UFC 254 Takeaways: Khabib Nurmagomedov retires a legend

Khabib Nurmagomedov seen here posing during a ceremonial weigh-in prior to a UFC event. The lightweight champion retired following UFC 254 with a record of 29-0. (John Locher/AP)

Khabib Nurmagomedov knelt in the centre of the Octagon and wept.

Moments earlier, the undefeated lightweight champion choked Justin Gaethje unconscious to defend his title in the UFC 254 main event in his first fight since the passing of his father.

The win bumped Nurmagomedov’s UFC record to 13-0 and his overall mixed martial arts record to 29-0, however fight fans won’t get to see him attempt a 30th consecutive victory because during his post-fight interview, the 32-year-old global superstar from Dagestan announced his retirement.

“This was my last fight,” Nurmagomedov said. “No way I’m going to come here without my father.”

Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov died in July at age 57. He was a renowned figure in Russian MMA and his influence extended well beyond his own son’s success. Nurmagomedov had been coached by his father for his entire life.

A devout Muslim and family man, Nurmagomedov explained that his mother did not want him to fight without his father and so he promised her this would be his last fight.

Based on everything we’ve come to know of Nurmagomedov and his character, there’s no reason to think his retirement is temporary or was announced in haste like we have seen with some MMA athletes in the past.

And if that was in fact his swansong, what a brilliant way to go out.

Nurmagomedov fought with pace and was leading the dance through the opening stanza and into the second. He withstood some vicious leg kicks from Gaethje but landed his takedowns. The way he set up the fight-ending triangle choke from the mount position was exemplary.

At the post-fight press conference, UFC president Dana White alluded to Nurmagomedov potentially being injured heading into this fight. If true, it makes the win even more spectacular.

Nurmagomedov is undoubtedly the greatest lightweight in MMA history. The only question surrounding his legacy now is whether or not it’s fair to say he’s the greatest to ever do it.

He was the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter on the official UFC rankings heading into the event, with Jon Jones as the only fighter ahead of him. Will the win over Gaethje be enough to see Nurmagomedov retire at the absolute pinnacle of the sport?

Georges St-Pierre retired on top as a two-weight champion, but GSP had losses on his record and was in a few wars over the years.

Jones has never lost (save for that infamous 2009 disqualification) and is widely considered the sport’s greatest talent, yet the longtime light-heavyweight champion would lose rounds or settle for contentious decisions from time to time during his title reign.

Nurmagomedov, simply put, is the most dominant champion the UFC has ever seen. He only lost one round in his entire UFC career. One. Single. Round.

“He's the toughest human being on the planet,” White said of Nurmagomedov. “He's the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world.”

The two-time world Sambo champion has earned respect from all corners of the combat sports world. His biggest rival, Conor McGregor, even sent him a tweet following UFC 254. Nurmagomedov and McGregor headlined UFC 229 against one another two years ago. The two megastars developed a heated rivalry that at times got extremely personal and the event ended up being the biggest pay-per-view card in UFC history.

“It was a masterful performance,” St-Pierre told ESPN while reacting to Nurmagomedov’s announcement. “As close as you get to a perfect fight against a very, very tough threat. … What a great way to finish a career. He left a great legacy. One of the best to ever do it. Maybe the best to have ever done it.”

Here are some other takeaways from a UFC 254 card that saw only three of the 12 fights go the distance.

Whittaker deserves rematch with Adesanya

The night’s co-main event saw Robert Whittaker edge out Jared Cannonier in a middleweight top contender’s bout.

Whittaker dropped Cannonier with a head-kick – a shot he had been setting up throughout the fight – and nearly put Cannonier away in the third and final round, but Cannonier survived and it went to the scorecards with each judge giving Whittaker the nod two rounds to one.

Now 10-1 at 185 pounds, there really isn’t anywhere for the former champion to go except back into a title fight.

Defending champion Israel Adesanya predicted Cannonier would finish Whittaker.

Adesanya knocked Whittaker out at UFC 243 one year ago to win the belt. Whittaker has said that leading up to that fight he was physically and mentally worn out. It was clear by his performance against Adesanya that he wasn’t the best version of himself.

After taking some time off to reset, Whittaker has looked refreshed. He shook off the rust in a tactical battle against Darren Till in July and looked even sharper against Cannonier.

Adesanya has been jawing with Jon Jones in recent weeks. That superfight is within the realm of possibility but if the UFC doesn’t want to go through with it right now, or Jones is set on competing at heavyweight, then a rematch with Whittaker is what should happen next.

Ankalaev a new contender at 205 pounds

With Jan Blachowicz as the reigning champion and Jon Jones off figuring out what his next challenge will be, the UFC’s light-heavyweight division is more wide open than it has been in nearly a decade.

Magomed Ankalaev entered UFC 254 ranked as the No. 11 contender in the division. His meeting with Ion Cuțelaba was a rematch of a controversial stoppage that occurred back in February and Ankalaev left nothing up for debate in the sequel.

Ankalaev planted his feet and caught Cuțelaba with a flush left hand as the Moldovan charged in aggressively late in the opening round. Several follow-up shots later and Ankalaev had gotten the job done.

“I’ve wanted to make a statement for a long time,” Ankalaev said through a translator after improving to 14-1 in MMA. “I wanted to make my coaches proud.”

He certainly did make a statement and he’s now in line for a top-10 opponent.

Plenty of untapped potential on display

The amount of emerging talent on the UFC roster right now is staggering and UFC 254 was chock full of it.

Shavkat Rakhmonov put the welterweight division on notice when he made quick work of Alex Oliveira. The 26-year-old from Kazakhstan improved to 13-0 in MMA with a guillotine choke submission over the veteran Oliveira. There’s a lot of hype around Rakhmonov and he showed why.

When she’s not working towards earning her PhD in industrial psychology, 23-year-old Miranda Maverick is busy training to become a future flyweight champion. She made a successful UFC debut when she smashed the nose of Liana Jojua with a standing lead elbow and the doctor called a stop to the fight after the opening round. Maverick is 8-2 and also has several nice wins in Invicta FC on her record.

The event kicked off with Joel Alvarez extending his finishing streak to three with a first-round armbar submission of Alexander Yakovlev who has lost four of his past five. Alvarez, 27, is now 18-2 with 16 submission wins. He missed weight by more than three pounds, forfeiting 30 per cent of his purse, but if he can manage his weight he could be in line for some nice matchups in the lightweight division.

Also on the prelims, Da Un Jung continued showing promise by nearly finishing Sam Alvey late in their split draw. Casey Kenney and Nathaniel Wood also put on a fun show and picked up Fight of the Night bonuses.

On the main card, Phil Hawes made a huge impression in his official UFC debut with an 18-second knockout of Jacob Malkoun.

Below are the complete results from UFC 254:

MAIN CARD
• Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Justin Gaethje by submission (triangle choke)
• Robert Whittaker def. Jared Cannonier by unanimous decision
• Alexander Volkov def. Walt Harris by TKO
• Phil Hawes def. Jacob Malkoun by knockout
• Lauren Murphy def. Liliya Shakirova by submission (rear-naked choke)
• Magomed Ankalaev def. Ion Cuțelaba by knockout

PRELIMINARY CARD
• Tai Tuivasa def. Stefan Struve by knockout
• Shavkat Rakhmonov def. Alex Oliveira by submission (guillotine choke)
• Da Un Jung vs. Sam Alvey ends in split draw
• Casey Kenney def. Nathaniel Wood by unanimous decision
• Miranda Maverick def. Liana Jojua by TKO (doctor’s stoppage)
• Joel Alvarez def. Alexander Yakovlev by submission (armbar)

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