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No One Could Beat Khabib Nurmagomedov—and Maybe No One Ever Will

The UFC’s undefeated legend delivered a stunning mic drop at UFC 254, capping arguably the greatest MMA career of all time

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you were searching for flaws in Khabib Nurmagomedov’s game, you might have found a few back in 2012 when he faced a comically jacked-up, pre-USADA Gleison Tibau in just his second UFC fight. Tibau was a specimen whose muscles had muscles, and Nurmagomedov—who was at least a dozen pounds lighter—simply could not take him down. He tried for three rounds and for three rounds was thwarted.

It wasn’t all that significant, but, looking back at Khabib’s legacy and one of the most dominant runs in UFC history, there was a piece of history in that fight that nobody paid attention to at the time. Midway through the second round, Tibau changed levels and took Nurmagomedov down. He surprised the young Khabib, caught him reeling backward, and powered him to the canvas. Nobody thought anything of it, mainly because within five seconds Khabib was back up and trying to drive Tibau through the fence links. Nurmagomedov would toil through until the end, and win by unanimous decision despite losing the takedown battle, 1-0.

Eight years later, that remains one of the only moments inside the cage when Nurmagomedov was ever vulnerable. Sure, technically he got taken down once by Abel Trujillo a couple of fights later, but that feat was easily overshadowed by the record 21 times Trujillo himself got planted into the canvas by the great Nurmagomedov. They called Khabib “The Eagle,” which would suggest a high-soaring, graceful predator. But he was always more like a bull, wired from an early age by his father to put his head down and batter the human form. He filled grown men with dread and doubt before ruthlessly sapping them of their will. When the cage door latched behind him it was as if his pupils would flood black, and whoever was standing in there with him knew what was coming.

With Khabib, the question was always whether they could stop him. And the answer was always a blunt no.

Through 13 UFC fights, Khabib took down his opponents 59 times, and was taken down himself just twice. He cracked open heads like he was curious to see what the hell his opponents were thinking. He dominated every fight and broke some of the toughest men in the sport. A Khabib fight was cruel to witness, in some ways, because it was the full exhibition of one man physically imposing his will on another. In 60 rounds of fighting, Khabib lost just two rounds on the scorecards—the third round against Conor McGregor at UFC 229, when he was catching his breath so that he could set up his finish in the fourth; and then in the first round on Saturday against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254, before he left zero doubt as to why he’s considered by many to be the sport’s greatest of all time.

Khabib finished Gaethje early in the second round with a brilliant triangle choke, which will serve as a final snapshot of just how cold, deliberate, and methodical he could be. Once the fight hit the floor, Nurmagomedov became the blood-dimmed tide people feared. He overwhelmed Gaethje, an expert wrestler himself, and forced him to tap (and tap, and tap) before the referee pried him loose of Nurmagomedov’s grip.

It was vintage Khabib. It was also the last time we’ll see him compete. Moments later, after breaking down and removing his gloves and placing them in the center of the octagon, Khabib shocked the fight world by calling it a career.

“Today I want to say this was my last fight,” he told UFC commentator Jon Anik. “No way I’m going to come here without my father. It was [the] first time after what happened with my father, when UFC called me about Justin. I [talked] with my mother three days [ago]. She doesn’t want me to go fight without my father but I promised her it was going to be my last fight. If I give my word, I have to follow this. It was my last fight here.”

The news caught everybody off guard. Heading into this weekend’s bout on Fight Island it was generally understood that the 32-year-old’s career was winding down, but most believed that if Khabib beat Gaethje there would be at least one more fight to get his record to a round 30-0. Whether it came against Conor McGregor or Georges St-Pierre was really the only question.

It was sad to see him pull the plug, not just because of the lost potential megafights, but because you knew he meant it. This wasn’t a ploy. Khabib has never been one to trifle with. If he says he is retiring, you believe him. He’s not like Floyd Mayweather, who lives in a state of semiretirement, or Conor McGregor, who retires every so often to leverage himself into a bigger payday. Khabib is a man of conviction.

In fact, the reason the McGregor-Nurmagomedov dynamic worked so well in the lead-up to their record-smashing UFC 229 fight was because they were such polar opposites. McGregor loved the fame and fortune that he found in the fight game. Khabib was a religious family man, devout in ways that are wholly difficult for most to grasp. Money was never the be-all and end-all for him, nor was the fame. In fact, he distrusted both.

