Khabib Nurmagomedov: a retrospective

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Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a difficult sport to remain relevant in. Many competitors, due to age, lack of motivation, or possibly PED (performance enhancing drug) allegations, simply fade out of the forefront of the sport’s highest caliber.

Beyond outside factors, it is simply exceptionally daunting to win consistently past a certain level of competition. Fighters, once granted a ranking, tend to be of an athletic or technical level, in some cases, both, that cannot be matched by those scraping away at the edges of the elite. Many perfectly competent fighters have been used up and thrown out by the cut-throat matchmaking employed by the sport’s premier organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC, for short). 

Welterweight Great, Georges St-Pierre (scienceduck is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 )

All of that said, there have been rare occasions on which a fighter has risen through the ranks with shocking and unusual speed. Consensus All-Time-Great Georges St-Pierre is the prime example of this. Within his first four fights with the promotion, he was competing for the welterweight crown against future Hall of Famer Matt Hughes. Despite his meteoric rise, however, St-Pierre’s ascension was halted on his first attempt at a championship. He was submitted in the first round.

Though he did go on to win the title soon after in a rematch with Hughes, St-Pierre was again upset. This time, by unlikely challenger Matt Serra. A criminally undersized welterweight, Serra was as much as an eleven-to-one underdog to St-Pierre on the betting lines. In stark defiance to public expectations, Serra finished St-Pierre in the first round via strikes from mount after knocking him down twice with punches. It was a momentous upset. The largest in the history of MMA, for my money. 

 

Jon Jones (right), Light Heavyweight Great (Ericg2477 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The other example of a talent rising with shocking speed is the controversial Jon Jones, the lineal and as-of-yet unbeaten Light Heavyweight Champion. Officially, Jones’ only loss is a disqualification to Matt Hamil for repeatedly utilizing illegal strikes while on top of Hamill. This blemish would matter little in such a discussion if it were a contained occurrence of Jones potentially losing a fight. Unfortunately for the 33 year old, his most recent fights have been questionable to say the least.

 

Against the resurgent Thiago Santos, Jones was largely inactive for the duration of the match, and was nonetheless awarded a split decision victory that has been widely criticized. More damning, however, was his last outing against Dominick Reyes. For the majority of the first three and a half rounds out of five, Jones was countered, outmoved, and outstruck. Optics of forward pressure aside, the champion was stymied time and time again. Again, despite massive backlash, the judges gifted Jones a victory, this time by a unanimous decision. 

All of the above examples are of excellent fighters, though Jones’ other controversies may call that distinction into question for some. The topic of this article, however, arguably transcends both of them for one key reason: he has not been beaten.

In fact, Khabib Nurmagomedov, the now-former Lightweight Champion has only been recorded to have lost exactly one round in all twenty-nine of his Mixed Martial Arts competitions. That is an astonishing statistic. The clean-sweep nearly every opponent, and finishing many of them is a rare accomplishment in such an erratic and dynamic sport, and one that most fighters can only keep up through their first eight to ten fights or so. 

Taking a glance at Nurmagomedov’s record, should one have a penchant for scrutinizing, may reveal some falsity about the number twenty-nine in association with his victories. Up until the seventeenth fight of his career, Nurmagomedov largely faced overmatched, underprepared competition. As would be expected of a highly touted prospect, Khabib demolished them. A controlling, damaging grappler by trade, all of his opponents met a similar fate

Either by strangling them to near or complete unconsciousness or battering them senseless from on top of them, Khabib built his name on the Russian regional circuit until he was given the opportunity to compete in the United States for the first time in the UFC. His first bout, against once-revered prospect Kamal Shalarous, was an ugly one. Nurmagomedov largely dominated, and eventually did submit his foe, but it was hardly the clean, professional performance many had expected.

With his stock lowered slightly, Nurmagomedov, for the first and only time in his career, came in a betting underdog to Gleison Tibau in his next match. What followed was a bout that has been the source of much controversy. With his wrestling stifled by the enormous Brazillian Lightweight, Khabib was rendered largely inert for the better part of three rounds. Despite this, all three judges scored the bout for Nurmagomedov 30 to 27 (representing a three-to-nothing sweep for the Russian). 

Once again, it seemed as though Nurmagomedov was failing to meet the lofty expectations levied on him upon his debut. What came directly after this fight, however, was the start of his meteoric rise through one of the historically deepest divisions in all of MMA. In a span of less than twelve months, Nurmagomedov defeated Thiago Tavares, Abel Trujillo, and Pat Healy respectively. The last of these victories earned him a place in the top ten of Lightweight, as Healy had been ranked the tenth best lightweight on the planet at the time.

