The 32-year-old Nurmagomedov was active with strikes and with grappling against Gaethje (22-3), the dangerous brawler who had knocked out four consecutive elite opponents while winning the UFC’s interim lightweight title.
After spending the first round largely trading punches and kicks with the aggressive Gaethje, Nurmagomedov used his unparalleled wrestling skills to take down Gaethje early in the second round and then worked into position for the finishing choke.
Gaethje appeared to tap out at least twice before the referee noticed and stopped the bout, by which time Gaethje was unconscious. He bounced up quickly and shared a moment of mutual respect with the dominant Russian champion.
“I know he was in a bad spot, but whether he was or not, he did what he needed to do,” Gaethje said. “I know his father is so proud.”
Nurmagomedov’s first fight in 13 months would be an appropriate farewell for one of the most dynamic competitors in recent MMA history. The Dagestan-born grappling specialist developed a well-rounded game under the tutelage of his father and a Bay Area-based MMA gym, culminating in his ascent to the UFC title in 2018.
Nurmagomedov stopped Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier in his next two bouts before his yearlong absence from competition. His victory over McGregor made him one of the world’s most famous combat sports athletes, and the UFC scheduled this pay-per-view show at an earlier-than-normal time to cater to his vast fan base in Russia and Europe.