Khabib Nurmagomedov is a global superstar now. His record of 29-0 is unchallenged, and his coaching career – although in its infancy – is already drawing some serious attention.
While many consider him the evergreen king of the lightweight division, the recent heroics of Brazilian Lightweight Charles Oliveira has started to cast some shadow over his GOAT status.
Khabib, who called it quits after his last fight with Justin Gaethje at UFC 254, is in no mood to make a comeback to fight Charles Oliveira. However, he has been making some rabble-rousing remarks on the Brazilian in an attempt to get him to fight his mentee and friend, Islam Makhachev.
Having beaten the flamboyant Michael Chandler for the title and won rather easily against Khabib’s last two opponents – Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje – Oliveira can definitely lay claim to the lightweight king status. But as long as MMA fanatics refuse to place him over Khabib Nurmagomedov, it is unlikely that he will ever be considered the greatest of all time.
Truth be told, comparisons between current and retired champions are often misplaced, largely due to the difference in style, level of competition, incremental rule changes and all the technology-aided training that’s available today. And this is precisely why people refuse to compare an Anderson Silva (1997-2020) or Georges St-Pierre (2002-2013) to someone like Israel Adesanya (2010-present) or Kamaru Usman (2012-present).
In this case however, the comparisons are pretty straightforward.
Both Khabib and Oliveira fought in the same era, possess a solid ground game, and have even fought the same opponents a couple of times. Unfortunately for fans, in all the eight years Khabib was active in the UFC, they never crossed paths even once.
While Khabib was reigning supreme in the lightweight division, Oliveira was struggling to make a name in the UFC, losing eight of the 16 fights he made in the seven years since December 2010. His win streak began the very year Khabib beat Conor Mcgregor, but by his eighth consecutive victory, Khabib had already announced retirement, leaving the lightweight belt vacant for 2021.
Oliveira has been relentless since, defeating Michael Chandler, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje in decisive fashion to defend his vanquisher status.
In fact, his triumphs against these top contenders confirm that he is a quicker finisher than Khabib, who inflicted relatively less damage and took longer to submit both Poirier and Gaethje.
At 33 wins and eight losses, he may not possess the fanciful record that Khabib has, but the experience of fighting 30 world-class mixed martial artists in the most elite fight club in the world has certainly brought him a long way.
Unlike Khabib, who plays the waiting game, Oliveira unleashes a brutal assault on his opponents right from the word go, and in most cases, wraps up the fight rather quickly. While this didn’t always work in his favour, he slowly learned to scrape off the possibility of being knocked out, which resulted in more promising results (11 consecutive wins, of which 10 came via stoppage).
The fact that only four of his 42 professional fights have made it to the judge’s table tells you how exciting and ultra-predatory his approach is.
Now, does this mean Khabib is a walk in the park?
Absolutely not. It takes more than just skill to beat someone like Khabib.
Not only has ‘The Eagle’ never lost a fight in his MMA career, no one has ever even remotely dominated him. In fact, it is rare (or almost impossible) to recollect the image of a bruised Khabib from all 12 years of his fighting career.
Much like Oliveira, his game improved as he moved up the ladder and the ease in which he destroyed top-tier fighters quickly made him an MMA icon.
Weirdly enough, he was always criticised for his inferior striking ability, but the actual statistics tell you a different story. In his last 13 fights, Khabib landed twice as many punches as Oliveira (705 compared to Oliveira’s 338), barely bled or lost a round, and took very minimal damage in return.
So to argue that he wouldn’t hold his own in a hand-to-hand combat against the Brazilian would be a little unconvincing.
Another factor that makes Oliveira the underdog is his dubious history of giving up during fights – something you will never see from Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Memories from the fights against Anthony Pettis, Max Holloway, Ricardo Lamas, Paul Felder and Cub Swanson may still haunt Oliveira fans, and if Khabib plans his fight to perfection, we might see history repeat again.
Even in his recent title defences, ‘Do Bronx’ was pretty much walking on thin ice. Consider this for a second – he was nearly finished by Michael Chandler in the first round of his title fight at UFC 262, took nearly five dozen punches in the 11 minutes he fought Dustin Poirier and got knocked down twice in under a minute against Justin Gaethje.
Although he did find eventual success in all these fights, this technique may prove perilous when fighting Khabib.
The only ‘near-death experience’ Khabib has had in his entire career, however, was the guillotine choke of Dustin Poirier at UFC 242.
He not only escaped it with ease, but immediately proceeded to submit a tired Dustin via a rear-naked choke, displaying his incredible depth and resilience.
So, if Khabib ever agrees to fight Oliveira, the strategy would be to take minimum damage, tire him out and pounce on him when the time is right. Watching Khabib manhandle welterweights and light heavyweights during training, it is hard to imagine Oliveira breaking free of his bombproof grip.
The only way he could win is by employing a ‘belt and braces’ strategy – attacking Khabib cautiously while staying away from his grappling radar and, possibly, taking it to the judge’s table.
But in all fairness, one would have to assume that Khabib will have the last laugh given his strong ground game, monk-like composure and dominant technique.
Sadly, we may never be able to witness this spectacle, as Khabib is hell bent on his decision to not return to the game. And as long as he doesn’t, the Khabib-Oliveira conundrum will remain unanswered.
As for Oliveira, the only other way this debate could be settled is by defeating Khabib’s long-time mentee and friend, Islam Makhachev.
Many see Islam as a re-embodiment of Khabib and with his 10-fight UFC win streak, he has certainly done justice to this portrayal, at least until now. With 22 wins, one loss, a takedown accuracy of 65 per cent and a staggering takedown defence rate of 88 per cent, it’s hard to find someone who matches his ground game at the moment.
And under the watchful guidance of Khabib and Coach Javier Mendez, he is only expected to forge ahead from here.
The problem, however, is that Islam hasn’t fought anyone in the top ten yet.
This may act as a huge handicap going into fight a seasoned champion.
Remember when Khamzat Chimaev was considered invincible and suddenly went through an avalanche fighting a top-ranked Gilbert Burns? Taking Oliveira lightly would land Islam in a similar place.
All things considered, if Islam can still edge out Charles Oliveira in the title fight, the comparisons with Khabib would finally be put to rest. But if Charles manages to beat Islam, it is highly likely that fans may crown him as the Greatest Lightweight of All Time.