There were so many questions surrounding Khabib Nurmagomedov heading into Saturday’s title fight, his first without his late father, Abdulmanap.
Would he be as dominant? Would he care as much? Would he be too emotional? Would he win?
In the end, Nurmagomedov looked better than ever. That’s not hyperbole. That’s fact.
He dominated Justin Gaethje from the get-go. He controlled the pace of the fight, took the center of the cage and imposed his will.
It looked as if he was a man on a mission en route to submitting Gaethje in the second round. A man on a mission to win for his father, who died in July of a heart condition complicated by the coronavirus.
And when it ended Saturday in Abu Dhabi, Khabib couldn’t stop crying. There he was, the best fighter on the planet, weeping uncontrollably. He had done such a great job of publicly suppressing his feelings leading up to this fight, one had to wonder if he would break in the aftermath. Well, he did. And you can’t blame him.
Immediately, I was reminded of the scene when Michael Jordan couldn’t stop crying after winning the NBA Finals in 1996 against the Seattle SuperSonics. You remember that moment, right? Father’s Day. His first title since the murder of his father, James.
It’s a moment basketball fans will never forget: seeing the greatest player of all time cry for his father while laying on the floor, clutching a ball.
MMA fans just witnessed a similar scene play out with arguably the greatest fighter of all time.
There’s one big difference between those two scenes, though.
You see, Nurmagomedov had to answer a lot of questions about his dad leading up to this fight. He handled those questions with grace and class. But he kept one answer to himself.
He revealed after the win to Jon Anik that he promised his mother he would retire after this fight. He promised her he would not continue without Abdulmanap by his side. He took off his gloves and placed them in the center of the cage, as is tradition when a fighter calls it a career.
Nurmagomedov’s mother isn’t as well known to the public, but Khabib is just as close with her as he was with his father.
So, truth be told, in one way, this isn’t a total shock. He discussed retiring after his 30th pro fight, which would have been his next one. So, it comes one fight early.
But it’s hard to digest because of how dominant he is. An athlete hasn’t left in his prime this way since Jordan did during his first retirement in ’93. That’s how good Khabib is right now.
But who can blame him? There aren’t many challenges left. Would the Georges St-Pierre fight have been fun? Yes. Absolutely. It would have been an amazing scene. Fascinating theater. Would a Conor McGregor rematch have been amazing? Yes. I’d love to see that, too.
But if you know anything about Khabib, it’s that he has always followed “Father’s plan,” and the fact that he feels as if he can’t continue without his father by his side seems like a perfect ending to a legendary career.
“Father’s plan” is now mission accomplished. Nothing left to prove.