Top prospect Muhammad Mokaev promises more fireworks at UFC London after dazzling debut

Unbeaten fighter, 6-0 as a pro, returns to O2 Arena on Saturday looking for another highlight finish

Muhammad Mokaev celebrates victory against Cody Durden at The O2, London, on March 19, 2022. PA
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Muhammad Mokaev’s much-anticipated UFC debut lasted all of 58 seconds.

The highly touted flyweight, granted the opening slot on the UFC’s grand return to London in March, took out Cody Durden in a blink of an eye at The O2 Arena, first dropping his opponent with a flying knee and then locking a guillotine to secure the submission win.

Mokaev, only 21, had backed up the hefty pre-event hype. And then some.

“It felt amazing, to be honest, a perfect match-up, perfect finish for the debut,” Mokaev tells The National now, as he gets set for a second UFC outing, once more in London, this weekend against veteran Charles Johnson.

“I showed I can strike; I can submit guys. I think opponents watched this and say now, ‘He’s not just a wrestler’ - they’re worrying about my striking too.”

A two-time IMMAF world champion at bantamweight, whose 23-0 amateur record and 5-0 pro resume was built primarily on prodigious wrestling, Mokaev had sent a message to the flyweight division. Arguably, to the sport.

He is eager now to build on that electric bow. Mokaev spent some time between his first UFC appearance and the upcoming second at American Top Team (ATT) in the United States, training at the renowned stable with the likes of No-4-ranked flyweight contender Alexandre Pantoja, No 12 Su Mudaerji and hard-hitting bantamweight Pedro Munhoz.

The uptick in talent should be evident this weekend. The confidence, too.

"I have all same skills, but my mind is stronger,” Mokaev says. “Mentally I’ve improved a lot because I’ve sparred the top three guys in my division. I gave them hard rounds; they never seen these rounds before. They know what power I have. So I have every confidence that I can pass Charles Johnston.

“I believe I can finish these guys, to be honest. I’m back to the flyweight division; March was my first fight in four years at flyweight. So I feel very strong and powerful for this division.

“Now I want to show my skills more, maybe first round and then finish it second. Because I want to let the people know it’s not about hype, it’s about skills and the belief that I have.”

Of course, life has changed since his emphatic UFC arrival, with fresh sponsorships banked – Mokaev is represented by Paradigm Sport, the same agency that looks after Conor McGregor and Israel Adesanya – and more recognition coming wherever he travels.

To his credit, though, Mokaev is taking it all in stride.

“A lot of people recognise me now,” he says. “A lot of people knew about me, but they were thinking it’s all about hype, he’s just fighting amateurs. But now people are starting to believe.

“But I just follow my goal; I don’t buy into this stuff anymore. My career didn’t go super-explosive straight after my debut – it was growing slowly with each fight. I just try to stay humble, because I know if I lose nobody would care about me. That’s why I stay focus on my career.”

Johnson, then, forms the next step on that steep trajectory.

“I have met already a lot of my opponents in the amateur scene and in the gym in the past, it doesn’t affect me,” Mokaev says. “I can spar with them, I can fight them, but in the fight I’m more dangerous than I am in training.

“The guy’s old [31, with an 11-2 pro record], he’s an LFA champion, he’s been in five rounds before, he’s fit, cardio good. But when I put wrestling and grappling all together, he’s going to get gassed out. Because it’s different cardio.”

Claim the win, and Mokaev believes he will jump into the flyweight rankings. Never shy in calling out opponents already on that ladder, convincing someone thus far to take the bait has proved a little difficult.

“Last time they offered me top-15 guys, and nobody accepted,” he says. “But now I will actually be top 15, so they’ll have no choice but to fight me. Everyone will call me out.”

In theory, no more running.

“They can run,” Mokaev says. “But they can’t hide.”

To that, Abu Dhabi feels a perfect platform to coax a contender into the light. The UFC returns to the capital on October 22, with a swiftly stacked card at UFC 280 headlined by the vacant lightweight title bout between Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev.

Like Makhachev, Mokaev is Dagestan born, but fights out of Manchester, England, having moved there as a refugee aged 12. Keen to remain active, he has circled on the calendar September, or October, or Madison Square Garden in November.

Certainly, Abu Dhabi has particular appeal: not only given his roots, but Mokaev attributes a large portion of his rise to the prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa. Before the UFC, he competed regularly in the Bahrain-based Brave Combat Federation.

“Abu Dhabi would be amazing because Sheikh Khalid and Sheikh Nasser [bin Hamad Al Khalifa] would come over,” Mokaev says. “I would have incredible support over there, especially because I fought in Bahrain many times. With them in my corner, the whole of Abu Dhabi would be behind me.

“And, as a kid I watched a lot of Islam’s and [retired former lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s] fights - they are great role models for the younger generation. It would be a pleasure to be on the same card.”

Azhar Muhammad Saul, partner and senior vice president at Paradigm, underlines the connection to the region.

“Muhammad was keen to get straight back in after UFC London in March, and this will be another good test for him,” he says. “Having spent some time with us in Dubai earlier in the year, I know just how much the region is getting behind him and his inspirational story.”

Abu Dhabi would make sense for UFC bout No 3. As for potential opponents, Mokaev cites Jeff Molina, Tim Elliott, Matt Schnell and Alex Perez as candidates. They are ranked 14th, 10th, eighth and sixth at flyweight respectively.

Clearly, Mokaev is intent on making true on his dream of becoming the youngest champion in UFC history – Jon Jones holds that mark, aged 23 - and speaks with clarity and a conviction that the road is indeed paved to gold.

“I think I’m closer actually than I predicted,” Mokaev says, matter-of-factly.

First though, Saturday night, The O2 Arena, and the scene of that debut where he delivered on the promise.

“I know it will be on late in Abu Dhabi, but the support I receive means a lot,” Mokaev says.

And anyway, those who tune in on Saturday night will apparently be in for another treat.

“What to expect?” Mokaev concludes, “Second-round finish.”

Updated: July 22, 2022, 5:58 AM
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