 

Rafael Dos Anjos, holding the belt he would go on to win (VOXSPORTSdotNET is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

With this impressive, dominant run of victims in his wake, Nurmagomedov took his first true step into the world of elite competition in the form of facing future Champion, Pound-for-Pound talent, and fellow rising Lightweight Rafael Dos Anjos. Despite “RDA” possessing far more experience at the fringe-elite level of the sport, Khabib entered the bout a two and a half-to-one favorite. 

The fight reflected the odds. From the opening bell, Nurmagomedov relentlessly pursued, took down, and ground on the Brazillian with what would become his trademark: Unflappable, somewhat wild pressure-wrestling. Dos Anjos found ways to compete, and landed when he could, but in the end, it was another clean, dominant performance. Unfortunately for Nurmagomedov, injuries would sideline him for the next eighteen months, thus halting his significant momentum. 

Especially frustrating was likely the fact that the aforementioned Rafael Dos Anjos, little more than a year after being dominated by the Russian, went on to batter Anthony Pettis, the incumbent Champion at the time, for five full rounds to secure the Lightweight title for himself at UFC 185. Even UFC Commentator Joe Rogan commented during Dos Anjos’ domination of Pettis that Nurmagomedov was likely sitting at home, licking his chops at what he was seeing.

Though it took nearly another year, Nurmagomedov eventually made his return, though not against who he was originally expected to be facing. In a tragedy that would sadly become an ominous trend in both mens’ careers, Tony Ferguson, a top-ranked Lightweight at the time and at present, was forced to withdraw from their main-event slot due to a lung issue. On short notice, the unknown Darrel Horcher stepped in to face Khabib.

The fight was, as expected, a slaughter. As he did to Dos Anjos, but far more violently, Nurmagomedov battered Horcher from top position, forcing a stoppage midway through the second round. 

 

Ascension, The Beginning

 

Now well and truly in condition to continue his climb of the lofty mountain of the lightweight elite, Nurmagomedov moved on to what would become both his most difficult, and his most disturbingly one-sided victory. Michael Johnson was fresh off of a first round knockout of the great Dustin Poirier, and looked to be the greatest stylistic challenge of the Russian’s career.

A crafty, deft counter puncher, able defensive wrestler and scrambler, and an absolutely sublime athlete, Johnson seemed poised to trouble Nurmagomedov, if not beat him outright. For about three minutes, this viewpoint seemed accurate. Never the most polished striker in the world, Nurmagomedov was tagged repeatedly with sharp, brisk combinations of punches to the body and head by Johnson.

In particular, a clean right hook around Khabib’s guard noticeably bothered the Russian lightweight. Mere moments after being quite clearly wobbled, however, Nurmagomedov dragged Johnson to the floor. From then on, the fight became a mauling. Khabib trapped Johnson’s arms, battered him with punches and elbows, and even spoke to him at points. By the end of the second round, it was clear that the remaining time was nothing more than a formality.

Fortunately for any rooting for or invested in Michael Johnson, Nurmagomedov mercifully submitted the American with a brutal armlock midway through the third round. Though the victory was dominant and garnered much praise from the pundits, it was bittersweet. As it turned out, originally, Nurmagomedov was supposed to face then-champion Eddie Alvarez, who had recently dethroned Rafael Dos Anjos, for the lightweight title. 

Instead of what many would consider the rightful challenger being granted his opportunity, the upper management of the UFC opted to give the chance to the then-Featherweight Champion, extraordinarily popular, Conor McGregor. Eventually, given years, this grievance would be settled. 

Frustratingly, Nurmagomedov would be sidelined once again following his victory at UFC 205. This time, however, he was able to return within a more reasonable timeframe of only 13 months at UFC 219. For the first time, Nurmagomedov was given an opponent ranked in the top five of the division in the form of Edson Barboza. The ranking made little difference.

In an incredibly similar fashion to the bout with Johnson, Nurmagomedov ran Barboza ragged. He dragged him down, beat him up, and burned his stamina to ashes. Unlike the Johnson fight, however, he was unable to secure a finish before the final bell. The scores were comically lopsided, with two cards reading 30 to 25, and the third 30 to 24. 

Following the victory, talks immediately ensued to place Nurmagomedov in a title fight. Conveniently, earlier in the very same year, the aforementioned Tony Ferguson captured the Interim Lightweight Championship with a third round submission of Kevin Lee. The table was set, and the obvious matchup was booked.

