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As Khabib Nurmagomedov looks to go 29-0 this weekend at UFC 254, now is as good a time as any to look back on how he got there and how much he’s achieved in his 12-year career. Not only does Nurmagomedov have an unbeaten mark and a win over Conor McGregor that broke pay-per-view records, he’s also only lost a single round since joining the UFC in 2012.
It’s a legendary run that has rightfully placed Nurmagomedov in the thick of any discussion about the greatest fighters of all-time, but just how high on the mountaintop does he currently reside? MMA Fighting’s Jed Meshew and Alexander K. Lee discuss whether Nurmagomedov is truly the best or if there’s still work to be done.
THE DEFINITION OF GREATNESS
Meshew: We can keep this short. Khabib is the GOAT. The end. Seriously though, I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but I do think it’s close to being that simple.
Arguments about the Greatest of All-Time are always fraught with problems, mostly stemming from the fact that “greatness” is a subjective term and subjective things can’t be argued definitively (At least not usually. There are certainly subjective opinions, like “Brad Pitt is handsome,” or “The Fast and the Furious is a cinematic masterpiece.” Sure, those aren’t technically facts but to say otherwise would be ridiculous.) But in the case of MMA, I believe we often overthink this conversation because Greatness should be easy to define.
Greatness isn’t who made the most money (Conor McGregor), or who beat the most former champions (Jon Jones), or who had the longest winning streak (Anderson Silva), or who defended his belt the most (Demetrious Johnson), or who won the most titles (a bunch of people with two). All of those are factors are parts of the whole that make up Greatness. Greatness in the context of MMA is nothing more or less than the level of dominance a fighter shows over his or her peers for an extended period of time. If it were a math equation, it would look like this:
(Level of Dominance x Duration) / Quality of Competition
By this criteria, there is only one fighter worthy of the GOAT title: Georges St-Pierre. No one else, male or female, has defeated more top-flight, in their prime competition than GSP did during his welterweight run. At the top of GOAT mountain, you can nitpick the cases of every other fighter but currently, you can’t do that with St-Pierre. But should Khabib run through Justin Gaethje this weekend (as I expect him to), then there’s not a good way to attack his legacy.
Khabib has been the most dominant fighter in the lightweight division for six years, since he ragdolled Rafael dos Anjos like a small child wrestling his older brother. Since that time, Khabib has gone 6-0 in the UFC, with four stoppages, and wins over five top-10 ranked opponents. Not to mention the fact that the man is 28-0, which even the most critical opponent has to admit is impressive. In a sport where we are frequently sold the idea that “anything can happen” and even the other all-time great fighters have slipped or faltered in one way or another, Khabib has never done so. In fact, in his entire UFC career, he has lost ONE ROUND of fighting. That is entirely unparalleled. And all of that leaves out the most important part of Khabib’s legacy: he’s accomplished all of this at lightweight.
The 155-pound division is the best division in the sport by a wide, wide margin. Critiques of Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson have always centered around being the kings of bad divisions, with fair reasoning. There are, at most, a handful of men in each division that could be considered truly exceptional fighters and the rest are the best of what’s available. But at lightweight, the division runs 30+ deep of guys that could, on any given night, ruin the run of a top-ranked fighter. To spend most of his career, and all of his UFC career in that division and never lose a round is borderline inconceivable. It’s what made Tony Ferguson’s run so damn impressive and why losing out on that fight is one of the biggest tragedies in the history of the sport.
The issue people have with calling Khabib the GOAT is because of who he is as a fighter. St-Pierre (and the evolution of the sport writ large) established “well-rounded” fighters as the idealized version of combat athletes. Men who were versatile and could do anything required to win a fight. Khabib is not that. But the reality is, the best fighter isn’t the one who can do the most stuff, or look the prettiest doing it, it’s the one who can win the fight. Or, to paraphrase Count Adhemar, “he has no style whatsoever, but neither has an anvil.” Khabib is, at best, a serviceable kickboxer but that doesn’t really matter because he doesn’t need to kickbox. Khabib is the greatest grappler in MMA history so why do anything other than grapple people? No point in having a Plan B if Plan A is unstoppable.
The simple fact is, love him or hate him, Khabib is already the lightweight GOAT and by virtue of that alone, he has a claim to the overall GOAT crown. He is the best fighter in the best division which means an awful lot, and he has been so for some time. If he beats Gaethje, he only further elevates his status and comes knocking on the door of St-Pierre (who, to his credit, lorded over the second best division in MMA history). If he fights one more time before hanging up the gloves and turns in a similarly dominant performance, there can be no denying his status as the greatest fighter ever to grace the cage.
HE’S TOP-5 AND HE AIN’T 1
Lee: Khabib Nurmagomedov is as good as any fighter I’ve ever seen. But he’s not indisputably the greatest.
