It's rare for any fighter to retire while still the recognized world champion of a weight class. But to retire as an undefeated champion is unheard of. That unprecedented feat was accomplished on Saturday by UFC lightweight titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Nurmagomedov defended his lightweight championship for a third time on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi with a submission of Justin Gaethje in the second round of UFC 254. It was a fight against the man many believed to be his toughest challenge. The victory ran his record as a professional to 29-0.
Nurmagomedov's father died earlier in the year due to complications from COVID-19. An emotional champion announced after the fight that it would be his final trip to the Octagon.
"Today, I want to say, this was my last fight," Nurmagomedov said. "No way am I going to come here without my father. It was first time, after what happened with my father, when UFC called me about Justin. I talk with my mother three days, she don't want that I go fight without father. I promised her, it's going to be my last fight, and if I give my word, I have to follow this. It was my last fight here."
With the move, it becomes much easier to look at Nurmagomedov's place in MMA history and to openly wonder where he sits among the all-time best to ever set foot in the Octagon.
Nurmagomedov lacked the lengthy title reign of Anderson Silva (10 title defenses), Georges St-Pierre (nine) or Jose Aldo (nine between WEC and UFC), but he also didn't suffer losses like those men. Nurmagomedov didn't stay in the cage past his prime like Silva, suffer a title loss like GSP in his first title reign or get knocked out in 13 seconds like Aldo against Conor McGregor.
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There are questions over Nurmagomedov's strength of schedule in his UFC career, mostly defeating mid-tier fodder on his rise to the lightweight championship and winning the then-vacant title against late-replacement Al Iaquinta. But in his title defenses, he built a true legacy with wins over a hated rival in McGregor, a rugged, respected veteran in Dustin Poirier and a man who seemed the toughest possible style clash in Gaethje.
The only man whose resume truly compares in its perfection is Jon Jones, the longtime light heavyweight champion who recently vacated his title to move up to heavyweight despite being effectively undefeated -- an odd disqualification early in his UFC career aside.
But, unlike Jones, who failed multiple drug tests, struggled with substance abuse and drunk driving issues and was repeatedly stripped of his title as a result, Nurmagomedov was a mostly drama-free fighter.
Contenders for MMA's G.O.A.T.
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It is too early to truly place Nurmagomedov in a historical context, and much of his legacy may be defined by how Poirier, McGregor and Gaethje close out their careers. But, in the immediate, it's hard to argue against placing his name alongside St-Pierre, Aldo, Silva, Jones and Demetrious Johnson as one of the five best to ever ply their trade in the cage.
What seemed to matter to Nurmagomedov on his final night in the Octagon was not his place in history, however. Instead, he simply wanted to be acknowledged as the best fighter in the here-and-now.
"I know only one thing I want from UFC, you guys have to be me on No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, because I deserve this," Nurmagomedov said. "UFC undisputed, undefeated lightweight champion, 13-0, 13 in UFC, 29 in all pro MMA career. I think I deserve it."