Khabib Nurmagomedov knelt and put his head in his hands. Tears streamed from his eyes. The burden he'd borne for the past three months had been released. The emotions of the typically stoic champion overwhelmed him.
Nurmagomedov, one of the best fighters in the history of mixed martial arts, handed Justin Gaethje – who many said would be Nurmagomedov's toughest test – at the main UFC 254 event in 1:34 of the second round on Saturday by triangular throttle an Abu Dhabi.
Nurmagomedov took Gaethje down, put on the triangular throttle, pulled it in and Gaethje passed out completely. The victory united the UFC lightweight title.
This was Nurmagomedov's first fight since his father and head coach Abdulmanap passed away in July due to complications from COVID-19. And after that, Nurmagomedov announced his retirement from mixed martial arts. Nurmagomedov said his mother didn't want him to compete without his father, but he told her this would be his last fight.
"I promised her that this would be my last fight," said Nurmagomedov. "If I give my word, I have to obey."
Nurmagomedov said he had no interest in fighting the winner of a scheduled January match between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier. Nurmagomedov said he had already suffocated both men. He left his gloves in the center of the octagon before leaving.
"Today I want to say that this was my last fight," said Nurmagomedov. "… It was my father's dream. What else?"
ESPN has ranked Nurmagomedov as the best pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world, with Gaethje ranked 8th. In the lightweight division, ESPN has Nurmagomedov and Gaethje in 1st and 2nd place respectively. Nurmagomedov was UFC lightweight champion and Gaethje was interim champion.
"I know that he made his father so proud," said Gaethje.
The fight took place in front of no fans in the Flash Forum on Yas Island, which the UFC has dubbed "Fight Island", the international home of promotion during the pandemic.
Nurmagomedov (29-0) remained unbeaten and this win connects him with BJ Penn and Benson Henderson with the most title defenses in the history of the UFC lightweight (4). The native Russian from Dagestan has victories against former champions McGregor, Poirier and Rafael dos Anjos. Nurmagomedov, 32, is a perfect 13-0 UFC, only the second fighter after Anderson Silva, who started a UFC career with 13 straight wins.
Gaethje (22-3) had four wins, beating Tony Ferguson to win the UFC intermediate lightweight title at UFC 249 in May. The Arizona native hadn't made a decision in six years, with nine KO / TKO wins during that time. Gaethje, 31, is the former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion.
"I felt alive," said Gaethje. "That's why I'm stepping in here man. I ask my coaches if they're willing to feel alive every time I step in here."