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A dominant performance, a tearful goodbye and a legacy of greatness

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The tears flowed immediately. Khabib Nurmagomedov had just let go of the triangle choke he used to render Justin Gaethje unconscious, and all that was left for the UFC lightweight champion was a different release, one of a painfully personal nature. As medical staff moved in to attend to Gaethje against the cage, Nurmagomedov stepped to the center of the Octagon and dropped to his knees.

This would not simply be his usual postfight prayer. Nurmagomedov remained balled up on the canvas, his back heaving, hands covering his face. He was weeping.

Emotions that had been pent up for months spilled out of him. Nurmagomedov had shown none of it publicly in the leadup to this fight, wearing the stoic face for which he had become known during his undefeated mixed martial arts career. But there was no need for that anymore. His father and primary coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, died in July from a heart condition complicated by COVID-19, and Khabib was finally allowing himself the opportunity to mourn publicly. There would be no more fighting for Nurmagomedov after Saturday in Abu Dhabi.

That became clear even before his UFC 254 main event victory was announced. As the official result was being read by Bruce Buffer — a technical submission by triangle choke at 1 minute, 34 seconds of Round 2 — and UFC president Dana White waited to wrap the shiny title belt around his champion once more, Nurmagomedov was already trying to peel away the red tape that secured his fighting gloves.

Those who regularly watch combat sports knew what was coming, and what it meant. When a fighter takes off his or her gloves and lays them at the center of the cage, that symbolizes the end of a career.

Nurmagomedov, speaking softly as his coaches and cornermen stood transfixed behind him, confirmed that he was walking away from a 29-0 career that will be remembered as the most dominant run in MMA history. The 32-year-old from Dagestan spoke of his late father. He spoke of his mother, and a promise he made to her.

“Today, I want to say this was my last fight,” said Nurmagomedov. “No way I’m going to come here without my father. After what happened with my father, when the UFC called me about Justin, I talked with my mother, three days, she don’t want I go fight without father. But I promised her this is going to be my last fight. And if I give my word, I have to follow it.”

On Saturday night in the United Arab Emirates, there was a lot stacked against Nurmagomedov. If ever there was a fight that was going to end differently from the usual Nurmagomedov beatdown, this was it. For years, he had mowed down lightweights, one after another, fighting much the same fight every single time — a relentless, smothering, takedown-based attack — and even though everyone knew what was coming, no one could do a damn thing to stop him.

Most difficult of all, Nurmagomedov would be feeling the loss of his father, which hung over his entire training camp. Everything was further complicated when the coronavirus pandemic forced Nurmagomedov to train away from his American Kickboxing Academy team in California, and on top of all that, his team revealed that Nurmagomedov had suffered a broken foot and, according to a report from Yahoo Sports, a bout of the mumps in the leadup to the fight.

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Dana White tells the media that Khabib Nurmagomedov broke his foot three weeks ago and never told anyone.

And then there was the matter of his opposition. Gaethje couldn’t have had more momentum coming into this fight, and brought explosive punching and kicking power along with NCAA Division I All-American wrestling prowess — a combination that Nurmagomedov had never dealt with before in an opponent.

Nurmagomedov, it turned out, didn’t settle for producing just another in a long line of smothering performances. This time he stood and traded punches and kicks with Gaethje, boldly playing right into the game of his most dangerous opponent. And when he finally took the fight to the canvas, with 40 seconds to go in Round 1, Nurmagomedov immediately went for an armbar submission. He didn’t soften up Gaethje with ground-and-pound, as he had done to every other opponent he had faced in the UFC. He just went for it — like an athlete or artist might be wont to do the final time he is plying his trade.

Gaethje survived to the horn that time, but when Nurmagomedov got the fight back to the ground early in the second round, he quickly secured the tight triangle. It was a spectacular go-for-it moment. Referee Jason Herzog jumped in to call the fight when Gaethje lost consciousness.

Gaethje was out only briefly. He was the first one to reach Nurmagomedov at the center of the Octagon. As Nurmaomedov wept, the man he had just choked out knelt beside him and hugged the champ.

It was a wild swing of emotions for all involved, fighters and fans alike. Before Nurmagomedov started peeling away his gloves, the immediate thought was that this was his biggest win to date, and the gateway for him to build an even greater legacy as one of MMA’s all-time greats.

His primary competition would no longer be in the lightweight division. It was time to acknowledge that Nurmagomedov’s most consequential measuring sticks would be a welterweight, a middleweight and a light heavyweight.

Georges St-Pierre. Anderson Silva. Jon Jones.

Those are the names you hear most often in a discussion of who’s the greatest MMA fighter of all time. Nurmagomedov was building his case for his spot on that short list with a full head of steam. Then, without warning, his gloves were off and sitting in the middle of the cage.

With his career now over, it will be debated where Nurmagomedov stands among those all-time greats ever. This win over Gaethje was just his third title defense. Jones successfully defended his UFC belt 11 times. Silva did it 10 times in a row during a record 2,457-day reign. GSP defended nine times in a row and won a championship in a second division.

Of course, none of those all-time greats can match the number that leaps off the Nurmagomedov resume. It’s a big, bold zero. Everybody loses in MMA — except for 29-0 Khabib.

Nurmagomedov’s aura made him a singular star. He was relentlessly stoic to the end — until he no longer saw a need to contain his emotions. And his personal style matched his no-nonsense fighting approach. He mauled every single opponent put in front of him, and he did so in much the same way every time. Plan B? If there was one in the Nurmagomedov playbook, we never saw it enacted. Not one of his 29 foes foiled Plan A and forced him to turn the page. That’s something none of the other all-time greats could say — not Jones, not Silva, not GSP.

And while no one would label Nurmagomedov as a man with a flair for the dramatic, he did save his signature win for the career swan song. Nurmagomedov will be remembered for the brilliance that picked up steam in his final three fights. His 2018 beatdown of Conor McGregor, a former champ, was the biggest spectacle in UFC history, and Nurmagomedov followed that up with last year’s submission of Dustin Poirier. The Poirier win, much like this victory, was eye-opening, in that “The Diamond” had been on a roll and was thought to be well-versed enough in grappling to pose a threat.

But the fight turned out to be just another smashing performance by Nurmagomedov in a long line of them.

Nurmagomedov’s thorough beatdowns of McGregor and Poirier did the unthinkable and dropped the great Jon Jones out of the No. 1 spot in ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings. Saturday’s win over Gaethje seemed to be the next step, a play for the long term. It was not the same old, same old in its execution. Nurmagomedov showed the most urgent pursuit of a finish that he ever has, without sacrificing the dominant position game that made him what he was.

He was showing us something new with that level of aggression, something to get even more excited about. And then it was all over, in an instant.

No way I’m going to come here without my father.

Those words came as a surprise in the moment, but anyone who ever saw Khabib stand pridefully next to his dad, or heard him speak about the man who raised him and nurtured a champion, surely understood. It was a miracle that the champ was able to perform as brilliantly as he did on Saturday. And now that Abdulmanap is gone, there is no fight left in Khabib.

Nurmagomedov has done all he needs to do inside the Octagon. Is he the greatest ever? That is a debate for some other day. For now, Khabib Nurmagomedov must be recognized, in awe, for unprecedented dominance as a fighter, and for the nearly universal respect and admiration he earned from others in the game.

As for the fans, Khabib always left us wanting more. We’ll have to settle for memories. They are glorious ones.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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