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Making the Grade: UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje

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UFC 254: Khabib v Gaethje Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

One of the biggest cards of the year ended with Khabib Nurmagomedov doing what he always seems to do while submitting Justin Gaethje in the second round to remain undefeated in his career.

Afterwards, Nurmagomedov made the surprise announcement that he would be retiring from the sport of mixed martial arts after making a promise to his mother in the wake of his father’s tragic death. The undefeated and undisputed UFC lightweight champion walks away with a perfect 29-0 record, including three consecutive title defenses, which ties the all-time record in the UFC’s 155-pound division.

In the co-main event, Robert Whittaker likely secured a rematch with middleweight champion Israel Adesanya after he put a stop to Jared Cannonier’s undefeated run at 185 pounds. It was a back-and-forth battle at moments but overall Whittaker’s superior striking helped him earn a unanimous decision, which now gives him back-to-back wins after falling to Adesanya last year.

As we take a look back at Saturday’s event, here’s what passed and what failed from the final card on Fight Island in 2020. This is Making the Grade for UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje.

Best Lightweight In History

The debate can rage on for days about the mythical pound-for-pound list or the argument about who is the greatest of all-time but one thing was made abundantly clear when Khabib Nurmagomedov wrapped up a triangle choke to put away Justin Gaethje in the UFC 254 main event.

He is the best lightweight in the history of the sport.

That’s saying a lot considering the depth of that division over the years. Names like B.J. Penn, Benson Henderson, Eddie Alvarez and Conor McGregor have sat at the top of the lightweight division over the years in the UFC but nobody has dominated the opposition like Nurmagomedov.

The win over Gaethje put him at 29-0 in his career. He’s only technically lost two rounds during his entire run in the UFC and both were highly questionable.

The judges scored Nurmagomedov losing the third round in his fight to Conor McGregor but it was close and the undefeated Russian finished the fight a few minutes later. Two judges also scored Nurmagomedov losing the first round of his fight with Gaethje on Saturday and that’s an even bigger head scratcher (more on that later).

Either way, Nurmagomedov’s ability to ultimately steamroll every opponent he’s ever faced says a lot about his standing in lightweight supremacy. The only “detraction” anybody can point to during his UFC run was Gleison Tibau gave him a tough fight that Nurmagomedov ultimately won by unanimous decision.

Outside of that, “The Eagle” was essentially unstoppable while competing in a snake pit of a division that boasts incredible depth from the No. 1 ranked fighter all the way to prospects just starting out at 155 pounds. Nurmagomedov was truly as good as advertised each and every time he competed and it’s going to be awfully hard to point at anybody else as a better option for the GOAT in the lightweight division.

Going Out on Top

It’s such a rare moment in this sport when a fighter actually walks away on top much less retires as champion.

Following the tragic death of his father Abdulmanap earlier this year, Khabib Nurmagomedov promised his mother that he would fight one final time at UFC 254 and then call it a career. Unlike so many past instances where skepticism is the initial reaction to a fighter retirement, Nurmagomedov hanging up the gloves comes with a true sense of finality.

He’s conquered 29 foes in 29 fights, and while it might have been nice to cap off his career with a perfect 30-0, there’s no shame in walking away right now.

Nurmagomedov retires with a perfect record, tied for the most title defenses in UFC lightweight history and he thwarted every opponent who stood in his path from Conor McGregor to Dustin Poirier to Justin Gaethje — and those are just his three most recent fights.

MMA retirements have almost become a punchline in recent years because it just never seems to stick. Henry Cejudo had barely laid down the bantamweight championship before he was calling out featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski.

Don’t expect that to be the case with Nurmagomedov, who has been flirting with retirement for several years already. Now in this moment he truly seems at peace with his decision and we should all just be thankful that the world got to witness his greatness for as long as we did.

The Reaper Strikes Back

UFC 254: Whittaker v Cannonier Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

It’s hard to say if Robert Whittaker was ever truly appreciated as middleweight champion because he always kept his head down, never said much to promote his fights and just went out and did the necessary work inside the cage. Losing the belt to Israel Adesanya in 2019 allowed the UFC to have a flashy, outspoken and perhaps most importantly a promotable champion while Whittaker was suddenly relegated to gatekeeper status.

In his first fight back after losing the title, Whittaker was matched up against Darren Till in a fight that was supposed to determine the next No. 1 contender in the division. Well that was the case if Till was victorious anyway but then a funny thing happened.

Whittaker won.

Fast forward to UFC 254 and all the talk leading into the co-main event was Jared Cannonier as the next fighter in line to challenge for Adesanya’s title as long as he got through Whittaker.

He didn’t.

Instead, Whittaker once again showcased his brilliant striking game coupled with the best possible game plan to avoid Cannonier’s considerable power while using fast footwork and hand speed to stay one step ahead for all three rounds.

After losing the title, Whittaker was supposed to be the last hurdle fighters like Till and Cannonier had to jump before getting a shot at Adesanya. Instead, the former middleweight champion managed to take out two more top five ranked contenders to put himself back into position to challenge for the title again.

