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Why Khabib Nurmagomedov is(n’t) MMA’s GOAT

  • MMA columnist for ESPN.com
  • Analyst for “MMA Live”
  • Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun

UFC lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov hadn’t even left the Octagon on Saturday before the debate began. Was he retiring as MMA’s greatest of all time?

Former UFC two-weight champion Daniel Cormier, who was Nurmagomedov’s teammate at American Kickboxing Academy, said Nurmagomedov is the GOAT. Among Nurmagomedov’s credentials is a 29-0 record, which included losing just two rounds, one to Conor McGregor and — surprisingly — the first round on Saturday to Justin Gaethje. No other GOAT candidate has that zero in the loss column.

Jon Jones, who might be the most widely recognized as the GOAT, quickly weighed in on social media, scoffing at the notion of affixing the GOAT label to a fighter with just four title defenses. Jones, 26-1, has the most title fight wins in UFC history with 14. And while he does have one loss, it was a controversial disqualification for illegal elbow strikes during a bout he was dominating.

Georges St-Pierre retired with a 20-2 record and is one of only seven fighters to win belts in different divisions. Anderson Silva’s 16-fight win streak is the longest in UFC history.

So did Nurmagomedov really retire as the greatest MMA fighter of all time? ESPN reporters Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi disagree.

Okamoto: All right, Marc, let me begin by admitting I don’t usually get too fired up about this whole GOAT conversation, but if there was ever an appropriate time to have it, I believe it has to be now.

And yes, I do believe Khabib is the greatest of all time. I’m willing to say that pretty confidently, even though there’s no real way to prove it. I have my arguments, but I think we should hear who’s your GOAT before I make my case. So, what say you on the matter?

Raimondi: I’m not a huge fan of these types of debates, either. I think Georges St-Pierre — who can make a GOAT case for himself — said it best in an interview with our pal Ariel Helwani after Nurmagomedov’s win. There are several fighters, GSP said, who have been the best ever at different periods of time.

I’d agree with you that, in this moment in time, Nurmagomedov absolutely feels like the greatest. But I’m a big-picture observer, Brett. I like to step back and see the forest, not just the trees. And if you’re looking at the whole picture — the entire body of work — I believe Jon Jones has to be the GOAT.

Okamoto: OK, good. So, we know what we’re arguing here: Khabib vs. Jones. Interesting, because plenty of people reading this just concluded we’re both idiots for not saying GSP. Ha ha. But that’s why the debate is fun! We have our reasons. So, you say Jones. Why?

Raimondi: Well, for the record, I’d put St-Pierre’s résumé over Nurmagomedov’s. Again, I try to take a look at the whole picture. While I think Nurmagomedov’s current run is incredible — probably the best three-fight stretch ever — he just didn’t have the longevity at the top of his division like Jones or GSP did.

Nurmagomedov has four UFC title fight victories. Jones has 14 at light heavyweight. Nurmagomedov has three UFC title defenses. Jones has 11. Jones, outside-the-cage issues aside, was the light heavyweight champion without losing the belt in the Octagon for nearly a decade.

To me, if we’re talking about the GOAT, it begins and ends with longevity and an accumulation of quality victories over the top fighters in your division. Also, I’d like to add that Jones is still going, is still winning and could be looking at a UFC heavyweight title bout in the near future.

Okamoto: I hear you on the “longevity at the top” argument. It’s a good argument. But at the end of the day, I’m comfortable with it not being the final measuring stick of greatness. Not all title defenses are created equal, after all.

Yes, Jones has a lot of them. But if we’re nitpicking — and in a debate over who the GOAT is between two amazing fighters, that’s what we’re doing, we’re nitpicking — Jones was fortunate enough to face some of the bigger names of his title reign when they were past their primes. That’s not his fault, but it’s worth pointing out.