Beyond just the fact that it’s nearly impossible in combat sports to definitively compare eras and legacies—another discussion entirely—even if we consider a number of different criteria then Nurmagomedov fails to check all of the boxes. So let’s throw a few categories out there and see how high “The Eagle” flies.
The first category that often comes up, one which I’ll admit isn’t entirely fair to Nurmagomedov, is the quality of his championship reign. Since winning the title in April 2018 with a solid, if unspectacular win over Al Iaquinta, Nurmagomedov has defended it just twice. Those two defenses were impressive and just as importantly widely watched as we know that his clash with Conor McGregor was the most successful pay-per-view event in UFC history, while his win over Dustin Poirier in Abu Dhabi is rumored to have hit the seven-figure buy mark (a reasonable estimate, at the very least). There’s massive interest in Nurmagomedov’s title defenses, which is why it’s a shame that he hasn’t competed more often.
Whether it’s due to religious, professional, health, or other reasons, the fact is that three scheduled title defenses in two years is hardly the stuff of legends. Compare that to fellow G.O.A.T. candidates like Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, and Anderson Silva, all of whom recorded eight or more consecutive title defenses. Not to mention the perennially underappreciated Demetrious Johnson, who holds the UFC record with 11 straight defenses. By Nurmagomedov’s own admission, he doesn’t expect to compete long enough to come even close to touching those records.
Make no mistake, Nurmagomedov likely could have been champion much sooner. It’s not his fault that McGregor was granted an immediate lightweight title shot at UFC 205 in November 2016 and then immediately absconded with said title leaving it undefended for over 500 days. Nurmagomedov should have had his crack at McGregor way earlier instead of handling less famous names like Edson Barboza and Michael Johnson. But that’s the reality of the situation and unfortunately for Nurmagomedov when we look at his pre-championship resume it simply doesn’t resonate.
Barboza, Johnson, Rafael dos Anjos, and Gleison Tibau are excellent fighters, but regardless of how dominant Nurmagomedov was in these fights (even in the much talked-about decision against Tibau, Nurmagomedov swept the scorecards) they all lacked cachet at the time. Outside of Poirier and McGregor, is there anyone on Nurmagomedov’s list of conquests that resonates like a Matt Hughes, B.J. Penn, Daniel Cormier, Lyoto Machida, Dan Henderson, or Vitor Belfort? Because those are the kinds of names that the greats ahead of him built their reputations on.
Again, Nurmagomedov could only fight the opponents put in front of him. He missed Penn’s prime, beat dos Anjos before everyone could appreciate how impressive that was, rose through the ranks as Frankie Edgar exited the division, and cruelly lost out on what should have been a legacy-defining feud with Tony Ferguson. It’s that last missed opportunity that stings the most because while Nurmagomedov would justifiably be considered a heavy favorite against even prime versions of Penn or Edgar, it’s Ferguson who is his greatest stylistic challenge outside of upcoming challenger Justin Gaethje. Now that much-needed matchup appears doomed to remain one of MMA’s greatest “what ifs?”
The two factors that weigh most heavily in favor of Nurmagomedov are the eye test and, of course, that glossy record. Seeing Nurmagomedov make grown men into training dummies will always be awe-inspiring, so there’s no arguing with results (literally, 28-0!). This is why I say he’s as good as any other G.O.A.T. candidates, while not necessarily being No. 1. As impressive as Nurmagomedov’s wrestling is—it’s arguably the most powerful tool in the history of combat sports—I would argue that he’s failed to capture the imagination in the way that the St-Pierres and Silvas and Jones’ of the world have.
“GSP” and “Bones” not only won with their premier disciplines, they would specifically adapt to the strengths of their opponents. In St-Pierre’s case, he made sure to avoid those strengths while Jones has typically charged headfirst into them. Maybe because he hasn’t had to, but Nurmagomedov rarely deviates from his first option, which means he hasn’t exhibited the cool, tactical brilliance of St-Pierre or the brazen stubbornness of Jones. And I imagine it would be difficult to find anyone who would compare the efficacy of Nurmagomedov’s grappling to the striking wizardry of Silva from an aesthetics standpoint.
Heck, could one even argue that Nurmagomedov’s in-cage dominance is more pronounced than that of “Mighty Mouse?” Yet Johnson is continually left out of these discussions for whatever reason. A lack of an L on his record simply isn’t enough to justify putting Nurmagomedov over others who at their peaks were just as impressive as Nurmagomedov and against-perhaps not in Johnson’s case-more decorated competition.
Nurmagomedov is one of the best, he’s just not the best. It’s unfortunate for him that so many factors outside of his control have kept him from achieving that status and even more so for the fans that he likely is not planning to hang around to rectify that situation.
Is Khabib Nurmagomedov the greatest fighter in MMA history?
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