LAS VEGAS — Khabib Nurmagomedov finished his MMA career undefeated, going 29-0 overall and 13-0 in the UFC, retiring as the only undefeated UFC champion. Jon Jones would be undefeated were it not for a referee's mistake, when he was disqualified for an illegal blow in a bout he was about to win.
No one other than Nurmagomedov, though, has been able to retire unbeaten either as a champion or having at the least held a title belt.
Magomed Ankalaev won't break that streak on Saturday when he meets Jan Blachowicz for the vacant light heavyweight title in the main event of UFC 282 at T-Mobile Arena. He is one second away from taking a 19-0 mark into the fight and having the opportunity to follow in Nurmagomedov's footsteps. In his UFC debut on March 17, 2018, at the O2 Arena in London, Ankalaev won the first two rounds and was on the verge of winning the fight when Craig caught him in a triangle choke with about 10 seconds remaining in the bout.
Ankalaev tapped with one second left, denying him the opportunity to finish his career unbeaten.
Ankalaev is only 30 and he has a long career in front of him. Despite the evidence that would suggest it's not possible to compete for a period of years and wind up undefeated in the UFC, Ankalaev thinks it's possible.
"I think it's possible to go undefeated in this sport, it's just that I specifically made a mistake in that fight," Ankalaev said at UFC 282 media day. "I made a mistake and in this sport at this level, mistakes are not forgiven and so I paid for it."
Ankalaev is an outstanding talent who has wins over Anthony Smith, Nikita Krylov, Volkan Oezdemir and Thiago Santos. He'd have considerably more hype around him, though, if he were heading into this fight 19-0 instead of 18-1.
Ankalaev is not ranked in the Top 15 of the UFC's pound-for-pound list, despite a nine-fight winning streak in the light heavyweight division. He's an entertaining, well-rounded fighter who is far more than just another Daegestani wrestler, but he's yet to achieve that acclaim.
Perhaps it will come by defeating Blachowicz, a former champion, and at BetMGM, Ankalaev is a -300 favorite and is even money to win by KO.
He's a different fighter now than he was when he lost to Craig, Ankalaev said, and he's not haunted by the possibility of what might have been. He knows that if he becomes the champion and defends the belt several times, his reputation will build and he'll earn the recognition his talents demand.
"I don't really think about it much," Ankalaev said when asked if he wishes he'd held on for one more second. "It's something that happened. I made a mistake and I paid for it, but now I have to move forward. If I'm honest about it, it made me a better fighter. It made me learn. Now, moving forward, of course I probably wouldn't make the same mistake, but it's for the best because look at where I am now."
He's made it to the top of the division and is favored to defeat a highly regarded former champion. But despite his success, he's not too humble to learn. And when he looked at how Nurmagomedov worked, he realized he had changes to make himself.
"Khabib is just all the way on another level," Ankalaev said. "Khabib used to train without a break, without a stop. I watched his interviews and he would always say, 'You've got to train, train, train and then train some more.' Basically, he's on a whole different level."
Because of that, he said he's a vastly better fighter. He was more casual in his approach to training before the loss to Craig. He believed in his talents and didn't think it hurt to miss a session. When he was picking up the pieces after a surprising defeat, he thought of Nurmagomedov's work ethic and realized he couldn't match that.
He needed to try and doing so has pushed him into the UFC's upper echelons.
"Before my loss, I would be like, 'OK, maybe I'll miss this practice,' or 'Maybe I'll skip this sparring session,' or whatever," Ankalaev said. "Since that loss, I've changed. I became the guy who always pushes forward, who always goes to all practices, and I try to make sure I have crossed all my T's and dotted all my I's. That's why I'm here."