With Khabib Nurmagomedov in his corner, Islam Makhachev served notice to the lightweight division on Sunday morning - and then called out his teammate’s old rival, Tony Ferguson.
Making his first competitive appearance since Abu Dhabi 18 months ago, Makhachev dominated Drew Dober at UFC 259 at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, seeing off the American via a third-round submission.
The victory extended Makhachev’s winning streak to seven, and lifted his professional MMA record to 19-1. Ranked the No 14 challenger heading into the bout, the Russian is sure to be given a top contender next, with Ferguson his primary target.
“My dream fight is Tony Ferguson,” Makhachev said. “That’s my dream fight. I just want to make him retire. He talks too much. Khabib is retired, now he keeps pressuring him, for what? I’m here, I have a seven-fight win streak. Make this happen.”
Makhachev, 29, was supposed to fight three times in 2020, but issues relating to Covid-19 continually postponed his return to the octagon. His display will have only underlined a much-hyped talent - Nurmagomedov, who still holds the belt despite announcing his retirement in Abu Dhabi in October, has tipped his close friend to succeed him as lightweight champion. The undefeated Dagestani's rivalry with Ferguson is long-standing: the pair was slated to fight five times previously, but on each occasion the bout fell through.
Speaking afterwards, Makhachev said: “2020 was a crazy year - all my fights got cancelled. That’s why I’m very happy to be here now and get the finish. I’m very happy.
“The finish is always very important. Maybe [UFC president] Dana [White] will give me the bonus … I tried to finish him in the first round, but Dober is a very strong guy. He has like crazy power, that’s why I just tried to make him tired, make him work and finish him in the third round.
“I feel this pressure, but I’m not an amateur guy. I have a big amateur career, and now I have 19 victories, that’s why I understand everything. I just have to train hard because people believe in me.
“[In] 2021 I have to fight two more times and in the beginning of 2022, I have to fight for the title.”