UFC 284: Islam Makhachev faces enormous pressure to follow Khabib Nurmagomedov's footsteps

For years, Javier Mendez raved about the talents of UFC lightweight Islam Makhachev. The veteran MMA coach would tell anyone who would listen that he thought Makhachev was the most talented fighter in his gym at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, and would soon become the UFC's pound-for-pound best.

The problem is that when Mendez first started to sing Makhachev's praises, there was another pretty decent lightweight in his gym. That fighter, Khabib Nurmagomedov, went on to capture the UFC's lightweight title and be recognized as the sport's greatest pound-for-pound fighter before retiring.

The recognition for Makhachev, likely because of the enormous shadow cast by Nurmagomedov, was a long time coming.

Makhachev won the lightweight title on Oct. 22 in the main event of UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. That victory set up his massive bout on Saturday in the main event of UFC 284 in Perth, Australia, when he'll face featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski for pound-for-pound supremacy.

Makhachev is No. 2 pound-for-pound on the UFC's ratings, while Volkanovski is No. 1.

But just four months ago, when he challenged Charles Oliveira for the then-vacant lightweight title, Makhachev was unranked. Oliveira was third in the pound-for-pound ratings.

Going into Saturday's bout at the sold-out RAC Arena in Perth, Makhachev is a sturdy -375 favorite at BetMGM to retain his title and become the pound-for-pound king. Volkanovski is +290.

If Makhachev defeats Volkanovski, he'll have beaten Nos. 3 and 1 in back-to-back bouts, an amazing feat never accomplished in UFC history.

Nurmagomedov, his former teammate, friend, mentor and ex-coach, saw this coming. Last summer, speaking to Yahoo Sports in Las Vegas, Nurmagomedov said he had no doubt Makhachev was the best fighter in the world.

"He's going to beat all these guys," Nurmagomedov said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "He can do everything. But you can't do it until you get the fight. The important thing is getting the opportunity. When he gets it, you watch: He will prove to everyone what I'm saying."

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 22: Khabib Nurmagomedov reacts after his teammate Islam Makhachev of Russia wins the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 280 event at Etihad Arena on October 22, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov set the standard that lightweight champion Islam Makhachev is trying to reach Saturday in the main event of UFC 284 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Nurmagomedov retired as Makhachev's coach last month because he wants to travel less and spend more time with his family in Russia. But he did work with Makhachev in the first half of training camp before Makhachev left for Australia and they worked on the main tenets of his game plan for Volkanovski.

Nurmagomedov won't be in Makhachev's corner, but they no doubt will have spoken this week.

The situation at AKA with both Nurmagomedov and Makhachev in the gym in the same division was a lot like the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback room in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Joe Montana was the starter and led the franchise to four Super Bowl championships while gaining recognition at the time as the greatest quarterback in NFL history.

Steve Young was Montana's backup from 1988 through 1990. When Montana was injured, Young stepped in and took over as the starter. He led San Francisco to another Super Bowl title and won NFL MVP twice.

Nurmagomedov was like Montana and went 29-0 before retiring at his mother's request after the death of his father, Abdulmanap, following a submission of Justin Gaethje in Abu Dhabi at UFC 254 on Oct. 24, 2020.

Makhachev claimed the lightweight title last year and, with a win on Saturday, will repeat Nurmagomedov's feat of being a champion as well as the pound-for-pound No. 1 in the world.

It's not an easy situation he's facing. He's a huge favorite against the man most view as the best in the world. He's fighting in Volkanovski's home country and doing so with the pressure of succeeding his mentor without having him in his corner to rely upon.

The question isn't whether he's talented enough to pull off the victory. This is, by far, the biggest spot he's ever faced. Some will view it as a failure if he loses, though how is one a failure by virtue of a loss to the No. 1 fighter in the world?

The expectations are huge and the margin for error is slim. Saturday's bout will probably turn on which fighter makes the least mistakes.

This, though, is a spot where the greatest rise and make a statement. There was enormous pressure on Young to follow Montana, but he did it by winning two MVPs, a Super Bowl and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It's time for Makhachev to make that break fully from Nurmagomedov and do the same as Young. An impressive win over a legendary fighter like Volkanovski would certainly do it.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 22: UFC lightweight champion, Islam Makhachev (L) and UFC featherweight champion, Alex Volkanovski (R) face off during a UFC284 Media Opportunity on January 22, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Zuffa LLC)
Lightweight champion, Islam Makhachev (L) and featherweight champion Alex Volkanovski face off. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Zuffa LLC)