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The Greatest - UFC Champions: Khabib Nurmagomedov

There are a small handful of boxers who go their whole careers undefeated: Rocky Marciano, Joe Calzaghe, Floyd Mayweather.

In mixed martial arts, everyone receives a blot on their record at some point. 

Georges St-Pierre lost to Matt Hughes before the shock defeat to Matt Serra. Daniel Cormier lost to Jon Jones. Even Jones suffered a DQ loss to Matt Hamill. No matter how good you are, no one comes out of the other side of mixed martial arts unscathed.

With the exception of one: Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest UFC fighters of all time, the only real criticism anyone can level at Nurmagomedov is that he retired too soon, before he could build a legacy that could rival the likes of Jones, St-Pierre or Anderson Silva.

But it cannot be argued Nurmagomedov fought the best.

There were more fights out there for Nurmagomedov, and it really felt like he’d never lose. But when understanding the relationship he had with his father, it’s impossible to see how he could’ve continued. 

Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov – an accomplished fighter in his own right – kept his son Khabib on the straight and narrow throughout his childhood and adolescence, even with Khabib getting himself in frequent streets fights in his youth.

The longstanding hostilities between Russia and Chechnya found Dagestan caught in the middle in the late 90s, creating a potential breeding ground for religious fanaticism. The Dagestani government, in an attempt to combat that, encouraged parents to conscript their children into sporting endeavours.

Nevertheless, even in peacetime, Abdulmanap felt his children should always be prepared for battle, and trained them as such. Growing up in the foothills of the North Caucasus, a mountain range whose peak is around three times higher than that of Ben Nevis, gave Khabib the platform for unmatched cardio, which in turn provided the platform for his suffocating style of combat.

Around 2017, reports were circulated that, as a child, Khabib wrestled bears. It was a story that sounded too fantastical to be true, and little more than the exaggerating of an expert wrestler’s backstory. 

But it was true, and there was video to prove it. Three days on from his ninth birthday, Khabib really did wrestle a bear. 

And he could more than hold his own. We see footage of Khabib attempting single-leg and double-leg takedowns – techniques that would serve him well 15 years later when facing the decidedly easier prospect of professional MMA fighters.

Training under his father’s guidance, Khabib would become well versed in combat sambo, wrestling and judo and felt he had sufficient grounding to pursue mixed martial arts.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship was founded with the desire to establish the most effective style of fighting. An answer has never conclusively been found, which is what makes the sport so gripping. It’s also what spurred Khabib on to try out MMA.

A black belt in judo, father Abdulmanap was wary of Khabib trying out a new sport, but recognised it’s where his future lay.

Nurmagomedov built up a 9-0 record while fighting in local promotions, all the while competing at the Combat Sambo World Championships, winning gold in 2009 and 2010.

In his early career, Khabib was dominant, going 5-0, then 10-0, then 15-0. But lots of fighters amass seemingly impressive records in inferior promotions, only to find the Ultimate Fighting Championship a very different kettle of fish. Thomas Almeida was 17-0 before joining the UFC, where he went 5-5 and hung up the gloves.

By the end of 2011, Nurmagomedov was 16-0 and had earned a call-up to the UFC, as the promotion’s first-ever Russian fighter.

Nurmagomedov won his first three UFC bouts, not losing any of the seven rounds he fought in.

It set up a contest with Abel Trujillo, when a 24-year-old, baby-faced Nurmagomedov would set a UFC record.

Trujillo would take Nurmagomedov down early, yet it was Nurmagomedov who came out of the exchange on top. Like a spider, clinically wrapping itself around its prey, Khabib grabbed an arm of Trujillo to set up a submission attempt. 

Though it was Trujillo who secured the takedown, he became quickly desperate to get to his feet. Nurmagomedov was having none of it. With his hands superglued together around Trujillo’s waist, Khabib ragdolled his way around the Octagon. What started out as an MMA fight became more like a nature documentary, with Trujillo eventually granted the reprieve of the horn at the end of the round.

Trujillo remained vertical for the best part of a minute in the second round but it was soon more of the same. Nurmagomedov completely mauled Trujillo for three rounds. The previous record number of takedowns for a three-round fight was 13 – Nurmagomedov landed 21. Trujillo essentially gave up in the third round, making appeals to referee Mauro Yamasaki for separation. 

