Is Khabib Nurmagomedov retiring as the greatest MMA fighter of all time?

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·5-min read

It’s a question for which there is no answer. Is Khabib Nurmagomedov the greatest mixed martial arts fighter of all time?

Quite possibly, maybe even quite probably, he is.

Certainly, one could make a great case for him. He closed his illustrious career at 29-0 overall, 13-0 in the UFC, finishing Justin Gaethje in the second round after submitting Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor in the two fights before UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.

But one could also make a strong case for former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who is 26-1 in MMA and 20-1 in the UFC. Jones’ only loss was a mistake by the referee when he was disqualified.

Georges St-Pierre, who won the UFC’s welterweight and middleweight titles, deserves to be in that conversation, as well, as do Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko and Demetrious Johnson.

Trying to answer that question is like arguing whether Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth or Mike Trout is the greatest hitter who ever lived.

But Nurmagomedov is a guy who lived up to his late father’s legacy in every way, and almost all the time. Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, who died on July 3 at 57 years old of complications from COVID-19, raised his son to be the greatest fighter in the world. No one defeated him and no one ever was even close.

His grappling was legendary, perhaps better than any other MMA fighter who ever lived. But he wasn’t a one-trick wonder. He showed on Saturday against Gaethje, who was 22-2 with 19 knockouts and a submission in his career, that his hands are elite for an MMA fighter.

None of that shocked coach Javier Mendez, who told Yahoo Sports before the fight that Nurmagomedov’s hands were better than several boxers he’d coached. Nurmagomedov then went out and proved his coach right, standing toe-to-toe with the heavy-handed Gaethje and giving better than he got.

“If you watch his fights closely, you can see how good his hands are, but what throws people off on him is that he’s such a phenomenal grappler that they think that’s all he has,” Mendez said. “I’ve always said, the guy can strike. He can strike. If I had more time with him, my God, he’s still a newbie as far as what he’s learned. He has a lot of room to grow.”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 25:  Khabib Nurmagomedov of Russia walks to the Octagon prior to his lightweight title bout against Justin Gaethje during the UFC 254 event on October 25, 2020 on UFC Fight Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Undefeated UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov made his final walk to the Octagon on Saturday at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The only opponent that really made sense for him to fight was St-Pierre, and even that was a long shot. St-Pierre has fought once in the last seven years and none in the last three. His last fight was at middleweight.

What would a fight between them have proven? Had St-Pierre won, many would attribute it to the fact that he’s so much larger. Had Nurmagomedov won, he’d have beaten a guy who was 39 years old and hadn’t fought in more than three years.

Other than money, there is no upside there.

And if there is one thing that’s true about Khabib Nurmagomedov, it’s that he’s not motivated by money. From the time he was a young boy in Dagestan wrestling a bear until Saturday in Abu Dhabi when he was fighting a bear of a man, Nurmagomedov was focused on nothing more but being the best version of himself he could be.

He was blessed with physical skills that few others get, but he also got where he was via the sweat of his brow.

He was dedicated to taking the biggest fights. He once called Yahoo Sports to urge a reporter to put the heat on Eddie Alvarez to fight him. He made multiple attempts to fight Tony Ferguson in one of the saddest sagas in MMA. They would have made a memorable bout, but five times they signed and five times the bout was scuttled.

The only blight on his record came after he submitted McGregor in a one-sided beatdown in their 2018 title fight. McGregor had taunted him mercilessly before the fight, and in very personal ways.

After the fight, McGregor cornerman Dillon Danis, who hasn’t accomplished a hundredth in this sport of what Nurmagomedov has, taunted him. Danis is one of those guys who is much better at taunting than fighting.

His words grated on Nurmagomedov, who fired his mouthpiece and leaped over the cage to get at Danis. No one who knew what had occurred in the previous several months could blame Nurmagomedov, but he created a public safety risk by launching himself over the cage.

He said dryly after “my father going to smash me,” when he saw him next.

But beyond that one moment, Nurmagomedov was a model. He fought everyone who mattered and he won going away nearly all of the time.

Is he the greatest ever? I think he is. White told Yahoo Sports he thinks Nurmagomedov “probably is” the best ever. And though he’s biased, Mendez feels that way, too.

But it doesn’t matter much because it’s only an opinion and there are many of them out there.

What matters is that Nurmagomedov left a legacy for others to follow. He came in shape. He fought hard. He was respectful. He improved from fight to fight. And he helped sell both his fights and the sport.

MMA is going to be lesser for having lost him. But when one transcendent star departs, another arrives behind him. After Muhammad Ali, there was Sugar Ray Leonard. After Sugar Ray Leonard, there was Mike Tyson.

The cycle continues.

There will be other great fighters to come, perhaps one even greater than Nurmagomedov.

We await the day that we can see that type of greatness yet again. Until then, we’re going to remember Khabib Abdulmanapovich Nurmagomedov as one of those rare, once-in-a-generation talents who make watching sports so much fun.

There’s few like him and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

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