Khabib Nurmagomedov (Jason Burgos/Sherdog)

The Legacy of Khabib Nurmagomedov

After defeating Justin Gaethje and earning his third consecutive submission victory in defense of his lightweight title at UFC 254, Khabib Nurmagomedov put a stamp on a remarkable MMA career before leaving his gloves in the Octagon and announcing his retirement. The 32-year-old Dagestani phenom made a promise to his mother that this first fight since his father’s death would indeed be his last. His perfect record is intact, and he goes out on top of his game.

Nurmagomedov’s jaw-dropping 29-0 march through the MMA world is a career unlike any other. He stormed through competition on the Russian and Ukranian regional scene and amassed 16 victories in just four years.

Nurmagomedov was signed by the UFC late in 2011 and made his debut with the promotion in January 2012. He dominated Kamal Shalorus, securing a rear-naked choke in the third round from an awkward angle that showed off Nurmagomedov’s physical strength as a grappler. That fight also showed how raw he was as a striker and how little he knew about managing his energy for the duration of a fight. His punches were flailing haymakers, and several times he looked almost completely fatigued.


Nurmagomedov’s sophomore outing was against Gleison Tibau in a fight often pointed to by critics who don’t think Nurmagomedov deserved the win. All three judges scored the fight 30-27 for Nurmagomedov, rewarding him for his aggression and constant takedown attempts. However, it was close enough that it wasn’t a robbery and shouldn’t taint “The Eagle’s” legacy.

From that point forward, it’s difficult to criticize any of Nurmagomedov’s performances. However, in only his fourth UFC fight, he failed to make weight for the bout against Abel Trujillo. He missed weight by two and a half pounds. Rather than take the extra two hours to try to make the 156-pound limit, Nurmagomedov readily accepted forfeiting part of his fight purse to Trujillo. Despite this misstep, he went on to set the UFC record for most successful takedowns in a single fight with 21 landed on 28 attempts.

The Pat Healy fight rounded out a trio of contests for Nurmagomedov in 2013, the last time he would fight more than twice in a year.

In 2014, Nurmagomedov took a real step up in competition. He met eventual champion Rafael dos Anjos in a fight that caused people to take notice. He wiped out dos Anjos while putting on a grappling clinic against the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt.

High-profile fights were set to follow, with guys like Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Tony Ferguson awaiting the Dagestani fighter. Unfortunately, the injury bug hit Nurmagomedov hard, and he wouldn’t step back into the cage until 2016 after falling out of the Cerrone fight twice due to a recurring knee injury. Then, a rib injury kept him from fighting Ferguson at The Ultimate Fighter 22 Finale. In the second chapter of the Khabib vs. Tony saga, Ferguson was forced out of their rescheduled fight.

Darrell Horcher stepped in to face Nurmagomedov in the Russian’s return to action in April 2016. The win over Horcher had seemingly earned Nurmagomedov a title shot. Khabib signed two contracts to fight then-champion Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 or UFC 206. Of course, this wouldn’t come to fruition, with Conor McGregor instead getting the title shot at UFC 205. Understandably, Nurmagomedov was frustrated with the promotion for misleading him. He took out that frustration on Michael Johnson during the prelims at UFC 205. Nurmagomedov battered Johnson until locking in a kimura that was so nasty looking that it had color commentator Joe Rogan pleading with Johnson to tap.

The third installment of the Ferguson saga may be the lowest point in Nurmagomedov’s UFC run. Scheduled to square off for an interim title at UFC 209, Nurmagomedov failed to make it to weigh-ins and had to be transported to the hospital. In what has been colloquially known as “Tiramisugate,” a video circulated of Nurmagomedov eating the Italian dessert in the days leading up to UFC 209, thereby calling into question how dedicated he was to making weight. Nine months later, Nurmagomedov would get back to his dominant ways with a brutal three-round beatdown of Edson Barboza.

