Muhammad Mokaev: Abu Dhabi the next step on quest to become UFC's youngest champion

The National spends the day in Bahrain with the fast-rising flyweight as he prepares for another major career night at UFC 294 in the capital

Muhammad Mokaev fit and focused on UFC 294

Muhammad Mokaev fit and focused on UFC 294
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Beneath the main floor of the UFC Gym in Manama, Muhammad Mokaev sweats through the latest morning training session in preparation for what he envisages forms the next leap in a trajectory rocketing to UFC gold.

He wrestles with Dean Garnett, his long-time Liverpudlian coach and confidant who only just touched down from the UK. He punches pads. He trades weights-based work with punishing periods on an air bike. He shadowboxes and drills through his various MMA moves.

Before the session is out, Mokaev straddles a grappling dummy, honing some ground-and-pound that would make human eyes water.

The downstairs room, encompassing a large space for mats and with painted inspirational quotes peering down from the sport’s doyen Gracie family – “my ego is my enemy”; “you either win or you learn” – feels stripped back, basic, far from the fray.

There are no people outside his close-knit team to disturb or distract, no music blaring to give the sense this is anything but serious work. The focus is quiet, but real, the objective clear.

In little under a week, Mokaev faces Tim Elliott, a dangerous UFC veteran still some way from his dotage, in one of the most intriguing bouts at UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi.

“He’s very experienced,’ Mokaev, showered and changed, tells The National. “He fought for the title; he's been ranked for a very long time – five, six years.

“I remember when I was younger, I watched his fight against Demetrius Johnson, the legend himself, pound-for-pound best I believe, after Jon Jones.

"And he gave him really, really tough fight. The only guy, I think, who gave Demetrious Johnson a tough fight.”

The respect shouldn’t, though, be mistaken for reverence. Mokaev may be aged 23 and four fights into his UFC career – Elliott has 18 under his belt – but he began life in the world's lead mixed martial arts promotion with an explosive 58-second victory in London last year.

To now, the fast-rising flyweight remains unbeaten, both as a distinguished amateur (23-0) and now as a professional (10-0).

October 21 will mark his fifth appearance in the promotion in 19 months. Clearly, Mokaev's on a mission. Elliott, aged 36 and 19-12-1 as a pro, is simply the next obstacle in the way.

“I think he's looked down on me,” Mokaev says. “He thinks I'm young, overhyped, but my record speaks for itself. He thinks this, but his body won't match his brain.

"Because, once he gets in the cage and feels my power, my takedowns, my defence, he will realise he underestimated me. Every opponent did that.”

All have found out they shouldn’t have. The list of the vanquished includes another vet in Malcolm Gordon, whom Mokaev defeated at UFC 280, by third-round submission, in Abu Dhabi last October.

Gordon, 10 years his senior, made his pro debut in 2012, around the time Mokaev was arriving in the UK as a 12-year-old refugee from Dagestan.

Elliott began his career in the UFC that year, too.

“These guys have experience on me, but I have hunger,” Mokaev says. “I want to be a champion. I know Tim Elliott doesn't want to be champion.

“I listened to one of his interviews; he said, ‘If I lose this fight, I'll go to [Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship]’. I'm like, ‘What do you mean? If I lose this fight?’

It’s amazing ... they’re funding everything. He says, ‘Listen, what do you need to do for the win? You bring the best coaches, best sparring partners, we’ll take care of you’.
Mokaev on the support of Prince Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa and KHK MMA

“You will never hear me say that. You never think this. He's 36, he’s already tired of this game. But I don't underestimate him. But I will be beat this guy. I will finish him.”

Mokaev speaks with clarity, with conviction. Born of his flawless record, it helps too that he is in Bahrain, familiar territory since he became friends with Prince Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

An avid MMA fan, the royal spotted Mokaev on Instagram when the 15-year-old was debuting in the amateur ranks and promptly put forward his number with the instruction to reach out whenever needed.

Three years later, Mokaev was in Bahrain winning the first of his two IMMAF World Championships, with Sheikh Khalid there to witness it. In 2020, Mokaev was signed to the prince’s KHK MMA, and soon entered the pro arena via the Bahrain-based Brave Combat Federation.

The relationship has strengthened to such an extent that Sheikh Khalid regularly corners Mokaev for his fights. He was there 12 months ago, octagon-side in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s amazing,” Mokaev says. “Sheikh Khalid supports us – not just me, my sparring partners, the coaches. He brings people from all around the world just to help me.

“They’re funding everything, so I don't have to worry. He says, ‘Listen, what do you need to do for the win? You bring the best coaches, best sparring partners, we’ll take care of you’.

“He actually believes in me. Because MMA, one day, you can be on the hype, really on top, and the next day you can lose. It's like a lottery, basically. But you're investing in the person.”

Sheikh Khalid is constantly in touch, texting at weekends to chat through the latest MMA event on TV, donating to causes in Dagestan or the charities Mokaev is involved with in the UK.

Understandably, Mokaev is keen to repay the faith.

“It’s not like a pressure, but I want to show that I put in all the hard work,” he says. “He maybe didn't see me in the gym, so I just show him my results, that I don't just waste his money, I don’t waste his time.

