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Why Khabib Nurmagomedov is(n’t) MMA’s GOAT

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Khabib Nurmagomedov hadn’t even left the Octagon on Saturday before the debate began. Was he retiring as MMA’s greatest of all time?

Former UFC two-weight champion Daniel Cormier, who was Nurmagomedov’s teammate at American Kickboxing Academy, said Nurmagomedov is the GOAT. Among Nurmagomedov’s credentials is a perfect 29-0 record, which included losing just two rounds, one to Conor McGregor and — surprisingly — the first round on Saturday to Justin Gaethje. No other GOAT candidate has that zero in the loss column.

Jon Jones, who might be the most widely recognized as the GOAT, quickly weighed in on social media, scoffing at the notion of affixing the GOAT label to a fighter with just four title defenses. Jones, 26-1, has the most title fight wins in UFC history with 14. And while he does have one loss, it was a controversial disqualification for illegal elbow strikes during a bout he was dominating.

Georges St-Pierre retired with a 20-2 record and was one of only seven fighters to win belts in different divisions, and Anderson Silva‘s 16-fight win streak is the longest in UFC history.

So did Nurmagomedov really retire as the greatest MMA fighter of all time? ESPN reporters Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi disagree.

Okamoto: All right Marc, let me begin by admitting I don’t usually get too fired up about this whole GOAT conversation, but if there was ever an appropriate time to have it, I believe it has to be now.

And yes, I do believe Khabib is the greatest of all time. I’m willing to say that pretty confidently, even though there’s no real way to prove it. I have my arguments, but I think we should hear who’s your GOAT before I make my case. So, what say you on the matter?

Raimondi: I’m not a huge fan of these types of debates, either. I think Georges St-Pierre — who can make a GOAT case for himself — said it best in an interview with our pal Ariel Helwani after Nurmagomedov’s win. There are several fighters, GSP said, who have been the best ever at different periods of time.

I’d agree with you that, in this moment in time, Nurmagomedov absolutely feels like the greatest. But I’m a big-picture observer, Brett. I like to step back and see the forest, not just the trees. And if you’re looking at the whole picture — the entire body of work — I believe Jon Jones has to be the GOAT.

Okamoto: OK, good. So, we know what we’re arguing here: Khabib vs. Jones. Interesting, because plenty of people reading this just concluded we’re both idiots for not saying GSP. Ha ha. But that’s why the debate is fun! We have our reasons. So, you say Jones. Why?

Raimondi: Well, for the record, I’d put St-Pierre’s résumé over Nurmagomedov’s. Again, I try to take a look at the whole picture. While I think Nurmagomedov’s current run is incredible — probably the best three-fight stretch ever — he just didn’t have the longevity at the top of his division like Jones or GSP did.

Nurmagomedov has four UFC title fight victories. Jones has 14 at light heavyweight. Nurmagomedov has three UFC title defenses. Jones has 11. Jones, outside-the-cage issues aside, was the light heavyweight champion without losing the belt in the Octagon for nearly a decade.

To me, if we’re talking about the GOAT, it begins and ends with longevity and an accumulation of quality victories over the top fighters in your division. Also, I’d like to add that Jones is still going, is still winning and could be looking at a UFC heavyweight title bout in the near future.

Okamoto: I hear you on the “longevity at the top” argument. It’s a good argument. But at the end of the day, I’m comfortable with it not being the final measuring stick of greatness. Not all title defenses are created equal, after all.

Yes, Jones has a lot of them. But if we’re nitpicking — and in a debate over who the GOAT is between two amazing fighters, that’s what we’re doing, we’re nitpicking — Jones was fortunate enough to face some of the bigger names of his title reign when they were past their primes. That’s not his fault, but it’s worth pointing out.