Who could forget the lead-up to UFC 223? A week prior to the fourth scheduled meeting between Ferguson, who had picked up an interim championship over Kevin Lee at UFC 216, and Nurmagomedov, a freak leg injury at a UFC promotional event forced Ferguson to pull out of the showdown. Max Holloway was called in as a replacement, but the New York State Athletic Commission ruled that he was undergoing too extreme of a weight cut and removed him from the fight just a day before the scheduled contest. Both Anthony Pettis and Paul Felder were scheduled to fight on the card and were tapped as replacement opponents for Nurmagomedov, but Pettis had weighed in at 155.2 pounds and wouldn’t have been eligible to win the belt and Felder wasn’t approved by the NYSAC because he was unranked. Ultimately, Long Island bruiser Al Iaquinta stepped up for the fight. Though he too weighed in at 155.2, UFC President Dana White ensured that Iaquinta would be considered the champion by the promotion if he won the fight. However, Nurmagomedov defeated Iaquinta by unanimous decision, with 50-44 scores from the judges, to claim the title.

Nurmagomedov’s title reign began with a fourth-round submission win over the aforementioned McGregor at UFC 229 in a fight that Nurmagomedov dominated nearly from start to finish. This was followed immediately by the infamous kerfuffle when Khabib jumped out of the cage to attack McGregor’s team. With Nurmagomedov on suspension, Dustin Poirier picked up the interim title.

At UFC 242, the titles would be unified. In yet another dominant display, Nurmagomedov submitted Poirier in the third round. The post-fight situation was the polar opposite of UFC 229. Instead of a violent altercation between the camps, the two fighters exchanged walkout t-shirts, with Khabib saying he would sign his and auction it off, with proceeds benefiting Poirier’s “The Good Fight” Foundation.

The fifth and ultimately final time Nurmagomedov was slated to take on Ferguson was supposed to happen at UFC 249, but the pesky coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had other plans. Due to travel restrictions, Khabib couldn’t leave Russia, so Ferguson ended up meeting Gaethje for the interim title. With Gaethje’s fifth-round TKO over Ferguson, it was becoming evident that the showdown between Nurmagomedov and Ferguson just wasn’t meant to be. Now, with Nurmagomedov retiring after last weekend’s victory over Gaethje, that book has surely closed.

Throughout his career, and specifically in his 13 fights with the UFC, Nurmagomedov evolved from a talented grappler who threw haymakers to close the distance into an absolutely dominant force on the mat whose stand-up skills had improved by leaps and bounds. He no longer had to recklessly close distance to get into the clinch or a takedown. Instead, his improved striking allowed him to exchange on the feet with his opponents until just the right moment when an opening presented itself for him to shoot for a takedown or press his opponent up against the fence to begin smothering them. We have never seen a lightweight in the UFC who could beat the best version of Nurmagomedov. B.J. Penn’s name is often brought up as the greatest lightweight fighter of all time, but the sport has evolved in the time since “The Prodigy” was in his prime. The best version of Penn would not fare well against the fighter that Nurmagomedov has become.

The pound-for-pound debate is one that can never truly be settled, because the hypothetical versions of fighters who are all the same weight are just that, hypothetical. Right now, though, it is hard to argue against Nurmagomedov being considered as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Israel Adesanya is the only other name that should bear consideration, despite the social-media tirade/campaign of Jon Jones. Yte, Nurmagomedov gets the nod over Adesanya, simply because the grappling strength of a middleweight-sized Khabib would be insane and too much for Adesanya to overcome, even with his world-class movement and above-average takedown defense.

When determining what it means to be the greatest of all time, Nurmagomedov’s undefeated record goes a long way. No other fighter in the conversation can say that they have never tasted defeat. What hurts him in that list is that he only defended the UFC lightweight title three times before retiring. The four fighters often considered in the current GOAT debate are Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, the aforementioned Jones, and Khabib. Silva and Jones are both immediately off the table due to failed performance-enhancing drug tests — cheating is an immediate disqualifier for all-time greatness. GSP, meanwhile, defended the welterweight title nine times, tripling the length of Nurmagomedov’s reign. St-Pierre did have two career losses — one to Matt Hughes and one to Matt Serra — but he would avenge both losses and ultimately defeat Hughes twice. GSP also never missed weight (outside of an unsubstantiated claim by Nick Diaz that GSP was three pounds over the limit at UFC 158) or failed to make it to the scale like Nurmagomedov did at UFC 209. That’s huge, and people don’t talk about it enough. It’s a loss that can’t be avenged. It was completely in Nurmagomedov’s control, but he failed. That’s arguably worse than a loss in the Octagon. Thus, in the conversation of all-time greats, the nod goes to St-Pierre.

At the end of the day, though, Nurmagomedov is a rare talent who gets to do what nobody else has done before him. He can walk away as a UFC champion with an undefeated record. Hats off to Khabib. We may never see anyone like him again.