ABU DHABI • Three days before headlining UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi, the main attraction, Khabib Nurmagomedov, told reporters he planned to retire as the undefeated, undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight champion.
He seemed to mean he would make that move eventually. It turns out he intended to do it immediately.
The Russian needed less than two rounds on Saturday night to dispatch a hard-punching American challenger, Justin Gaethje, in the main event of a fight card that the UFC expected to threaten pay-per-view records.
His win unified the UFC lightweight title, solidified his place as the mixed martial arts (MMA) organisation's top fighter, and was his first win after the death of his father and trainer, Abdulmanap, 57.
After his victory, Khabib took the microphone during a post-fight interview and said he was leaving the sport. "No way I'm going to come here (again) without my father," he said. "I'm the UFC undisputed, undefeated champion with a 13-0 record (in the promotion), and 29-0 in all of my pro MMA career."
The 32-year-old's emphatic win over Gaethje was the in-competition high point of a tumultuous 2020 for MMA.
He started the year slated to face Tony Ferguson in April at the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn, but the card was postponed because of the pandemic and the UFC moved it eventually to Jacksonville, Florida.
With Khabib unable to return to the United States from Russia because of travel restrictions, Gaethje replaced him as Ferguson's opponent, then pounded out a one-sided, five-round technical knockout win.
In July, Abdulmanap, who had trained Nurmagomedov since he was three, died of Covid-19 complications.
Still, Khabib, a relentless wrestler who is also adept with punches and kicks, agreed to face Gaethje in a tantalising match-up of styles.
His opponent's high-impact striking earned him the nickname "The Highlight" and he had not lost in the UFC in over two years.
After a cautious first minute in their fight, Khabib applied pressure, absorbing heavy blows from Gaethje and in the second, he saw an opportunity to take him down.
After Gaethje tried to land two hard kicks in succession, Khabib grabbed his foot before mauling him. The 31-year-old submitted barely two minutes into the round, with the win earning Khabib a US$50,000 (S$67,860) cash bonus for the best performance of the night.
Afterwards, he laid his gloves on the octagon canvas and explained that he and his mother agreed he should retire. He said: "When UFC comes to me about Justin I spoke with my mother for three days. She didn't want me to fight without father and I said this is my last fight - and I have given her my word."
Dana White, the UFC president, claimed post-fight that he did not begrudge Khabib his retirement.
"What he's been through, we're all lucky we got to see him fight tonight," he said, revealing the Russian had competed with broken bones in his foot.
Long-time rival Conor McGregor, who tapped out to Khabib in their October 2018 bout, and Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo were among many who led the tributes.
McGregor, who retired in June but has teased a return, tweeted: "Good performance Team Khabib. I will carry on. Respect and condolences on your father again also. To you and family."
Ronaldo posted on Instagram, writing: "Congrats bro! Your father is proud of you!"