With Conor McGregor sidelined for an excursion outside of MMA, Ferguson and Nurmagomedov were booked to face one another again at UFC 223. For a time, it seemed as though the match would come to fruition. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. Six days before the event, Ferguson was forced to remove himself from the card once again, this time due to a torn PCL. Luckily, incumbent Featherweight Champion Max Holloway was willing to step in to face Nurmagomedov for the now-vacant Lightweight title.

In another tragedy, Holloway was removed from the short-notice title fight due to complications with his weight cut. This left only fighters already competing at UFC 223 as available options to fill the slot. In one of the most unlikely twists of fate in the sport’s history, Al Iaquinta, who had not fought in two years, was chosen as the replacement for Holloway. 

Once again, it was relatively simple work for Nurmagomedov. Sitting behind a jab and the occasional takedown, the Russian battered Iaquinta for five full rounds to claim the Lightweight title he had so long sought after. For many, however, a victory over merely the eleventh ranked contender was not enough to cement Khabib as the true king of his peers at the weight class. And so, it was made. 

 

Facing The Notorious One

 

The ever-popular Conor McGregor (Finish Line is Licensed under CC BY 3.0)

Conor McGregor is a device figure in MMA. To some, he’s the second coming of Muhammad Ali. A mesmerizing showman, an inspiring tale of rags to riches. To others, he is a prime example of what is so deeply flawed about Mixed Martial Arts. With more than a few appearances in court under his belt, McGregor isn’t exactly difficult to criticize. All of his controversy aside, the Irishman was and is a dangerous, complicated, and daunting riddle to solve in the cage. 

Perhaps the purest example of an aggressive counter puncher in MMA, McGregor personifies the toolkit of a southpaw. A probing lead hand, active feints, consistent pressure, and a litany of tools to corral his victims into the left hand that has made him famous. Many have fallen to his craft and monumental deadliness as a counter threat. 

As such, Nurmagomedov’s well-known deficiencies as a striker lead many to believe that McGregor would be able to punish him accordingly. It was a well established fact that a grinding battle along the fence was always going to favor Nurmagomedov, and the odds seemed to side with this outcome. The months leading up to the bout were marred with controversy as well, with McGregor routinely insulting Nurmagomedov’s family, religious beliefs, and heritage.

Come the night of the fight, these grievances were put up to be settled. Through the first two rounds, Nurmagomedov had his way with the brash Irishman. He took him down at will, savaged him from top position, and even scored a shocking knockdown at the beginning of the second round with a thunderous right hand. Come the third round, however, the tide evened slightly.

Seemingly quite tired from having battered McGregor for ten consecutive minutes, Nurmagomedov was stifled time and time again in wrestling exchanges. As such, the round was contested entirely on the feet. Much to the chagrin of those preaching the vast gulf in skill between the two combatants in a pure striking match, Khabib held his own, arguably winning the round despite not scoring a takedown. Officially, though, round three of Nurmagomedov vs McGregor at UFC 229 is the only round the Russian has ever lost on the cards.

The next round was far from the back and forth thriller the third had been. Nurmagomedov, seemingly recharged after slowing his pace in the third, immediately took the Irishman down along the cage and sunk in a rear naked choke. Moments later, McGregor submitted to Khabib, thus signifying the first defence of Nurmagomedov’s reign as champion. Sadly, the months of extended slander from McGregor got to the Russian in the end, for after the fight was called, Khabib leapt over the side of the cage to attack a teammate of McGregor’s. The incident was quickly contained, but publicity after the fact was far from ideal.

 

First Unification, Enter The Diamond: Dustin Poirier

 

BMF BMF is Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

“The Diamond” was on the run of his career. Victories over Jim Miller, Anthony Pettis, Eddie Alvarez, and even the great Max Holloway made him far and away the number one contender for the Lightweight throne. The streak of victories on their own would have more than justified his chance to challenge Nurmagomedov. But layered on top of this ridiculous strength of schedule, Poirier’s bout with Holloway had been for the Interim Lightweight title. Still the Featherweight Champion, and fresh off of a dominant schooling of Brian Ortega, Max Holloway was as fine a victory as one could hope for.

It was a war. One of the single greatest contests in the history of Lightweight. Poirier staggered Holloway violently and repeatedly through the first two rounds, nearly knocking him out a handful of times. Not one to go quietly into that good night, the incumbent Featherweight King, outgunned and outsized, came roaring back in rounds three and four, ramping up his famous pace to torrid heights. 

