Khabib Nurmagomedov dropped to his knees in the center of the Octagon after he beat Justin Gaethje on Saturday, his head in his arms as he wept before making the stunning announcement that the lightweight title bout at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi was his final one.
The undefeated Russian (29-0 MMA, 13-0 UFC) completed one of the preeminent careers in the sport with a second-round submission via triangle choke at 1:34, extending the longest active unbeaten streak in the UFC in one of the most anticipated matches in the history of the company.
Nurmagomedov retires as the undisputed lightweight champion and the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world a little less than four months after the death of his father and coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, at 57 from complications related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“Today, I want to say this was my last fight,” Nurmagomedov, a judo and Sambo specialist who won by submission for the 11th time, said during a post-match interview in front of a nearly empty Flash Forum. “No way am I going to come here without my father. It was the first time.”
Nurmagomedov, 32, revealed that his mother had pleaded with her son not to fight without his father in his corner when the match against Gaethje (22-3, 5-3) was finalized. Nurmagomedov and his mother spoke for three days about his options, with Nurmagomedov promising he would not fight again after he faced Gaethje.
Nurmagomedov, who provided no indication to anyone other than those closest to him he would be retiring, leaves MMA as one of its most revered and recognized competitors. He has close to 23 million followers on Instagram and 1.2 million on Twitter.
Even the enticement of what certainly would be a lucrative payday in a rematch against Conor McGregor or Dustin Poirier, both of whom he choked out, drew no interest from Nurmagomedov, who left his gloves in the center of the Octagon before he walked to the locker room.
“I promised her this was going to be my last fight,” Nurmagomedov said of his mother. “If I give my word, I have to follow this.”
The victory moved Nurmagomedov into a tie with B.J. Penn and Benson Henderson for the most title defenses in UFC lightweight history (four). Included on his resume are wins over McGregor, Poirier and Rafael dos Anjos. He was the second fighter to start a UFC career with 13 straight wins; Anderson Silva holds the UFC record with 16 consecutive wins to start a career.
“The only reason I stuck here is to give this man praises,” Gaethje, 31, said from inside the Octagon. “I know he was in a bad spot, or whether he was or not, he did what he had to do, took me down. He was very strong, but I know he made his father so proud.”
All three of Gaethje’s losses have come via finish.
The American with a preference for fighting on his feet rather than the ground came into the match having won four in a row and was considered perhaps Nurmagomedov’s most daunting opponent because of his extensive wrestling background and one-punch knockout power.
Nurmagomedov got the first and only takedown of Round 1 in the closing stages, aggressively moving forward after absorbing an inside leg kick that drew a grimace. Gaethje landed several other trademark low kicks and connected with overhand strikes, but Nurmagomedov nonetheless commanded the center of the Octagon.
The victory earned Nurmagomedov, a 4-1 favorite, a $50,000 performance bonus and came three weeks after he broke his foot during training camp, sending him to the hospital, according to UFC President Dana White.
“What this guy has been through, we’re all lucky that we got to see him fight tonight,” White said. “So he has two broken toes and a bone in his foot that’s broken or something like that. That’s what his corner was telling me. Never told anybody, walking around. I mean he is one of the toughest human beings on the planet.”
The final fight on Yas Island, where the UFC has staged its past four cards, stood out not just for the drastically divergent styles of the principles but also because of the lack of animosity between them.
There were handshakes to conclude each of the media events and another at the weigh-in the day before the match, which White said was on track to set a record for pay-per-view buys. UFC 229 in 2018 featuring Nurmagomedov beating McGregor holds the record for most buys at 2.4 million.
White had spoken about a rematch after McGregor dispatched Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in 40 seconds in January, provided Nurmagomedov also handled his next opponent, Tony Ferguson, in April in Brooklyn.
Then the pandemic scrambled UFC’s plans, with restrictions preventing Nurmagomedov from traveling to the United States from Russia. Gaethje replaced Nurmagomedov and beat Ferguson in five grueling rounds to claim the interim lightweight title, setting up Saturday’s showdown.
“Listen, when guys want to fight, they want to fight,” White said of Nurmagomedov’s retirement. “If they don’t want to fight, they don’t want to fight. Let them take some time off. Let them heal, not physically but emotionally heal, with what he’s going through from losing his father. As I said, we’re all lucky to see what we saw tonight.”