Justin Gaethje followed through with the game plan against Khabib Nurmagomedov in the main event of UFC 254. Unfortunately for Gaethje, though, a good game plan wasn't enough to beat a perfect fighter. Nurmagomedov scored a win with a second-round submission, unifying his lightweight title with Gaethje's interim championship.
Gaethje (22-3) said leading up to the fight that he just needed to land solid kicks to the legs of Nurmagomedov (29-0) to take away the champ's wrestling game and open him up to huge power punches. The kicks did land, and Nurmagomedov's legs did seem to be starting to show some damage, but it only takes one moment for Nurmagomedov to put an opponent in a bad position.
After a second-round leg kick from Gaethje, Nurmagomedov drove through a takedown and quickly moved to mount. After locking in a triangle choke, Nurmagomedov rolled to his back and squeezed the choke while Gaethje tapped out. Gaethje's taps were missed by the referee, leaving the challenger unconscious on the canvas.
Were there any remaining doubt of Nurmagomedov's skills as a truly well-rounded fighter, he was able to hang with Gaethje on the feet, landing solid jabs and overhand strikes -- along with is own kicks -- to outstrike the striker in the opening round. However, Nurmagomedov's approach is always to look for the takedown, where no one has ever been able to handle his skills.
Nurmagomedov put that wrestling game to work for the first time late in the opening round, scoring a takedown and looking close to securing an armbar before Gaethje was saved by the bell. In the second round, the challenger was not so lucky.
Following the fight, Nurmagomedov announced his retirement, stating he didn't want to return to the Octagon without his father, who died following COVID-19-related complications earlier this year. He added that he had promised his mother that he would not continue fighting after settling things with Gaethje.
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"Thank you for these guys, these guys with me, been with my father for more than 10 years. All my team, AKA with coach Javier, I love him so much, all my team," Nurmagomedov said. "Today, I want to say, this was my last fight. 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."
"All this UFC team, everybody around the world, this whole pandemic stuff, they are doing great show. Thank you so much Justin. Justin, 2016 I remember when I cut weight, you helped me a lot. Thank you brother. I know you are a great man, I know how you take care of your people," Nurmagomedov continued. "I know a lot of things about of you, because of your parents, because one day, it's going to happen something. You never know what is going to happen tomorrow, you never know."
Nurmagomedov's retirement seems to open the door for Gaethje to fight for a title again in his next outing. And he said he's ready to step back into the cage on a quick turnaround.
"I fight for a living," Gaethje said after the defeat. "The best thing about getting choked out is there's nothing really consequential to your health, especially your long-term health. I said I've got five wars left, and I haven't had any since I said that. ... I'd say six weeks?"
Gaethje, who was in good spirits and said the fight made him "feel alive," also gave credit to Nurmagomedov for his victory.
"He took me down," Gaethje said. "He was very strong. I know he made his father very proud."
UFC president Dana White added to the praise heaped on Nurmagomedov after another dominant victory, saying he had suffered two broken bones in his foot and two broken toes three weeks before the fight.
"We're lucky we got to see him fight tonight," White said. "He is one of the toughest human beings on the planet."
Elsewhere on the card, Robert Whittaker showed he's still a problem at 185 pounds with a strong victory over Jared Cannonier in the co-main event. "The Reaper" used crisp and effective striking from the outside to neutralize Cannonier's power over the 15-minute fight for the unanimous decison. The win is likely to elevate Whittaker into a rematch with champion Israel Adesanya, who won the belt from Whittaker by TKO in 2019.
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UFC 254 card and results
- Khabib Nurmagomedov (c) def. Justin Gaethje second-round submission (triangle choke)
- Robert Whittaker def. Jared Cannonier via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
- Alexander Volkov def. Walt Harris via second-round TKO (kick, punches)
- Phillip Hawes def. Jacob Malkoun via first-round TKO (punches)
- Lauren Murphy def. Liliya Shakirova via second-round submission (rear-naked choke)
- Magomed Ankalaev def. Ion Cutelaba via first-round TKO (punches)
- Tai Tuivasa def. Stefan Struve via first-round TKO (punches)
- Casey Kenney def. Nathaniel Wood via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)
- Shavkat Rakhmonov def. Alex Oliveira via first-round submission (guillotine choke)
- Da-Un Jung vs. Sam Alvey fight to split draw (29-28, 28-29, 28-28)
- Miranda Maverick def. Liana Jojua via first-round TKO (doctor stoppage)
- Joel Alvarez def. Alexander Yakovlev via first-round submission (armbar)