Anyone who’s lost a parent knows what lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov experienced after defeating Justin Gaethje on Saturday at UFC 254.
The stoic Russian, one of the toughest pound-for-pound competitors in the sport’s history, a man rarely given to displays of emotion, ended up on his hands and knees weeping on the mat in center octagon after he finished Gaethje by second-round technical submission. When Nurmagomedov stood up to gather himself, his teammates gave him a towel in which he buried his face for several more moments before he composed himself and made the announcement that he was retiring from MMA undefeated.
Your parents mold and shape you, impart their values upon you, give you the opportunity to fly. If you’ve lost one or both — as someone who lost both, I know of what I speak — you carry this with you for as long as you live. But you always feel their absence, and you rarely do so more than the first time you go through a major life event without having them by your side.
Now, consider that Nurmagomedov’s family life was intertwined with his professional life. Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, who died of COVID-19 related complications in June, was Khabib’s coach from his earliest childhood days in sambo, all the way through his rise up the professional ranks, all the way to UFC championship glory.
If your career doesn’t intertsect with your family life, the career can become an escape as you put your life back together following such a deep loss. Nurmagomedov didn’t have that luxury. Every practice without his father leading up to the Gaethje fight was a reminder of his absence. Every interview in which he was asked about his father unearthed memories.
That’s before we even get into the fact that Nurmagomedov’s fight with Gaethje was in Abu Dhabi, the scene of his previous fight. Nurmagomedov came to UFC 242 a conquering hero, not just a leading sports name in Russia but also the biggest Muslim star coming to compete in a Muslim country after Nurmagomedov had defended his family’s honor from Conor McGregor’s insults in the buildup to their UFC 229 clash. No one knew at the time that, after Nurmagomedov defeated Dustin Poirier, it would mark the last time father and son would stand in the octagon together.
If you had to carry this sort of emotional luggage with you every time you went to work, you might consider trying something else, too.
For some reason, Nurmagomedov hasn’t been name-checked as often as others in the “greatest of all time” debate. No one goes 29-0 in mixed martial arts.
Nurmagomedov never got tagged like Georges St-Pierre did against Matt Serra. Never got wildly undisciplined and allowed himself to be put in position to get disqualified like Jon Jones against Matt Hamill. Never had those blemishes we overlook with other GOAT contenders.
Then there’s his body of work in the sport’s deepest division. Edson Barboza? 30-25, 30-24, 30-24. Al Iaquinta, his third scheduled foe in six days, on one day’s notice? 50-44, 50-43, 50-43 to win the vacant title. McGregor, submitted. Poirier, submitted. Gaethje, submitted.
You get the point. What’s left?
Yeah, I know. There’s one: Tony Ferguson. Five times this fight was scheduled. Five times it fell out. The first three were regular fight-fallout reasons such as training injuries. The last two were a fluke catastrophic knee injury by Ferguson while doing media and then a worldwide pandemic shutting down the entire sports world.
There was even a path to a sixth fight date, which went askew when Ferguson lost to Gaethje in May at UFC 249. The cosmos were sending us signal after signal that this fight, for awhile considered the best fight you could possibly make in mixed martial arts, just wasn’t meant to be, and that it’s time to accept it and move on.
Nurmagomedov has accepted it’s time to move on, too. If you watch the fight game long enough, you can get knee-jerk reflexive in your cynicism toward fighter retirements. Nurmagomedov is just 32. You think he can’t possibly stand by his decision, right? After all, GSP was absolutely fed up, and even he returned five years later when the right opportunity presented itself.
This one just might be different. Nurmagomedov never has been in love with the trappings of success like the vast majority of his contemporaries. He seems to openly disdain the carnival aspect of the UFC and has been in it purely for the sport — just this week, he was demanding Poirier and McGregor would have to fight at 155 pounds if the winner was to get a chance to face him.
From the sport perspective, Nurmagomedov has climbed every mountain, with one more fight in his father’s memory his highest peak.
“I talked with my mother three days. She don’t (want me) to go fight without father, but I promised her it’s gonna be my last fight,” Nurmagomedov said. “And if I give my word, I have to follow this.”
If you still have both of your parents, or even one, cherish every moment. Khabib Nurmagomedov did both his mother and his father proud Saturday. Laying down the gloves in their honor was his finest moment.