Khabib Nurmagomedov: A True Champion

When a fighter wins, he or she usually screams in ecstasy, gives a killer promo in a post-fight interview, does a backflip, or tackles his or her coach in excitement. Two weeks ago, on the biggest stage in the sport, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov did none of those.

When a fighter wins, he or she usually screams in ecstasy, gives a killer promo in a post-fight interview, does a backflip, or tackles his or her coach in excitement. Two weeks ago, on the biggest stage in the sport, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov did none of those. After defending his lightweight championship against former interim champion Justin Gaethje, the fighter simply stood up and quelled the excitement of those in the Flash Forum Arena. The victory against Gaethje wasn’t just a victorious brawl; rather, it was a triumph over a personal emotional struggle, a commemoration of his late father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, and a tribute to the finale to his career. In his post-fight interview, he was huffing and puffing through his words. His breaths were not from the two rounds of fighting he went through, but rather sighs of relief. He laid his gloves in the middle of the octagon and announced his retirement, saying, “Be close to your parents…because you never know what will happen.”

There’s an infamous video of Khabib swimming against a freezing Dagestani river. It’s perhaps the perfect representation of Khabib; after all, he is the same maniac that wrestled bears as a child. But in the larger scope of Khabib’s legacy, it’s also a metaphor for his life. Khabib was never supposed to have it his way. He always had a target on his back, and he always got the shorter end of the stick, but he always remained composed, calm, and grounded in his faith.

Coming out of Dagestan, Russia, which was at one point the world’s most dangerous place to live, Khabib did not grow up in a peaceful environment in which he had the privilege to only focus on becoming a professional fighter. However, he had one thing that massively propelled his career: a tight relationship with his father, who served as his youth coach. Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov dreamed of his son becoming a UFC champion and achieving a 30-0 professional record, so with his help, Khabib Nurmagomedov worked his way up through the amateur and professional ranks to finally sign with the UFC in 2011. Khabib father’s wish had come true; however, Khabib had to leave Russia to compete and train without his father’s company, who was denied a visa to the United States.

Despite being overlooked for title shots in favor of more popular fighters, he was unstoppable in the States. He was unapologetically himself. In interviews and in public events throughout his career, he would wear papakhas, a traditional Avarian shepherd hat that celebrates his small hometown in Dagestan. Even as a professional fighter he observed Islamic holidays including Ramadan, a month of holy fasting.

Like many great champions, he made his share of mistakes. Prior to his fight against Conor McGregor, McGregor and his team had hurled insults and jabs at Khabib’s family and religion, and on the biggest night of his career, Khabib retaliated. Though he was flawless inside the cage, putting on a brilliant performance of striking and wrestling against McGregor at UFC 229, after his victory he jumped over the octagon fence and attacked one of McGregor’s teammates. He served a nine-month suspension and was publicly lambasted by President of UFC Dana White as well as millions of MMA fans.

As with all great champions, though, he bounced back. In his return fight against Dustin Porier at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi, he proved his worth by choking out Porier in the third round. More importantly, it was the first UFC fight that his father physically stood by his corner as his coach, a monumental moment in his career. Khabib had gone through his MMA career following his father’s plan; Abdulmanap was the brains behind Khabib’s skillset. And just at the right time, Abdulmanap could witness and intimately coach his son at Khabib’s greatest. It was the peak of his career, the culmination of a lifetime’s work. In his post fight interview, with his father by his side, Khabib said, “I don’t know why I have everything in my life.” It was certainly a dream come true for both Nurmagomedovs.

Unfortunately, Khabib’s exhilarating high would not last long. In July, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov passed away due to complications stemming from a Covid-19 infection. The MMA community was heartbroken and Khabib’s future in the UFC was seemingly non-existent. If he were to have retired, no one would have blamed him. Khabib had no reason, at all, to return to the octagon. He had already made his money, was an undisputed champion, and his legacy was seemingly set in stone. Yet he agreed, with his mother’s permission, to accept the fight against Gaethje, so long as it was his last one.

And so it was. Though the majority of the first round was uneventful, with shots traded from both fighters, Khabib managed to take Gaethje down by grabbing an unsuccessful kick. Almost immediately, he transitioned into an armbar and Gaethje, fearful of Khabib’s grappling pedigree, held onto his arm and was saved by the bell. In the second round Khabib landed stiff jabs on Gaethje, who appeared to be slowing down. Again, Khabib took him down and transitioned from an armbar position into a triangle choke to win the fight. Khabib seemingly didn’t even get a scratch from one of his toughest opponents yet. He cemented a perfect 29-0 career record at the end of the match.

Khabib was never a flashy fighter for the common fan to galvanize over, but the turbulence he had to deal with is a story that everyone can appreciate. The current of life was seemingly always against him; he grew up in unfavorable conditions, was constantly overlooked, and just when his career seemed to turn a tide, he lost his father. If Khabib still wants to reach his father’s 30-0 plan, he might fight again, we can’t say it’s set in stone. As we examine Khabib’s legacy and all the points along his career’s curve—from fighting in local gyms in Dagestan to showcasing his championship talent shortly before his father’s tragic death, his swim against the Dagestani river seems to be the perfect microcosm of his career. Khabib persevered like a warrior, one stroke at a time.

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