Islam Makhachev sets welterweight goal and will 'make it easy' against Poirier at UFC 302

Lightweight champion has big plans after this weekend's main event and hopes for a return to Abu Dhabi in October

Islam Makhachev during his rematch against Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Powered by automated translation

Islam Makhachev has a clear plan: defeat Dustin Poirier on Saturday and later this year become a two-division UFC champion.

Having secured the lightweight belt in Abu Dhabi in late 2022 and since defended it there, the emirate that has become a home from home feels a rather decent spot to mine welterweight gold, too.

So, see off Poirier in the headline bout at UFC 302 in New Jersey this weekend, and capture the 170lb title – Leon Edwards defends the strap against Belal Muhammad this summer – at UFC 308 in Abu Dhabi in October.

“When I’m thinking about this, it makes me very excited and I want this,” Makhachev tells The National from New Jersey, a few days out from his match-up with Poirier. “That’s what I want, these things that wake me up every morning.”

The connection to the UAE capital is clear. Makhachev, 25-1 in professional MMA, has fought four times in Abu Dhabi, including his title-winning blitz of Charles Oliveira in October 2022 and then, a full year later, his crushing knockout in the rematch with then-featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski.

The UFC 294 headliner seven months ago represents Makhachev’s most recent UFC bout. On Saturday, at the Prudential Centre in Newark, he returns against No 4-ranked lightweight contender, and two-time title challenger Poirier, as he bids to successfully defend his 155lb crown for the third time.

With two of his past three fights staged in Abu Dhabi - the initial Volkanovski encounter took place in Australia, in February last year – and Dubai forming his regular training base in the build-up, Makhachev has mixed it up somewhat this time.

Not that it necessarily feels that much different.

“Fight week in Australia, in Abu Dhabi or now in New Jersey, it's always the same,” Makhachev says. “I have the program of the last 10 days. I put in my book, how much I cut weight, how much I weigh in the morning, how I'm eating.

“It's always the same schedule and the same fight week. Always hard training, cutting weight, media – all the stuff comes together. But I'm ready. It’s not the first time I did this.”

Makhachev, 32, is a regular visitor to the UAE, even outside of competing. The Dagestan native concedes he misses the hospitality he is afforded in the Emirates, but the shift Stateside has been made more manageable by renting a house for the past three weeks. He has his own chef, also, to help minimise the transition to new surroundings.

Still, Makhachev says: “Almost the same, but of course in Abu Dhabi it's better always.”

Change, though, can be beneficial. Makhachev has enjoyed being in the United States, since it’s the “No 1 country for the UFC and MMA fans”.

Yet Abu Dhabi typically allows Makhachev “home” advantage. Obviously, that’s a positive, but it can distract too.

“A lot of people come,” he says. “Sometimes it's makes you, not nervous, but something you're thinking about is that a lot of people come, family, and everybody’s watching. You have to take care of them. But in the US, not many people have a visa. I came with just 20 people now and just focus for the fight.

"And maybe sometimes it’s better to fight in the US because more people are going to know you. In Abu Dhabi, I fought four times, I get the belt there, I defend my belt there. Now I have to fight for the US fans.”

On Saturday, Makhachev faces a firm fan favourite. American Poirier has seen it all at the sharp end of MMA and done almost everything as well. His storied pro career sits at 30-8 (one no contest). He is a former lightweight interim champion.

The only notch missing on Poirier’s UFC CV is an undisputed crown. He has tried twice before: in 2019, he lost to Makhachev’s long-time friend and training partner Khabib Nurmagomedov, at UFC 249 in Abu Dhabi, while in December 2021, he was beaten by Oliveira at UFC 269 in Las Vegas.

At 35, Poirier has admitted UFC 302 likely constitutes his final shot at gold. Lose, and he could even walk away from the sport. So, does that make the man with dynamite in his fists more dangerous?

“Honestly, I can make this quite easy,” Makhachev says, matter-of-factly. “And I hope he is not retired after this fight because he is one of the best in the world and he can beat a lot of other guys in our division.”

Makhachev, the sport’s current top pound-for-pound male athlete, adds that he is not underestimating Poirier. It’s simply that he possesses a cast-iron confidence.

“Because my style,” he says. “It's the worse style for all these fighters. I am No 1 in the world. That's why I prepare myself a hundred per cent. I have to show my best performance and I will defend my belt many, many years more.

“And I will be the pound-for-pound best fighter in many, many years more, Inshallah.”

Makhachev is convinced he will show that on Saturday. He recognises Poirier’s power, was impressed by his knockout victory against the fast-rising Benoit Saint-Denis in March – Poirier entered the bout at UFC 299 as underdog – and thus realises he must be fully focused come fight night.

However, he expects nothing but a win.

“I don't want to say I will do something, but no matter how it’s going to happen, I’m ready,” Makhachev says. “I’m training very hard for anything – I will ready.

“Like I do for every fight. If my opponent’s a striker, my opponent’s a wrestler; I prepare everything.”

That said, he understands the importance of UFC 302.

“In my opinion, for the legacy of my career right now, Dustin is that No 1 name, who fought for the title twice, who was been BMF champion and who beat a lot of tough opponents,” Makhachev says. “I want to fight with some people who have a name, a big name like Dustin.

"Legacy means you beat fighters like Dustin’s level.”

Legacy, as well, is two-division-champion status. And Abu Dhabi in October seems a pretty perfect place to do it.

“Oh, it's a big chance [he fights there in October],” Makhachev says. “I know UFC always wants to put me in Abu Dhabi... if UFC say, ‘Let's go, let's do it’, I will be ready. If I’m not injured and I'm healthy, why not?”

Get through Poirier, and a rematch with No 1 lightweight contender Arman Tsarukyan has been mooted for UFC 308 at Etihad Arena.

For Makhachev, though, there are bigger fish out there, greater accomplishments to chase.

“Whoever has the welterweight belt,” he smiles. “That’s my dream opponent.”

UFC 302 is available in the UAE via StarzPlay, the UFC’s exclusive broadcast partner in the Middle East.

Updated: May 29, 2024, 4:17 PM