the feet when compared to Khabib – but as pointed out by former WEC featherweight best, Urijah Faber between rounds, the Trevor Wittman trainee was over-reactive and biting on almost every single feint from Khabib, for obvious fear of the ever-present takedown.
Detailing himself how an extended period with his backside to the fence would spell the end to his hopes of unifying the lightweight crowns sooner rather than later, Gaethje managed to fire off a number of notable leg kicks, which undeniably took some toll on Khabib.
An interesting aspect of the matchup was Khabib’s overall aggressive search of a submission finish. As we’ve seen in dominant wins over Michael Johnson, and both McGregor and Poirier – it was largely, ‘position over submission’ for the Dagestani who never really forced the issue of a finish, but rather cooley scored both points and damage from guard, side control, and even half guard before eventually locking up stoppage wins. Against Gaethje, however, that wasn’t the case.
We only saw two real scrambles on the ground between Khabib and Gaethje, and on both occasions, the former threatened with submissions on cue. Prior to the end of the first-round, Khabib attempted to score a late armbar. In the run-up to his second-round finish, Khabib immediately attempted to score a mounted triangle, where in the past, he may have postured and laid down offence that way. Even on his back, Khabib flirted with another armbar, before fetching a triangle from the bottom, ultimately choking Gaethje unconscious as predicted pre-fight.
Past interviews and rumblings would seem to suggest Khabib always had ideas of hanging up his gloves at 30-0, but given the circumstances surrounding this fight, and a promise made to his mother, his decision to call time on his career at 29-0 is not only admirable and understandable – but completely deserved. A man of great principle, this latest retirement is one we can likely bet is followed through on.
Whilst great discussion will be had for years to come on a truly breathtaking, Hall of Fame-worthy career, as well as where he’ll be placed on your Greatest Of All Time pile, one cannot deny the dominant fashion in which Khabib knocked back the trio of McGregor, Poirier, and now Gaethje to not only cap off a spectacular professional career – but also the ultimate fulfilment of the sole goal: Father’s Plan.