Blogger’s Note: It’s been an emotional few days in MMA land hence why this took until Wednesday to get up. Lots to process.
Khabib Nurmagomedov was as close to his father as anyone could be.
Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov did more than raise his son. He mentored him. He coached him. In how to live his life. In the sports of judo, wrestling, and sambo, the latter of which Khabib became a recognized International Master of Sport, in both its combat and non-combat forms.
To see his son become a champion in MMA was Abdulmanap’s dream. A dream shared by a young Khabib, not just for himself, but for his father who he revered immeasurably.
Khabib’s MMA journey took him from Dagestan, a mountainous area of Russia on the Caspian Sea, to Northern California, where he linked up with the American Kickboxing Academy, its head ocach Javier Mendez, and a slew of world class training partners. Khabib brought friends. His crew included fighters from Dagestan and Chechnya, including fellow Abdulmanap pupils such as Islam Makhachev. Over the years someone within the AKA camp could not be asked about the elder Nurmagomedov without espousing a rare reverence, a respect that was palpable in each syllable of the response.
There was a hiccup in Khabib’s jet setting journey. His normal schedule/process would be to live back home in Dagestan and come back to the west coast for training camps, which lasted for a few months before every fight. However, visa issues hounded Abdulmanap, “Father,” as Khabib always called him, and he was unable to coach his son under the AKA roof or attend his fights in Vegas or elsewhere in the United States. It had to of sucked for his son, to put it plainly.
But as we all know, that was pretty much the only thing going wrong for Khabib. He was wrecking shop in the 155 pound division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He was going through Lightweights like a great white in a koi pond. His style of dogged chain wrestling and impeccable ground technique led opponents to reflect that they felt like they were “drowning” under his pressure. They felt. Like they were actually drowning. Consider that for a moment.
It became hard indeed for “The Eagle” to even get a fight. Why would a top-10 fighter risk taking a fight against a seemingly emotionless Russian wrestler destined to grind him into dust on the ground, ending in a hail of Khabib’s patented vicious ground and pound or submission? Why would anyone want to risk their standing in the division against an opponent who was still unknown outside of MMA circles because he had just begun to grasp speaking English, an ugly necessity to finding superstardom in the West, and who would not just beat them, but expose them. Expose them as not as up to snuff in their chosen craft as a professional. Expose them as simply not as good as they had been considered before the 15 or less minutes spent in the cage with Khabib.
Eventually though, the UFC could deny him no more. Under his father’s tutelage back home and under the watchful eye of Mendez in California, he had simply become too good, no, too dominant to ignore. He had even developed a bit of a sense of humor on the mic he had developed a persona of sorts. It was subtle. He was still his surly, stoic, Eastern Bloc self. Yet in a, dare I say, Pedro Martinez-esque way, he seemed to grasp that people were enamored with the Russian-accented deadpans he answered questions with. He called topics he felt scorn for “#1 bullshit.” Khabib finding his self-awareness out of the cage will always be his second greatest accomplishment, professionally at least.
His coming out party came against long-time Lightweight contender Michael Johnson. Although 1-2 in his last three fights, “The Menace” had just knocked out young stud Dustin Poirier (remember that name) in his last fight and was known to have lightning fast hands, as well as a decent junior college wrestling background to boot, regardless of how little he used it. Khabib destroyed him. Despite taking what looked like a couple of good pops from Johnson early on he proceeded to do what he did to just about every other opponent he faced: he got a hold of Johnson, tore him to the ground, and mauled him. One of the top nightmare fuel moments in maybe all of sports is the video, and for some of us, the memory, of Khabib pounding on Johnson while on top of him, pleading with his foe to quit.
“You have to give up, I need to fight for the title. You know this, I deserve this. Out of everybody I deserve this. Hey! I need to fight for the title.”
He was beating the ever loving shit out of a man he wanted to show mercy to. A man who he himself was a vaunted, professional hand-to-hand combatant. But Khabib wasn’t going to let that soft spot in his heart get in the way of his and his father’s destiny.