“I never asked for anything, even though I know I can. First, I need to put results on the table. And maybe if he supported me at the age of 15, I wouldn't be where I am now. Because I'd have had everything easy.

“I’ve had to work for it. When I came as a refugee to the UK, definitely I didn’t think I’d have these connections. But I don't think it's a dream because I went through a lot of struggles.”

For sure, those endeavours have shaped Mokaev, played a principal part in carrying him back to Abu Dhabi later this month. He has ringed Etihad Arena on his competitive calendar since joining the UFC, even during his recent recovery from the knee injury sustained in the March victory against Jafel Filho.

In the third round in London, Mokaev somehow survived a fully extended kneebar before choking out his opponent moments later. He concedes the sound of the tearing ligaments, as the knee got stuck in Filho’s groin guard, “made me feel sick” – it made for gruesome viewing on television – as he sought to escape.

I’ve had to work for it. When I came as a refugee to the UK, definitely I didn’t think I’d have these connections. But I don't think it's a dream because I went through a lot of struggles
Muhammad Mokaev

But “The Punisher” pulled free and won through.

“It was 52 seconds control, but it felt like 20 minutes,” Mokaev concedes. “But I knew this was his only opportunity to win the fight. And if he doesn't take this what’s he going to do after?

“And once he let go, I heard him [exhale] and I'm like, ‘Here we go. Let's have it’.”

Mokaev took confidence from it then – “you break people mentally like this” – and now, knowing how deep into the well he is willing to reach.

However, for all his remarkable resolve, he spent eight weeks in a brace, completing his rehabilitation at his beloved Wigan Athletic Football Club.

And, although he was ready to go again in August, Abu Dhabi is hardly a poor substitute.

“When I done my leg, I actually messaged my manager and UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard, and said, ‘I want to fight in Abu Dhabi, save this spot for me’.

“He asked, ‘What happened to your knee?’ and I said, ‘Forget about my knee, save the spot for Abu Dhabi’. Because I know everyone wants to fight here. But not everyone gets the opportunity. They pick fighters that people want to see for the Middle East.”

Given his background and burgeoning profile, Mokaev represented an obvious choice.

“It's great that my name’s on the map already, especially in the Middle East; so many times I'm fighting here. Finally, people know who I am. And not just with some noise, that I’m talking trash; it’s with my results, my undefeated record.

“Whatever I say I do it in the cage. I have the joint-longest winning streak right now in the division [four], and I want to make another statement and make the longest. After this fight it will be.”

After UFC 294, Mokaev expects to break into the flyweight top 10. At present he sits 11th, one spot below Elliott.

The door, Mokaev believes, will then open to top-five opponents, and beyond that, that first championship shot.

“I think I’m two fights away from the title,” he says.

Mokaev eyes a bout in the US in December or January – familiar verbal sparring partner Amir Albazi, the respected Kai-Kara France, or the outspoken Manel Kape all appeal – then a possible pop at the belt in London next March.

That’s his pathway to history, to enter the record books as the youngest champion in UFC history. Currently, Jones holds the mark; he was 23 and 242 days when he captured the light-heavyweight crown in 2011.

Mokaev turns 24 on July 30 next year.

“March might be end of the goal, right?” he says. “So, I still have time.”

Engaging and earnest, that is not some brash proclamation. A devout Muslim, Mokaev believes his faith keeps him consistent, grounded, determined to lead a good life. He is married now, has a baby daughter.

Islam offers comfort, also, when it comes to competing.

“I never worry going to the cage, I never have this pressure, ‘What if I lose’,” Mokaev says. “It's already written, what’s going to happen in your life.

“Why should I worry about it? People start worrying, thinking it’s going to change God’s plan. You cannot change no matter what you do. Just ask what’s best for you. I always ask Allah to keep me safe, no matter if I win this fight.

I never worry going to the cage, I never have this pressure, ‘What if I lose’. It's already written, what’s going to happen in your life.
Muhammad Mokaev

“If I win this fight and become an idiot, don’t give me this victory. I’d rather people like me than I win and people don’t.”

In difficult times, Mokaev has leaned on his religion.

“When my knee was in the brace, I was still at the mosque every day,” he says. “It was Ramadan; I had my chair. I was sitting praying to 3 o’clock in the morning.

“And every day people there said, ‘You should rest’. But I’ll be there whatever, wherever I am in this situation in my life. Some people stop, have time off, enjoy life - the luxury life maybe.

“But I just have to keep rolling. I believe it's written for me to be a champion.”

Elliott, then, is the next chapter in that story. Mokaev acknowledges the dangers the American poses, that being where he is in his career means, come October 21, he could throw all caution to one side.

Mokaev describes his rival as a “streetfighter”.

“He should be good in [Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship],” he smiles.

He adds: “That's why I think Elliott will make me fight better. Because I'm thinking he’s awkward, so I need to focus.”

Not that the self-belief is diminished in any way. Etihad Arena awaits.

“You can expect another finish from ‘The Punisher’,” Mokaev confirms. “I'm coming to take the belt… very soon.”

Updated: October 15, 2023, 1:59 PM