Khabib Nurmagomedov had just finished watching Islam Makhachev complete another sparring session in Dubai on Wednesday, and was quickly confirming that his teammate would “very soon” establish himself as undoubtedly the best UFC lightweight in the world.
As if Nurmagomedov, now in Makhachev's corner as coach, needed any additional persuading.
“Islam’s looking great,” the unbeaten former champion, who retired in Abu Dhabi 12 months ago, told The National. “And very soon we’re going to take the lightweight title back home. Like it was before in the past three years.
“Right now, they have a champion. But very soon we’re going to take this. Islam is ready to go.”
Makhachev, the No 5-ranked contender in a division currently headed by Charles Oliveira, is putting the final pieces together in camp ahead of this month's bout against Dan Hooker at UFC 267 in Abu Dhabi.
Hooker, ranked a solitary slot below in the rankings, is fresh off a dominant decision on September 25 against Nasrat Haqparast. He took the Makhachev test on short notice, as a late stand-in for former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos.
For many, the New Zealander represents the greatest test to date in his Dagestani rival's already impressive UFC career. Makhachev sits at 20-1 in professional mixed martial arts, and 9-1 in the UFC. Most tellingly, he rides an eight-fight winning run.
Thus, Nurmagomedov is convinced that, once Hooker is successfully negotiated at Etihad Arena on Yas Island, Makhachev’s next opponent should be the winner of the December title encounter between champion Oliveira and Dustin Poirier.
The path to gold, then, routes through UFC 267. “This is big challenge for him,” Nurmagomedov said. “Islam is No 5, Hooker is No 6. It’s going to be a very big fight for Islam. And I really believe that after this fight Islam has to fight for the title.
“Right now, he has an eight-fight win streak. After Hooker, inshallah it’s going to become nine fights. How many times do we see in UFC a fighter win a couple of fights, three or four, and they fight for the title?
“But what about Islam, with a nine-fight win streak? He already has eight. After Hooker, 100 per cent he’s going deserve to fight for the title.”
For some time, Makhachev has been touted as heir to Nurmagomedov’s lightweight throne. The latter called time on his guaranteed Hall of Fame career at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi last year.
There, in the conclusion to the UFC’s second Fight Island series in the capital, Nurmagomedov retained his title against Justin Gaethje, submitting the American in the second round. Then aged 32, Nurmagomedov went out with a gleaming pro record of 29-0 (13-0 in UFC). Days later, he was installed on top of the promotion's pound-for-pound rankings.
Now, after Oliveira secured the vacant belt in May against Michael Chandler, Nurmagomedov views Makhachev’s ascent to the division's summit as only a matter of time.
Asked how good his believes his close friend to be, Nurmagomedov said: “It's because it’s his prime time right now. End of October, Islam will be 30 years old. When you’re 25 you’re different, when you’re 30 you’re completely different.
“I truly believe he’s the best lightweight in the world. Nobody's even close. Nobody. No Conor [McGregor], no Dustin, no Justin, no Charles, no Michael Chandler. No one is close to Islam.
“And I don’t say this because he’s my brother, we train together my whole life, or something like this. No. Because I work with everybody — Islam, other guys — and right now this is Islam’s time. This is his prime time.
“What the other guys have that Islam doesn’t is experience. Because Dustin, Justin, Conor, Michael Chandler — all these guys have a little bit more experience than Islam.
“But when we’re talking about skills, Islam is way better. But we will see. Islam has very good mental strength, he has a very good heart. He’s a warrior. When the times comes, he always shows this. And this time he’s going to show this too, inshallah.”
As for what he expects come the main-event event against Hooker (21-10, 11-6) on October 30, Nurmagomedov said: “Islam is going to finish this guy in the first round, end of the first round. If Islam catches him one time, this guy’s finished.
“This guy doesn’t use wrestling; he’s just a kicker. When Islam is going to catch him, he’s going to understand this is a different kind of power. Different kind of grappling, wrestling.
"I really believe end of first round, when Islam catches him, Islam will finish him, with triangle choke or armbar. Something like that."
At UFC 267, alongside longtime coach Javier Mendez, Nurmagomedov will corner three teammates: Makhachev, popular featherweight Zubaira Tukhugov and flyweight Tagir Ulanbekov.
Before, he will be kept busy too with commitments at the upcoming Dubai Muscle Show and Abu Dhabi Showdown Week, which culminates in UFC 267. The former will showcase two of Nurmagomedov's latest ventures: PH Top by Khabib alkaline water and FiTROO by Khabib protein bars.
Then all focus on fight night, October 30.
“It’s going to be a very exciting night for me, because cornering three guys is not easy, it’s very hard,” Nurmgomedov said before smiling. “But if you’re interested to ask, ‘You know, do you miss fights?’, no I don’t miss fights.
“I did this a lot. It’s enough. All my life I was a fighter and I’m not missing this. But I enjoy doing this coaching with my teammates.