After the Johnson fight, Khabib polished off another constant in the top ranks at 155lbs, Edson Barboza, to earn a shot at the belt in April of 2018 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. The interim belt was held by Tony Ferguson, a man Khabib always seemed destined to fight and would be matched up with FIVE FUCKING TIMES. Ferguson got hurt either, depending on which story you believe, kicking a light pole or tripping over some wires and was pulled less than a week before the fight. And the regular, non-interim belt? Conor McGregor beat Eddie Alvarez for the regular belt in 2016 but was off somewhere doing blow or pouring whiskey off a hooker’s ass or both, all after trying to throw a dolly at his new chosen nemesis, Nurmagomedoc, threw a bus window. Fun stuff. Either way he wasn’t around, and after Ferguson dropped out, Khabib would be matched up on short notice with Max Holloway, who almost died from a short notice weight cut. Finally, local boy Al Iaquinta stepped in and took a five round beating. Khabib notably kept the fight standing for most of the 25 minutes to show off his hands a bit more and was now the champ. He and his father’s mission was complete, almost.
The Eagle was now 26-0 and the king of his hill. He had always been honest in the past about not wanting to fight forever. He wanted not for money, possessions, or fame. He wanted to be a champion, to be the best at what he did, solidify that position, and walk away. A lot of athletes, particularly in combat sports, have taken this posture over the years. But Khabib meant it, and we knew it. But when would he leave? When he was 30 years old seemed like a good time and was mentioned a few times over the years. However, as of winning the belt he was only six months shy of that mark so it was unlikely if not no longer feasible – he had a little more work to do. Eventually, Abdulmanap and Khabib settled on 30-0. A nice round number to walk away at. So who would the last four victims be?
First there was McGregor, who by this time had become both an international superstar and an international menace to the public. There were rumors of coke and hooker sprees in Dublin. There was the attack on the bus at the Barclays. It was a shitshow. As a matter of fact, at that point the only thing it seemed Conor could concentrate on was his disdain for Khabib, his way of life, his religion, and his general existence. By the time the cage door shut behind them in October 2018, I was surprised they could be kept apart for the introductions. Khabib throttled McGregor. Sure, he lost the third round, only one of two he’s ever conceded in his career. But it’s been confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt since that the champ took the third off to get ready for the fourth, when he forced McGregor to tap to a neck crank and then leaped over the cage to attack the rest of the Irishman’s disrespectful posse. He and members of his team would be suspended for that ugly incident, one of the only times we’d see his emotions get the best of him. 27-0.
Next was Dustin Poirier, an all around good story and good guy. He had taken losses at 145 and 155 lbs, including the aforementioned to Michael Johnson and kept climbing, kept fighting. He was now back, a black belt in BJJ with quick, hard hands, ready to earn what he had worked so hard for. Khabib, a lifelong devout Muslim like most in Dagestan, was given the opportunity to defend his belt in Abu Dhabi, a city that built an arena just for their brother in Islam. Even better, Abdulmanap could attend, and even corner, his son for the first time since he entered the UFC. It was a special moment. In “behind the scenes” videos, you could see the love, respect, and admiration Khabib had for his father. You could even see the latter feelings coming from Javier Mendez, himself considered one of the best coaches in the game. Other than a brief, tight, guillotine attempt Poirier didn’t have much to offer Khabib, and wound up stuck on his knees against the fence in the third round, one less than McGregor when he found himself in the same position. The Eagle locked in a rear naked choke and made it to 28-0 by September of 2019.
