'Real deal' Islam Makhachev set to emulate Khabib Nurmagomedov and become UFC champion

Dagestan lightweight contender, coached by Mendez and Nurmagomedov, tipped to dominate division after extending win-streak to eight

ABU DHABI ,  UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , SEPTEMBER 4 – 2019 :- Islam Makhachev  during the UFC Open Workout session held at The Yas Mall in Abu Dhabi. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Sports/Online/Instagram. Story by John
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Javier Mendez believes Islam Makhachev is already the best lightweight in the UFC and destined to become champion, following in the footsteps of close friend and longtime teammate Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Makhachev, 29, served notice to the division on Sunday by dominating Thiago Moises at UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas, with the fourth-round submission victory extending his win streak to eight.

The Dagestan native, who has the recently retired Nurmagomedov coaching him alongside Mendez, is tipped to next take on a fellow top-contender before potentially competing for the title.

Immediately following his triumph against Moises - his first main event in the UFC - Makhachev called out former champion Rafael Dos Anjos, while he also expressed an interest in facing either Michael Chandler or Tony Ferguson. With Sunday's win, Makhachev climbed four spots to No 5 in the lightweight-contender rankings.

“Islam wanted to go out, put on a show and prove he’s the real deal – and that’s exactly what he did,” Mendez told The National on Tuesday. “He showed that, as he said afterwards, ‘You can run but you can’t hide’. I think that should be his moniker going forward.

“He’s the best. I don’t care who you put him up against. The champ [Charles Oliveira], Conor [McGregor], [Justin] Gaethje, Dustin [Poirier], Chandler – the only chance they have against him is KO. They’re not going to outpoint him. They have to hurt him to beat him.

“Overall, they’re not going to be able to handle him. If they can out-strike him, they’re not good on the ground. So they’re going to get smashed; they can’t stop the takedown. All the way round, as far as skill-wise, he doesn’t get beat. He’s the total package now that Khabib’s gone."

Asked what represented Makhachev’s ceiling, as he seeks to hone his talent and improve on his 20-1 professional record, Mendez said: “He definitely can get better, 100 per cent. He definitely will get better, 100 per cent. He’s getting that title and he’s going to defend that title.

"You can forget about outpointing him and out-working him, it’s not going to happen. He’s going to beat them all. He’s getting better and better all the time. The ceiling is championship.”

Mendez, the American Kickboxing Academy founder who helped oversee Nurmagomedov’s unbeaten rise to the top of the lightweight division, said he would like for Makhachev to next fight No 3-ranked challenger Beneil Dariush. The Iranian-born American rides a seven-fight win streak.

Current No 4 Chandler would be seen to also provide another step towards a title shot, while Mendez envisages a clash with Ferguson would make sense in the near future, given the team’s “unfinished business” with the former interim champion. Nurmagomedov and Ferguson were scheduled to meet five times in the UFC, but the fight never materialised for a variety of reasons.

Although boasting different skillsets – Makhachev is a more well-rounded kicker than his celebrated compatriot – Makhachev is viewed by many as the heir to Nurmagomedov’s lightweight throne. The latter called time on his 29-0 pro career in Abu Dhabi in October when he defeated then-interim champion Gaethje at UFC 254. The UFC officially vacated the belt in March, with Oliveira beating Chandler two months later for the title.

As for how Makhachev will handle the ever-growing Khabib comparisons, Mendez said: “He takes it all in his stride; it hasn’t phased him at all. He’s just happy-go-lucky Islam like always, very quiet. You tell him something, he goes, ‘Uh-huh, OK’ and he just goes to work.

"Islam is super, super strong mentally, but I don’t know if I’ll ever encounter a fighter as strong as Khabib in that department - I don’t think there’s anyone equal to Khabib in that. But yes, Islam’s as good as they come.”

While Makhachev targets another fight before the end of the year, the UFC’s anticipated return to Abu Dhabi in October may come too soon. Neither Abu Dhabi nor the UFC, who signed a five-year partnership in April 2019, have confirmed their next event in the capital.

Mendez and his team know the UAE well having regularly used the Nad Al Sheba (NAS) Sports Complex in Dubai as their training base outside the United States. They did so for Nurmagomedov’s final two appearances in the UFC.

Regarding a quick turnaround for Makhachev in October, Mendez said: “We’ll see. They’re going to probably want Islam to fight in Abu Dhabi. And for us it’s like being at home: we get to be at the NAS training centre, with our family there – Ahmad [Jaber Al Harbi] and the [Dubai Crown Prince's] people at NAS. That would be an honour for us to be there, I’d love that. But I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

As for Nurmagomedov’s transition to full-time coaching – he has cornered teammates for four UFC bouts this year and boasts a 100 per cent success rate – Mendez said: “He’s off to a brilliant start. But really a lot of people don’t realise that, when he was fighting, he was doing this anyways. He was already coaching his guys and cornering them. It’s just now there’s more focus on him as Khabib the coach and not Khabib the fighter.

“He’s enjoying it immensely. Because, listen, he has so many business opportunities to make so much money and he’s choosing something that doesn’t make as much. Why? Because he loves it and he loves his guys.

“Khabib doesn’t have to do any of this. He’s so famous, he could be involved in so many bigger business ventures that would take a lot of his time. But he’s not about the money. He’s about the love and taking care of family and being there for his guys. And that’s what he’s doing.”

Updated: July 22, 2021, 2:59 AM