In MMA, It’s so Hard to Say Goodbye

Khabib Nurmagomedov and Anderson Silva are retiring within a week of each other.

This past Saturday, after beating Justin Gaethje to add a 29th win to his perfect professional record, UFC lightweight champion and crusher of wills Khabib Nurmagomedov announced he was retiring from MMA. The news followed an atypically emotional post-fight reaction from Nurmagomedov, who had lost his father and trainer, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, just months before. His mother, Khabib explained, did not want him to continue competing without Abdulmanap. So he made a promise to her that he wouldn’t. At 32, Nurmagomedov was walking away.

This was not your typical MMA announcement. 

For starters, unlike other fighter retirements, we seemed inclined to actually believe it. Nurmagomedov hadn’t shown interest in publicity stunts or pay-per-view-pushing theatrics before, and the tragic circumstances didn’t seem like the place to start. Frankly, he just seemed like the kind of guy who would mean it, and while it’s hard to gauge what kind of guy a stranger really is, that would do. For now, anyway. 

But, also, what odd timing Nurmagomedov picked. There he was, fresh off his third title defense, having yet to lose a single MMA bout or even spill much (if any) of his own blood into the UFC canvas. Also unlike other fighter retirements, this one didn’t require subtle Dana White jabs, or not-so-subtle pre-fight questions about alternative career plans, or the usual slew of mournful-sounding “you’ve got nothing left to prove” tweets. 

We didn’t have to grab Nurmagomedov by the ankles and drag him out the door. Instead, he quietly opened it and snuck out in the middle of the night, leaving behind a clean sink and a pot of fresh coffee. No mess. No noise. As far as what we got inside the cage, not much in terms of bittersweet memories, either.

 It was as clean a break as you could get. 

If the universe was a fair place, we would have been allowed to take our time in filling this particular absence with words and numbers and comfortingly cyclical conversations of all-time-greatness. But it isn’t, and we weren’t, and just days after this goodbye we’re left to deal with another one. On Saturday, at UFC Fight Night: Hall vs. Silva in Las Vegas, it will theoretically be Anderson Silva’s turn to say his own, different goodbye.

The numbers alone tell another story — the 0 on Nurmagomedov’s perfect record adding up to a round 10 on Silva’s. Unlike Nurmagomedov, Silva lost. Unlike Nurmagomedov, Silva got (badly) hurt. Unlike Nurmagomedov, Silva tested positive in anti-doping tests. Unlike with Nurmagomedov, we got to see what Silva’s peak really looked like, and then we got to see what happened once it was over. At 45, the UFC’s former long-reigning middleweight champion prepares to end a run that bears little resemblance to that of Nurmagomedov, other than the fact that it eventually led to greatness. After competing in different classes, at different times, with different styles and arguably to different audiences, the two are now set to share a resting space in the Greatest Of All Time mausoleum — right next to, interestingly enough, one of their other common threads in mutual superfighter-who-got-away Georges St-Pierre.

In the span of a week, we were left with two opposite goodbyes in the sense that we only asked for one of them. We were also left, however, with two similar goodbyes in the sense that many of the remaining questions are the same. From the unavoidable “Will it really stick?” to the more abstract and frustrating matters of how to package them in a way that satisfyingly explains just what these people and their absences mean in the grand scheme of things. 

For so many of us, the acronym GOAT has become inextricable from an eye roll, our teeth lightly grinding with the thought of embarking on yet another journey toward disagreeing over which numbers are the better numbers and which stats are the valid stats. It’s unnerving, really, and objectively counter-productive. I have made it a point to mock these conversations at every turn, and yet I often find myself throwing my pick out there (St-Pierre, by the way) or peeking through internet arguments just so I can get angry at them. 

I don’t shame myself too much when I do. 

It’s a human impulse, I guess, to crave closure and assign meanings to holes left by things that were there and then no longer weren’t.

Which, I guess, is in a meta way what I’m trying to do here. Rationally, I understand I have no business having any thoughts or feelings on a deeply personal choice by a professional athlete whom I do not know. Most of us understand that. 

Yet, what would be the fun of sports if it wasn’t for all our reprehensible meddling and projecting. I had no business being sad about Nurmagomedov’s retirement, but I was, because I selfishly got used to watching a great athlete be great at a thing, and then I was confronted with the reality that I would no longer get to see it. Nurmagomedov’s announcement made for a particular, “what if” kind of mourning. Maybe this was Nurmagomedov’s peak, and what a peak it has been, but we might never know because we never got to see him leave it. We got out clean break, the one we keep asking for, but there is a cruel open-ended-ness to that, too.

And then we have the messy break, which is so far being met with odd indifference. Maybe there is an element of suspicion to that, based on our own experiences with legends who insist on hanging around. Silva’s language has already gained some familiar flexibility, and we’ve been down this road too many times to operate in definitives.

anderson silva training

Maybe it’s got something to do with how anti-climatic the whole thing feels; the idea of the Anderson Silva making his “Ain’t no sunshine” walk-out in front of an empty arena sounds almost insulting. But maybe the lack of fanfare also has to do with the fact that this isn’t our goodbye, or at least not our first one. In a way, we parted ways with Silva when we parted ways with his greatness, and the formality of it all just doesn’t seem all that heavy. We have all the good memories, but we also have the other ones, and a sink of dirty dishes to keep us busy. 

Could it be that, in Silva’s imperfect retirement, we somehow got the perfect closure?

That is a trick question, of course. We know full well that the perfect closure does not exist. We had our chance at one with St-Pierre, remember, when he stopped just as he began the descent from superhuman to near-mortal? We didn’t take it then and we didn’t take it four years later, when he casually strutted in to claim a belt in a different division. 

St-Pierre hasn’t been in a cage for three years, has shown very little dissatisfaction with his retirement life, and yet we refuse to stop shoving him in our headlines and super fight conversations. He’s the definition of “nothing left to prove” but we still want him to prove… Something. Whatever it is. We say we want fighters to retire at their peak, to magically know when their upward curve is about to take a dip, but what are we supposed to do when that happens? Just let them ride off into the sunset while we settle for literally everyone else instead? 

Well that’s just not very practical, is it?

UFC 254: Khabib v Gaethje

Obviously, it’s only a matter of time before we start doing that to Nurmagomedov, too. As willing as we now are to respect his mourning and collectively frown at those who refuse to do the same, this too shall pass. Slowly but surely, “The Eagle” will make his way back into our hypothetical match-ups and opinion pieces, whether he likes it or not. It’s with rare conviction that I say we can’t and won’t accept this clean break.

Again, I don’t really shame us for it. There is something very human, too, in not wanting to let go of things that we like. We are not really in the business of clean breaks because we are not really in the business of breaks, period, no matter how we dress up our reasons. We said goodbye to Khabib Nurmagomedov, maybe, and we’re saying goodbye to Anderson Silva, maybe, but in a way we aren’t really, are we? At least not as far as our annoying, endless, gloriously pointless all-time-greatness conversations are concerned. 

Nurmagomedov’s was not your typical MMA announcement but, then again, does such a thing even exist?