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The case for Khabib Nurmagomedov as the greatest MMA fighter of all time

UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has bid the sport of mixed martial arts farewell following his second-round submission victory over Justin Gaethje at UFC 254. The emotional defense of his title and subsequent retirement come after the passing of his father — who was also his longtime trainer — in July from COVID-19 complications.

Should he stick to his guns and hang up his gloves, Nurmagomedov would leave the sport with a perfect 29-0 record (eight knockouts and 11 submissions) while effectively cleaning out the lightweight division as its undisputed champion. 

But is this enough to recognize “The Eagle” as the greatest mixed martial artist to ever live?

Probably. 

Fictional sports lists such as this one are often debated without a clear-cut GOAT being decided because of generational differences and a variety of other factors. Considering that mixed martial arts is still relatively new, there isn’t as much of a gap between generations as in other sports. That also leaves a great deal of room for movement as MMA continues to evolve. 

But at this very moment, it’s fair to say that Khabib Nurmagomedov is standing on the top of the mountain. 

And the case for him is a strong one.

At the center of the conversation lies three other mixed martial artists: Jon Jones (26-1, one NC), Georges St-Pierre (26-2) and Fedor Emelianenko (39-6, one NC). Sorry, Anderson Silva, but you’ve been pushed just outside this discussion.

The first thing that stands out is that Nurmagomedov is undefeated. But that’s not what pushes him over the edge. It’s the fact that the fighter from Dagestan has won only by unanimous decision, submission or knockout. He has rarely lost a single round and has steamrolled elite fighters. 

While Jones’ reign of terror has been impressive, he struggled against the likes of Dominick Reyes and Thiago Santos in recent fights and Alexander Gustafsson pushed him to the limit in their first meeting seven years ago. Those are minor in the grand scheme of things but major when splitting hairs in a debate regarding the GOAT. 

Emelianenko has deteriorated into a far less invincible version of “The Last Emperor” over the back third of his career, but before that he was easily the most dominant heavyweight fighter in the history of the sport during his frightening run through Pride.

St-Pierre has a strong argument for being the greatest given the level of opposition, his dominance and his being a two-division champion. But the knockout loss to perennial underdog Matt Serra in 2007 is a massive blemish when debating who is the GOAT.

Khabib’s final act has been mighty impressive. He may not have as many former champions under his belt as Jones but he absolutely has mauled his peers on his way to being undefeated. The argument against him is that his championship reign wasn’t nearly as long as those of Jones, St-Pierre, Fedor or even Silva, but there is no debating how dominant he has been in his career. 

What he did to Conor McGregor when the Irishman was at the top of his game thrust him into the spotlight, but the carnage he left along the way was equally as impressive. He cut through the likes of Edson Barboza and Rafael dos Anjos with little resistance while brutally mauling Michael Johnson to declare himself the top lightweight in the world. Unfortunately, injuries delayed his coronation as a highly anticipated fight with Tony Ferguson never came to fruition. 

Instead, Khabib ran roughshod over McGregor, Dustin Poirier and the man who savagely ended Ferguson’s 12-fight winning streak, Justin Gaethje, in his title defenses. Again, it’s not who he beat but how he beat them. These fights were never close. Once Khabib decided to bring the fight into his universe with his world-class grappling and wrestling, his opponents never had a chance. 

What makes these victories even more incredible is the fact he occasionally played with fire in them. With both McGregor and Gaethje, Khabib played the striking game until he grew tired of it. He found success by knocking down the vaunted Irish striker in their 2018 megafight and standing toe to toe with Gaethje for the majority of the first round at UFC 254. Once Khabib was done playing, he smothered and submitted both. 

“The Eagle” departing at the peak of his powers at 32 certainly strengthens his case. Both Emelianenko and Silva faded in the back half of their careers and, unfortunately, fighting too long has its consequences. St-Pierre’s case is closed and will be debated for years to come, but his two losses and barely escaping Johny Hendricks before his first retirement hurt his resume. 

Jones still has an opportunity to strengthen his argument. Should he move to heavyweight and capture the title, it’ll be difficult to deny him his place on top of the mountain. But the naysayers will pick apart his failed drug tests and antics outside the Octagon and point to them as why he cannot top Nurmagomedov. 

No fighter has been as extraordinarily dominant as Khabib. He truly has nothing left to prove after decimating the lightweight division. There will be those who wonder what could have been if he had decided to venture into the welterweight division and try his hand at winning another world title. But it’s understandable that he has decided to retire considering he has lost his best friend and trainer in his father and that he promised his mother he would not continue fighting. 

The hardest thing for any athlete to do is to retire at the top of their game. But if anybody could do it, it’s Khabib. And if this retirement holds, then he has built up the resume to stake his claim as the greatest mixed martial artist to walk the planet.

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