He wanted to take some time off after the Poirier fight, and he had earned it. 2020 rolled around and Khabib was booked, for what would be the last time, against Ferguson. Then Covid hit. All hell broke loose. Sports of any kind shut down, including the UFC. Khabib, who had been at AKA for the Ferguson fight, went home, expecting to defend his belt at some point back in Abu Dhabi where the UFC was thought to be able to make friendly deals to put fights on, Covid be damned. Dana White, ever the expert scrambler, was able to get fights scheduled in Florida mere weeks after the pandemic hit, promising and delivering extra testing precautions and fighter isolation policies. He then secured the same set up for the UFC Apex, basically a training and exhibition facility, in Las Vegas. The Khabib-Ferguson fight date was drawing near. But Khabib was far, far away in Russia and couldn’t get back into the country. Left with no alternative and roster chock full of exciting talent that needed to fight and advance division, White and co. matched Ferguson up against Justin Gaethje, the most entertaining and by leaps and bound most violent man in the sport. Gaethje decided to become a chess master as well and outclassed Ferguson for almost the whole fight, beating the bag out of the outlandishly durable Ferguson before earning a standing TKO in the 5th. Khabib-Ferguson was not to be.
So Khabib-Gaethje was the fight to make. As a matter of fact, there was already talk of what would be Khabib’s 30th fight after he made Gaethje victim 29. McGregor again? Book a Ferguson fight anyway, as a swan song? Was this all irrelevant and this new, cerebral version of Justin Gaethje was finally the antidote to the scourge Khabib brought to the division? All these questions were asked and then withdrawn just as quick as tragedy struck. Abdulmanap, Khabib’s father, coach, and catalyst behind all his aspirations contracted Covid-19. There were rumors, off and on, about him recovering or doing better; He was brought to Moscow, where he presumably could receive better care, that befitting a man who was now a revered national sports hero. It just wasn’t enough. He died on July 3, 2020 at 57 years old. I remember the texts and social media posts on 4th of July weekend and feeling mournful, not just for a man I never met, but his son, a man my age who had lost a Dad he loved so dearly.
People wondered if Khabib would even fight again. They didn’t have to wonder long as the fight with Gaethje was booked for October 24th, this past Saturday, in Dubai. The UFC had turned a piece of the elaborately wealthy city into “Fight Island,” ostensibly for both another “bubble” to hold fights and for international fighters to have a place to ply their trade while travel restrictions remain in place. A grieving Khabib, meanwhile, held his whole camp in Dagestan and Dubai, never coming stateside. I believe Mendez and some team members arrived in Dubai maybe a month ago to aid in final preparations.
There was a heaviness to Khabib during fight week. While he has always been fairly stoic, he was clearly worn down. One could probably fairly infer he was grieving. What more could conjur memories of his father than fighting? Of talks of titles and glory and accomplishments? This was supposed to be his second to last walk. His second to last trip to the cage before he walked away at a perfect 30-0, just as he and “Father” had planned.
Leading up to the fights, pundits had their opinions. Gaethje’s power and accuracy would be an issue, but his lower leg kicks would be the huge problem. How would Khabib close distance and drive off his legs, a necessary physical part of wrestling, to get his opponent to the mat if those very legs were compromised? It was for sure a fair question. As the 24th neared however, it became clearer that Khabib was the favorite. He would do what was needed, no, what must be done, to beat Gaethje.
A different Khabib walked into that cage. His movement was a little different, he was not bouncing and moving his head in his patented, sort of controlled twitch as much as he normally did (partner and future reality show co-star Daniel Cormier does a fantastic impression of this) (Seriously those two need their own show). Instead he walked Gaethje down. He stalked the ultimate stalker. He threw straight punches, avoided or took Gaethje’s own hands, and ate those vaunted leg kicks. I can’t say for sure but the most violent man in the sport looked shook. Khabib ended the first round in mount and found the position again in the second. He proceeded to pull off a rare mounted triangle, which he later said he did so he did not have to use an arm bar and potentially hurt Gaethje in front of his parents, and won by technical submission in the second round. The ref never saw the tap and Gaethje went to sleep.
