The last flight of the Eagle
Cards on the table – before UFC 254 had even started I was toying around with ideas for the write-up. Which ridiculous metaphors could I cook up this time? But the event itself has left me momentarily disinclined to take the piss. Khabib Nurmagomedov, the most dominant fighter in the history of combat sports, has hung up his gloves after submitting yet another phenomenally talented lightweight in the shape of Justin Gaethje.
After eating a few quite serious punches and having his legs kicked out from underneath him (Justin’s trademark weapon), Khabib managed to literally transition into a takedown while falling to the mat, land in full mount, and switch to a triangle choke that had Gaethje tapping in seconds. What can you do? His grappling is so far ahead of the rest of the world’s that you feel he’s transcended the species at this point. Nurmagomedov’s wrestling ability is something more like the Minds in the Culture novels of Iain M Banks, an ‘Outside Context Problem’ for which ordinary mortals have no frame of reference, and therefore no possibility of adequate preparation.
After getting the win, Khabib instantly fell to his knees and wept. It’s well known that Khabib’s career and life were just as much the dream of his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, who died earlier this year. This was Khabib’s only fight since Abdulmanap’s death, and it was immediately clear the Dagestani intended it as a swan song. A gallant Justin Gaethje immediately went to comfort him. What followed in Nurmagomedov’s post fight speech was a moment of genuine beauty. At the risk of ridicule, high with adrenaline from the fight as I still am, I would describe it as a moment of transcendence, heard at length, with pin drop silence in the arena. It was the sound of a man coming to the final stop on a road he’s been on his entire life, a longtime plan coming to fruition flawlessly, and a mourning. I encourage you to watch it.
Elsewhere on the card Robert Whittaker upset the train of terrifying performances from Cannonier in impressive fashion. Cannonier fought smart, landing some devastating calf kicks through the first two rounds, and was dangerous right up to the final horn. Whittaker was even forced into a clinch to survive at the end of the 3rd. But Bobby Knuckles just proved too good – his movement, his jabs and his head kick combinations left Cannonier battered, bloodied and very close to being finished in the 3rd. His head kick combination in particular is becoming a signature move, a beautiful move that he seems to execute seamlessly and without telegraphing every time. It is odd that Whittaker was counted as an underdog by the bookies, when you consider that with the exception of Israel Adesanya, Whittaker has gone through the best of the best in the middleweight division. Perhaps because he is an all rounder – it’s not that any of his individual skills is overwhelming so much as his talent across all areas is so high. Cannonier’s power made for a scarier highlight reel and left him the favourite, but Whittaker was his superior in every technical area of the fight. The question of what comes next for Whittaker is an interesting one – the only logical option left is Adesanya, but their fight last time was not competitive. Adesanya appears unassailable in this division at the moment, but perhaps he’ll move to light heavyweight for a fight with Jon Jones, or maybe, just maybe, The Reaper has learned enough from his defeat to have another crack.
Finally, just shortly before the show, a new fight was booked for Khamzat “I have to smesh you brother” Chimaev. After his last fight, where he shrieked with excitement before immediately putting Gerald Meerschaert to sleep, the man’s stock is sky high. He’d been touted as a new khabib for his wrestling, but that fight showed us he has one punch knockout power. The UFC appear to be accelerating the hype train to warp speed, as he’s now booked to fight Leon Edwards – a leap straight to the top of the division. All eyes on Chimaev come December to see how he handles it.