From refugee to royalty: Muhammad Mokaev sets sights on MMA greatness

Dagestan-born British fighter overcame a challenging childhood to blaze through the amateur ranks and is now progressing at pace as a pro – with a little help from the prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa

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Muhammad Mokaev may be only 20, and just started out in professional mixed martial arts, but he’s packed plenty into his life already.

Born in Dagestan, he fled Russia aged 12 with his father not long after his mother’s death, hidden inside a car, making the journey to England as a refugee. He took up wrestling when his lack of the language got him into trouble at school, eventually becoming a six-time British champion.

Representing England, Mokaev transitioned into Brazilian jiu-jitsu and was soon European champion, before then blazing a trail through the world’s amateur MMA ranks.

By the time he turned professional this summer, Mokaev boasted a flawless 23-0 record and was twice amateur world champion. With three pro fights since – he competes in the Bahrain-based Brave Combat Federation – he has climbed to 26 undefeated.

Known to sport the distinctive papakha headpiece, Mokaev is compared often to fellow Dagestani Khabib Nurmagomedov, while he is signed to the company that represents Conor McGregor and Manny Pacquiao.

Still cutting his teeth as a pro, he has sights set on becoming the youngest champion in UFC history. Oh, and he counts Middle Eastern royalty among his close friends.

"At my amateur debut in 2015, I posted a video on Instagram and the prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid [bin Hamad Al Khalifa] saw it," Mokaev tells The National. "He tagged the Brave president, Mohammed Shahid, saying, 'Watch out for this kid'.

“Three years later I’m in Bahrain, competing and winning world championships, signed with Sheikh’s KHK MMA. And then 2020, I’m in Brave, three and 0 as a professional."

The rise has been remarkable, rapid. The relationship with Sheikh Khalid, too, the royal always there on WhatsApp or a phone call away, keen to lend advice and support.

Last year, when Mokaev went to again win the IMMAF World Championships, an issue at Manchester airport meant he missed his flight to Bahrain. Sheikh Khalid promptly flew him out on his private plane, setting up a training base at his house.

Mokaev visited Sheikh Khalid’s home once more last month after his submission victory against the previously undefeated Jamie Kelly at Brave CF 43. They talked sport and life until the sun came up.

“My relationship and others fighters’ relationship to Sheikh is different,” he says. “It’s staying for a long time, even if other organisations offer me good money.

There's no contract. Nothing. It's more than any contract with huge money; more relationship, like family.

“It’s not about money. There’s no contract between Sheikh and me. Nothing. It’s more than any contract with huge money; more relationship, like family.

“Because he was with me when I was young, in my amateur days. It means if I have a problem today, like an injury or my career doesn’t go well, he will stay with me. That’s the relationship between Sheikh Khalid and me. It’s worth more than anything.”

A long-time supporter of MMA, Sheikh Khalid founded KHK MMA in 2015 and then Brave in 2016. This summer, he signed Mokaev to the organisation, which has evolved into one of the most prominent promotions in the region.

“He’s a big fan of MMA,” Mokaev says. “He’s not like the guy who just throws money and doesn’t watch the fights. He comes to the changing room, puts shin-pads on you, carries your spit bucket to your corner, like with me at the world championships. At amateur tournaments, never mind professional. That’s how humble he is.

“In one moment of my career, there was one week when lots of offers came, big everything. And he just called me and said, ‘Relax, sit down, we have the team, trust in your heart’. That’s the best advice.”

Princes and palaces represent a stark contrast to Mokaev’s previous existence. When he came to England in 2012, he had only his father, little clothes, no money, and no grasp of the language. After spending a month in a refugee centre in Liverpool, he and his dad were relocated to Wigan.

Mokaev lived off £5 ($6.50) per day, getting by on one pair of jeans, a jumper and a body warmer – he didn’t own a jacket – watching classmates come to school on non-uniform day in their best outfits while he wore the same old stuff. Those days were understandably tough for the young Muslim, but helped hone his hunger for MMA.

“I was getting into fights at school a little,” Mokaev says. “Because when I came to England I didn’t understand the culture, the language, the jokes. So to shut other kids up I had to take them down. Not punch, but let them know don’t mess around, you know?”

Mokaev attended college for two years, but left to practice MMA full-time. Much, initially, to his father Murad’s chagrin.

“Of course it was hard for me; it was a lot of pressure at that time,” he says. “It was a hard decision to make between education or MMA because my father has two degrees in university – he’s a building engineer.

