Comparing the illustrious careers of Khabib Nurmagomedov and George St-Pierre
UFC 254 was headlined by the highly anticipated unifying title bout between lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (29-0-0) and interim-title holder Justin Gaethje (22-3-0). While competitive matchups against the Eagle are tough to come by — as his undefeated record indicates — many Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) enthusiasts predicted the contest would be Nurmagomedov’s most threatening challenge to date.
The undefeated fighter exerted his unmatched pressure early and often, eventually winning by way of submission due to a triangle choke in the second round. Nurmagomedov won the UFC championship belt after dominating an overwhelmed adversary once more.
However, the excitement was short-lived as a mentally-fatigued Nurmagomedov crumpled to the octagon canvas post-stoppage and ultimately proclaimed his retirement from the sport, vacating the belt and liberating the UFC lightweight division from pending onslaughts.
At the peak of his athletic prime and one-win shy of the fabled 30-0-0 record, the decision was nonetheless fathomable given the passing of his father earlier in the year. Nurmagomedov shared an immeasurably close relationship with his dad, who acted as his mentor in life and in sport.
The news rekindled the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) debate in MMA. Nurmagomedov already cemented his status as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters prior to his latest performance at UFC 254, but the conclusion of his storybook MMA career has drawn wildly differing sentiments as it pertains to his individual greatness.
While it’s impossible to distinguish a bonafide greatest, the discussion boils down to the now former UFC lightweight champion Nurmagomedov, active and former UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones (26-1-0), and the retired former UFC welterweight champion George St-Pierre (26-2-0).
Jones is currently at the peak of his supremacy at 33 years-old and can improve his claim at the throne in the coming years. His sole loss came by way of disqualification due to an illegal elbow he threw against an underqualified opponent in Matt Hamill that was seconds away from defeat.
In addition, Jones has 11 title defenses, and, despite having two separate title reigns at 205 pounds, he never lost the belt inside the octagon. His stacked resume includes victories over former champions and legends such as Cormier, Gustafsson, Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson, and Lyoto Machida.
Jones’ biggest challenges have come outside the octagon; a history of arrests and drug-related issues has damaged his reputation for some in what is otherwise an undeniably boundless MMA career.
St-Pierre’s longevity and consistency were unmatched in a sport where mistakes are common and a single slip-up can influence the trajectory of an entire career. As a result, he was the UFC welterweight champion for several years and his reign spanned multiple generations of 170 pound fighters.
As a combatant, the Montreal native could do everything. His early years were characterized by youthful energy and explosive finishes that resulted in dominant victories over staples in the sport such as Matt Serra and Matt Hughes. He was a masterful tactician in his prime years that was displayed through his historic run of consecutive rounds won (recently overtaken by Nurmagomedov).
He cemented his case for the GOAT when he returned from a four-year hiatus by moving up a weight class and challenging Michael Bisping for the UFC middleweight championship. St-Pierre won by theatrical submission in the third round and became the fourth UFC fighter ever (at the time) to hold a belt at two different weights. Finally, his only losses were emphatically avenged, and his clean career slate removes most, if not all notions of doubt.
Nurmagomedov being listed amongst MMA immortals like Jones and St-Pierre is a testament to his sheer dominance. He defended his UFC title only three times, and yet, he tops many people’s lists.
The ability to “maul” his opponents and make title contenders look like amateurs is something that only a handful of fighters can do. Meanwhile, Nurmagomedov has never failed to assert his dominance. He’s never bled in the octagon, and he’s only lost two rounds on the judges’ scorecards in his entire career: once against Conor McGregor in 2018, and the other in his final bout with Gaethje. He proceeded to finish both opponents in the ensuing round.
Most importantly, much like St-Pierre, Nurmagomedov has been a role model and ambassador for the sport through his tenure. He meaningfully contributed to the popularization of MMA and the UFC into mainstream culture through masterful performances, opting to let his actions do the talking.
Nurmagomedov has openly pushed for a bout against his perceived greatest of all time St-Pierre in the past. The fight never materialized despite both parties expressing interest out of mutual respect, and Nurmagomedov’s recent surprise retirement has made the dream matchup unlikely to occur.
Regardless of who ranks higher on a largely subjective and unserviceable all-time UFC standing, both fighters boast unparalleled legacies that will surely stand the test of time.
Graphic by Carleen Loney