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UFC 254: Forget G.O.A.T. status, Khabib Nurmagomedov has nothing left to prove

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Khabib Nurmagomedov shocked the world by retiring following his latest impressive win at UFC 254. But when you look at what he’s done and what’s left to do, is his decision really so surprising?

Another fight for Khabib Nurmagomedov ... another dominating win (watch highlights).

The scene at UFC 254 on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi this earlier afternoon (Sat., Oct. 24, 2020) was a familiar one: a foe too concerned with Khabib’s wrestling to manage their usual offensive output. Khabib simply looking several levels above his opponent the moment things hit the mat. The only truly surprising thing that happened (other than two out of three judges awarding Justin Gaethje round one) was Nurmagomedov announcing his decision to retire from the sport (listen here).

“Today I want to say this, it was my last fight,” an emotional Khabib said in the ring during his victory interview. “No way I am going to come here without my father. It was first time after what happened with my father, when UFC call me with Justin, I talk with my mother, three days. She don’t want I go fight without father. But I promise her, it’s gonna be my last fight. And if I give my word, I have to follow this. It was my last fight here. I know only one thing I want from UFC. You guys have to put me on #1 P4P fighter in the world because I deserve this.”

And while the decision seemed to come out of nowhere given his comments leading up to the fight, it also made a lot of sense. The goal of retiring at 30-0 was his father’s more than his. His fight career was a collaboration between the two of them up until this point. So what now, with Abdulmanap gone? Khabib’s mark has already been made upon mixed martial arts (MMA). At this moment he is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. And further questing to claim the much more nebulous title of G.O.A.T. would take years, a Sisyphean task that could undo the reputation he’d built up to this perfect moment.

Just look at Jon Jones, who is understandably upset he’s about to be surpassed on the pound-for-pound rankings list by Khabib.

“15 world titles,” Jones wrote on Twitter. “Numbers don’t lie.”

But, you’re only as good as your last performance. His three recent title defenses — the same amount Khabib has in total — were lackluster affairs that have undeniably moved “Bones” down rather than up as far as his legacy is concerned. Look at what happened to Anderson Silva, whose stellar six-year run at the top of the Middleweight division has been overshadowed by the past seven years of losses.

I’m not arguing that this is just. I’m arguing that the quest for G.O.A.T. status is a fool’s errand. A vaporous title with too many intangibles to calculate coherently. One where your accomplishments in this moment will soon fade in the memory of fans as new moments and new fighters stake their own claims.

Nurmagomedov could stick around for another three to four years and put together several more title defenses against No. 1 contenders. But even then his stats wouldn’t guarantee G.O.A.T. respect. If fans still debate Jones and Georges St-Pierre and Demetrious Johnson, they’d still debate Khabib. The best way to win this game is to not play it. To walk away from the sport on your own terms, without the need to justify your place amongst the pantheon of greatest ever.

Khabib’s dominance speaks for itself. His fans can pick up his mantle and credibly argue he could have stuck around and worked through a steady list of top-ranked contenders, padding UFC’s bottom line and his own. So why put yourself through so much to maybe improve your standing with some, when you already have the respect and admiration of so many?

“I am eagle, I want to fly,” he said two weeks ago in an interview with ESPN. “When my time comes I’m gonna die. But before my time comes I want to fly. I want to be free. I want to do whatever I want. I want to spend time with my family, my friends, with my people. I want to live in my village.”

“I don’t want to put crazy goal in front of me,” he continued. “Soon, very soon I think, my career is going to finish. And I’m going to begin my new life without all this interview, without all this media stuff, weight cutting, hard training, focusing. I’m going to be getting a new life. And for life, I don’t need too much Even if you billionaire, you never eat more than one bread in one day.

“I want to be free, I want to fly, and I want to do whatever I want,” he concluded. “Whatever I need.”

Watching Khabib over the last year dealing with all the frustrations of his fight with Tony Ferguson falling out (again) due to the pandemic, losing his father to COVID-19, dealing with the spotlight and the pressures and that jackass Conor McGregor and everyone talking about a rematch. Watching him struggle to make weight, watching the UFC continue to try and pressure him into its gameplan rather than his own, watching him exhausted and bored with endless interviews. Watching all that, was it really that much of a surprise that he retired tonight at UFC 254 after beating Gaethje?

I guess not. And the more I think about it, the smarter his decision seems. It’s time for “The Eagle” to fly.