Islam Makhachev is aiming to become UFC champion in Abu Dhabi this weekend
On Saturday night in Abu Dhabi, Russia’s Islam Makhachev will aim to fulfil a prophecy when he fights Charles Oliveira for the vacant lightweight title in the main event of UFC 280.
For several years, the Dagestani-born Makhachev has been cited as the one true successor to his friend and training partner Khabib Nurmagomedov, with some even saying that the arsenal of weapons which Makhachev boasts supersedes that of the undefeated mixed martial arts icon Khabib.
But for prophecy to become reality, Makhachev must pass the toughest test of his career to date when he tangles with Brazilian submission artist Oliveira – perhaps the only man in the UFC who has the credentials to pose serious problems to the Russian on the mat.
Oliveira has his own designs on greatness, too, having captured the lightweight title vacated by Khabib and then defending it, only to be stripped of the crown on the weighing scales before his last trip to the Octagon back in May.
The desire burns inside the Brazilian to rectify that perceived injustice, while Makhachev is aiming to step from under the wings of his mentor ‘The Eagle’ and forge his own history.
Assemble the various pieces, and you have a fight between two of the world’s best competitors dueling to follow Khabib as their division’s next dominant champion
How did Makhachev earn his opportunity at UFC gold?
Wins. Lots of wins. The 31-year-old Makhachev is 22-1 in his mixed martial arts career to date, and has a record of 11 wins against just one defeat in the UFC.
But with fighters like Makhachev, it isn’t just the result of his fights which must be taken into account, but more the manner in which they were achieved. Simply put, the Russian has blown through the majority of his competition in the world’s elite MMA organization – and if anything, he seems to be improving with age.
Makhachev’s last four fights have all been finished before the final bell, showing a killer instinct which has brought him to the cusp of world title prominence, with the likes of Bobby Green, Dan Hooker, Thiago Moises and Drew Dober unable to handle the heat that the Russian standout brought with him to the cage. If he can extend that winning sequence by one fight, he will become a world champion and yet more UFC gold will be heading to Dagestan. What role has Khabib played in Makhachev’s rise?
A crucial one. Khabib, who is one of the most dominant champions in UFC history, would rarely allow an interview to pass without talking up the rise of his friend – but more than that, he forged a path which allowed Makhachev to follow.
Both fighters were steeled under the tutelage of Khabib’s late father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, and would grow up testing one another’s skills as they made their first steps into combat sports. It quickly became clear that the pair were set apart from many of their peers by their intense determination to succeed.
Makhachev would subsequently join Khabib on the mats of the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) in San Jose, California, where head coach Javier Mendez would become their US-based trainer and oversee both of their respective developments as they made their names in the UFC.
So impressed has Mendez been, in fact, that he says that Makhachev has the required tools to outshine even Khabib’s achievements in the cage – principally due to his more robust arsenal of striking.
The difference between Islam and Khabib is when Khabib was in Dagestan training at Abdulmanap’s gym – his father’s gym – Khabib would only train with me really,” Mendez told US outlet MMA Junkie.
He wouldn’t really train standup with anybody. He’d train with me. So his time involved in striking was very limited, whereas Islam was smart enough to train with other people and he has great coaches at home that are working with him.
So with him, his striking is further ahead than Khabib’s ever was only because of the fact that Islam was working year-round on his striking.” Today, Khabib’s influence over Makhachev has gone full circle and he is counted as a crucial cog in his friend’s training routine, while Makhachev himself says he is aware of the advantage that having someone of Khabib’s know-how in his corner will present. “Yes, there will be Khabib and Javier Mendez [in my team]. We’ll see who else. If Khabib is in the corner, it’s +10 for wrestling, for striking, for tactics,” said Makhachev. The man standing in his way
On paper, Charles Oliveira’s recent record rivals even that of Khabib Nurmagomedov. Khabib won all 13 of his fights in the UFC, but Oliveira will equal that run with a win against Makhachev in the UAE this weekend (even if he has suffered eight losses in his long UFC career).
