Justin Gaethje was supposed to the toughest match-up for Khabib Nurmagomedov. It wasn't even close.
Every Nurmagomedov opponent knows what he brings to the table: Suffocating pace, relentless pressure, a punishing ground game, and unparalleled grappling.
It's like trying to fight off a human tidal wave. On Saturday, Nurmagomedov was a tsunami.
As he was waiting for Nurmagomedov in the cage, Gaethje looked nervous. He knew the magnitude of the challenge ahead of him.
In the early goings of Round 1, both Gaethje and Nurmagomedov seemed hesitant to engage.
Gaethje was worried, rightly so, of being taken down and deposited on his back. Nurmagomedov was wary of Gaethje's fabled power in both hands and feet.
They both knew Gaethje's only chance was taking Nurmagomedov out.
Gaethje abandoned his come-forward style and chose to circle. Perhaps it was the only way he and his team could conceive of keeping Nurmagomedov at a safe distance.
While it was a reasonable strategy, it was undoubtedly an error. Gaethje forsook what brought him an interim world title and instead seemed to be intent on trying to stop Nurmagomedov.
The American, keeping his hands low, seemed determined not to let the Dagestani shoot in on him or back him into the cage.
To his credit, Gaethje, even while on his heels, hit Nurmagomedov with some vicious leg kicks and landed a few clean, heavy strikes to the head. At one point, he momentarily stunned Nurmagomedov.
But Nurmagomedov was not dissuaded. Gaethje had hit him with his best shots and failed to hurt him. That altered the equation for both of them.
Nurmagomedov hit Gaethje with some clean jabs and overhand rights, all the while trying to close the distance. Gaethje, at one point, was simply running away from Nurmagomedov.
Nurmagomedov kept hitting him with the jab, right hands, and even an uncultured left hook. Gaethje, at two different points, smiled at Nurmagomedov, a classic fighter's tell that he felt the punch.
Gaethje couldn't keep Nurmagomedov off him, couldn't get his respect. Towards the end of Round 1, Nurmagomedov shot the double-leg, had Gaethje against the cage, and then got on the mount.
Nurmagomedov went for the armbar in the closing moments of Round 1, but the clock simply ran out. Gaethje looked exhausted. The fight had been on the feet for four-plus minutes and he'd lost. And there were four more rounds to go.
Round 2 saw more of the same. Gaethje kicking Nurmagomedov's legs, but being unable to stop the champ from coming straight at him.
Nurmagomedov took Gaethje down and got the full mount. He transitioned into the triangle and rolled to his back. Gaethje tried to slam Nurmagomedov down but it was over. The referee somehow missed Gaethje's frantic tap-out and the fight only ended when Gaethje went to sleep.
MMA is about respect
- UFC (@ufc) October 25, 2020
Nurmagomedov went 29-0, fell to the mat, and wept. This was his first bout since the demise of his father and coach Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. The dominant performance was a fitting tribute to the man who made him a champion.
Gaethje came over to congratulate Nurmagomedov. He'd failed the mammoth task of trying to take Nurmagomedov's 'O' but in attempting to be great and taking the loss in stride, Gaethje undoubtedly won himself some admirers.
Then came the shock: Retirement. Nurmagomedov left his gloves on the mat. And whether or not the retirement sticks, one thing is certain: This was arguably the finest performance of Nurmagomedov's career and solidifies his claim as the greatest lightweight of all time.