Dubai: Khabib Nurmagomedov underlined his status as the greatest MMA fighter the world has ever seen when he defeated challenger Justin Gaethje at Fight Island in Abu Dhabi late on Saturday night.
But a fight that should have ended in wild celebrations following the 29th win of his career turned into a highly emotional moment for the Russian, his teammates and every UFC fan watching around the world when he broke down, paid tribute to his late father and announced his sudden retirement from the Octagon.
Fans have witnessed many emotional moments in the history of sport such as when the late Kobe Bryant said farewell to NBA after 20 years in 2016, when football great Ryan Giggs brought an end to his glittering career in 2014, and when cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar broke the hearts of every Indian and cricket fan around the world when he said goodbye in 2013.
Yet on Saturday night this was different in many ways.
After donning his trademark ‘papakha’ (shepherd’s hat), a symbol of strength and dignity in his native Dagestan, the stoic fighter from the Caucasus told the world just why he will never fight again.
Amid pin-drop silence Khabib said: “Today, I want to say, this was my last fight. No way am I going to come here without my father. It was the first time, after what happened with my father (who passed away in July).
“When UFC called me about Justin. I talked with my mother for three days, she don’t want that I go fight without father. I promised her, it’s going to be my last fight, and I gave her my word,”
Struggling to choke back his tears, he added: “I have to follow this. It was my last fight here. Thanks father for everything.”
And then in an extraordinary display of respect and sportsmanship he turned to Gaethje, who like Khabib is an extraordinary family man, and said: “Be close with your parents … because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
And to wind up things and put the lightweight division in perspective he added: “It was my father’s dream. Dustin (Poirier) and Conor (McGregor) are going to fight January, I choke them out, both of them. I’m not interested in this anymore.”
It goes without saying that it will take some time for fight world began to absorb the colossal impact of Khabib’s retirement and its implications on the sport and in particular the 155lb division.
But for the moment we can only reflect on his greatness and contribution to MMA, arguably the fastest growing sport in the world.
Ever since he made his professional MMA debut in September 2008, Khabib, who would become the first Muslim to win a UFC title blitzed through all his rivals with his unique style of grappling and Octagon movement.
He soon became the most dominant fighter in MMA history and at the time of his shock retirement on Saturday he was the most-followed Russian celebrity on Instagram, with more than 23 million followers, even more than that of the country’s President Vladimir Putin.
We salute him for the entertainment that he has provided fight fans in the UAE, Middle East and around the world, and look forward to him inspiring a new generation of Sambo fighters not just from the Caucasus, but the whole world.
Khabib, the UFC will not be the same without you,