It’s unknown if Adesanya will jump at that fight considering the one-sided nature of his first meeting with Whittaker almost exactly one year ago. That said, Whittaker has done everything the UFC has asked of him and now there’s absolutely no doubt that he is the No. 1 ranked middleweight in the world with or without another shot at the title.


By the Numbers

It feels like playing a skipping record at this point but the judging at UFC 254 once again came into question despite so few decisions being handed out on Saturday.

Perhaps the most noticeable lapse in judgment came during the main event, which actually ended in the second round.

According to the official scorecards handed out by the UFC, judges Ben Cartlidge and Sal D’Amato both gave round 1 to Justin Gaethje with judge Derek Cleary giving the first round to Khabib Nurmagomedov. The round was relatively close based on the numbers — both fighters landed 23 significant strikes with Nurmagomedov nearly doubling the output. Nurmagomedov also scored a late takedown along with a submission attempt just before the horn that seemingly secured him the round.

Two judges disagreed.

Then in the co-main event, Robert Whittaker was ultimately declared the winner, which was obviously the right call but the judges were all over the place with scoring. Two judges — Sal D’Amato and Derek Cleary gave round 2 to Cannonier with judge David Lethaby giving round 1 to Cannonier.

Meanwhile over at MMA Decisions, the overwhelming majority of media members scoring the fight gave Whittaker a 30-27 score with two people scoring him winning 30-26. While there were a few media members who scored the fight 29-28, that was definitely the minority by comparison.

Then there’s the split draw in the light heavyweight fight between Sam Alvey and Da-Un Jung. While Alvey out struck his opponent over the course of the fight, he still came away with a draw on his record.

Judge Ben Cartlidge scored the fight a draw after giving Jung a 10-8 third round. David Lethaby scored the fight for Alvey by giving him the first two rounds while judge Darryl Ransom gave the fight to Jung after giving him the first and third rounds. While all three judges gave Jung the third round, the 10-8 handed down by Cartlidge ultimately swayed the decision because he actually scored the first two rounds for Alvey.

While the split draw was probably the fight that earned the most reactions on social media, the scorecards handed out in the Whittaker vs. Cannonier fight as well as the main event should still draw some attention. Complaining about judging in MMA is almost like breathing these days because it just seems like there’s so much inconsistency, especially when you take a deeper look at the criteria for scoring and you can’t help but begin to wonder what these officials are actually watching.

That said, open scoring has become a somewhat controversial topic in MMA with proponents advocating that knowing how the judges are thinking round after round could allow fighters to know whether they’re ahead or behind going into a crucial third round or fifth round in a championship fight. Opponents will say revealing the score after each round ruins the excitement surrounding the eventual decision not to mention the fear that some fighters might try to coast to victory if they’re well ahead on the scorecards.

As long as judging remains so painfully inconsistent, open scoring at least seems like a decent idea to give the athletes some clue as to what the three people sitting cageside are thinking during a fight because most of us are still trying to figure it out afterwards.


Bad Timing

Jon Jones cups his hand to his ear
Jon Jones cups his hand to his ear
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

After Nurmagomedov dispatched his 29th opponent, he asked for the UFC to finally give him the No. 1 pound-for-pound ranking in the sport — a largely symbolic list that really holds no weight yet he had never actually sat on top despite ruling arguably the deepest division in the sport.

The top spot is currently occupied by former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who has sat at No. 1 pound-for-pound for the majority of the past few years. Considering everything Jones has accomplished during his career it’s hard to argue against his standing in that list.

But after initially conceding the spot momentarily while celebrating Nurmagomedov’s career, Jones quickly shifted gears and essentially began defending himself as the true No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter as well as the greatest fighter in the history of the sport.

Now Jones absolutely has a legitimate claim to both accolades. In fact, Jones probably has the best possible argument out of anyone still competing in the sport but that doesn’t negate some really bad timing.

Nurmagomedov just finished his career, went out on top as champion and honored his father and mother while laying down his gloves in the center of the octagon as he called it a career. It was a special moment that everybody involved in the sport should have been able to appreciate.

But Jones was quick to shun the notion that Nurmagomedov was actually the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport much less the best to ever do it. The reality is Jones might be right, although again both of those designations are still a matter of opinion.

The problem is Jones didn’t need to begin breaking down his career compared to Nurmagomedov at that exact minute. He didn’t need to be the center of attention on the night Nurmagomedov called it a career.

Jones ultimately chalks it up to his competitive nature not allowing anybody to steal his shine but there’s nothing wrong with letting Nurmagomedov have his moment in the sun, especially considering he’s going to be leaving the spotlight forever now.

For the past decade, Jones has largely been considered the best fighter in all of mixed martial arts and many people — myself included — already rank him as the GOAT. But for one night, Jones would have done well to just turn off Twitter and let Nurmagomedov celebrate however he wanted.

Eventually, Jones will return to action and his performance inside the octagon will likely serve as the ultimate reminder of his greatness and that’s far better than the most cunning tweet he could devise while arguing with his detractors online.