Islam Makhachev will this week in Abu Dhabi showcase that he is heir apparent to the UFC lightweight title, according to coach Javier Mendez.
The Dagestan athlete takes on Dan Hooker at UFC 267 at Etihad Arena on Saturday, on a card that features two title bouts. The lightweight division’s No 5-ranked challenger, Makhachev rides an eight-fight win streak.
Hooker, meanwhile, sits only one spot below in the standings, and accepted the clash late last month as a replacement for former champion Rafael dos Anjos, who withdrew through injury.
Given his reputation and recent record – his pro career reads 20-1, with the solitary defeat coming five years ago – Makhachev is tipped by many as a future lightweight champion. Currently, Brazil’s Charles Oliveira holds that mantle following Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement in Abu Dhabi last year.
Mendez, Nurmagomedov’s long-time coach, is therefore looking forward to Makhachev providing a statement victory in the capital this weekend.
“It should be a really good, exciting fight and should be a good showcase for Islam Makhachev to show that he deserves to be where he is now, and that he really is the heir apparent to that title,” Mendez told The National. “And come October 30, everybody is going to see that he is 100 per cent the uncrowned champ. I would say it like that. Because he is that good.”
Mendez believes the late switch from Dos Anjos (RDA) to Hooker – the New Zealander, 21-10, accepted the bout days after the September 25 victory against Nasrat Haqparast – will have little bearing on the match-up, citing Makhachev’s all-round ability.
In his most recent outing, against Thiago Moises in Las Vegas in July, Makhachev apparently swapped strategies an hour beforehand, but still sealed a dominant win via fourth-round submission.
On the RDA change, Mendez said: “It didn’t impact [our plan] at all because they’re similar. And it wouldn’t have impacted it anyway because Islam’s so good everywhere. He's one of the rare fighters now who can do it all.
“Dan Hooker can prepare for Islam all he wants; he is who he is. The thing about Islam, like I’ll say many, many times over and over again: he’s well prepared for everybody. He’s prepared for a MMA fight."
Mendez is confident the pressure to perform, given the hype behind Makhachev and the partisan support expected in Abu Dhabi, will not phase him.
On how he sees the fight panning out, the American Kickboxing Academy founder said: “Honestly, I see it as a bad night for Dan. With the plan we have in place I don’t see how he’s going to be able to do anything outside of the brief exchanges, where he has a chance opportunity.
“Look, anybody of that calibre, of Dan Hooker’s ability, they can take you out. For us not to think that can happen would be foolish. We’re prepared mentally and physically, with the right game plan."
Should Makhachev dispatch Hooker, and do it emphatically, calls for a shot at the title will no doubt swell. Oliveira defends the belt against No 1-ranked challenger Dustin Poirier at UFC 269 in December, while No 2 contender Justin Gaethje faces No 4 Michael Chandler on November 6, at UFC 268. Oliveira captured the crown in May when he triumphed against Chandler by second-round TKO.
Mendez, though, believes Makhachev is already ready for a title attempt.
“This could be the world title challenge now and Islam could win, that’s how ready he is,” Mendez said. “He would beat the guys right now. I don’t care who it is. Anyone above him in the ranking, he’d beat them all. That’s how confident I feel about him. I’ve always said that about him, even when he was top 14, 15. And I still stand by that.
“If we get by Hooker, which we will, and it’s a super exciting fight, which I expect it to be in our favour, and Justin Gaethje barely gets by Chandler or Chandler gets by Justin, I think we get it. Unless Justin Gaethje smashes Chandler and has an incredible performance, I think they’ll give it to Islam.
“Am I right? I don’t have a crystal ball. That’s just my opinion. The UFC does a great job in what works best for the business.”