Journalist Najm Al-Din pays a personal tribute to the Muslim world’s biggest sporting superstar, recently retired UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
I’ve been a fan of combat sports since childhood. I remember waking in the early hours of the morning huddled around a TV set with the family and waiting with feverish anticipation for the likes of Mike Tyson and Prince Naseem Hamed to make their ring walks.
Although the sweet science was a lifelong passion, I can genuinely say that no fighter has touched my heart as much as UFC superstar Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Hamed and Tyson were enthralling in their own right and deservedly earned a place in boxing’s Hall of Fame. The Prince took razzmatazz to another level while Iron Mike was just bad to the bone.
As for Khabib, his greatest asset could not be more different to the showmanship and flamboyance which characterised some of the most accomplished pugilists and mixed martial artists in recent history.
Here is a man whose infectious simplicity, endearing humbleness and unwavering faith is part of an enigmatic appeal which has transcended the sport and proved just as captivating as his technical brilliance inside the Octagon.
In 2018, we watched Khabib’s rise to stardom after an emphatic victory against Conor McGregor in what was arguably one of the most heated grudge matches in combat sports history.
Rarely did a fight capture the imagination of both diehard and peripheral fans. The Muslim world in particular took a unique interest, given McGregor’s distasteful pre-fight hoopla and anti-Muslim antics in the weeks before their highly contested matchup.
Despite suffering a torrent of abuse towards his family, ethnicity and religion, Khabib maintained an ice-cool demeanour throughout the acrimonious build-up and used every promotional appearance to attribute his success to Allah. He reminded us that indecency was a cardinal sin in a sport which traditionally prized decorum and respect, and he proudly wore his religion on his sleeve and became an overnight sensation after submitting McGregor in the third round.
For every critic he earned that night after vaulting the Octagon and diving feet first into a member of McGregor’s entourage, there was also a victim of bullying, Islamophobia and micro-aggression beaming with the delight of avenged pride.
After teaching the Irishman that some rules of engagement could not be breached, a Muslim sporting icon was born.
On Saturday night, millions tuned in to watch Khabib defend his lightweight title against interim champion Justin Gaethje. Having lost his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov a few months earlier to complications stemming from COVID-19 and with barely any time to grieve before training camp, the emotional toll coming into this fight was immense.
But despite the weight on his shoulders, his performance against a seasoned contender who was coming off a remarkable TKO victory against Tony Ferguson was nothing short of spectacular.
Khabib decided to stand and trade in the pocket against an opponent with dynamite in both hands, stalking him every second of the bout, eventually forcing a submission via a mounted triangle. Any debate as to who was pound for pound king was put to rest.
After effortlessly disposing of Gaethje, the undefeated champion broke down in tears in the middle of the ring, releasing all the pent up emotions of recent months, before dropping the bombshell that he was hanging up the gloves for good.
Like the millions watching, I was stunned into silence. But the reasons for his retirement also confirmed why so many of us warmed to the Dagestani fighter in the first place.
Family before career
Inconsolable and grief-stricken, Khabib explained how he received his mother’s blessing to fight on Saturday only after promising it would be his last time in the Octagon. After respecting Abdulmanap’s legacy his entire life, he pledged no longer to compete in his absence and was obliged to honour his mother’s prayers by gracefully bowing out of the game.
Given his awesome pedigree inside the cage and a much-anticipated bout with MMA legend George St-Pierre touted for next year, many will be saddened by Khabib’s decision to call time on what has been a highly decorated and unblemished career.
What’s testament to the rarity of someone like Khabib is that as one of the UFC’s cash cows, his early retirement means he will be walking away from potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.
During a recent ESPN interview, the undisputed champion declared that no amount of money would persuade him to feature alongside Conor McGregor in the UFC’s flagship The Ultimate Fighter series and that he would play no part in reviving the waning franchise if it meant affording his bitter foe a golden promotional opportunity.
Khabib also confirmed receiving lucrative offers from the Middle East, often to the tune of nine figures to face retired boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather, but declined them as he wanted to remain loyal to the UFC and was not contractually permitted to fight outside the promotion.
Earlier this year, he rejected a $100 million offer by Saudi Arabia for a rematch with Conor McGregor and called on Saudi authorities to instead pledge the money towards charitable causes.
It’s unthinkable for a celebrity in the modern age to sacrifice such material benefits in a heartbeat and walk away at the peak of their powers. In an industry which has developed a sordid reputation for placing profits over principle, it’s so refreshing to see an athlete buck the trend by spurning the fleeting pleasures of the dunya and placing family before the gold shimmering on the horizon. Some people simply cannot be bought.
But those who know Khabib personally can testify to how much the warrior clans along the North Caucasus mountains respect the sacred ideal of honour and internalise these abandoned and inviolable virtues as the pinnacle of manliness.
In a world where we so easily succumb to the trappings of success and are conditioned to prioritise the amassing of wealth at the expense of nurturing a sense of community and family, Khabib’s stoic Avar upbringing and the moral code to which he is sworn is living proof that chivalry is well and alive.
Much of the discussion on Khabib in Muslim circles centred around the legality of prize-fighting. Even by his own admission, God would not look approvingly at his actions. And I’m certain that operating in an environment inextricably tied to gaming operators and one that casually objectifies women didn’t sit comfortably with his conscience.
The irony is that our infatuation with this man grew because we couldn’t help but admire his unapologetic expression of faith in an industry so replete with vices.
We extolled his puritanical virtues every time he averted his gaze during interviews. We applauded his strict adherence to the sunnah on the occasions he politely declined handshakes with non-mahram women. We commended his self-restraint in the face of nasty provocations and adored the fact that he radiated with a love of faith, family and fraternity without once stooping to the lowly shenanigans more befitting of his haters or compromising on what mattered the most.
His presence will be sorely missed and he will continue to pull fervently at our heartstrings. But now it’s time we accept the adage that you can’t confine an eagle to a cage.
May Allah grant Khabib and his family what is best.