With UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov seemingly committed to retirement, teammate Islam Makhachev is intent on taking over the division in his absence.
The Russian, who rides a six-fight win streak in the UFC, makes his long-awaited return to the octagon at UFC 259 on Sunday, when he takes on Drew Dober in Las Vegas. Makhachev last fought in September 2019, at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi.
A fellow Dagestani, whose professional MMA record stands at 18-1, Makhachev counts Nurmagomedov as a mentor, with both the undefeated belt-holder and their coach Javier Mendez tipping him to become champion.
No doubt buoyed by that, Makhachev believes he could be the new face of the division should Nurmagomedov stay retired.
“I think after this fight, if I finish Drew, everything is going to change,” Makhachev told reporters at the pre-event media day on Wednesday. “It’s going to be a seven-fight win streak and not a lot of people have a win streak like this. The next [opponent] will maybe be top five, top 10, and I’m going to show my skills.”
Victory at the UFC Apex would lift Makhachev, currently the No 14-ranked contender at lightweight, to second in the division for longest active win streaks – behind only No 3 challenger Charles Oliveira.
It would no doubt catapult Makhachev through the standings, and potentially set up a clash, finally, with former champion Rafael dos Anjos (RDA). The pair was supposed to meet last year, only for the bout to fall through twice because of health issues.
“Maybe RDA because he was supposed to be my last opponent and we cancelled the fight two times,” Makhachev said. “He is a big name, [was] UFC champion. Maybe whoever is free there: maybe Tony [Ferguson]. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. But if it’s somebody from the top five, I will be happy.
“I just need a couple more fights [to be given a title shot]. That’s it. Now I feel I’m ready for everybody because all my life I’m training as a champion. Nobody from the top 10 gives me a problem.”
Makhachev, 29, was slated to face Dober (23-9 MMA) five years ago, only for the bout to drop out on the day of the weigh-ins. No matter that much has changed since, he remains confident in a straightforward win.
“He’s tough,” Makhachev said. “He’s not in the rankings; I think he’s No 16. I know he’s good because I was supposed to fight with him in 2016. He has good striking, good conditioning, but I have more than him.
“Honestly, I think this is an easy road. I take him down, control. His wrestling is not so good.”