Khabib Nurmagomedov retired undefeated last weekend after winning his 29th consecutive mixed martial arts bout and keeping the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight name. Khabib, widely known by his original name, dropped just two rounds on judges’ scorecards in his entire career and was never knocked down, seriously hurt, cut or marked. The simplicity of his victories puts him apart from rivals in the discussion regarding the best MMA fighter of all time.

The build-up for his final fight, nevertheless, had the makings of an upset. He seemed out of sorts in obligatory interviews, in the weigh-in, and throughout the walk to the octagon. It seemed like he was carrying an invisible burden upon his shoulders.

The reason for his changed demeanour was no secret: his dad Abdulmanap, who’d coached and groomed him for glory because he was a youngster, died of Covid-19 in July. However, there were other issues that his head trainer Javier Mendez revealed just after the bout.

Khabib had come down with mumps in September and busted a toe soon after returning to training. People who have been required to walk with an injured toe is going to have some idea of how painful it is to spar and fight one. When the bout started, nevertheless, it was apparent that the old Khabib was at the ring.

In a traditional striker versus wrestler tussle, the challenger Justin Gaethje attempted to stay near the middle unleashing cries and kicks, while Khabib relentlessly pushed forward, intending to take down his rival against the fence. Gaethje’s calf kicks to Khabib’s leading leg were effective, but each left the aggressor momentarily off-balance. Khabib found that fraction of a minute of vulnerability to bring Gaethje down in the conclusion of the first round.

In the next, the routine had been replicated, with Gaethje buckling Khabib’s left leg with a vicious kick, only to see the champ Gently convert a stumble into a swooping attack.

A series of positional switches later, Khabib had Gaethje trapped in a triangle choke, a manoeuvre where the attacker’s legs wrap around the neck and one arm of the opponent, cutting off blood circulation to the brain. It puts the person momentarily to sleep, but done correctly has no dangerous long-term consequences.

When the referee signalled his success, Khabib broke down sobbing and, having composed himself, declared his retirement by pitching his gloves into the floor.

He said he could not do this any more with no father, and that he’d promised his mom this could be his last fight. Only 32 years of age, he is in his deepest and appears to be advancing in the ring with every bout.

It’s possible his mother could change her mind, later on, permitting him to reevaluate his retirement. In the meantime, he plans to coach the numerous prospects appearing from his dad’s gymnasium in his homeland, the Russian republic of Dagestan.

An international Muslim celebrity

How much he’s giving up could be calmed with his upfront bag for the Gaethje fight. He received $6 million, to which a cut out of pay-per-view earnings will be inserted. Gaethje was guaranteed $400,000, a healthy sum but less than a tenth of Khabib’s payout. How did a fighter out of a region few people had heard about become such a huge attraction? It was not through showmanship and trash talk, hallmarks of several fighters, especially the Irish star Conor McGregor with whom Khabib had a long-running feud which was settled at the ring a couple of decades ago.

It was not through grace or brute force: he is effective but awkward-looking on his feet and relies on sporting opponents down along with his work-rate rather than scoring dramatic knockouts.

What did the trick was a composite of dominant performances and he attest Muslim identity? To be clear, Khabib has countless admirers that are not Muslim, such as football stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The celebrity Maisie Williams, famous for playing Arya Stark at Game of Thrones, broke a lengthy social networking boom the day before the struggle to tweet, “Khabib has this #UFC254.”The bulk of his most fervent followers, however, come from a Muslim planet hungry for heroes. There are lots of Muslim stars in the top soccer leagues however, with a few exceptions like the Egypt-Liverpool striker Mo Salah, they don’t wear their religion on their sleeve.

The UFC’s undisputed welterweight world champion, the Nigerian Muslim Kamaru Usman, also retains his faith to himself. By comparison, 1 look at Khabib reveals the faith to which he belongs, due to a singularly Muslim blend of notable beard, barely-there moustache and close-cropped hair. He raises his hands in prayer before a battle, falls into the ground to perform the same following a victory is secured and begins post-fight interviews using the word, Alhamdulillah, “praise be to God”.

