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Is Islam Makhachev set to become UFC champion?



Islam Makhachev

Can anybody stop Islam Makhachev?

Dagestan. A republic of Russia situated in North Caucasus, known nowadays for its well-oiled production line of world-famous wrestlers and fighters. The region has become a breeding ground for the UFC in particular, and its main poster boy at present is lightweight Islam Makhachev. Fighting out of Makhachkala, the 30-year-old has become a notoriously tricky opponent to overcome, and with MMA legend Khabib Nurmagomedov in his corner, it’s hard to see a loss coming soon. Is another Dagestani champion all but confirmed, or can someone else prevent total region domination?


Origins of Islam Makhachev

The story of Makhachev is one not too dissimilar to that of his trainer, but delving into his rise reveals a different sequence of events. Born in Makhachkala, he moved to a rural village by the name of Burshi as a baby, a somewhat three-hour drive from the Dagestani capital through Russia’s harsh mountainous terrain. He recognised martial arts as a potential career avenue from a young age, after winning a junior Sambo tournament in the area. Sambo is a Soviet martial art, and its taught skill-set is still Makhachev’s recognised fighting style in the octagon.

Dagestan’s landscape and climate acted as punitive measurement in the now 30-year-old’s personal development. He was introduced to Khabib at his local school, and enquired as to whether he could join his counterpart at the gym where his father, Abdulmanap, coached. The lightweight continued to work under the wing of the Nurmagomedov regime from that day onwards, and Abdulmanap would witness his student’s rise in the UFC before passing away last year.

Makhachev finds himself ranked #4 in his respective division, and remains someone that few other fighters want to enter the octagon with. His overwhelming grappling skillset makes for such an awkward encounter that just one of his opponents has emerged victorious (and that was very early on in his UFC career). It seems the stage is set for the Dagestani to be wrapped in gold, but does he have the overall ability to reach the summit of an already stacked division?


Islam Makhachev in the UFC

The former Sambo world champion has been signed to the promotion since 2015, registering a commendable ten wins and one loss in that time. Makhachev’s pre-planned tactics are a constant within his fights. That aggressive wrestling style fans are accustomed to has seen almost half of these victories come via submission. He has been under the wing of Khabib and former professional kickboxer Javier Mendez since the passing of Nurmagomedov, with the duo bringing obvious experience in both ground and stand-up game. Mendez has trained some of the greatest fighters of all time (including Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez), so it’s no wonder we’re possibly witnessing another belt contender emerge from his guidance.

Winning streaks can only mean roster advancement, and the Dagestani is currently unbeaten in his last nine UFC fights. His last victory came at UFC 267 nearly a month ago, against (at the time) #9 ranked lightweight Dan Hooker via first round Kimura. Makhachev utilised that smothering style we’ve previously discussed to pretty much perfect effect, dismantling the Kiwi and submitting him after just two-and-a-half minutes. After hitting a double leg takedown 36 seconds in, everyone watching was well aware of what the outcome would be. Inevitability is a frightening proposition for whoever enters the octagon with the 30-year-old, and it’s difficult to believe any other lightweight fighter could win a toe-to-toe grappling contest.


How does Islam Makhachev compare to other lightweights?

Makhachev’s obvious weaker area is his attacking stand-up game. Fighting out of southpaw, the Dagestani puts up some distinctly average numbers when you look into his striking skill-set. He lands, on average, just over two (2.21) significant strikes per minute on his opponents. Compare that to other ground-game specialists in the division, for example Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush (3.26 and 3.8 SLpM), you can see they are connecting with the opposition on a more regular basis. Even more notably, Khabib averaged almost double his Russian counterpart’s output (4.1 SLpM) during his career.

High-level boxing is needed, especially with some of the top fighters in the lightweight division. If an opponent manages to disrupt Makhachev’s daunting takedown game, it will mean for a much closer fight. In fact, his sole loss in the promotion came when he tried to compete with Adriano Martins up top, which resulted in him being flattened by a perfectly-timed overhand (granted he was just 23 at the time).

It should be noted that the 30-year-old’s defensive statistics are, on the contrary, particularly impressive. He absorbs, on average, just 0.79 significant strikes per minute. Compare that to other prominent lightweights, such as Dustin Poirier (4.19 SApM) and Oliveira (3.01), the Dagestani comes out miles ahead. Makhachev’s significant strike defence is also incredibly strong; just 30% of his opponents’ major shots land. This innate ability to sieve incoming strikes should stand him in good stead. If he’s struggling to land himself, at least he’s avoiding damage.

Now, the obvious counter argument to this is that, as Justin Gaethje recently pointed out, he hasn’t fought anyone elite. The former Sambo champ may be on a nine-fight winning streak, yet his highest ranked opponent came in the form of Hooker (#6), who had fought just four weeks earlier and accepted the matchup on short notice. You aren’t going to face top-level stand-up without taking on top-level fighters. Of course, this isn’t necessarily Makhachev’s fault, but talk of a title shot needs to cool down. Both matchmakers and fanatics must witness the Russian in action against a fit-and-ready top five opponent before he can be deemed ready to compete for the belt.


Next Fight?

Islam’s next bout seems to be set for February versus Dariush, where the duo will headline a Fight Night card over five rounds in a so-far unknown location. This is a perfect opportunity for the takedown artist to showcase how dominant he can be, against an exceptionally dangerous opponent. The American is ranked #3 for a reason, and is currently on a seven-fight victorious streak himself. Sambo will meet Jiu-Jitsu in a mouth-watering battle. If Makhachev emerges from the octagon with his hands (and most likely Hasbullah) raised above his head, then Khabib’s call for a title shot will have to be acknowledged.


We hope you enjoyed the article ‘Is Islam Makhachev set to become UFC Champion?’ Do you think that the Dagestani will be a future lightweight belt-holder? Let us know!


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Jared Miller is a young sports journalist currently studying at Birmingham City University. With aspirations of becoming a key figure in the industry and fulfilling his potential as a content producer, his main areas of focus centre around football and the UFC. Creative writing has always been his primary strength throughout education, and he utilises this skill set within his work.


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