'People will understand soon' - Makhachev sure of his title prospects against Oliveira

Top-ranked UFC lightweight talks to 'The National' about his headline bout at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi on October 22

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Islam Makhachev isn’t concerned about comparisons or loaded down by legacy.

All that occupies his mind, weeks out from conceivably the greatest challenge of his professional career to date, is becoming UFC lightweight champion in Abu Dhabi.

“I’m really, really excited because my dream is so close, you know?” Makhachev tells The National from his current Dubai base. “That moment is so close. Very soon I’m going to be champion.”

The No 4-ranked challenger at lightweight, Makhachev headlines UFC 280 at Etihad Arena on October 22, when he takes on former champion Charles Oliveira for the vacant belt.

Brazil's Oliveira resides as the division’s de facto champion. He is the most recent incumbent of the crown, and would still hold it had he not missed weight by half a pound in May, the day before his defence against Justin Gaethje.

While Makhachev rides an impressive 10-fight win streak, Oliveira's stunning triumph at UFC 274 extended his victory stretch to 11. Belt or not, he sits still at the head of the lightweight rankings, and No 3 in the UFC's men’s pound-for-pound standings.

The Brazilian, 33-8 in professional mixed martial arts, holds promotional records for most finishes (19) and submissions (16).

“Charles is very dangerous,” Makhachev says. “He always finishes his opponent, and he's dangerous in the striking and on the ground. But I believe in my skills. I’m ready for the fight standing up or on the ground - it doesn’t matter.”

Sitting in his hotel room in Dubai, between morning and night training sessions, Makhachev is characteristically composed. Confident, too.

“I don’t think this is the biggest test [of my career],” he says. “Maybe I beat some guy who has more skills. But, right now, he's the champion. And, right now, at this moment in his career, because he has a good win streak - he had many losses before - and he finished all his opponents, he feels like nobody can stop him.

“But, October 22, I’m going to come to the cage and stop him there.”

While Makhachev has steamrollered his past two opponents – he took little more than two minutes to submit Dan Hooker in October, in Abu Dhabi, and less than three and a half to knock out Bobby Green in February – Oliveira has had to come through serious adversity of late. He survived knockdowns against Michael Chandler, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje to prevail in each.

Yet Makhachev, an expert wrestler and former world Sambo champion, is adamant he won’t let slip any chance to capitalise should it present itself.

“His last three or four opponents, they knock him down and nobody goes to grappling," he says. "Nobody tried to finish him there; nobody tried to do some ground and pound. That’s why nobody from these opponents could stop him.

“But I’m not scared of his jiu-jitsu skills, because I have good skills in Sambo and grappling and will give him a hard time in striking. That’s why I’m going to knock him down and try to finish him.

“Because this guy has most finishes in the UFC, my goal is I have to finish him. I’m going to take his record.”

That the fight takes place in Abu Dhabi is considered a major advantage in Makhachev's favour. The Dagestani, 31, has fought twice in the capital, first in the decision-victory against Davi Ramos in 2019, and most recently at UFC 267 last year.

A frequent visitor to the UAE, Makhachev has regularly held camps in Dubai, where he trains, as he does in the build-up to Oliveira, at Nad Al Sheba Sports Complex. Clearly, he has a strong affiliation to the country.

“Of course, I’m really happy because I’m going to fight in Abu Dhabi,” Makhachev says. “In this country, the people invite our team. It’s very good, they give us what we need. We have everything for a good training camp.

“All fans, all people can come to Abu Dhabi from Russia, because not many of my family or friends can come to the US or other countries. And I fight for the title, so many are going to come support me."

Makhachev, though, doesn't necessarily view Abu Dhabi as a trump card against Oliveira.

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter where,” he says. “Even if they give me the fight in Brazil, I’m going to approve and go there. Because it means nothing. When the cage is closed nobody is going to help you.”

Makhachev, 22-1 in pro MMA, dismisses the notion also that, come fight night, he will not only have to handle Oliveira, but the weight of expectation.

“It’s not going to be pressure because I know I’m training so hard, and I have people who support me and who push me so hard for this training camp,” he says. “And I believe in my skills. That’s why it’s nothing special; I have big experience in this sport.”

That experience is enhanced, no doubt, by the presence of Khabib Nurmagomedov by his side. The retired former lightweight champion, life-long friend, teammate and now coach, has been there and done it. Perhaps better than anyone else in the sport.

“It’s so important,” Makhachev says. “Because this guy knows all the rules, all the roads, and right now he pushes me. And I look at his whole career, how he’s training, how he cuts weight. He gives me big experience.

"Nobody has a corner like him. Nobody has some people close [by] who can offer support like him.”

Makhachev plays down recent comments from coach Javier Mendez that his long-time pupil is the most well-rounded lightweight of all-time – “we have many guys before, like Khabib, Frankie Edgar” – and shrugs off any questions about legacy. He prefers, instead, to focus solely on becoming champion.

The motivation is understandably high, helped somewhat by Chandler last week, when the former title challenger questioned Makhachev’s CV. Makhachev responded on social media by poking fun at Chandler’s UFC record, adding that he “please shut up and stay in line”.

“I just say the truth,” Makhachev says now. “Who he beat? Tony Ferguson? This guy, he has to retire. He beat Dan Hooker, who came from a loss, and then he fights for the title?

“The UFC just want to promote this guy. Right now, he’s in the top because he talks too much.”

It does, though, add fuel to Makhachev’s already formidable fire for October 22.

“Of course,” he says. “And people are going to understand. Whoever doesn’t believe, they’re going to understand, soon. You know, in some of my dreams, I take this belt and jump to the cage, because I never jumped to the cage, never sit on the cage.

"This is my dream. And, right now, I’m very close.”

Updated: October 07, 2022, 1:32 PM
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