By now, the entire world had seen how UFC 254’s headliner between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje went down. The challenger had his moments early on, but the champion performed as he always did to come out victorious in a decisive fashion.
What many of us obviously didn’t see were the mid-fight happenings that went on. UFC president Dana White already revealed some of them, but in a recent interview with ACA light heavyweight fighter Magomed Ismailov, Khabib spilled a little more.
“He gave up. I mean, his will was broken. He gave up mentally,” Khabib said of Gaethje. “I don’t think that I won this fight physically, but rather mentally.”
“The Eagle” went on to recall a specific moment during the first 90 seconds of the fight. At this point, he believes Gaethje was already “lost.”
“I remember when he hit me with the uppercut and left hook, this one was very good,” Khabib said. “So I’m like asking him, ‘Is that all?’ To be honest, we had a big talk in this fight. So I’m asking him, ‘Is that all?’ I saw his eyes, he got lost.
“And after this moment, the fight is going on and I went for a middle kick. It was my right foot. I kicked him under the ribs. You know that we’re not good at fighting with legs. And look what he says to me when I kicked him. He starts breathing heavily.”
Seeing his opponent seemingly running out of gas quickly, Khabib gained more confidence. He remembered how well-conditioned he was when fighting in a desert climate like Abu Dhabi.
“When I fought Dustin Poirier, my acclimation started after one week,” Khabib said. “And it was at the peak. Even after one week, I still had it. That’s two weeks in a row. Even though we arrived in Abu Dhabi three weeks (prior), only after three weeks, it became better. And that’s because of the desert acclimation.
“Now, I know that Justin arrived on Saturday, and he fights on the next Saturday. So I could know that it will be the peak of acclimation for him. Now, I’m asking him, ‘has acclimation started?’ He replies, ‘No, no, no, no acclimation.’ And that’s while we were fighting.
“So I’m thinking in my mind, ‘Why are you answering to me, Justin? We are fighting.’ Do you understand the psychology level? It’s like the prosecutor is scolding you. So I knew he gave up at this moment.”
It was then when Khabib knew the fight was his for the taking. He began pushing forward to pile on more pressure on Gaethje.
“After (that), I just started walking him down. He was throwing some punches and losing power,” Khabib recalled. “I could feel that when he tried to kick me. I was purposely walking him down and catching his punches.
“And if I wanted to escape his kicks, then I don’t think that he’d hit me that much. These steps with walking him down and so on, they were about to break his will. And when I took him down, he didn’t even try to do something. You may not see this, but I felt it.”
Khabib was familiar with Gaethje’s record and performance during fights. That led him to the conclusion that he won the mental battle.
“He never did that before. Before me, he fought 24 times,” Khabib said of Gaethje. “And for our fight, it was the 25th time. But before our fight, he’d never back down. Not a single fight. Amateurs, pro fights in PFL, in the UFC, he would never back down. He’d always go forward.
“That’s why I believe it was the key. I (beat) him mentally.”
Khabib announced his retirement after putting Gaethje to sleep via triangle choke in the second round. He left the sport with a 29-0 record.