Even with the man he refers to as his “big brother” retired, Islam Makhachev stands in Khabib Nurmagomedov’s shadow.
Rarely is Makhachev’s name brought up without an accompanying 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 the 29-year-old Makhachev prepares to headline his first UFC Fight Night on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) at UFC Apex in Las Vegas against Thiago Moisés.
It’s hard to fault those who can’t separate the two grappling-heavy natives of Dagestan, Russia. Heck, even Makhachev struggled to explain how his approach in the cage is different from that of his longtime friend and, clearly, his role model.
“We have almost the same style, but he pressures all his opponents like … I don’t know,” Makhachev, a native Russian speaker, told The Post on Tuesday in English, laughing as he searched for the words in his second tongue. “I don’t know. We’re training all of our life together, but maybe he has more pressure than me or something like that.”
And, much like Nurmagomedov during his rise, Makhachev (19-1, 11 finishes) appears destined to fight for the championship at 155 pounds. Since a quick knockout loss in his second UFC bout nearly six years ago, he’s won seven in a row.
The latest victory, on March 6, was perhaps Makhachev’s most impressive performance to date, given the opponent and result. He controlled the bout on the mat, his wrestling and sambo background wearing down the heavy-hitting Drew Dober for two rounds before an arm-triangle choke secured the tapout in the final frame. The win moved him into the top 10 of UFC’s promotional rankings, to which he pays close attention.
Before the Dober fight, Makhachev requested a highly ranked opponent for his next bout to advance closer to title contention. Instead, he got Moisés (15-4, nine finishes), ranked No. 14 on UFC’s contender list and a 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 in May won the title Nurmagomedov vacated with his retirement. Moisés was not at all the follow-up fight Makhachev had in mind.
“Honestly, I am not happy,” Makhachev said. “… They called me. They said, ‘We’re gonna give you a shot against a top guy.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I finished my opponent. Drew Dober is a very tough guy. I finished him. But what we have now, 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’m sick.’ They all, I don’t know, run.”
Nurmagomedov had issues getting big-deal fights as well, though that resulted in part from injuries and having way too many bouts against Ferguson canceled due to a myriad of calamities. It’s a path familiar to Makhachev, who watched his friend, training partner and now coach rise to become the “humble” champion Makhachev aspires to be.
With less name recognition to be gained from beating Moisés, Makhachev has resolved to put his opponent away swiftly and impressively to force the issue.
“My goal is I have to finish him,” Makhachev said. “… [Win a] decision? No. I have to finish all my opponents because I hope, if I finish these guys, they’re gonna give me some top guys. That’s why I just want to finish him, maybe [in the] third or second round.”
Makhachev suspects he will need to win his headliner debut and at least one more fight to earn a crack at gold, and he’s even more convinced that he must get a fight against a fighter with a big name to add to his ledger of lightweight victims.
Make all that happen and it would pave the way to fulfill a proclamation from Mystic Makhachev himself, one which could finally allow him to step out of Nurmagomedov’s shadow:
“In 2022, I’m gonna be champion.”