When 23-year-old Khabib Nurmagomedov had his hand raised as the winner of a unanimous decision over Gleison Tibau at UFC 148, he broke down in tears as if he had just won the championship. In reality, what he had won was even more valuable to him: his perfect record was still intact. Those were the tears of a man whose ultimate goal of retiring undefeated had managed to escape death.
Three years later, Khabib’s protégé, Islam Makhachev, wasn’t so lucky. While Khabib managed to avoid a life-altering blow from the judges, Makhachev got caught for the only time in his career. That loss may be a large component of what is driving Makhachev today; but what would have become of Khabib if the judges agreed with the popular urban legend that it was Tibau who should have been declared the winner, thus altering MMA history forever?
The Most Trying Performance Of the Lightweight GOAT’s Career
When still just an Eaglet, Khabib Nurmagomedov was tasked with the advanced assignment of facing muscle-bound jiu-jitsu black belt Gleison Tibau. To this day, many people believe the Dagestani did not really pass this test and that Tibau should have been awarded the victory.
In fact, even five out of six media outlets scored the fight for Tibau according to mmadecisions.com. But as is always the case, there were only three people’s opinions that mattered that night, and all three saw it the exact same way, round by round, which resulted in Khabib advancing to 18-0 after a shutout decision.
For all three judges to deliver the same cards verbatim, it is a near certainty that they scored the fight the way they did for the same reason. We’re not talking about a split decision or anything that resembles a difficult deliberation whatsoever. All three scorecards were exactly the same, with each judge giving Nurmagomedov every round. With no variance among nine possible scores rendered from the minds of three separate people, there had to be some commonality, some framework that resulted in the identical scores. And indeed there is.
The Unified Rules Of Mixed Martial Arts Scoring Criteria
According to the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, an MMA bout is scored using the following criteria:
Fighting Area Control
There are two big takeaways from any viewer watching the Khabib/Tibau fight:
- Khabib could not get that man down for the life of him.
- Khabib was much more aggressive while Tibau was extremely passive and only waiting to counter.
Now, let’s review the three categories the judges use to score the rounds in juxtaposition with how the fight unfolded.
Some say Tibau was the more effective and efficient striker, but the striking differential was almost non-existent statistically. Both fighters landed an almost replicated, single-digit number of strikes in every round, with Tibau able to barely scratch 10 in round 1.
In the Effective Aggressiveness department, one criterion is actively looking to finish the fight. After Tibau took Khabib down in the second round, Khabib landed arguably the biggest head strikes of the fight, especially a big uppercut that connected with its target. The strikes didn’t appear to have much damage, but relative to Tibau’s efforts, this was the closest any fighter came to visibly trying to finish the fight.
Nevertheless, even though Khabib was far more aggressive in every round, overall, it just wasn’t effective. Therefore, we’re still deadlocked going into the third category.
Fighting Area Control
Finally, there is Fighting Area Control. The language for Fighting Area Control as written in the MMA Unified Rules is that it “means dictating the pace, place, and position of the match. Fighting Area Control is to be assessed only if both competitors’ Effective Striking/Grappling and competitors’ Effective Aggressiveness are equal for the round.”
Using both the visuals of the fight and the official statistics, it should be clear that the striking was practically equal and that neither man got off any sustained offensive grappling. When Tibau took Khabib down, the future champion immediately popped back up without any control time or damage achieved by Tibau.
So as the bolded words above state, Fighting Area Control should be the determining factor with all else being equal. And Fighting Area Control is the only area where one fighter stood out, with Khabib having 4:26 of official control time to Tibau’s 0:17. That’s almost an entire round of difference in control time.
Whether you base your disagreement with the judges’ decision on street rules, the optics of Khabib’s takedowns getting stuffed throughout the fight, or whatever criteria you’re using, based on the three categories judges are asked to consider by the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, Fighting Area Control was clearly what all three judges were thinking about when awarding the fight to Khabib, and it’s the only category that had a significant and noticeable gap between the two fighters.
The Power Of Suggestion
So if the reason for the judges awarding the fight to Khabib is really that obvious, why then did so many media outlets back then and several fans/pundits to this day swear that Tibau was the rightful winner of the fight?
