Meet Islam Makhachev: The protege tipped to rule at lightweight

Khabib Nurmagomedov has backed ‘brother’ Islam Makhachev to fulfil his late father’s prophecy and rule the lightweight division… could the protege who hasn’t lost in the UFC in six years usurp McGregor, Poirier and Chandler as king of the 155-pounders?

  • The scrap for the lightweight throne had been limited to a handful of UFC stars 
  • However, there could be a late contender to usurp Dustin Poirier and Co 
  • Islam Makhachev has been tipped to rule the lightweight ranks for years to come
  • Makhachev is a ‘brother’ of Khabib Nurmagomedov and has lost just once
  • He is fighting this weekend and is tipped to be the next champion from AKA 

The scramble for the lightweight throne appeared limited to just a handful of candidates, with Dustin Poirier, Conor McGregor, Michael Chandler, Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje all jostling for position.

But a late outsider could be on the cusp of crashing the party.

Khabib Nurmagomedov’s shock retirement last year signalled not only the end of one of the most dominant eras of any UFC fighter, but also left one of the most decorated MMA gyms without a champion.

Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement has onset a scramble for the UFC lightweight throne

Dustin Poirier (right), Conor McGregor (left) and Michael Chandler are among those vying for the summit

The American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) has been the home to no fewer than four UFC champions in the past decade, with coach Javier Mendez fine-crafting some of the very best athletes to set foot in the octagon.

A woeful record with injuries derailed former heavyweight king Cain Velasquez’s career, Luke Rockhold lost his middleweight crown in 2016 and has been on a slippery slope since while Daniel Cormier hung up his gloves following his defeat by Stipe Miocic in August 2020. 

Nurmagomedov’s retirement leaves AKA without a champion for the first time since 2010. The question for Mendez, then, is who’s next? 

However, Islam Makhachev is bidding to crash the party and keep the title in Dagestan 

Described as a ‘brother’ by Nurmagomedov, Makhachev has patiently waited for his moment

The San Jose resident does not have to look too far. While Nurmagomedov has decimated all those who stand before him at 155 pounds, Islam Makhachev has patiently waited in the wings for his ascension to the lightweight throne.

Nurmagomedov cited a vow to his mother as the reason for his shock exit from the sport last October, but comments made by the undefeated Dagestani this week suggest that the Eagle will have been aware that it may be time to step aside for his ‘brother’.

‘Now, everybody talks about Dustin, Conor, Chandler, Justin, Oliveira,’ the 32-year-old told ESPN. ‘But by the end of the year, it’s gonna be changed.

‘I don’t think anyone can beat [Makhachev] right now. He will run [the division].’  

The 29-year-old has been part of Nurmagomedov’s entourage on his UFC journey to gold

He was trained by Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov (top left), who said he would succeed Khabib

Those who have followed Makhachev’s journey won’t have been surprised by Nurmagomedov’s assertions. Following his win over Davi Ramos at UFC 242, Khabib placed his world title belt in front of his team-mate and told reporters: ‘Future champion’.

Makhachev is in action this weekend as the 29-year-old takes on Drew Dober at UFC 259 in Las Vegas. A win would make it seven victories on the spin for the Dagestani. 

It is an unbeaten run that has flown under the radar. Understandable, given that the likes of McGregor, Poirier et al have been vocally making their case for a shot at Nurmagomedov’s crown. 

Javier Mendez, head coach at AKA, has labelled Makhachev a ‘machine’ destined for big things

Mendez has trained numerous UFC champions and believes that Makhachev is the next

But Makhachev prefers to let his fighting do the talking. Trained by the late Ambdulmanap Nurmagomedov in the Dagestani mountains, the 29-year-old has been close with Khabib since the pair were teenagers. 

And it was Nurmagomedov Sr who first proclaimed that Makhachev would make waves in the UFC, insisting that the wrestler would pick up from where Khabib left off and rule the lightweight division for years to come. 

‘Khabib’s father told me all the time, “when Khabib retires you’re gonna be next champion”,’ Makhachev told ESPN. ‘I have to do this, because father all the time told me, “You’re gonna be champion. You’re gonna be the next champion.”  

Makhachev was one of a legion of Dagestani fighters to follow Khabib to AKA in 2012, with Cormier revealing that he could see shades of the lightweight champion in his younger team-mate from an early stage. 

Ex-two-weight UFC champion Daniel Cormier says Makhachev is a better wrestler than Khabib

‘You could see that this kid was kind of like Khabib, with a little tighter stand-up,’ Cormier told ESPN. ‘Today, Khabib will tell you he’ll stand and strike with whoever he wants to…. Islam seemed a little more ready to go.’

The 29-year-old remained fighting on the Russian MMA circuit before receiving a call up to the big time in 2015. 

Makhachev’s devastating debut win over Leo Kuntz saw him pitted against the in-form Adriano Martins in his second UFC bout. However, the Brazilian caught him in the first round to hand the Dagestani his first and only career defeat. 

From then on, it’s been smooth sailing for the 29-year-old, excluding his withdrawal from his main event bout with Rafael dos Anjos in November owing to a staph infection.

Makhachev employs the same world class wrestling and groundwork that Khabib uses

Mendez says his opponents’ only chance of victory is by landing one big knockout shot

Just like Khabib, Makhachev is disinterested in earning highlight-reel knockouts, instead wearing down opponents with inescapable grappling and wrestling. 

Nurmagomedov has introduced a wrestling style never before seen in the UFC, with the likes of Poirier, McGregor and Justin Gaethje succumbing to the champion’s constant pressure.

Makhachev is from the same school, with Cormier even suggesting that the 29-year-old would defeat the lightweight champion, who arguably lost no rounds in his professional career, in a ‘straight wrestling’ match. 

If Makhachev keeps up this winning run, the lightweight crown may well remain in Dagestan

Mendez has described the 29-year-old, who is looking to fight three times this year, as a ‘machine’. 

‘Outside of him getting caught with a good shot, I don’t see anybody taking this guy and outworking him in any area,’ the AKA coach said. ‘Anything can happen with these little gloves … but I don’t see anybody outpointing him. I really don’t. And I’m not joking.’    

A wide open race for the 155-pound crown had narrowed slightly following the sensational scenes of UFC 257.  

Should Nurmagomedov’s prediction come to fruition, Makhachev is the man set to usurp those hopefuls and ensure that UFC gold remains in Dagestan. 

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