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Regardless of what the future brings, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s beautiful submission victory over Justin Gaethje in the UFC 254 main event and his emotional retirement announcement afterward will be remembered for years to come. It was another masterful exhibition of the slick ground skills that have carried him to a 29-0 record, as well as his underrated striking that capitalizes on the trepidation opponents have about his takedowns. Even more striking, it was a poignant reminder of the sort of class and dignity that has characterized Nurmagomedov’s professional career.
All recognition aside to the great Dagestani competitor, it also raised an obvious question: Is this the last we have seen of Nurmagomedov in the Octagon? It’s only natural that fans are going to want to see him fight again. His skills are as strong as ever, and there are still plenty of compelling matchups for him at 155 pounds. Even if fans are currently enamored with the idea of his retiring undefeated, they will surely be enticed at the idea of seeing him back in two years against whoever holds lightweight gold at that time.
Moreover, we are accustomed to seeing combat sports athletes return from retirements. Perhaps the most touching MMA retirement was when Randy Couture announced “this is the last time you’re going to see these gloves and these shorts in this Octagon.” Couture, like Nurmagomedov, is a highly respected figure who carried himself with dignity and class, yet he’d fight another five years after that point. It’s not like it was a mistake, either. He captured the heavyweight title and notched a winning record in the eight fights he took after coming out of retirement at age 43.
Just like Couture had strong reasons to continue, so too will Nurmagomedov. That he would make massive amounts of money for it goes without saying, but that seems almost beside the point when it comes to Nurmagomedov. Rather, the temptations will be in the competition. This is a man who has been competing athletically in various combat sports and fighting on the streets since he was quite young. Competition has defined his life. To give that up at age 32 while still in his athletic prime is difficult for any elite athlete, which is why so few have retired and stayed retired historically.
There are also the circumstances of his retirement, informed so much by the passing of his father, who guided his entire athletic career and played a defining role in his life. Right now, it’s surely difficult to imagine carrying on without a man who was so central to his being. With time, it’s easy to imagine it feeling to Nurmagomedov like continuing on would be the best tribute to his father. After all, his father oversaw all of his success, and his continued success would be a way to pay tribute to his legacy. That’s particularly true given his father had spoken of Nurmagomedov retiring at 30-0.
These sorts of calculations are why we typically assume fighters who announce their retirements while still healthy and in their athletic primes will eventually return. The pull is just so strong, no matter how well meaning they are when they retire. Still, it’s impossible to not look at Nurmagomedov and conclude that he’s as likely as any fighter has ever been to stick by his pledge. The reason for that is Nurmagomedov’s unique outlook on the sport.
While MMA has always attracted dream chasers more than money chasers, Nurmagomedov in particular has been guided by conviction. He has refused more lucrative fights in pursuit of fights with opponents against whom he wanted to compete. He wouldn’t fight during Ramadan. In his personal relations, he has showed great loyalty to his friends and unyielding scorn towards those he dislikes. When he makes up his mind on something, it rarely changes.
Nurmagomedov even seemed to be using this against himself on Saturday in the United Arab Emirates. He noted that he promised to retire and said, “If I give my word, I have to follow this.” There would be no need to say this if he wasn’t enticed by fighting again. If he didn’t think he’d ever want to fight again, he wouldn’t have to note his obligation to stick by what he says. It almost gave off the impression that the Nurmagomedov of Oct. 24, 2020 was trying to impose his will on his future self. That’s a powerful focus and determination. Of course, it also suggests he will be tempted in the future.
Nurmagomedov’s vow did not stand in isolation. Rather, he noted that his mother didn’t want him to continue fighting without his father and that he promised her that he would not. This would seem to make his pledge even stronger and provides more reason to believe he might never return.
Then again, I’m reminded of one of the greatest boxers of all-time, Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins. Like Nurmagomedov, Hopkins was defined by his discipline and headstrong mental approach. It was central, not only to his boxing career but his personal identity, shaped like Nurmagomedov by his Muslim faith. Also like Nurmagomedov, Hopkins promised his mother that he would stop fighting. In Hopkins’ case, his mother had died, and he told her he would stop boxing at age 40. Hopkins seemed as likely as anyone to stick by that vow, and retiring before 41 seemed a more manageable goal in the first place than stepping away at 32.
Hopkins, of course, did not stay retired. The pull of the ring was just too strong. He would have one of the most remarkable runs of any post-40 athlete, winning four different light heavyweight titles after his 41st birthday before retiring a few weeks before his 52nd birthday. There was every reason to believe Hopkins might be different, but sticking to a retirement is a daunting challenge for any elite combat sports athlete.
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