A family man: Observant Muslims around the world identify with his character and customs. He’s a family person, heeds his parents, acts politely except when triggered, is not ostentatious or brassy, and contributes time and money to charity. He gave $100,000 to fellow MMA fighter Dustin Poirier’s Great Fight Foundation which works for Americans in need. He also married his childhood love but keeps her away from the media glare. She accompanies him to fights or on publicity trips, staying to take care of home and children. Khabib’s conservative adherence to religious customs and local customs resonates with a massive constituency that possesses a huge aggregate income and not enough relatable sportspersons to invest it on.

The politics of Caucasian wrestling: Dagestan, along with its neighbours Chechnya and Ingushetia, was briefly part of an independent state known as the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus. It freed itself from the Russian empire in 1917 just to be swallowed back by the Soviet Union four decades later. When the USSR collapsed, nationalist opinion threatened again, now carrying the kind of an Islamist insurgency. Dagestan was spared full-scale war, but the consequences of conflict in neighbouring regions were deeply felt.

Khabib’s father, an officer in the Soviet military, returned into Dagestan to set up a gymnasium partially in the expectation that it would give young boys a community along with a purpose, therefore preventing them from heading into the forest to join the rebels. His intent paralleled the popular American idea of training boys in the cities and favelas in battle sports to keep them from joining gangs. Wrestling and mixed martial arts aren’t foolproof vaccines against radicalisation.

The Chechen brothers behind the Boston marathon bombings of 2013 were both enthusiastic fighters: Tamerlan Tsarnaev trained in boxing and mixed martial arts, even while his younger brother Dzhokar captained his college wrestling team.

Nevertheless, combat sports are now central to the Russian establishment’s soft warfare against the insurrection. The head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, runs on the Akhmat Fight Club, a gateway for heaps of MMA prospects to enter the professional ranks. Vladimir Putin, himself a judo black belt, has met Khabib after all his past two fights and has invited him to the Kremlin after his latest success.

Their conversation following Khabib’s defeat of Dustin Poirier in 2019 is filled with interesting technical details. The Russian President clearly sees the importance of keeping the Dagestani champ onside politically.


The future: the victory of Caucasians is developed in an old tradition of wrestling competitions conducted involving villages separated by the mountainous countryside. The best freestyle wrestler of modern times, Buvasar Saitiev, who won gold medals in three Olympic games, is a Chechen out of Dagestan. Dagestani and Chechen children start training early, and also their bouts don’t follow protocols laid out in affluent democracies. For example, Ramzan Kadyrov’s Akhmat Fight Club organises championships where boys as young as eight combat it out without protective headgear. Khabib’s first recorded battle, which happened when he’d just turned nine, was even less conventional: his rival was a young bear.

The video of this tussle is rather adorable, not least since the bear seems to be enjoying itself. In a current recording, he meets with a bear that’s allegedly his older friend, but he’s saying throughout the encounter suggests an awareness that large parts of the planet now think about the chaining and caging of animals a grave offence.

Few American parents (or for that matter Indian ones) would allow their child to wrestle a bear, one which was on a series and declawed, and their refusal would not mostly be prompted by concern for the beast.

So, are European and American fighters in a disadvantage, provided that, as the MMA colour commentator Joe Rogan said on a podcast, “We’re providing kids participation trophies and they’re out there wrestling bears”? Will MMA go the method of sumo, which has been dominated with Mongolian wrestlers for over a decade because several young Japanese are ready to survive the hardships of training? I doubt it, since MMA has a much deeper and broader talent pool compared to sumo, making it almost impossible for a small neighbourhood to monopolise top positions.

There is, however, a very long line of fighters from Dagestan and Chechnya seeking to occupy the place Khabib has vacated. The breakthrough UFC fighter of 2020 is a Chechen from Stockholm, a guy who came to Sweden as a teenage asylum seeker, won two national wrestling championships in weight classes greater than his own, sought to create the Olympic team but was refused by his lack of a Swedish passport, also thankfully transitioned to MMA because, unlike wrestling, it allowed him to truly”smesh” his enemies.

His title is Khamzat Chimaev, and he’s plenty of wrestling abilities together with a weapon every fighter and MMA competitor wants the capacity to knock opponents out cold with just one punch. He won three UFC battles in 3 months, an unprecedented pace, and has been fast-tracked to a principal event in December.

He has gone from approximately zero Instagram followers in July to a thousand now. He’s too different from Khabib to be considered a replacement, but that is exactly what people are calling him, because he, unlike members of Khabib’s own secure, has the aura of a global superstar in the making. Needless to say, he wants to crush a couple more opponents first.