For months ahead of UFC 254, fans and reporters wondered what was going through Khabib Nurmagomedov’s head.
Just months after his father’s death, the UFC’s lightweight champion had to travel to Abu Dhabi to defend his title against interim champion Justin Gaethje.
He had to prepare for one of the toughest opponents of his career, all while dealing with the weight that came with the loss of his biggest fan, his best mentor, and his closest friend.
Many pointed out that he looked drained after weighing in the day before the fight, and wondered if something had gone wrong while cutting during camp.
“It almost smelled like an upset tonight,” UFC president Dana White said after the fight. “The way that he reacted at the weigh-ins, the way he acted when he was walking out tonight. He didn’t look like himself, breathing heaving, taking deep breaths.”
Instead, Nurmagomedov showed up in the biggest way possible for his 29th fight. He looked calm, cool and collected as he made his way to the Octagon, and appeared to be at his best form as he maneuvered through the first round.
He continued his rapid pace in the second period, and successfully completed his third title defense in the process as he submitted Gaethje with a triangle choke.
Mere seconds after his win, the moment finally hit Nurmagomedov.
He broke down in the center of the Octagon, showing real emotion for the first time throughout the entire process.
There were no tears in the build-up to UFC 254, and none at weigh-ins or in pre-fight interviews. But, after moving to 29-0 on his career, they all came pouring out.
It took the champion a few minutes to compose himself, but as he got set to have his hand raised, he and his team quickly worked to rip the tape off of his gloves.
He was announced as a winner for the 29th time in his career, and as UFC announcer Jon Anik prepared for the usual post-fight interview, something seemed off with Nurmagomedov.
As Anik began the interview, Nurmagomedov made a statement that shook the UFC world to its core.
“This is my last fight, there’s no way I’m going to be back without my father,” Nurmagomedov said as he put his gloves down in the center of the Octagon.
“When UFC call me with Justin, I talk with my mother for three days,” he continued. “I promise it will be my last fight. If I give my word, I have to follow this.”
He was humble in victory and showed his respect to his team throughout the interview, and called his success his “father’s dream.”
He cited his desire for the UFC to place him at the top of their pound-for-pound rankings after the fight, and mentioned the lack of options elsewhere in the division. He didn’t tell a lie through it all, considering he had just taken out Gaethje, and had already recorded wins over Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, who are rumored to be fighting against each other in the beginning of 2021.
Even with each of those wins on his resume, he seemed like a fighter who had just overcome the biggest obstacle of his entire career, and it wasn’t even related to the physical battle inside the cage.
“What this guy’s been through, we’re all lucky that we got to see him fight tonight,” White said.
“I know he made his father so proud,” Gaethje said after the fight.
Proud is likely an understatement, given all that Nurmagomedov dealt with throughout the months leading up to the fight. He had to deal with the mental toll of his father’s death in early July, and was booked for the October fight against Gaethje less than a month later.
Then, according to White, the lightweight champion wound up in the hospital with a broken foot just a few weeks before the fight, and still managed to use his legs to perfection en route to a submission win for the last victory of his career.
Nurmagomedov walked out of the cage on his own terms, with his head held high and his gloves down on the mat. He compiled a 29-0 record with wins over true legends in the UFC’s lightweight division, and cleared out his competition in the process.
And, throughout it all, “The Eagle” established a few other things in the process: Hands down, he will go down as one of the UFC’s true greats, and there will never be another Khabib Nurmagomedov.