“He was like, ‘Junior, you need to go to college’, but I knew I couldn’t make him proud by going to uni, like Oxford or Cambridge, so I had to do something special.”

Luckily, he had a special talent for MMA.

“Because I believe I can make it,” Mokaev says. “I had this dream for a long time: I want to become champion and make history in whatever organisation I fight.

“For example, youngest UFC champion, so I can give motivation to the young generation that you can come from nothing, without even your parents’ support, become the best in the world and have biggest contract, compete in best organisation. From £5 a day.”

Despite what appears the fast track to stardom, Mokaev preaches patience. Still, he has fought five times this year, even amid a pandemic, competing in Australia, Sweden – his pro debut, in August - the UK and Bahrain.

He wanted another bout before the year was out, eyeing other unbeaten fighters in Brave, but looks likely to wait until next year. After that, belts at flyweight and bantamweight: the promotion’s first champ-champ.

Only the top five in the flyweight division in UFC are good guys. The rest I believe I can beat them

“Then I will fight in the UFC, but it depends on what contract they offer me,” Mokaev says. “Because I’m not a standard contract right now; I’m not a standard fighter.

“It’s not about money, it’s about the fight contract; how many fights. I want to take the title [in Brave] and then we’ll see what happens.”

Nicknamed “The Punisher”, Mokaev has the confidence to back up the cause. He watched with interest the recent two Fight Island series in Abu Dhabi, certain he has what it takes to make his mark at the highest level.

“Only the top five in the flyweight division in UFC are good guys,” he says. “The rest I believe I can beat them. If they bring them to one event I can fight them all day like a sparring session, because I can stay sparring with top MMA fighters for six, seven, eight rounds. I can fight them on one night.

“I have a different hunger, different motivation. I don’t know how to explain this, but I see in the eyes of the fighter if they’re hungry or not. I haven’t seen many fighters hungry. Many, if you listen to their interviews, say, ‘I want to be in UFC’. So you just want to be there? You’re not saying you want to be champion?”

Given he knows precisely the record for the youngest to claim UFC gold - Jon Jones was 23 and 242 days when he captured the light heavyweight crown – there’s a conviction to Mokaev’s words.

“I have 3 years and seven months to do this,” he says. “So every day I wake up I cannot waste time, I have to go to the gym, have to train, different gyms, different coaches, always learning.”

Combining talent with a thirst for improvement, Mokaev displays little ego outside fighting, a charismatic character who jokes that his upcoming marriage - his future wife comes from a family of medical professionals - better not impact his fighting. Patently, he’s a people’s person.

“Yes,” Mokaev says, smiling. “People’s main event also.”

It is one of the reasons Paradigm Sports Management added the Greater Manchester resident to their already formidable roster of athletes, why Mokaev has had lucrative offers from Bellator and One, and interest from the UFC. Sponsors haven’t been hard to find either, with the UAE-based business marketplace among them.

“It’s clear to see why Muhammad will be one of the biggest names in our sport in the coming years,” says Azhar Muhammad Saul, Paradigm’s senior vice-president of strategy and business development. “He’s an incredible talent, but also a young man of high character that’s a pleasure to work with.

It's clear to see why Muhammad will be one of the biggest names in our sport ... He's an incredible talent

“His work ethic and dedication to the sport is unquestionable. We’re excited with his progress with the team at Brave CF…. it's remarkable just how quickly his star has risen in the Middle East. His fan base is growing at rates I’ve rarely seen before as there is so much cultural relevance in his story.”

It’s a tale Mokaev believes elevates him above other fighters.

“This story, that I did everything myself from a young age,” he says. “Also the story of the person’s charisma. Every time I fight, even if people like me or don’t, they still watch and buy pay-per-views. I put on the show; even if I’m sometimes ‘the boring wrestler’ people still watch. Because before every fight I say I’m going to beat this guy up and I do it.”

In that instance, Mokaev reminds of UFC lightweight champion Nurmagomedov, who last month retired from the sport unbeaten. The two met in Bahrain in 2018, when Mokaev won his first world championship and Nurmagomedov offered his congratulations.

Mokaev, though, is keen to separate himself from his celebrated compatriot.

“Me and Khabib have a very different story,” he says. “Of course, he’s a great role model for all the younger generations, including me. But we have very different charisma, and what he achieved at 20 and what I’ve achieved at 20 now… I’m much faster.

“I have my own story, so when people say ‘Khabib 2’, no I’m Muhammad Mokaev No 1. He’s got his own path; I’ve got mine. Different story. You cannot compare.”