It would have been the perfect time to retire even if his father, Abdulmanap, had been standing behind him with a reassuring arm on Khabib Nurmagomedov’s shoulder.
How could the UFC lightweight champion possibly top what he did Saturday at Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi when he choked out interim champion Justin Gaethje in the second round of their title bout in the main event of UFC 254?
Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov wasn’t there at his son’s side Saturday, though judging by the way Khabib fought, he was there in spirit. Abdulmanap was one of the more than a million worldwide victims of COVID-19, lost at 57 years old with much still to give the world.
His son soldiered on to defend the title they’d won together, dominating an elite opponent and choking him unconscious in the second round despite all the weight he was carrying on his shoulders.
He fought despite what his coach, Javier Mendez, called the worst training camp they’d ever had. Mendez told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview that Nurmagomedov got a case of the mumps on Sept. 11 that kept him out of training for two weeks. When he returned, he broke a toe and was limited for several days.
Several of his teammates got ill and there was a Staph infection going around. But Khabib managed to make it look easy in beating Gaethje, standing toe-to-toe with him for much of the first round and giving better than he took.
“This was the worst camp we’ve ever had in the sense of preparation,” Mendez told Yahoo Sports. “Accommodations were the best ever; hospitality was the best ever. But we had so much bad luck. There was Staph infection with a lot of the guys and the mumps. Khabib had the mumps two weeks going into [camp] and I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m so concerned.’ He trained one week really light and then the following week he broke his toe next to the pinky toe.
“Because of the broken toe, we were again out. This was a very hard camp. But Khabib said, ‘Coach, my toe may be broken but my mind is not.’ I said I know, and that’s when I knew he was going to fight through all of this adversity no matter what.”
He emotionally retired in the cage following his win, unable to hold back the tears as he thought of his father, who died in Russia on July 3.
Despite taking more kicks than Mendez would have liked, Nurmagomedov was in command throughout. He got the better of the striking and when he took Gaethje down with just 40 seconds left in the first round, he moved quickly to mount and nearly got the finish.
Then he came out in the second and needed just 1:34 to end it. It ended any doubts that exist about the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He’s clearly the best there is, and arguably, perhaps, the best there’s ever been.
Nurmagomedov has become one of the UFC’s biggest stars, as the champion was in huge demand before the fight. That meant reliving over and over and over the pain of his father’s loss to reporters who wanted to know how it had affected him.
UFC president Dana White has been around the fight game for a long time, and with everything that was swirling around Khabib, he sensed an upset. When Nurmagomedov did what he did, White said there is no longer any question about the identity of the best.
“Wow, man! He is the baddest [expletive] on the planet,” White said at the post-fight news conference. “Let’s start with, there’s like a feeling-out process for two minutes, and then it was on! Those two were going, but the pressure that Khabib puts on you is unbelievable. He literally didn’t respect [Gaethje’s] punching power and just walked right into everything.
“When he started to go for the armbar in the first round, I was like, ‘Oh my God! He’s going to pull off an armbar?’ Then in the second round, he keeps the pressure on and starts to go for that submission. I was like, ‘Oh man,’ and he locked him up, gets it and chokes him out. Unbelievable.”
As an athlete, he’s unbelievable. He’s one of the most remarkable athletes in this sport’s brief history.
But he’s also human with the emotions that the rest of us feel in times of loss. He has so many people who rely upon him that he went through with the fight with nary a word about what was to come. Mendez said he first heard of the retirement plans when Nurmagomedov was talking to UFC broadcaster Jon Anik in the cage after the fight.
After the win, Nurmagomedov ran to the center of the cage and fell to all fours, letting all of his pent up emotions out. He cried by himself until Gaethje came over, put a hand on his back and tried to provide some level of comfort.
When he got up, he went to Anik and announced he is through.
“Today, I want to say this was my last fight,” he 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 talked with my mother for three days. She didn’t want me to go fight without my 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.
“I know only one thing I want from UFC, you guys have to put me on No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, because I deserve this. UFC undisputed, undefeated lightweight champion, 13-0, 13 in UFC, 29 in all pro MMA career.”
He’s made tens of millions in his career and has many business ventures so he won’t be hurting for money.
But Mendez said that Nurmagomedov will also help him to coach at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California.
“He’s really concerned about preserving his father’s legacy and so one of the ways he’ll do that is joining me as a coach,” Mendez said. “He’s really been a coach for quite a while. People have no idea. But we’ll formalize it and he’ll work with me coaching these guys.
“He was a great student and he’s got a great mind for this game. And you can see that he paid attention to his father. As good of a fighter as he’s been, that’s how good of a coach he can be.”