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Five months after Khabib Nurmagomedov emotionally announced it in the cage and days after the last in a series of dinners with UFC president Dana White that may have made it hard for him to make welterweight, let alone lightweight, the UFC finally has recognized his retirement.
White had refused to accept Nurmagomedov’s announcement, made following a second-round submission of Justin Gaethje on Oct. 24 at UFC 254. He believed Nurmagomedov was emotional about the loss of his father and felt he’d reconsider.
“I was just doing my job, doing what I should be doing,” White told Yahoo Sports several weeks ago about his pursuit of Nurmagomedov.
There were a number of big-money fights on the table for Nurmagomedov, and none bigger than a rematch with bitter rival and former champion Conor McGregor. White never believed that the lure of the big money would draw Nurmagomedov back, but White felt his competitive spirit just might.
And so he pushed and prodded and cajoled and pleaded, not giving up until Thursday, a week shy of five full months since Nurmagomedov’s first declaration of retirement.
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White told Yahoo Sports by text message on Thursday that the title is vacant and that Dustin Poirier, who defeated McGregor by TKO in January at UFC 257, is not the champion. He confirmed an ESPN report that Michael Chandler will face Charles Oliveira for the vacant title on May 15 at UFC 262.
Whichever of those men wins it will have a monumental task living up to the standard that Nurmagomedov set.
He leaves the sport as the greatest active fighter, and he is neck-and-neck with former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones for the mantle of greatest fighter who ever lived.
His story is remarkable, a young kid from Russia who started as a child wrestling bears who turned into not only the most ferocious fighting machine in the world but a beacon of hope for those facing the most adverse circumstances.
Nurmagomedov left his native land to come to the United States to pursue his chosen profession, as so many have done through the centuries. He came speaking no English, not understanding the culture, without his father or any of his loved ones.
He had little more than the clothes on his back when he arrived, and he became a massive multi-millionaire and one of the most popular attractions in the UFC’s history.
He did it his way, always seeking the toughest challenges, always showing up in impeccable condition, always working harder than anyone else in the room. He quickly became a leader at the American Kickboxing Academy, respected by the numerous superstars on Coach Javier Mendez’s roster for his talent, his work ethic and his team-first approach.
He was exceptionally close to his father, Abdulmanap, and Abdulmanap’s death last summer from a COVID-related illness hit him hard. He fought only three months after his father’s death, and knowing that his mother wished for him to walk away from the sport he was dominating.
He honored her request and never wavered, not even in the face of White’s persistence badgering and the knowledge he could pocket tens of millions of additional dollars before he walked away for good.
But he went out on his terms, with a 29-0 record not really telling the entire story of his dominance. He lost only one round in his UFC career and simply mauled the overwhelming majority of his opponents.
Athletes like him are few and far between, and it’s a sad day when they walk away for good.
Chandler and Oliveira are compelling figures themselves, but it will take some extraordinary work over a long period of time for them to pull themselves from the massive shadow Nurmagomedov cast.
The lightweight division still remains one of the UFC’s best, but it’s not quite as interesting, not quite as compelling and not quite as fun without Nurmagomedov ruling it from the top.
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