By the end of 2013, Nurmagomedov was a top-10 lightweight and would face off against fellow top-10 lightweight Rafael dos Anjos. Nurmagomedov again dominated, winning all three rounds, but would soon find his career derailed.  

An ACL injury kept Khabib out of action for the best part of a year, and upon his return, he’d tear the meniscus in the same knee, keeping him out even longer. A broken rib would then follow, making it almost two years to the day between his fight with Dos Anjos and his return against Darrell Horcher with Tony Ferguson pulling out at short notice.

Dos Anjos, not a year after his defeat to Nurmagomedov, would claim the lightweight title; Khabib would have to take the scenic route to glory.

Even accounting for his two years of ring rust, Nurmagomedov was as big a favourite as you’re likely to see in MMA, and the fight proved to be the perfect comeback. As he always did, Nurmagomedov overwhelmed his opponent, and the contest was stopped in the second round.

Nurmagomedov was expected to be fast-tracked to a title shot with Eddie Alvarez, but after winning the rematch against Nate Diaz, Conor McGregor was installed as the more lucrative challenger.

While McGregor would put on one of the most clinical striking displays the UFC had ever seen, Khabib had to fight on the prelims against Michael Johnson. Johnson was an impressive lightweight at the time with dangerous striking and good takedown defence; he even started the better, troubling Khabib in the stand-up, but Nurmagomedov then did to Johnson what he did to everyone – land a takedown, and beat his opponent up. 

Nurmagomedov’s fights were so often akin to a Grandmaster playing chess against a novice who thinks they’re playing draughts, and when you went down, you stayed down, like being pulled underwater by a great white, only to be allowed a breath of air at the last moment to keep things interesting. It was a slow, uncomfortable death for Khabib’s opponents with only the lucky few having the referee come to their rescue before their 15 minutes of pain was over.

Many fighters doing their talking outside of the Octagon, some do their talking in the Octagon, and Khabib was one of the latter – quite literally. There was a brief reprieve for Johnson in the third round despite being pinned against the fence. As it happened, it was actually Khabib pleading with him to quit and claiming he deserved to fight for the title. It wasn’t the last time Khabib would talk to an opponent in a fight…

After the fight, Khabib staked his claim for the title, pointing out the injustice of McGregor – who’d tapped to Diaz a few months ago – getting a shot at the crown over him.

While McGregor would win the title, he’d pursue a fight with Floyd Mayweather, further prolonging Khabib’s title ambitions.

Nurmagomedov would at least get an interim title shot, but the curse that hung over the Tony Ferguson v Khabib Nurmagomedov bout struck again, with Khabib having to pull out due to weight cut issues.

At the end of 2017, with McGregor sharing a ring with Mayweather, Nurmagomedov would take on Edson Barboza, winning by as big a margin as you can in a three-round fight. 

For the fourth (but still not yet final) time, a meeting between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov was cancelled, with Ferguson suffering a knee injury. The lightweight title had been vacated and was there for the taking for anyone who dared to agree to five rounds with Khabib. 

A number of fighters put their name forward but it was Al Iaquinta who eventually emerged.

Two judges gave Khabib two 10-8 rounds against Iaquinta, and the belt was finally around The Eagle’s waist.

It’s not overly cynical to suggest that McGregor might have been ducking Nurmagomedov. It took two years after he won the title to share the Octagon with the Russian, by which point the rivalry had reached fever pitch.

McGregor’s mental warfare, which may have been effective on Jose Aldo, did not have the desired effect on Khabib.

As internally furious as he may have been with McGregor, it remained internal – until 6th October 2018, at least.

The attacks, both personal and physical, ranging from Nurmagomedov’s family and religion to the infamous siege on the UFC bus had pushed Khabib past the point of no return. 

Despite the rivalry, there were actually similarities in McGregor and Diaz – perhaps more than the two would have cared to admit. Though one was more eloquent than the other, neither were afraid to speak their mind and both could capture audiences long before fight night.