Some of those guys didn’t do much after they fought Jones, and I don’t think it was because Jones just wrecked their careers. I think it’s more because they were already showing some signs of decline. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua is 8-6-1 since he lost to Jones. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson is 6-5. Rashad Evans is 2-6. Now, I’m not saying those guys weren’t great when Jones fought them, but were they at their absolute peaks? Honestly, probably not.

You add in a couple middleweights such as Chael Sonnen and even, to an extent, Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort … again, Marc, I know I’m nitpicking, but where am I wrong here?

And then Jones nearly lost to Alexander Gustafsson. Nearly lost to Thiago Santos. Nearly lost to Dominick Reyes.

You said something before, that Nurmagomedov’s run of submitting and dominating Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje in the manner in which he did might be the best three-fight stretch ever. Well, I’ll go one step further: It is the greatest three-fight stretch ever. And just because Nurmagomedov is deciding to walk away at the top, in his prime, when he could do more, I won’t let that be the reason I don’t call this guy what he is — and that’s the greatest to ever do it.

Raimondi: All of that is extremely fair. And I do agree that not all of Jones’ title opponents were at the top of their games. But that’s what you do as the longtime champion, right? You take on the next contender, no matter who it is. Jones did that, and I have trouble faulting him for it.

He was so great that he found a way to win every single time in his career, save for that aberration disqualification loss to Matt Hamill. Jones is unbeaten in 18 UFC fights since then, the longest such streak ever. And I don’t think anyone will beat that.

Now, maybe Nurmagomedov could have topped it if he stayed around. I respect him 100 percent for leaving when he’s on top. No doubt about that. I couldn’t admire the man’s principles any more than I do. I see Nurmagomedov as kind of like a Barry Sanders, a running back who departed the NFL in his prime. When Nurmagomedov was active, he was excellence personified, like Sanders.

But the best of all time? I put more weight into the consistency and length of Jones’ greatness. While he did nearly lose some of those fights, as you mentioned, he won them all. And to me, that’s the mark of true GOAT status. Just win, baby. Nobody has been better at that than Jones.

Okamoto: All fair. It feels like we have a fundamental difference in the way we look at it and judge it. But let me say a few final things.

First, I want to reiterate I’m not criticizing Jones’ run in any way. What he has accomplished, obviously, is very near — or at — the best we’ve ever seen. And depending on what he does at heavyweight, listen, my answer could be different in the not too distant future. If Jones goes on and captures the heavyweight championship and adds a few more chapters to his career up there, it will be hard to deny him.

But at the end of the day, this comes down to a simple idea for me: If I had to pick a winner — if my life depended on one fighter to go out there and secure a win — I’m taking the Khabib who fought Gaethje on Saturday night 10 times out of 10. That man was unbeatable. That was a level of excellence in mixed martial arts I don’t think we’ve ever witnessed to that point. And that’s more important to me than a handful of additional title defenses.

Raimondi: Not just a handful, though, right? Jones has more than three times as many title defenses as Nurmagomedov. That’s not an insignificant difference. If it were just a couple of more, sure, I could totally understand your point. But eight more? Eight title defenses alone would get you in this GOAT conversation.

I also want to add that the last thing I’m looking to do here is minimize Nurmagomedov’s incredible accomplishments. He’s a legend. And if he does truly step away now, he’ll have a run — and a career — like none other, going out on top while still undefeated, even though I’d still love to see him fight St-Pierre.

With that said, the numbers and records Jones have put up are spectacular. They’re quantifiable, more so than some imagined, subjective scenario in which you have to pick one fighter to win one fight.

And yes, Jones did fail two drug tests for performance-enhancing drugs. If you want to count that against him, I won’t argue too hard. But like he has repeated, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the organization that suspended him, also said it didn’t find any evidence that he intentionally cheated. I’d understand if those things were disqualifying to some, in which case I’d argue for St-Pierre atop the GOAT rankings. GSP has nine title defenses, has won titles in two different divisions and has avenged both losses of his career.

Again, it’s all about longevity.

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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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