Each new matchup pulls back a different layer on the greatness of Khabib Nurmagomedov. Against Abel Trujillo, he established there was no limit to his takedown powers. Against Rafael dos Anjos, he proved he could fight at a relentlessly grueling pace against a grizzled veteran. Against Conor McGregor, he demonstrated the power of his uppercut. At UFC 242 against Dustin Poirier, he settled a question of fate, making it clear that even a fighter who seemed touched by the fight gods and destined for gold was no match for him.
Poirier had toiled away in mixed martial arts for a decade. From the humble beginnings of dirt-floored rodeo arenas, he aimed for the top. He fought through the adversity of devastating losses, crafted a winning streak, placed himself into contention for the top lightweight in the world. He said all the right things, held himself to championship standards, bypassed others with seemingly more natural talent. It is the kind of the story that seems to scream for a fairy tale ending, one so moving that even Nurmagomedov praised Poirier’s career resolve, describing him as a great example of the sport.
His kindness, however, ended at words. In the cage, Nurmagomedov did what he always does—he ground his opponent’s victory dreams into a fine dust. And Poirier left the cage in the same way, and with the same bewilderment, as Nurmagomedov’s 27 previous opponents. Devastated. Dominated. Defeated.
“I felt like my whole career set me up for this moment but…” Poirier’s words trailed off mid-thought. He knew he’d cut no corners in his training camp. He’d been as ready as he could’ve been. And still, it was not enough. Not nearly enough. “Maybe there were times in there I could’ve did more,” he continued. “I was just so prepared. Now I have to wake up and look at myself in the morning every morning with this result.”
He took a deep breath and quickly composed himself. “If anything adversity’s taught me in the past, it’s when times are good, be grateful, and in times like this, be graceful.”
The cruelty of disappointment bred a welcome moment of poignancy, but as lovely a sentiment as it was, it was also telling for Poirier’s sheer wonderment at the power that had been unleashed against him. This a man who has exchanged firepower with mad bombers like Justin Gaethje, snipers like Max Holloway, innovators like Anthony Pettis. He trains with arguably the best gym in the world, American Top Team. He’s been competing professionally for over a decade. He thought he’d seen or experienced it all. But Khabib? With all his smothering and surrounding, he must be like fighting smoke.
More than once, all Poirier could do while reflecting on what had happened was shake his head, wipe his eyes and look a thousand yards into the distance, trying to imagine what he could have done differently.
He knew Nurmagomedov was going to crowd him, to take away space, to try to put him on his back. He’d diligently trained all those positions in the gym, hoping to buttress his 69 percent career takedown defense rate. It didn’t matter. Nurmagomedov put Poirier down on seven of his eight attempts. He transitioned from one dominant position to another. He threatened chokes. He landed sharp punches from the top. Poirier was calm but flummoxed. Resisting seemed pointless. Poirier did have a couple good moments; he seemed to clip Nurmagomedov with a right hook in the second round. He also threatened with a tight guillotine in the third. They were among the most successful moments anyone has had against Nurmagomedov, yet they were nowhere close to enough.
“I can’t get this fu—ker off of me, man,” he told his corner between the second and third rounds, a clear sign he was fighting both his opponent and his own frustration. Just a couple of minutes later, it was over, Poirier submitting to both.
This is how great Nurmagomedov has been since arriving in the UFC in 2012: he has fought 35 rounds. He has won 34 of them. Only Conor McGregor, in the third round of their 2018 fight, has managed to capture a single round. And for his troubles, an angry Nurmagomedov stopped him with a neck crank less than two minutes later. This is not to suggest he has no flaws; it simply validates everything else he does so brilliantly and so often. He dominates minutes, rounds, fights.
After winning his 12th straight UFC bout, Nurmagomedov looks downright unbeatable, yet not far in his future, there is a bogeyman waiting. Tony Ferguson and Nurmagomedov have been scheduled to fight on four different occasions, yet the match has yet to occur. Perhaps it is fate that Ferguson had to wait until now, when there seems to be no one else capable of wedging himself between Nurmagomedov and the lightweight belt. Like Nurmagomedov, Ferguson can boast a 12-fight win streak. If this fight occurred, it would feature the two longest such streaks in UFC history. It seems inevitable now, right?
Of course, destiny means nothing when it’s locked in Nurmagomedov’s vise grip, a place with seemingly no escape. Ferguson can bring his history of success, his sunglasses, his Granby rolls. He can bring all his eccentricities and unorthodoxies—he needs to bring it all with him—because nothing else and no one else has made a dent. Khabib Nurmagomedov is the most dominant champion in MMA, and from the looks of it, not even fate can change that.