First, people might subconsciously be under the false impression that takedown defense is rewarded according to the scoring criteria. It isn’t. And without getting points for that, Tibau has no strong argument for the win.
Another strong possibility for why fans think Tibau should have won is that fans may have been swayed by the commentary of Joe Rogan. Long before Rogan managed to convince several thousands of people that Khabib struggled against Al Iaquinta en route to a 50-44, 50-43, 50-43 scorecard at UFC 223, he asserted that Tibau was about to be awarded the decision as the fight was winding down and then expressed his surprise after the scorecards were read.
We, as people, would love to think that we’re all completely independent free-thinkers as a higher species, but anybody can be susceptible to the power of suggestion. Evidence of this can be found in our consumer decisions, politics, and, most importantly, our consumption of mixed martial arts!
So when a respected commentator (who later proved his ability to get listeners to hang on his every word by having the #1 podcast in the country) is suggesting that Gleison Tibau is landing more, even though he is barely showing any aggression whatsoever and the stats are virtually identical, it’s no wonder that the closest fight in the career of the UFC’s most dominant performer has become the stuff of urban legend.
Could 29-0 Have Been 40-1?
What if Khabib was not announced as the winner that night but was subjected to bad (yes, bad) judging? What if two judges interpreted “effective grappling” as Tibau “effectively” keeping the fight standing as opposed to scoring takedowns and holding mat time?
Worse yet, what if they interpreted “Fighting Area Control” as Tibau “controlling” the fact that the fight remained standing, even if he did not dictate the pace or where much of the fight took place? There has been more questionable logic than this over the years from judges, so what if Gleison Tibau was to Khabib Nurmagomedov what Adriano Martins later became to Islam Makhachev?
If Khabib was 17-1 and worked his way up to being the lightweight champion of the world until reaching 28-1, would he still have been satisfied with his career? Instead of falling in love with being undefeated and barely losing a round, would he and his father have planned to continue mauling until they detected a hint of decline in his performance?
After all, most fighters aim to solidify their legacy by breaking records and demonstrating sustained greatness. Khabib considers 29-0 to be record enough of his sustained greatness, but would he have felt the same at 28-1?
We’ll never know the answer to that question, just like we’ll never know how many more wins Khabib could have added to the other side of that “0.” But we can answer very similar “what ifs” through Islam Makhachev, who was not as fortunate to escape the hard hand of fate back in 2015.
Larger Strides Made When The Quest For Perfection Is Out Of Reach?
In 2015, Makhachev suffered a flash TKO loss to Adriano Martins. The way Makhachev body gave out on his way down to the canvas made the stoppage hard to debate; but given how quickly Makhachev returned to his feet and the fact that he has not sniffed any trouble since, it’s fair to say that this lone Makhachev loss was the true definition of getting “caught.”
But what if he didn’t get caught? What if he zagged instead of zigged and went on to dominate Martins like he did everyone who came after him? The fact that this remains Martins’ last win before going on to lose four straight fights further drives home just how conceivable a world where Makhachev won this fight and remained undefeated is to imagine.
It is because he has a loss on his record that Islam Makhachev will have a different type of hunger than Khabib did. Unable to retire with a spotless record, Makhachev might look to erase that loss from our memories by stringing together more wins and title defenses than anybody in the division’s history. One of those wins ironically came over Khabib’s toughest fight, Gleison Tibau himself. Tomorrow night, Makhachev will look to add another Brazilian to his list of victims in Thiago Moisés.
We will never know to what degree Khabib would have been motivated to add to his legacy if he were not undefeated and what record/goals he and his late father would have set if 30-0 was an impossibility. But fortunately, we are still in the process of finding out just how many people Islam Makhachev plans on wiping out in order to shade the one blotch on what has otherwise been an impeccable career.
If the 29-year-old Makhachev keeps winning in dominant fashion until he begins winning titles and smashing records, then even with his 2015 setback, he just might be able to someday retire comfortably out of the shadow of his mentor with a career that was greater than perfect.