We’d seen anger from Khabib. We’d seen the aura of sadness in press conferences and interviews after his father died. We’d never seen the outpouring of emotion we saw next. He waved his teammates and corner away and, all alone, as alone as he probably felt without his father there, in the center of the octagon dropped to his knees, head in his hands, tears no longer held back behind his own iron curtain.
He eventually got up. And not to brag or seem any wiser than I am, I noticed, I saw what he was doing with his hands. And as he exhaled, loudly and hard, and began speaking to John Anik about the fight and how he was feeling, he finished taking off his gloves and confirmed mine and many other’s suspicions. That this was it. That he would could not fight without his father here. That his mother had asked him to not even take this one. But he got it done one last time anyway. No more though. The 30 was for his father, and his father was gone. The journey would end and The Eagle would fly away at 29-0.
Immediately, it was speculated if the retirement would stick. I think it does. I think the only way he comes back is if he fully grieves and one of two things happens. First is if something materializes with Georges St. Pierre, a kindred spirit stylistically, mentally, philosophically, and competitively. GSP has long said he’d only come back for Khabib. They intrigue each other. The GSP fight, should Abdulmanap not have passed away, probably would have been Khabib’s last fight. It would have cemented his legacy, which has always been his goal beyond anything else. The odds of this happening are slim. St Pierre will be 40 in May. Who knows what weight he’d want to cut to another year added to that (which I’m guessing Khabib would need). There’s too many pieces to put together. Add that to the fact that I don’t think either would ever call the other out, and the stand off alone makes this idea far fetched. The other possibility, one which I don’t think Khabib would admit to, is if Tony Ferguson becomes champion somehow, the decimation at the hands of Gaethje be damned, and Khabib finds the motivation to fight him. If Ferguson were to somehow reclimb the mountain and grab the belt, he’d undoubtedly call out Khabib. The Ferguson fight is one Khabib wanted for a long time. One he felt he needed to win to certify himself as the King of the 155 pound division. Would Ferguson holding the strap he laid down be enough for Nurmagomedov to come back? Maybe. But Ferguson is already 36 and faces an uphill battle in an absolute shark tank of a division. Either way, I just don’t see either scenario playing out.
Khabib wanted to be known as the greatest. In his weight class, pound for pound, overall, in all of MMA. Although he became rich in those pursuits, the material world never mattered to him. He wanted for himself what his father wanted. And now he’s fought and won 29 times against the greatest the world had to throw at him and his father is gone and he is done fighting. He doesn’t feel the need to compete to prove a point anymore. I really think he’s done.
So, is he the GOAT? That’s the question that has plagued twitter and MMA media for the past few days. He asked to be named the pound-for-pound #1 is his conversation with Anik post-fight. He needed that, I think, for closure, for peace of mind. To make up for the 30. The UFC granted his wish. He now, on their board, ranks above anyone else in the world regardless of weight-class. The highest level of mixed martial arts considers Khabib the best. Of all time? That gets tricky. GSP is usually the name I drop here. However he coasted to many a decision and took a couple of Ls, one each to Matt Serra and Matt Hughes, along the way. Anderson Silva is another fine candidate. However I think a PED pop should count you out and unfortunately Silva had one, albeit late in his career. Then there’s that other guy. One man who is often mentioned in that spot, Jon Jones, took to twitter and lambasted that concept. He still feels he is owed the GOAT title. He certainly has the accolades. However, I personally think how those wins are earned matters. Khabib dominated, plain and simple. There was never a moment, in any fight, where you wondered who the better fighter was (this is where someone mentions the Gleison Tibau fight and I roll my eyes. Khabib did what he had to against a roided up beast and still won. Get over it). Jones on the other hand has won his last two by contentious decision, one of which was of the split variety. He also had his legendary duel with Alexander Gustafsson in 2013 that really could have gone either way. Jones blamed it on the partying, but that can’t matter. There have been moments where we could have wondered if we were seeing the end of Jon Jones. We’ve never wondered with Khabib.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, son, student, and best friend of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. Is the greatest of all time.