Some of those guys didn’t do much after they fought Jones, and I don’t think it was because Jones just wrecked their careers. I think it’s more because they were already showing some signs of decline. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua is 8-6-1 since he lost to Jones. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson is 6-5. Rashad Evans is 2-6. Now, I’m not saying those guys weren’t great when Jones fought them, but were they at their absolute peaks? Honestly, probably not.

You add in a couple middleweights such as Chael Sonnen and even, to an extent, Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort … again, Marc, I know I’m nitpicking, but where am I wrong here?

Then Jones nearly lost to Alexander Gustafsson. Nearly lost to Thiago Santos. Nearly lost to Dominick Reyes.

You said something before, that Nurmagomedov’s run of submitting and dominating Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje in the manner in which he did might be the best three-fight stretch ever. I’ll go one step further: It is the greatest three-fight stretch ever. And just because Nurmagomedov is deciding to walk away at the top, in his prime, when he could do more, I won’t let that be the reason I don’t call this guy what he is — and that’s the greatest to ever do it.

Raimondi: All of that is extremely fair. And I do agree that not all of Jones’ title opponents were at the top of their games. But that’s what you do as the longtime champion, right? You take on the next contender, no matter who it is. Jones did that, and I have trouble faulting him for it.

He was so great that he found a way to win every single time in his career, save for that aberration disqualification loss to Matt Hamill. Jones is unbeaten in 18 UFC fights since then, the longest such streak ever. And I don’t think anyone will beat that.

Now, maybe Nurmagomedov could have topped it if he stayed around. I respect him 100% for leaving when he’s on top. No doubt about that. I couldn’t admire the man’s principles any more than I do. I see Nurmagomedov as kind of like a Barry Sanders, a running back who departed the NFL in his prime. When Nurmagomedov was active, he was excellence personified, like Sanders.

But the best of all time? I put more weight into the consistency and length of Jones’ greatness. While he did nearly lose some of those fights, as you mentioned, he won them all. And to me, that’s the mark of true GOAT status. Just win, baby. Nobody has been better at that than Jones.

Okamoto: All fair. It feels like we have a fundamental difference in the way we look at it and judge it. But let me say a few final things.

First, I want to reiterate I’m not criticizing Jones’ run in any way. What he has accomplished, obviously, is very near — or at — the best we’ve ever seen. And depending on what he does at heavyweight, listen, my answer could be different in the not-too-distant future. If Jones goes on and captures the heavyweight championship and adds a few more chapters to his career up there, it will be hard to deny him.

But at the end of the day, this comes down to a simple idea for me: If I had to pick a winner — if my life depended on one fighter to go out there and secure a win — I’m taking the Khabib who fought Gaethje on Saturday night 10 times out of 10. That man was unbeatable. That was a level of excellence in mixed martial arts I don’t think we’ve ever witnessed. And that’s more important to me than a handful of additional title defenses.

Raimondi: Not just a handful, though, right? Jones has more than three times as many title defenses as Nurmagomedov. That’s not an insignificant difference. If it were just a couple of more, sure, I could totally understand your point. But eight more? Eight title defenses alone would get you in this GOAT conversation.

I also want to add that the last thing I’m looking to do here is minimize Nurmagomedov’s accomplishments. He’s a legend. And if he does truly step away now, he’ll have a run — and a career — like none other, going out on top while still undefeated, even though I’d still love to see him fight St-Pierre.

With that said, the numbers and records Jones have put up are spectacular. They’re quantifiable, more so than some imagined, subjective scenario in which you have to pick one fighter to win one fight.

And yes, Jones did fail two drug tests for performance-enhancing drugs. If you want to count that against him, I won’t argue too hard. But like he has repeated, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the organization that suspended him, also said it didn’t find any evidence that he intentionally cheated. I’d understand if those things were disqualifying to some, in which case I’d argue for St-Pierre atop the GOAT rankings. GSP has nine title defenses, won titles in two different divisions and avenged both losses of his career.

Again, it’s all about longevity.

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