In advance of the clash between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018, many felt that the Irishman was about to put the Russian in his place. With just one defeat to McGregor’s name, against Nate Diaz, which he avenged soon afterwards in a rematch, he was seen as the man to end Khabib’s unbeaten run in what was billed as one of the biggest UFC events in history.
But on a fateful night in Las Vegas, Khabib emerged victorious, leaving McGregor bruised in both body and ego, and clinging on to an unbeaten record which has still not been tainted two years on. There were, of course, ugly scenes in the aftermath of the fight which marred the occasion in Las Vegas somewhat, but those could not take away from Khabib’s performance in the Octagon, who sealed his reputation as one of the most fearsome competitors in the UFC.
Now, Khabib is gearing up for his next challenge, which arrives in the shape of American fighter Justin Gaethje. The 31-year-old is still riding the crest of a wave after his defeat of Tony Ferguson earlier this year. That fight was significant in that Gaethje was drafted in as a late replacement for Khabib himself, who couldn’t travel due to coronavirus restrictions in his native Russia. Khabib had been slated to take on Ferguson with the UFC Lightweight Championship on the line, but it couldn’t transpire, and in the end Gaethje snatched the chance to face Khabib out of Ferguson’s grasp.
The Khabib fight odds place the Russian as the heavy favourite for the bout, which is no surprise given the formidable reputation which now accompanies Khabib ahead of every fight. Gaethje will have his work cut out, especially when you consider that if it hadn’t been for Russia’s lockdown measures, he would never have got the chance to take on Ferguson in the first place. Now, he has a chance to win an unlikely belt, but the man standing in his way is among the most daunting opponents the sport has ever produced.
So much of Khabib’s fearsome reputation can be traced to the win against McGregor two years ago. On one hand, you had McGregor, the most famous face in the UFC by some distance, a fighter who transcended the entire sport to become an instantly recognisable worldwide celebrity by way of his impressive performances in the Octagon, and his brash behaviour out of it. Then, you had the rising opponent, a man who was quietly going about his business of becoming the best fighter in the UFC.
The nature of Khabib’s victory over McGregor – drawing a submission from the Irishman after a devastating neck crank hold – was something close to humiliation for McGregor, who bounced back somewhat with a win over Donald Cerrone the following January. But the mental scars of that defeat to Khabib undoubtedly still rankle with the Irishman.
For Khabib to defeat the sport’s most celebrated individual with such a steely, competent performance was a message to the world that he was not going away, that his quest for greatness would face no obstacles. It would be little surprise to see another steamrolling at UFC 254, with Gaethje firmly in Khabib’s sights as the next victim.