McGregor only ever had one thing in mind and that was to sell the fight. If he could unsettle Khabib in the process, that was a bonus. Khabib had no interest in selling fights. He wasn’t motivated by money; he just wanted to fight the best and beat the best. 

With Khabib dismantling McGregor, who was being thoroughly outclassed, McGregor was heard offering some words to his opponent. The audio was never clear enough to confirm for certain, but the best guess seemed to be McGregor replying to Khabib, who’d asked why he wasn’t talking anymore, with: “it was only business” – the inference being that McGregor was pleading for mercy with an opponent who was unwilling to play McGregor’s pre-fight game.

Khabib was in no mood for mercy. The man whose striking was described as average by McGregor – an observation many would have agreed with – shocked everyone by knocking McGregor down in the second, and Khabib would win by submission in the fourth. 

Not a choke or an armbar, but a disfiguring face crank that wasn’t broken by McGregor tapping, but by referee Herb Dean’s intervention. Khabib had become possessed, consumed, by the idea of not just beating McGregor, but destroying him, reluctant to let go of McGregor even after the tap.

Once he’d done that, he set about the rest of McGregor’s team. The biggest UFC event in history had descended into total chaos, with fights breaking out between members of both teams. The atmosphere at the T-Mobile Arena had become so toxic, Dana White was concerned about handing Khabib his belt in the Octagon for safety reasons.

Once the dust had settled, Khabib issued an apology for his actions, but questioned why, after McGregor had talked about his religion, his country and his father, that people only asked why he’d jumped the cage. Khabib said that MMA was a ‘respect sport’ and not a ‘trash-talking sport’, and he didn’t want the game to be about who talked the most.

McGregor was born of the school of Muhammad Ali, who managed to turn race between two black boxers into a selling point for a fight throughout his rivalry with Joe Frazier. This concept was alien to Khabib.

A suspension incurred as a result of the UFC 229 fracas saw Dustin Poirier – who’d beaten Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez – out-point Max Holloway for the interim title.

What would prove to be Nurmagomedov’s penultimate fight saw yet another comprehensive victory, unifying the title with a third-round stoppage of Poirier.

In a total contrast of his previous fight, Nurmagomedov exchanged shirts with his opponent afterwards, with the pair agreeing to auction them off for charity.

For the fifth and final time, an arranged bout with Tony Ferguson – then on a 12-fight win streak – was cancelled with Nurmagomedov unable to travel due to Covid restrictions. It meant Ferguson would fight Justin Gaethje for the right to fight Nurmagomedov. Gaethje completely obliterated Ferguson, sparking the first of a six-fight losing streak in one of the toughest competitors the UFC had ever seen.

Khabib lost his father Abdulmanap in July 2020 and agreed to one final fight against Gaethje. He revealed that he’d spoken to his mother and given her his word that this would be his final fight. Although Gaethje would become the second man to take a round off Nurmagomedov (after McGregor), Nurmagomedov would win with a second-round submission, ending his career a perfect 29-0.

Upon his induction to the UFC Hall of Fame, Khabib spent part of his half-hour speech talking about his father and the lessons instilled in him. He even spoke about parenting advice he gave to friend and former team-mate Daniel Cormier. 

When finding out that Cormier had given his son a gold chain, Khabib couldn’t believe it, and told DC: “This is not about love. Make him hungry.” It drew laughs from the audience, but Khabib wasn’t joking. Nurmagomedov had to fight for everything in his life and those values came from his father and will be passed down to his children.

Throughout his career, there was also a refreshing honesty to Nurmagomedov. He meant what he said; there was no desire to sell fights by badmouthing opponents. He believed in the honour amongst mixed martial artists above everything else. But there was one man who could push him beyond that and it resulted in a nine-month suspension.

In Khabib’s era, the lightweight division was stacked with high quality fighters including Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje, all of whom Khabib defended his title against. 

It’s fair to believe that Nurmagomedov retired too early, and that with only three title defences, he can’t be considered amongst the UFC’s great champions: Silva, Jones, St-Pierre.

It’s also naïve to believe he could’ve fought forever without losing.

But having won all 29 of his fights and having won 57 of the 59 rounds he competed in, it’s also fair to wonder: who could have possibly beaten him?

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