UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has said goodbye to the sport of mixed martial arts after his submission win in the second round against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254. The emotional defense of his title and subsequent resignation comes after his father – who was also his longtime coach – died in July of COVID-19 complications.
Should he hold on to his weapons and hang up his gloves, Nurmagomedov would leave the sport with a perfect 29-0 record (eight knockout games and eleven submissions) while effectively clearing the lightweight division as the undisputed champion.
But is that enough to recognize "The Eagle" as the greatest mixed martial artist who ever lived?
Fictional sports lists like this are often discussed without a clear decision being made based on generational differences and a variety of other factors. Given that mixed martial arts are still relatively new, there isn't as great a gap between generations as there is in other sports. This also leaves plenty of room for movement as MMA evolves.
But at this moment it is fair to say that Khabib Nurmagomedov is standing on the top of the mountain.
And the case for him is strong.
At the center of the conversation are three other mixed martial artists: Jon Jones (26-1, one NC), Georges St-Pierre (26-2) and Fedor Emelianenko (39-6, one NC). Sorry, Anderson Silva, but you have just been pushed outside of this discussion.
The first thing that strikes you is that Nurmagomedov is undefeated. But that's not what drives him over the edge. It is the fact that the fighter from Dagestan won only by unanimous decision, submission or knockout. He has rarely lost a single round and subdued elite fighters.
While Jones' Reign of Terror was impressive, he's fought Dominick Reyes and Thiago Santos in the last few fights, and Alexander Gustafsson pushed him to his limits when they first met seven years ago. These are small in the grand scheme of things, but great when the hair is split in a goat debate.
Emelianenko has degenerated into a far less invincible version of "The Last Emperor" in the final third of his career, but before that, during his terrifying run through Pride, he was easily the most dominant heavyweight fighter in the history of the sport.
St-Pierre has a strong case for being the greatest given the scale of the opposition, his dominance and his two-division champion. But the knockout loss to perennial underdog Matt Serra in 2007 is a massive blemish in the debate over who the GOAT is.
Khabib's last act was mighty impressive. He may not have as many former champions under his belt as Jones, but he absolutely beat his peers on the road to undefeation. The argument against him is that his championship wasn't nearly as long as that of Jones, St-Pierre, Fedor or even Silva, but there is no debate about how dominant he was in his career.
What he did to Conor McGregor when the Irishman was at the top of his game put him in the spotlight, but the carnage he left along the way was just as impressive. With little resistance, he broke through Edson Barboza and Rafael dos Anjos while brutally beating Michael Johnson to declare himself the best lightweight in the world. Unfortunately, injuries delayed his coronation as a highly anticipated fight with Tony Ferguson never materialized.
Instead, Khabib McGregor, Dustin Poirier, and the man who brutally ended Ferguson's 12-fight winning streak, Justin Gaethje, brutally ended his title defense. Again, it's not who he hit, but how he hit her. These fights were never close. When Khabib decided to bring the fight into his universe with his world-class grappling and wrestling, his opponents had no chance.
What makes these victories even more incredible is the fact that he occasionally played with fire in them. With McGregor and Gaethje, Khabib played the flashy game until he got tired of it. He found success by knocking down the vaunted Irish striker in his 2018 megafight and standing head to toe with Gaethje for most of the first round at UFC 254. After Khabib finished playing, he suffocated both of them and submitted them.
"The eagle", who leaves at the height of his strength at 32, certainly strengthens his case. Both Emelianenko and Silva faded in the latter half of their careers and unfortunately, too long a fight has ramifications. The St-Pierre case is closed and will be debated for years to come, but his two losses and his escape from Johny Hendricks before his first retirement affected his résumé.
Jones still has an opportunity to reinforce his reasoning. Should he switch to heavyweight division and win the title, it will be difficult to deny him his place on the mountain. But the naysayers will single out his failed drug tests and antics outside the octagon, pointing out why he can't top Nurmagomedov.
No fighter was so extraordinarily dominant as Khabib. He really has nothing more to prove after decimating the lightweight division. There will be those wondering what could have been if he had decided to go welterweight and strive to win another world title. But it is understandable that he decided to retire after losing his best friend and coach in his father and promising his mother not to keep fighting.
The hardest part for any athlete to retire at the top of their game. But if anyone could, it is Khabib. And if that retirement continues, he will have built the résumé to assert his claim to be the greatest mixed martial artist on the planet.