Islam Makhachev dismissed suggestions he is under huge pressure to perform at UFC 267 on Saturday, although he is seeking a statement victory against Dan Hooker in Abu Dhabi to cement his credentials as a lightweight title contender.
The Dagestan native, bidding for a ninth win on the bounce, takes on the dangerous New Zealander in one of the most eagerly anticipated bouts of the night at Etihad Arena.
Makhachev was originally slated to face Rafael Dos Anjos, yet the former champion was forced to withdraw last month because of injury. The division’s No 5-ranked challenger – Hooker is No 6 – Makhachev has not tasted defeated in five years – his solitary defeat in 21 professional bouts.
And, as a close friend and teammate of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Makhachev is tipped by many as heir to the former belt-holder’s throne. He is also a firm fan’s favourite in Abu Dhabi and throughout the region, so expectation runs high.
“I’m not an amateur fighter,” Makhachev said on Wednesday. “This is not pressure. This is just support.
“All the arena is going to be full and all is going to be my people. That’s why I have to show the people a good performance.”
Win on Saturday, and calls will amplify for Makhachev to contest the title next. At present, Charles Oliveira holds the belt, and puts that on the line in December against No 1 contender, Dustin Poirier.
Asked about the need for an emphatic success at UFC 267, Makhachev said: “I know I have to finish Dan Hooker because I finish my last three opponent. I try to finish all my opponents. I have to show people, show the UFC how my level is. Because very soon I have to fight for the title. That’s why I’m going to try and finish him, everywhere.”
On Hooker’s skillset, where stand-up is his specialty compared to Makhachev’s expert ground game, Makhachev added: “Honestly I don’t see his wrestling, his grappling skills. But we will see. I’m going to check.
“I respect him because he took this fight. But other things…”