To say UFC 254 brought the heat would be the understatement of the year. From the preliminary fights all the way up to an electrifying co-main event which saw Australia’s own former UFC Middleweight Champion Robert Whittaker dismantle the No. 2 division contender Jared Cannonier… any complaints about waking up at 4 AM quickly became a distant memory. The moment MMA fans had really been waiting for, however, was when undefeated UFC Lightweight Champion and force of nature – Khabib Nurmagomedov – stepped back into the Octagon to face the relentless UFC Lightweight Interim Champion – Justin Gaethje.
You almost couldn’t script this. In one corner, you had the indomitable Nurmagomedov making his return after over a year to defend his remarkable 28-0 record, to defends his world championship title, and right after the passing of his father/coach – Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov – who was pivotal to what the world had witnessed so far; in the other, you had Gaethje, a man determined to make his mark in combat sports history (and having previously proved himself to be a god-killer in his own right).
Round One started with Gaethje swinging wildly like he had something to prove. Nothing was quite landing as intended, nor causing any sincere concern, and appeared almost purely reactive. Suffice it to say, even the most casual of viewers would have been able to tell he was playing a dangerous game. Although to Gaethje’s credit, the leg kicks were a respectable effort. In the closing thirty seconds, Nurmagomedov managed to land his signature single-leg takedown, before transitioning into mount and threatening an armbar. Very close… but no cigar.
Round Two initially seemed like nothing more than a continuation of the first prior to Nurmagomedov’s takedown. That was, until, Nurmagomedov shot for a double-leg and managed to take Gaethje’s back. In spite of the latter’s valiant effort to stack pass and escape, the former had locked up a picture-perfect triangle, bringing his opponent to his knees, and putting him to sleep. Khabib Nurmagomedov had made short work of Justin Gaethje in less than one and a half rounds via submission – effectively defending both his title and professional record.
Overcome with sheer emotion, Nurmagomedov knelt to the ground and let his tears out. This was, after all, the first victory in his life without a certain key figure standing by his side. As he would soon reveal in the post-fight interview, this would also be the last. Retirement wasn’t a possibility many had anticipated, but it was the one many could understand:
“I promised my mother this is going to be my last fight… No way I can come here without my father.”
Khabib Nurmagomedov leaves behind a Hall of Fame-worthy 29-0 professional record as well as an untouchable legacy. And anyone still doubting the Dagestani Eagle after UFC 254 is either a damn fool or trying to sell you something.
Note: So I guess this means we’re really never going to see Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Tony Ferguson…