As Nurmagomedov’s lightweight reign went on and he emerged as a reluctant star in the UFC, his already small circle of friends and family got even tighter. While everybody kept bringing up the mammoth rematch with Conor McGregor as a future showdown—a historic fight, a fight that would break pay-per-view records—he deadpanned that he wasn’t interested. You knew he wasn’t lying. His stoicism was not an act. He already beat McGregor, so what would he gain by proving it again? An unprecedented payday? That wasn’t enough for Khabib. There had to be a meaning to it.

Khabib’s principles are what made matchmaking so difficult for the UFC. He had his reasons for everything. As a Muslim, he didn’t fight during Ramadan. As a champion, he sought to fight the next best fighter, not the most marketable opponent. As a son, he didn’t fight without his father in his corner. He simply couldn’t.

Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap, was also his coach, his mentor, and his best friend. When he suddenly passed away from COVID-19 complications in July at 57 years old, anybody who had followed Khabib knew it would be a particularly cruel and devastating loss. Nobody was quite sure how it would affect him to go through a fight without his father. In beating Gaethje, he was able to use his dad’s memory as motivation. But going forward, he’d rather not do it again. Fighting and his father are too intertwined to separate.

Now that Khabib has nothing left to prove, all we can do is celebrate the career of the greatest lightweight fighter of all time, and arguably the greatest mixed martial artist ever. Some people will point out that Jon Jones’s résumé is stronger, or that St-Pierre won titles in two different weight classes and had nine successful title defenses as a welterweight. But nobody was as dominant as Khabib. Nobody.

It’s also worth remembering his evolution in the circus environment that is the UFC. He started as the sambo master with the long Russian name. It took years for fans and media members to pronounce his name correctly. The correct way was HA-beeb, with a slight loogie inflection, last name Nur-MAH-go-MAY-dov. Not Norma-GO-medov, as Mike Goldberg at first infamously called him. By the end, though, the name Khabib was enough. A single name. Just like with Chuck or Fedor.

The papakha hat he wore to the cage—at first thought to be in jest—will forever come to symbolize him as a humble warrior. His dry sense of humor offered a rare peek at his personality. He wasn’t exactly pleasant to be around, but he was a presence. He made people pay attention. The stories of his childhood made it clear why he was so stoic. He talked about wrestling a bear when he was a youngster in Russia, and soon thereafter footage surfaced of young Khabib shooting for a double leg on a bear.

He’ll also be remembered for how he carried himself as a fighter. How he said during a press conference, “If you want to find me, please, just send me location” when asked whether Conor McGregor’s antics were screwing with his head. How he said smeshed instead of smashed, coolly warning Dana White between rounds of a fight against Michael Johnson, “Be careful, I’m going to smesh your boy,” referring to McGregor. But that wasn’t even his best line from that fight. As he slammed hammerfists into Johnson’s head, he told his opponent, “You have to give up—I have to fight for the title, you know this, I deserve it.”

He was unparalleled, and his handling of the darkest chapter of his career—the McGregor fight—was a definitive glimpse of his character. From the point when McGregor and his droogies tried to throw a dolly at him through a bus window at UFC 223 (days before he beat Al Iaquinta for the title), to the post-UFC 229 melee, to when Nurmagomedov tried to talon-swipe McGregor’s training partner, Dillon Danis, after choking the Irishman out. There was an eerie seriousness to him, a cold that translated and made your hair stand up on your arms. What people realized beyond a shadow of doubt after his McGregor bout was this: You don’t fuck with Khabib. And if you do, you’ll pay.

Now, he takes that victory with him into the twilight, ultimately demonstrating his power by never giving McGregor another chance. Nurmagomedov’s shadow is forever cast over the Irishman’s legacy, which probably brings a wry smile to his face in quiet moments.

As a fan, you hate it that there were fights we never got to see. The Tony Ferguson fight that was booked five times and fell through five times will always sting. There was the GSP fight, which was ridiculously fun to contemplate, even if it was a little abstract in our imaginations. That’s gone, too. And then there was the McGregor rematch, which was more about money than competition, but nonetheless appealing.

Khabib leaves a void in the lightweight division, and an even bigger void in the UFC’s plans to make big fights in the immediate future. Every fighter has a shelf life, and most continue to battle well beyond their expiration dates. Khabib got out, and he did so on his own terms, without ever having so much as suffered a cut in a UFC fight. He went 29-0 and smeshed everybody who went against him. He stood up for what he believes, and left no doubt of his greatness. Whether he’s the greatest of all time is up for debate, but he embodied the thing that defines the distinction most. He was dominant. That much can’t be argued. And if there were any holes in his game, it speaks to his greatness that they were never exposed.