Khabib Nurmagomedov closed out his MMA career in style Saturday with a victory and, according to his teammate, an act of compassion.
Nurmagomedov successfully defended his UFC lightweight championship by finishing Justin Gaethje with a second-round triangle. He used that submission rather than the armbar he initially had set up, American Kickboxing Academy training partner Daniel Cormier said on Monday, because Nurmagomedov did not want to injure Gaethje in front of Gaethje's parents.
"He told me when he was watching the interviews over the course of the week, he saw that Justin said that he would never tap," Cormier, who was an analyst on the UFC 254 telecast, told ESPN's Ariel Helwani on the DC & Helwani program. "He was going to do the armbar, but he had heard Justin saying all week that he would never tap, and he didn't want to hurt him in front of his parents. So he went to the triangle and just kind of put him to sleep."
A fighter who does not tap out while stuck in an armbar or other joint manipulation runs the risk of having the limb broken, while a choke with no tapout renders the fighter unconscious. "If I put him to sleep," Cormier said Nurmagomedov told him, "he'll wake up and everything will be OK."
Gaethje's parents were in attendance at the fight in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Nurmagomedov was competing with his own family in mind, as well. His father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, who also was his primary coach and mentor, died in July from a heart condition complicated by COVID-19. After the fight Saturday, the 32-year-old champ (29-0) announced his retirement by invoking his mother's desire that he fight no more.
Cormier knew Nurmagomedov went into the fight with a broken toe and "a litany of issues" during training, including an unspecified injury early in camp that sidelined the champ for almost four weeks. But Cormier had no idea ahead of time that Nurmagomedov was planning on joining him in retirement.
"He didn't say anything," said Cormier, who retired in August after a heavyweight title fight loss to champion Stipe Miocic. "I saw him multiple times during the week."
And when the retirement announcement came?
"I was almost brought to tears, sitting at the commentary desk, watching him sob in the middle of the Octagon," Cormier said.
Based on the relationship he has developed with Nurmagomedov while training together at AKA gym in San Jose, California, Cormier believes strongly that there will be no comeback.
"This is real," he said. "Khabib doesn't lie. Khabib doesn't play 'I'm retiring and I'm coming back.'"
What sealed the finality for Cormier was hearing Nurmagomedov mention his mother -- saying she did not want him to fight anymore and that he had promised her the fight Saturday would be his last one.
"When he said that, and he said, 'I give my word, and that's the only thing I have,' I was like, 'He's done,'" Cormier said. "He's never lied to me. Maybe he has messed around. We've had fun. We've played jokes. We've done a lot of things. But the one thing he doesn't do is lie. And I don't think he would lie to his mother, especially in the face of what they're dealing with as a family."