 

The fifth round was razor thin. Holloway tagged the larger Poirier repeatedly with straight punches and appeared to have largely solved his foe defensively. That was until Poirier rocked him once again with a timely counter. From that point on, it was a blur of exchanges. The question then became, what would the judges favor? Volume on Holloway’s end, or the damage Poirier had inflicted in singular moments?

All three chose the latter. As the interim title was wrapped around Poirier’s waist, he called for a bout with Nurmagomedov to determine the legitimacy of each of their claims to lightweight supremacy. He got his wish, for better or worse.

As per usual, Nurmagomedov was a hefty betting favorite, nearly five-to-one, but many were siding with the upset. There was reason to believe that Poirier could break the stranglehold Khabib had locked around the division. He was a smooth, competent combination puncher, long-limbed, and one of the most unyieldingly durable men in the sport. When the two men stepped into the cage, the MMA world held its collective breath. They expected fireworks.

What they got instead was a routine, shockingly simple night at the office for the Russian. A brief scare in the second round in which Poirier clipped Nurmagomedov with a shifting right overhand aside, Khabib utterly dominated the American. He pressed him into the cage, tired him out, took him down, and ground him to dust. Mercifully, Poirier was submitted by yet another rear-naked choke. UFC 242 was yet another example of just how perplexing a puzzle Nurmagomedov truly was. 

His aggression always carried an air of recklessness and a misguided belief that he was far more competent on his feet than he was, and the Iaquinta fight had proven that he wasn’t particularly comfortable with the notion of taking people off their feet in open space without a barrier to work with. Despite all of these seeming flaws, none had even managed to put him in legitimate danger. 

He stood alone atop the lightweight mountain. That was, until the next contender ascended to meet him there. 

 

The Final Unification

 

Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (Richard Norris is Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Much like Dustin Poirier before him, Justin Gaethje was in the finest form of his already impressive career. With four straight victories under his belt, including a domination of Tony Ferguson. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic preventing Nurmagomedov from leaving Russia for a lengthy stretch of time, Gaethje was the second Interim Champion Khabib had to face. Once again, there was a very real section of the pundits that favored Gaethje heading into the clash.

He was a more proven wrestler than Poirier, an even bigger hitter, and had shown some of the sharpest tact and craft of his career against Ferguson just one fight beforehand. Combined with the guidance of the fantastic Trevor Wittman as his coach, many believed that he was the man to do what so many others had failed to do. 

Gaethje gave Nurmagomedov the most difficult fight of his career, bare none. He chopped at his legs with vicious kicks, countered his entries consistently, and proved difficult to track down for takedowns. In the face of this new challenge, Nurmagomedov did something he had never done before. He engaged in a fire fight. Choosing to force the issue rather than sit back and risk his legs being rendered useless by the kicking assault of Gaethje, Khabib pressured unflappably.

He chased his challenger down with long punches, kicked at his body, and refused to concede the center of the cage. In one single round, Nurmagomedov took more damage than he had in all three of his previous fights put together. It mattered little, for at the end of the first round, Khabib had finally managed to secure the takedown he had so pivotally needed. Once he had gotten it, the gap in grappling skill had been immediately apparent.

With this in mind, and plenty of information gathered from the first frame, Khabib wasted little time hunting down and grounding Gaethje once again. Within moments of dragging him down, Nurmagomedov locked on a tight, fight-ending triangle choke. It wasn’t long before Gaethje was unconscious. The Russian’s reaction to this triumph was not standard. Now 29-0, the monstrous lightweight broke down on his knees in the center of the cage, weeping. 

The reason why was clear as day. The passing of his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, earlier that same year. The elder Nurmagomedov had acted as a mentor, coach, and inspiration for his son every step of the way, as was made obvious by Khabib’s habit of lighting up and attributing much of his success to the man each time he was brought up. 

With his belt wrapped around his waist, Khabib Nurmagomedov, the greatest lightweight in the history of Mixed Martial Arts, retired from competition, stating that he had promised his mother to not continue fighting without his father present. In the end, Nurmagomedov had achieved all he possibly could have, aside from a perilous superfight with Welterweight Champion Kamaru Usman. 

Nurmagomedov left the sport as the undisputed number one fighter on earth pound for pound. He rendered fighters renowned for their toughness confused and broken. He turned would-be challenges into mere workouts. A riddle too complex and layered for his peers to even begin to solve.

With his gloves left on the floor of the cage, the question now becomes one of greatness. Where does the undefeated anomaly land on a list of the finest fighters in MMA history? It’s entirely up to preference, but at this point, if he isn’t in your top five, you need to watch the sport more carefully. 

Regardless of opinion, one thing is certain: Khabib Nurmagomedov was one of a kind.