As UFC boss Dana White continues to pine for his retired superstar Khabib Nurmagomedov, he may well have a tailor-made replacement for the Russian standout already under contract in his teammate, Islam Makhachev.
Makhachev enhanced his already sterling reputation with a third-round submission of dangerous power puncher Drew Dober in Las Vegas last weekend in a fight which served warning to the UFC’s lightweight elite that, while Nurmagomedov may well have ridden into the sunset, there is another oppressive Russian grappler ready to take his place.
29-year-old Dagestani Makhachev has long been prophesied as a future lightweight standout. He grew up with Nurmagomedov, spending countless hours on the mats with the future UFC champion under the tutelage of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, honing his skills to world-level.
After an 11-fight unbeaten start to his mixed martial arts career, Makhachev inked a deal with the UFC to make his debut for the organization in early summer 2015, when he would vanquish Leo Kuntz by second-round submission.
Makhachev’s second UFC fight was a different story. Paired with experienced Brazilian fighter Adriano Martins in Texas, he would taste defeat for the first and only time in his UFC tenure to date when he was defeated by a first-round TKO after Martins connected on the onrushing Makhachev with a powerful right hand.
Defeat, though, is an unfamiliar feeling to many of those who came from Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov’s stable of fighters – and it is something Makhachev hasn’t experienced since.
Saturday’s submission of Dober was Makhachev’s seventh straight win in the talent-rich 155lbs division and has risen him to 11th in the UFC’s official lightweight rankings, surely setting him up for an increased test in his next outing.
Speaking to the media following his win on Saturday, Makhachev suggested that he could take Nurmagomedov’s role in a proxy-feud with Nurmagomedov’s longtime rival Tony Ferguson.
“My dream fight is Tony because we have some deal with him over a couple of years,” he admitted. “Now he still pressures Khabib.
“I don’t understand this guy. I want to just help him retire. He’s old. His mind is a little bit crazy. That’s why I just want to help him.”
Makhachev’s ranking just outside the division’s top ten may prove to be more of a burden than an opportunity. If you cast your mind back several years before Nurmagomedov’s own unstoppable march to the UFC crown, the Russian’s impressive record coupled with his (at the time) unknown name meant that he became one of the most-avoided fighters at 155lbs.
Islam Makhachev’s 69.0% takedown accuracy rate is the highest in UFC Lightweight history 📈
— MMA By The Numbers (@NumbersMMA) March 7, 2021
literally khabib with better striking. unreal
— Añdrew (@andylovessports) March 7, 2021
I am generally curious what the Dagestani diet consists of. It has to be something metal like bats and sheep eyballs. Please let me know so I can adjust my diet for improved grappling.
— mmafanatic (@mmafanatic13) March 7, 2021
Those factors remain largely outside of Makhchev’s control and, as he repeated to the assembled media in Las Vegas, comparisons to Nurmagomedov will only lead to him trainer harder to emulate the success of his friend and training partner.
“You know this is motivation for me,” Makhachev said. “Because now people talk about me. A lot of people tell me, ‘you’re going to be next, you’re going to be champion.’ That’s why I have to train more. Just training. That’s it.
“[Nurmagomedov] showed me all the way. He showed me what I have to do to be there. Now I think of a good win streak, I just have to finish my next opponent. Maybe in one or two fights, I’m going to be the next champion.”
A showdown with Ferguson would be a tantalizing bout and would bring some sense of closure to the doomed series of fight bookings between Ferguson and Khabib. But it remains a distinct possibility that the sometimes-difficult Ferguson might not be amenable to fighting the 11th-ranked fighter of his division.
And therein lies the potential next narrative to extend out in his MMA career.
While his obvious talent demands that Makhachev has earned his opportunity to take on the UFC’s lightweight elite, don’t be too surprised if a lack of enthusiasm from potential opponents makes him join Nurmagomedov in taking the scenic route to UFC gold.