Even with the man he refers to as his “older brother” retiring, Islam Makhchev stands in the shadow of Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Rarely is Makhachev’s name brought up without a reference to Nurmagomedov, the former UFC lightweight champion who retired last October at age 32 with a 29-0 mark. This week has been no different as Makhachev, 29, prepares to headline his first UFC Fight Night against Thiago Moises at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN).
It’s hard to blame those who can’t separate the two heavy-handed natives of Dagestan, Russia. Heck, even Makhachev struggles to explain how his approach to Cage differs from that of his longtime friend and clearly his role model.
Makhachev, a native Russian speaker, told The Post in English on Tuesday, while searching for words in his other tongue, laughed, “We have almost the same style, but he puts pressure on all his opponents like … I don’t know. ” “I don’t know. We’ve been training together for the rest of our lives, but maybe there’s more pressure on him than me or something like that.”
And, like Nurmagomedov during his heyday, Makhachev (19-1, 11 finish) is destined to fight for the championship at 155 pounds. Since losing an early knockout in his second UFC bout nearly six years ago, he has won seven matches in a row.
The latest victory, on 6 March, was perhaps Makhachev’s most impressive performance to date, judging by the opponent and the result. He controlled the bout on the mat, his wrestling and sambo background wearing down heavy hitting Drew Dober for round two before an arm-triangle choke secured a tapout in the final frame. The win propelled him into the top 10 of the UFC’s promotional rankings, which he pays close attention to.
Before the Dober fight, Makhachev pleaded with a higher-ranked opponent to move closer to title contention for his next bout. Instead, he got Moisés (15-4, nine finishes), number 14 on the UFC’s contender list and the winner of three straight. The 26-year-old Brazilian is known more for his Brazilian jiu-jitsu chops than his striking and lacks the name or résumé to elevate Makhachev’s stock as a challenger to Charles Oliveira, who won Nurmagomedov in May. had won the title vacated with his retirement. The follow-up battle of Makhachev was not at all in Moises’ mind.
“Honestly, I’m not happy,” said Makhachev. “… they called me. They said, ‘We’re going to give you a shot against a top guy.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ I eliminated my opponent. Drew Dober is a very tough guy. I eliminated him. But now we have No. 14, because all these guys – [Dan] hooker or [Dan] felder or [Rafael dos Anjos]Tony Ferguson – Say ‘we’re busy’ or they have a fight. Somebody said, ‘I am sick.’ They all, I don’t know, run away.”
Nurmagomedov also had issues with having major fights, although it resulted in his share of injuries and numerous bouts against Ferguson were canceled due to innumerable calamities. It’s a familiar path to Makhachev, who aspires to be Makhachev, having seen his friend, training partner, and now coach become the “humble” champion.
With less name recognition than beating Moisés, Makhachev is determined to swiftly and effectively overcome his opponent to force the issue.
“My goal is to finish him,” said Makhachev. “… [Win a] Decision? No, I have to eliminate all my opponents because I hope, if I eliminate these guys, they will give me some top guys. so i just wanna finish him, maybe [in the] Third or second round. “
Makhachev suspects he’ll need to win his headliner debut and at least one more fight to earn a crack in the gold, and he’s even more convinced that he’ll have a chance to add to his account of mild victims. Gotta fight against a fighter with big name.
Do everything he can and it will lead to the fulfillment of a declaration from the mystic Makhachev himself, which may eventually allow him to break out of Nurmagomedov’s shadow:
“In 2022, I’m going to be the champion.”