Khabib Nurmagomedov kneeled down and put his head in his hands. Tears streamed from his eyes. The burden he had been carrying for the past three months had been released. The typically stoic champion's emotions got the better of him.
Nurmagomedov, one of the best fighters in mixed martial arts history, submitted Justin Gaethje -- whom many said would be Nurmagomedov's toughest test -- via triangle choke at 1 minute, 34 seconds of the second round while fighting with a broken foot Saturday in the main event of UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. And he did it with a broken foot, according to UFC president Dana White.
This was Nurmagomedov's first fight since his father and head coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, died in July from complications of COVID-19. And afterward, Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his retirement from mixed martial arts.
Nurmagomedov, 32, said his mother did not want him to compete without his father, but he told her this would be his last fight.
"I promised her this was gonna be my last fight," Nurmagomedov said. "If I give my word, I have to follow this."
Nurmagomedov put the finishing touches on his career as he took Gaethje down, applied the triangle choke and cinched it in with Gaethje going completely unconscious. Nurmagomedov's triangle-choke submission finish was just the third ever in UFC title history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
The victory unified the UFC lightweight title.
Nurmagomedov said he has no interest in fighting the winner of a proposed January bout between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier. Nurmagomedov said he has already choked both men out. He left his gloves in the center of the Octagon before departing.
"Today, I want to say this was my last fight," Nurmagomedov said. "... It was my father's dream. What else?"
He later posted a message to Instagram thanking his father:
View this post on Instagram
When ALLAH with you, nobody can broke you, nobody 👊⚔️ Thanks Father for everything, you teach all my life, may ALLAH grant you the highest Paradise 🤲 - Когда Всевышний с тобой ни что тебя не сломает, абсолютно ничто. Спасибо Отец за все, чему ты меня научил в этой жизни, дай Аллах тебе наивысшую ступень Рая 🤲
ESPN has Nurmagomedov ranked as the top pound-for-pound MMA fighter in the world, with Gaethje at No. 8. In the lightweight division, ESPN has Nurmagomedov and Gaethje at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. Nurmagomedov came in as the UFC lightweight champion, and Gaethje was the interim champ.
"I know he made his father so proud," Gaethje said.
After the fight, Nurmagomedov thanked the UFC and several top executives, but he had one request. "I know only one thing I want from UFC: You guys have to [rank me as the] No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, because I deserve this."
The bout took place without fans at the Flash Forum on Yas Island, which the UFC has dubbed "Fight Island," the promotion's international home during the pandemic.
Gaethje won the first round on the cards of judges Sal D'Amato and Ben Cartlidge. He landed hard combinations in the round, although Nurmagomedov kept the pressure on, had a good jab and landed a takedown at the end of the round. The round finished with Nurmagomedov working for an armbar submission. Judge Derek Cleary scored the first for Nurmagomedov.
Nurmagomedov (29-0) went in undefeated, and this victory ties him with BJ Penn and Benson Henderson with the most title defenses in UFC lightweight history (three). The native of Dagestan in Russia owns victories over former champions McGregor, Poirier and Rafael dos Anjos. Nurmagomedov is a perfect 13-0 in the UFC, only the second fighter after Anderson Silva to start a UFC career with 13 straight wins.
Gaethje (22-3) was on a four-fight winning streak going in and beat Tony Ferguson to win the UFC interim lightweight title at UFC 249 in May. The Arizona native had not been to a decision in six years, with nine KO/TKO victories in that time. Gaethje, 31, is the former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion.
"I felt alive," Gaethje said. "That's why I step in here, man. I ask my coaches if they're ready to feel alive every time I step in here."
White said he was told Nurmagomedov fought with a broken foot.
"What this guy has been through, we're all lucky that we got to see him fight tonight," White said. "... Apparently, he was in the hospital and he broke his foot three weeks ago. So he has two broken toes and a bone in his foot that's broken. That's what his corner told me.
"He's the toughest human being on the planet. He's the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world."
White said he also believes Nurmagomedov when he says he's retired.
"He is the baddest motherf---er on the planet."