LAS VEGAS — Khabib Nurmagomedov has watched Islam Makhachev fight since Makhachev was about 11 years old. And no matter what fighting sport Makhachev attempted, he was always the best or, at worst, among the best wherever he competed.
Nurmagomedov says without hesitation that Makhachev, who faces Thiago Moises on Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night at Apex, is the best lightweight in the world.
It is not, however, Makhachev’s many physical gifts that impress the legendary former UFC lightweight champion.
“For as long as I have known him, I haven’t seen anyone work harder than he does, and he has always had that championship mentality,” Nurmagomedov said of his friend. “I see guys come into the gym and they train, and they do it and they go home. But Islam is special because he has that championship mentality, and there is just a difference in the way he goes about things.”
Makhachev, who is 19-1 and on a seven-fight winning streak, is ranked ninth in the UFC’s deep lightweight division. Despite his success — his only loss was a first-round KO to a perfect counter right hook from Adriano Martins at UFC 192 on Oct. 3, 2015 — many of the division’s elite names aren’t on his resume.
Saturday’s bout will be Makhachev's first main event, and the 14th-ranked Moises was the only elite lightweight willing to face him. Makhachev, a -650 favorite at BetMGM, is one of those high-risk, low-reward fighters at this stage.
“Nobody will fight him,” his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, said plaintively.
The reason why could be seen in his last fight. Makhachev remains largely unknown outside of the UFC’s hardcore fanbase, and could walk down Las Vegas Boulevard largely unnoticed. But he mauled Drew Dober and submitted him with an arm triangle in an incredible display of grappling.
But Makhachev has the stoic attitude that defines his team and was instilled in them by their late coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.
“You can only fight the fighters who will take the fight,” Makhachev said. “I don’t worry about the [business]. I prepare for the fight and whoever I fight, I treat it like it’s a championship fight.”
There are many similarities between Makhachev and Khabib Nurmagomedov in terms of their style and their approach to fighting. Nurmagomedov retired in October after a submission win over Justin Gaethje raised his record to 29-0.
Makhachev has that sole defeat on his record to Martins. Makhachev was controlling the early action, but extended himself as he fired a wild left hand. It missed and Martins caught him with a counter right hook on the chin.
Makhachev went down, his head slammed off the canvas and the referee dove in to quickly stop it.
Nurmagomedov thought the Martins fight was a bad one for Makhachev to take at the time, but he said he felt Makhachev learned from it. Makhachev will turn 30 in two months and Nurmagomedov said he’s at the perfect stage of his career.
“Some fighters, they hit their physical prime at one age and their mental prime at another age,” Nurmagomedov said. “But Islam, it’s coming together for him at the same time. He’s in his mental prime and his physical prime, and that’s when a fighter is at his best.”
Javier Mendez, the head coach at the American Kickboxing Academy, is Makhachev’s head coach. Mendez has coached Nurmagomedov, Cain Velasquez, Luke Rockhold and Daniel Cormier to UFC titles and believes Makhachev will be the next champion from his gym.
He praised Makhachev’s physical skills, his mental toughness and his ability to carry out instructions.
The win over Dober, he said, was so impressive that it boosted him up the mythical most-avoided list.
Makhachev’s time will come, and soon, Mendez said.
“He’s the best lightweight in the world, in my opinion, right now, and no one is going to beat him unless they catch him with something,” Mendez said. “But you’re not going to see anyone out-strike him or out-grapple him round after round. If one of the top guys gets him, it’s going to be catching him with something he doesn’t see, but I don’t even expect that.
“He’s really matured and developed into a terrific fighter. He’s got no holes in his game and he is smart and understands what he needs to do.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge he has to face is following in the massive shadow left by Nurmagomedov, arguably the greatest fighter in the sport’s history. Because they’re around the same age, from the same area of the world and have a similar style, they’ll always be compared.
Makhachev, though, says it’s no problem.
“There is only one Khabib,” Makhachev said. “But I feel that I got to learn from the best and it’s made me into the fighter I am right now working with him and being around him.”
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