Muhammad Mokaev 'feeling amazing' inside and outside the octagon ahead of UFC 280

Top prospect recently became a father and has 'never been more motivated' as he prepares to face Malcolm Gordon in Abu Dhabi

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Safe to say, for Muhammad Mokaev, life right now is rather sweet.

For one, he’s about to compete for the first time in Abu Dhabi, at UFC 280 next week, a date he earmarked with the world’s lead mixed martial arts promotion even before his most recent bout, in London, in July.

Outside the octagon, there’s a new UAE-based sponsor, with which Mokaev opened their flagship branch in the capital on Friday night. There, he cut ribbon, took part in a Q&A with fans - he prefers Wingstop's Hawaiian chicken wings over the spicy - and smiled and laughed his way through a steady flow of selfies.

Yet the most important life development had already come, not long after Mokaev teased on social media that he would soon share “the biggest news in my whole life”.

The confirmation came last week. Aged 22, and with seemingly the MMA world at his feet, Mokaev had become a father.

“Youngest dad in the UFC,” the flyweight jokes to The National, a play on his long-held ambition to become the youngest champion in company history. “Feeling amazing. It feels so good.”

Mum and baby, he reports, are well too.

“Everything’s good,” Mokaev says. “And I’m so motivated for this fight … I’ve never been more motivated for a fight.”

Which bodes well for everyone at Etihad Arena a week on Saturday. Bar, you’d imagine, Malcolm Gordon.

Mokaev, a two-time IMMAF world champion unbeaten in all 31 MMA bouts - 23 amateur, eight pro - takes on the experienced Canadian early on the prelims, where he seeks to make it three wins from three since his explosive UFC bow in March.

The Abu Dhabi card is headlined by the vacant lightweight title bout between Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev, while Aljamain Sterling defends his bantamweight crown against former belt-holder TJ Dillashaw. Before that, Petr Yan versus Sean O’Malley.

“This is one of the biggest events of the year, one of the biggest cards in UFC history,” Mokaev says. “Being on this, it’s incredible. The UFC offered me November, but I said I want to fight in Abu Dhabi.”

Born in Dagestan but having moved to England as a refugee aged 12, Mokaev feels the support from the region. He has enjoyed significant backing from the prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa, whom he says will be in his corner on fight night. The Bahrain-based Brave Combat Federation provided the platform to graduate to the UFC.

“I have a lot of fan base in this area,” Mokaev says. “It’ll be good to put the show in front of them. I’ve been explaining the UFC want to put me on earlier so everyone tunes in.

“But it’s OK. I don’t care when I fight. I’m going to kick off the show with a bang and then watch rest of the card.”

Even at 22, and so soon into his UFC career, Mokaev is looking to make up for what he perceives as lost time. He was unhappy with his performance in July, despite dominating Charles Johnson to secure a unanimous decision.

“I thought it was a boring fight,” Mokaev says, stressing Johnson’s reluctance to engage and adding that he has since worked on various ways to put people out.

“If somebody goes passive now, not active enough, I’ll still finish them.”

Mokaev predicts that conclusion for Gordon. Even if his upcoming rival, 14-5 as a pro, also rides a two-fight win streak.

“I’ll finish him in the first round,” Mokaev says. “I believe so. I want to show my last fight is not who I am.”

Mokaev speaks with a clarity and a confidence that belies his age. He says nothing has surprised him since his move into the UFC – on debut, he saw off Cody Durden in 58 seconds – that the step up hasn’t been too taxing.

“To be honest, I still didn’t see the challenge,” he says. “I see challenges more in preparation: sometimes I feel sick, sometimes I have a little injury, something like this. But the fight, for me, the same.

“I feel even more comfortable in the UFC, because the cage is bigger. You’ve more space to move around; the bigger is better for me.”

Defeat Gordon in Abu Dhabi, and “bigger and better” should apply to next opponents. Mokaev says he has found it hard to convince ranked fighters to agree to take him on.

That cause probably wasn’t helped earlier this year, when he trained at American Top Team in the United States, sparring among others No-2-ranked flyweight contender Alexandre Pantoja and No 13 Su Mudaerji.

“Now I have two opponents in top 15 who probably won’t fight me,” Mokaev says. “Because they know what I’m about – I’m not just some young kid on the hype.

“It'll be difficult, but I’m just going to call out big names after this fight. I already did. But after I get this victory, they can’t run anymore.”

Mokaev reiterates his desire to become a UFC record-breaker. At present, Jon Jones holds the honour of the youngest champion in the promotion’s history, aged 23.

“I believe I will fight for the title end of next year,” Mokaev says. “I’m very close. In first six months, this is my third UFC fight. I don’t think anybody has done this before.

“A lot of fighters in this division have one fight a year and are top 15. I will show why I’m different.”

The new arrival in the family hasn’t necessarily shifted professional perspective.

“Really, I imagined this,” Mokaev says. “When I got married, I imagined I’d have a baby soon and what should I do next. I already built plans for the future; even before we had the baby I was thinking where we’re going to live, what’s next step, what camp am I going to do after this fight.

“I will pay a lot of attention to my career because this is so important. I want my kids to grow up having everything. I don’t want my family going through the same struggles I’ve seen.

“So I want to push these next two years, stay active. And then I will enjoy life more.”

Not that Mokaev plans to hang up the gloves any time soon. It's just that he has a definitive road mapped out.

“I think it’ll be a short career, but most success in MMA history,” he says. “I started at a good age, not too early, not too late, age of 15. I already have good time banked in my sports career.

“A lot of parents and grandparents think a fighter is stupid, fight until 30 and still can’t make money. But I want to show that I’m an example: if you stay concentrated, at that age you can be successful and then enjoy your life.”

But first? Checking off another professional goal in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s great to have strong fighters like Islam on the card, great role model,” Mokaev says. “I was a kid watching them fight, and now I’m on the same card as them. Yeah, it’s amazing.

“[But] I’m still going to steal the show.”

Updated: November 01, 2022, 1:57 PM