This past weekend at UFC 254, Justin Gaethje suffered the same fate as every one of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s UFC opponents over the past eight years. He didn’t just lose; he was dominated.
Gaethje managed to get some version of “his fight” in the first round, and it didn’t matter, as Nurmagomedov got a clean takedown in the second round and tidily submitted Gaethje. Although Nurmagomedov’s triangle choke finish was textbook, the more impressive aspect of his night, for my money, was outstriking the UFC lightweight division’s fiercest puncher for five minutes.
Gaethje has never been in a boring fight. He’s forced the only two other guys who have beaten him to endure a baptism of damage before putting him out, and yet the threat of Nurmagomedov’s smothering ground game dictated the space Gaethje was willing and able to take. For the first time in his career, he was truly neutralized.
Nurmagomedov doesn’t have the most title defenses in UFC history or the most victories, but what sets him apart among the other contenders for MMA G.O.A.T. is his 29-0 record and his relentless control over nearly every opponent. Aside from a strange win over Gleison Tibau in 2012 in which Nurmagomedov didn’t get a single takedown, he has never been close to losing.
And he might not ever be, since he announced his retirement in the cage after winning on Saturday. The fight was Nurmagomedov’s first without his father and lifelong coach Abdulmanap, who died of COVID-19 complications in July. If he’s actually done, and this is the first honest retirement announcement in combat sports history, he has a fine reason to leave and a record anyone would be proud of. He has nothing left to prove.
There’s still one lingering what-if from his career: Nurmagomedov never fought Tony Ferguson and probably never will. There hasn’t been a potential matchup this anticipated or cursed in years, as the fight was made and canceled five times for increasingly absurd reasons. Nobody is a bad matchup for Nurmagomedov, but out of all the lightweight contenders during his rise to the top, Ferguson seemed like the only one of the bunch who could both contend in grappling situations as well as press an advantage in the standup. Gaethje, Conor McGregor, and Dustin Poirier are all strikers who were either unable or unwilling to hit Nurmagomedov while the fight was upright and unable to stop the inevitable submission once things hit the mat.
Ferguson, on the other hand, is a jiu jitsu ace with a baffling style and a mastery of grappling. He’s earned submissions from his back, and his odd history of getting stronger as he takes more punishment is at least an enticing factor against someone as relentless as Nurmagomedov. The relevant dynamic in every Nurmagomedov fight is how much damage his opponent can rack up before things inevitably end up on the ground and the fight ends. Ferguson theoretically had the tools to ask different questions and pose different challenges; the Fight Gods apparently have willed it so that it will forever remain in the realm of theory.
Five times the UFC has matched the two men, first as top contenders and then eventually for the championship belt. As the stakes increased, the reasons for the fight’s cancelation became stranger:
- The pair was first supposed to meet in December 2015, a year and a half after Nurmagomedov really put himself into the elite tier with a win over Rafael Dos Anjos. That October, Nurmagomedov announced he’d miss the fight with a rib injury and ominously said, “I’m not sure if I will ever come back.”
- The UFC booked the fight for the second time the following spring. This time, Ferguson was the one suffering an injury in his thoracic cavity, as he announced, “Doc said I have Fluid/Blood in my lung.”
- The third pairing was supposed to take place in April 2017 for the interim lightweight title while Conor McGregor pretended to be a boxer. On the night before the weigh-ins, Nurmagomedov was mysteriously rushed to the hospital at 4 a.m. after complications with his weight cut. The fight was called off and Dana White was extremely pissed about Nurmagomedov’s management’s refusal to communicate with the UFC. Ferguson was initially sympathetic towards his opponent, but he changed his tone after the earth-shattering revelation that Nurmagomedov appeared near some tiramisu during his training camp, as revealed by an episode of UFC Embedded.
- The fourth cancelation was caused by the dumbest injury of all: Ferguson tore his ACL tripping over an electrical cord on April Fool’s Day 2018.
- The two were supposed to fight for the title this spring, but Nurmagomedov pulled out by default when he announced that he’d be adhering to COVID-19 quarantine protocols and staying in Russia. Ferguson tried to tough-guy it and called for Nurmagomedov to be stripped of his title, but that didn’t happen. Ferguson eventually fought and lost to Justin Gaethje in May, a month after Ferguson cut weight down to 155 pounds on the fight’s initial date to prove some bizarre point.
With Ferguson’s decline and Nurmagomedov’s retirement, at least for the short term, there is no reason to expect this fight will ever happen. Maybe Ferguson wins the belt, but what if Nurmagomedov stays retired? Maybe Nurmagomedov comes back in two years, but what if Ferguson loses back-to-back fights? Fighters do not fight all that often, and in such a brutal sport, peaks are short and even the most obvious and tantalizing matchups don’t always get made. Somehow, both men racked up simultaneous 12-fight winning streaks and never touched gloves. It’s a bummer the scrap never materialized, but that’s the inherent vice of MMA.