But again, it isn’t just the sequence of victories – but also the manner in which Oliveira, 33, achieved them. If you look at some of Khabib’s key victories, the comparisons are stark.
Khabib took a round-and-a-half, or 6.5 minutes across two rounds to defeat American fighter Justin Gaethje; Oliveira did the same in just over three minutes.
Khabib required the best part of three rounds, or over 12 minutes to dispatch Dustin Poirier. Oliveira? He took one minute less to achieve the same result, albeit having been rocked along the way.
Oliveira also holds a dominant victory against Tony Ferguson – the man who was heralded for so long (rightly or wrongly) as being Khabib’s biggest potential test in the cage.
Stylistically speaking, this couldn’t be much more challenging for Makhachev. The Russian is considered to be one of the finest grapplers of his generation, but he will be facing down perhaps the greatest submission specialist the sport has ever seen in Oliveira, the all-time record holder for most submissions in UFC history (16). Is there any bad blood between the two camps?
While we’re not approaching Khabib-McGregor levels of trash talk, it is clear that this fight will take place in a charged atmosphere. Oliveira noted that he felt a measure of disrespect from Makhachev’s camp when it was suggested by Khabib that Oliveira wouldn’t even show up in Abu Dhabi ahead of the fight, insinuating that the Brazilian would manufacture a reason to escape the fight somehow.
the former champion recently told UFC Russia. “That’s my personal opinion, some people might not like it, but I’m just giving my opinion,” “People say it’s disrespect, but I see no disrespect here. On October 22, we just want to overcome him.”
Makhachev has also suggested that Oliveira
was trying to dodge him after the Brazilian put his hand up for potential money-spinning fights with Conor McGregor or Nate Diaz – another accusation which was denied by Oliveira who, so far at least, has faced all-comers at 155lbs.
The McGregor fight, and the ensuing payday, will presumably be there for either man to chase once business is handled this weekend.
How will the fight pan out?
This is the million-dollar question. Makhachev’s fights tend to follow a similar blueprint of forward aggression in pursuit of a takedown, and then from there the fight exists entirely in his wheelhouse.
But this presents an opportunity for Oliveira. He is adept at fighting on the back foot and inviting foes into his spiders’ web of submissions, but lately has also showcased hugely-improved prowess in the stand-up game, with the likes of Michael Chandler, Jared Gordon and Nik Lentz among his knockout victims.
Gaethje, for example – a man who is known for placing his head into situations that others wouldn't put a blacksmith’s anvil – said that he had never been hit as hard as he was by Oliveira earlier this year, as if Oliveira possesses some strange power which can only truly be understood by feeling it first-hand.
Makhachev will likely only go to the ground in scenarios in which he feels he has the advantage, so don’t expect him to test Oliveira’s jiu-jitsu prowess too often, or until he has doled out some damage beforehand.
But ultimately, this is what makes the fight so appealing. There are realistic scenarios which would provide victory to either fighter, but one suspects the victor will be whomever manages to implement their strategy first.
Makhachev and his team
have also indicated that they see Abu Dhabi as a ‘home’ venue, something which also adds another wrinkle to what appears to be an evenly-matched fight. Who is Makhachev seeking to emulate?
Khabib Nurmagomedov is the obvious answer here. Makhachev has for a long time played second fiddle to the Russian superstar, but Khabib’s retirement in 2020 left a vacuum atop the UFC lightweight division that he would be only too happy to fill.
For such a strong fighting nation, Russia has only had a handful of UFC champions in addition to Khabib. There is, of course, the former bantamweight champion Petr Yan, who will be seeking to re-establish his title ambitions on the very same card this weekend with a win against the exciting US fighter Sean O’Malley.
Before Khabib and Yan, one would have to delve into the history books to identify Russia’s first-ever UFC champion – and that would be Oleg Taktarov, who won a one-night UFC tournament all the way back in 1995.
Islam Makhchev and those around him have long promised that he will be the next UFC king from Russia. His time to deliver on this comes on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi.