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Cameron Smith and Khabib Nurmagomedov: Unspectacular brilliance

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27th October, 2020

This past weekend, two great champions added what could be the final chapter to their sporting careers.

One is Cameron Smith, the Melbourne Storm captain who on Sunday once again led his side to the NRL premiership.

The other is Khabib Nurmagomedov, the 29-0 UFC champion, who on the same day submitted Justin Gaethje to retain his lightweight title.

Comparing two such different athletes may seem an odd undertaking, but their careers actually have a number of parallels.

The first and most obvious comparison that can be made is that their careers rate among the best in their respective sports.

Smith is a future Immortal, the pinnacle of rugby league greatness. He is a three-time NRL winner (with two stripped), an 11-time Origin winner, two-time Dally M Medalist, two-time Golden Boot winner, and the longest-serving player ever in the NRL. His stats are eye-watering.


In a new and different sport, Khabib is as impressive. His wins came over some of the greatest lightweights in the world, including Rafael dos Anjos, Edson Barbosa, Dustin Porier, Justin Gaethje and, of course, Conor McGregor.

However, more than the wins, his dominance is unparalleled. In 29 fights he has never been cut nor knocked down, which may never be matched, and he arguably lost only one round – one – when he decided to strike with McGregor in Round 3 of their fight. There has never been dominance like that in the history of MMA.

Khabib Nurmagomedov getting ready to fight in the octagon.

Khabib Nurmagomedov (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Both are considered the greatest of all time in their sports. I personally do not think that either claim that title, but it is certainly arguable.

Wally Lewis and Andrew Johns were both more physically skilled and exciting players than Smith, but that is just my subjective criteria for greatness. In regards to Nurmagomedov, I have Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva above, as all three fought greater opposition and dominated their generation longer.

Nevertheless, the claim of GOAT is not out of reach for either Smith or Khabib.

Besides similar levels of greatness, neither Smith nor Nurmagomedov are without controversy.

Smith has had a clean off-field career and most complaints about him come in regards to his on-field gamesmanship, negative tactics, and referee ‘whispering’.


For me, however, the lasting stain on Smith will be the Alex McKinnon incident, although I am just glad McKinnon himself has finally been able to move on.

As a Dagestani involved in combat sports, the spectres on the periphery of Nurmagomedov’s career are naturally darker than Smith’s.

The clearest criticism that could be directed at Nurmagomedov is his association with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. For those unfamiliar, Kadyrov he has been accused of numerous human-rights violations, including torture, suppression of women, and homosexual purges.

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Kadyrov has significant political power in the Caucasus region, home to both Chechnya and Khabib’s native Dagestan. Because of this, it has been suggested that Nurmagomedov may not have had much choice in publicly supporting Kadyrov. Nevertheless, the association is not flattering.

Besides this, Khabib has also used his position to advance an agenda of staunch social conservatism in his region, including suppressing the liberal arts. Undoubtedly, his strong Islamic faith drives many of these beliefs, and criticising his opinions on that count would show an insensitive Western bias. Regardless, for many observers the mitigating factors not quite enough to clear the air of his association with Kadyrov, nor his strongly conservative views.

To move into lighter waters, a less controversial complaint common to both Smith and Nurmagomedov is their negative or smothering approach to their sports.

Cam Smith is almost synonymous with negative-play in some circles, and is well known as a central figure in rugby league’s grappling revolution. However, his expertise in this style of football must be admired. The fan-hostile approach of slowing and smothering the run-of-play contributed significantly to the success of both Smith and the Storm.

An interesting story about Smith’s grappling prowess was offered by Paul Kent in a recent episode of the Matty Jones Podcast. A number of years ago, the Australian under 20s side asked a Brazilian jujitsu coach to come to the Australian Institute of Sport and teach the young side.

In explaining to the submission expert what exactly he was supposed to teach a football team, they showed him a clip of the Melbourne Storm defending. The jujitsu coach took one look at Smith defending and asked if he was a black belt. It is astonishing that Cameron Smith’s grappling is so good he can fool another black belt into assuming he is a jujitsu expert.

Cameron Smith of the Storm poses with the Premiership trophy

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Wrestling is not the dirty word in MMA that it is in league, but it is still not considered fan-friendly by most. Khabib is an astounding grappler, and his fights are incredibly impressive to watch. But he was never the spectacle of pure creativity that we saw with the likes of Jones or Silva, or even Israel Adesanya or Conor McGregor.


His matches tended to be quite predictable: he would walk down an opponent, take them to the ground and wrap up their legs, and then strike or submits them. The fact everyone knew he would do this, but not one could stop him, is most impressive.

The approach of each athlete highlights my final point about the two greats. They are undoubtedly giants in their sports, but they will both go down in history as possessing a type of greatness that is remarkable without being spectacular.

Smith and Khabib are not flashy, not showy, but are ruthlessly effective. Taking only moderate risks, they would use their rare skills and complete control of pace to grind an opponent into ground. The two displayed the type of deadly efficiency that Napoleon was famous for, not the spectacularly reckless bravery of Alexander the Great.

In a world of sports entertainment, two of the greatest athletes of all times are some of the least entertaining, but through pure dominance Cameron Smith and Khabib Nurmagomedov gained everyone’s respect. Last weekend one of these athletes retired, and the other may also. How much they will be misses is debated, but they will certainly leave a great hole.