In a sport that historically claims more from its combatants than it ever returns, where retirement is often forced against the will of one's fighting soul, Khabib Nurmagomedov may have closed the book on the closest thing to a perfect career.
Walking away at the peak of his powers at age 32, Nurmagomedov surprised the mixed martial arts world by laying his gloves down in the center of the Octagon on Saturday at UFC 254 to signal retirement, moments after a perfect performance fitting a man owning a gaudy 29-0 record.
There's that word again, perfect.
Even though interim champion Justin Gaethje (22-3) was expected by many experts to give Nurmagomedov the toughest challenge of his 12-year pro career, "The Eagle" was flawless in combining his pressure style, sturdy chin and dominant ground game -- which featured a triangle choke that put Gaethje to sleep -- in delivering just about a near-perfect performance.
But for all the mythology that will likely surround that very round number in his loss column, or the comparisons to boxer Floyd Mayweather's recent 50-0 career, any talk of how perfect Nurmagomedov was as a fighter goes far beyond his win/loss record.
Yes, he technically only lost one round (against Conor McGregor in 2018) in 13 trips to the UFC cage. Amazingly, he was also never cut or dropped. And sure, the native of Dagestan, Russia, somehow found a way not to lose in a sport that features countless ways to do just that after even the tiniest mistake.
The bigger piece of perfection may have be how Nurmagomedov handled himself in navigating such a career within such an unforgiving game -- the trials of which, he was not immune to.
Nurmagomedov missed two full years of his early prime due to a knee injury and fought just one time in three of his final four calendar years due to a combination of bad luck, illness and the fact that his undivided devotion to his Muslim faith, including fasting while observing during Ramadan each year, meant it difficult at times to schedule fights.
Through it all, Nurmagomedov never stumbled. He made any notion of "cage rust" a term that didn't belong in his vocabulary. He also showed incredible toughness along the way, including at UFC 254, where president Dana White revealed after that Nurmagomedov had fought through a broken foot and several broken toes suffered three weeks out from the fight that were never reported.
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And despite becoming handsomely rich throughout the tail end of his career, thanks in large part to a record-setting pay-per-view win over McGregor at UFC 229, he never made it about the money.
Nurmagomedov's focus, almost exclusively, was on building his legacy in hopes of pleasing his beloved father and trainer, the late Abdulmanap, who died in July following complications due to COVID-19. He was also just as focused on giving back to his teammates and countrymen as a mentor, just as his father did as an integral figure to so many pro fighters from the Dagestan region, which leads us back to Nurmagomedov's surprise decision on Saturday.
It wasn't as if the MMA world was in the dark that Nurmagomedov was thinking about walking away. He mentioned throughout the build to UFC 254 that a return in April -- likely against Georges St-Pierre or a rematch with McGregor -- would be his last. But it's the reason he revealed for retiring now that put a ribbon on what Nurmagomedov is all about.
Telling Jon Anik inside the Octagon that he made a promise to his mother he would never fight again without his father by his side (either physically, or as a remote strategist which became the norm in recent years as Abdulmanap was unable to fly to the United States because of visa issues), Nurmagomedov became a man of his word, just three months after his idol and best friend left the Earth. Given the strength of his conviction and character, Nurmagomedov is the rare combat sports athlete you also actually believe will stick to his word.
Honoring his father was always the most important thing for Nurmagomedov, even after his lone public misstep at UFC 229 win amid a bitter rivalry in which McGregor publicly slandered everything from Nurmagomedov's religion to his family, country and his wife's attire. After Nurmagomedov uncharacteristically retaliated by attacking McGregor's team after the fight, he lamented to the media how much his father would be disappointed in him and would "kill him" for acting in such a way.
Just as quickly as that "stain" saw some to look at him as nothing more than a stereotypical foreign villain in the fight game, Nurmagomedov showed his true heart one year later when, after defeating Dustin Poirier, he donated a large portion of his check to his opponent's charity and spent the majority of the post-fight interview inside the cage in Abu Dhabi putting over Poirier's character as a man.
If there's anything negative to say about Nurmagomedov's legacy, it might be the fact that so much time away from the cage prevented him from fighting everyone in his era while sitting atop the deepest and most dangerous division in the sport's history. Being scheduled to fight Tony Ferguson five times only for it to fall apart before each one was a certainly a big part of that.
Yet in Nurmagomedov's last three fights, he did fight arguably the three best fighters the division had to offer over the last five years beside he and Ferguson: McGregor, Poirier and Gaethje. All three had vocal public supporters claiming they were the one who could finally have the best chance at handing Nurmagomedov his first defeat and all three left the cage being victimized by submission in one-sided defeats.
Nurmagomedov's dominance, without question, gives him a seat at the table in any best-ever debate regarding UFC history alongside Jon Jones, St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Demetrious Johnson. But because of how fervently he stuck true to his core values and because of the inarguably perfect results that followed as he did things his own way, Nurmagomedov's legacy feels unique even in comparison to those of his G.O.A.T. contemporaries.
He was unflappable. He was dominant. And depending upon your opinion, he might be the best fighter UFC fans have ever seen.
Nurmagomedov walks away on top as the pound-for-pound best in the world just as he promised his father he would after a perfect career that would make anyone exceedingly proud.