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UFC 254, The Morning After: Khabib Nurmagomedov sprints to the finish

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Here’s what you may have missed last night!

We’ve never quite seen Khabib Nurmagomedov fight like he did opposite Justin Gaethje.

Khabib is famously composed inside the Octagon, even if he’s known for relentless pressure as well. The best example of that aggression came against Edson Barboza. In that bout, Nurmagomedov ran after his opponent, intent on avoiding his foe’s power kicks, and previous to this match up, I explained why I’d like to see him return to that style of pressure against Gaethje from a tactical standpoint.

Once on the mat, however, Nurmagomedov was at his usual mauling best against “Junior.” After his opponent is down, Nurmagomedov is not a man who chases chaos or thrives in sudden changes of position. His two most famous techniques — the leg triangle and two-on-one wrist control — are centered in control, as he locks down foes for a minutes at a time. This is the man who traps foes so thoroughly that he can have extended conversations with them between dropping blows.

Nurmagomedov is almost unquestionably the best ever in regards to top control.

None of that focus on locking his opponent down existed against Gaethje, nor was there any real fear for his own safety on the feet. Khabib did not show any respect for Gaethje’s low kicks, power swings, or his “zone of death” as a whole. He walked straight forward into the blasting range while sticking jabs and snap kicks.

On the mat, his aggression was equally high. After his first takedown of the fight in the final minute of the first round, Nurmagomedov did not look to solidify the round on the scorecards with control or damage.

He immediately gambled it all by jumping on an armbar.

Even with Nurmagomedov’s late takedown, the first round was close. His legs took some serious damage, and the Dagestani combatant walked through some punches that certainly wobble lesser Lightweights. There would be no adjustment, however, as Khabib jumped directly back into the fire in the second.

The second takedown again saw Gaethje turn and accept mount rather than give up his back. Once more, Nurmagomedov slid up high into the S mount position, but this time he sat into a triangle choke, willingly giving up top position in pursuit of the finish. Nurmagomedov pulled off such moves on the regional scene, but to do so in a championship fight against a man known for slamming the bejesus out of people?

That’s bold.

To me, it looked like “The Eagle” was ready for the fight to be over, one way or another. That’s not to say Nurmagomedov was ready to quit or lacked confidence in any way, but for the first time in his career, the combat Sambo specialist was looking beyond the fight itself.

It’s impossible to say with certainty as an outsider, but Khabib fought like he was ready to retire before this bout, as his mother first requested. He felt an obligation — to his father or country or UFC or Justin — to compete this final time and unify the titles. The weight seemed to nearly crush him, but Nurmagomedov endured to earn the victory before finally allowing himself to leave, collapsing on the canvas in relief immediately afterward.

Media repeatedly bringing up his father’s death and asking about the consequences at every possible opportunity for weeks on end probably made his escape even sweeter. After a lifetime of grueling work and competition, Nurmagomedov finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. He absolutely sprinted towards that finish line, stepping beyond his comfort zone and taking considerable risks to break free from his obligations just a few minutes earlier.

It just so happens he bowled over Justin Gaethje in the process.

For complete UFC 254: “Khabib vs. Gaethje” results click HERE.