Khabib Nurmagomedov stretched his undefeated record to 29-0 this past Saturday when he submitted Justin Gaethje to retain the lightweight championship at UFC 254. Afterward, Nurmagomedov, who’s been heavily affected by the death of his father earlier this year, made a surprising retirement announcement, one that feels definitive as compared to other MMA retirements.
With that in mind, the latest edition of Triple Take asks one question: Where does Khabib rank on the all-time list of greatest fighters? MMA Junkie’s Farah Hannoun, Simon Head and Simon Samano weigh in.
Farah Hannoun: Definitely top 3 – if not No. 1
Khabib Nurmagomedov literally has been flawless in his MMA career.
At 29-0, only two people have even taken rounds off of the undefeated UFC lightweight champion who seemed to get better as the competition got stiffer.
Nurmagomedov defended his title just three times, but his dominance can’t go unnoticed. He made it look easy against everyone, including three phenomenally skilled fighters and former champions in Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje by submitting all three.
He’s also had a clean record outside the octagon, with no U.S. Anti-Doping Agency issues popping up, which is always brought up when discussing the sport’s greats. I have no problem with anyone labeling Nurmagomedov as the greatest of all time, simply because he’s barely had a scratch on his face or even battled any kind of adversity in the cage when facing some of MMA’s most devastating finishers.
Do you define a GOAT by title defenses, record or skills as a fighter? Well, Nurmagomedov’s record is unmatched, and his performances have practically been perfect. I truly don’t think we’ll ever see another fighter as dominant as Nurmagomedov, who had an unparalleled ability to zero in as soon as the cage door closed.
If this is the last time we see Nurmagomedov, I don’t think he really has anything left to prove. It’s just scary to think that he continued to get better. Who knows how far he could have gone?
Simon Head: He’s the best at 155, but the overall GOAT conversation is tricky
For a few reasons, I’m not a huge fan of the GOAT debate, because it makes us start looking at negatives rather than accentuating positives, as we look to compare different careers, from different eras, in different weight classes.
When I started to consider the GOAT debate, I ended up with a longer list than expected: Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson, Daniel Cormier, and Amanda Nunes all have legitimate claims to the crown. Khabib Nurmagomedov absolutely deserves his seat at the table alongside them.
In the positive column, Khabib is the only member of the group to go unbeaten, while the others suffered defeats (even if Jones’ sole loss was a VERY dodgy one), and “The Eagle” never tested positive for banned substances, unlike Silva and Jones. So in that regard, Khabib’s unblemished record doesn’t carry an asterisk or a question mark.
If we’re nit-picking, Khabib’s reign as a UFC champion only lasted three fights, whereas the likes of Jones, Silva, Johnson, and GSP all took their title reigns into double figures. He also only competed in one weight class. GSP, Cormier and Nunes won titles in two weight classes. DC and Nunes defended in both.
So it all comes down to how you process and prioritize all of those factors. For me, it’s a gut feeling, based on watching them all fight over the course of their careers.
Johnson’s ability to truly mix together the martial arts into one flowing fighting art, at speed, is unlike anyone else on the planet. Khabib and Nunes are both simply dominant in their respective weight classes, while GSP represents the best embodiment of what it is to be a true martial artist.
If we’re picking the greatest martial artist, I’m picking GSP. But if we’re talking about fighting inside the octagon, it simply has to be Jones. Khabib is without a doubt the best lightweight to ever set foot inside the octagon, but I think that, considering the longevity of his reign, the strength of opposition throughout his career, and the fact he did it despite his demons, that makes Jones the GOAT of MMA.
Simon Samano: Khabib’s case for No. 1 falls a little short
Unlike my fellow Simon and others on social media, I actually embrace the GOAT debate, especially at a time like this when a legend has decided to call it a career.
So where does Khabib Nurmaogomedov rank among the greatest fighters of all time? He’s in my top five, which goes like this:
- Georges St-Pierre
- Demetrious Johnson
- Khabib Nurmagomedov
- Jon Jones
- Amanda Nunes
Here’s the deal: When making a list like this, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about varying degrees of greatness. Trying to compare fighters who could never compete against each other requires splitting hairs.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Jones can never be considered the GOAT because of his history with performance-enhancing drugs. If you want to call him the greatest talent or whatever, that’s all good and well. I wouldn’t even argue against that necessarily. But it’s a fact that he’s tested positive for PEDs, and that’s forever his blemish compared to others – like it or not.
So now let’s focus on my top three. The one thing Khabib has over both GSP and Johnson is a perfect overall record. Going 29-0 in MMA is a tremendous accomplishment. But what Khabib lacks when compared to my top two is quality wins.
With Khabib, we’re talking about five or six marquee fights – Rafael dos Anjos, Edson Barboza, Al Iaquinta, Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, and Justin Gaethje – with only three of them being lightweight title defenses. And I’m probably being generous with at least one of those wins, but the Iaquinta fight was for the vacant belt. And believe me: I’m not overlooking Khabib’s dominance in those performances, either.
But compare that to GSP and Johnson, who defended their belts nine and a UFC-record 11 times, respectively. What I value immensely in determining GOAT status is how you fared against the best of your era, in your weight class. In both GSP and Johnson’s cases, their title defenses speaks to the fact that they cleaned out their divisions. GSP then returned from a four-year hiatus to claim a second title at middleweight, which cemented his GOAT status for me.
Is Khabib a legend? Absolutely. Is he one of the GOATs? No question. Could you make the case he’s No. 1? Yes, you can.
But while I think this is actually the perfect time for Khabib to retire at 32 and on the heels of his father’s death, I also can’t help but wonder how much greater his legacy would be had he stuck around a little longer or even been more active toward the end of his career.
Again, I’m splitting hairs here.