When Khabib Nurmagomedov abdicated the UFC lightweight division throne by announcing his retirement in October 2020, most within the sport put together the same short list of fighters that could potentially replace the departing undefeated standout as the top man in the 155-pound weight class.
There was the man he defeated in his final bout, Justin Gaethje; perennial contender and former interim titleholder Dustin Poirier; his long-time rival Tony Ferguson, whom he never ended up fighting; and his arch-nemesis Conor McGregor.
Sixteen months later, the division looks completely different, and none of the men that made the short list to potentially replace Nurmagomedov has risen to take his place.
Instead, Charles Oliveira ascended to the throne, defeating Ferguson two months after Nurmagomedov departed before stopping UFC newcomer Michael Chandler in May to claim the vacant title.
Poirier engaged in a pair of fights with McGregor, winning both, but then fell to the Brazilian champion at the end of 2021, while Gaethje defeated Chandler in a real-life version of Rock’em Sock’em Robots to earn the next crack at the current titleholder.
One name that was absent from that initial list and didn’t quite factor into the championship picture last year is Islam Makhachev, who returns to face Bobby Green in the main event of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night event in Las Vegas and just might be the best lightweight in the world.
OPERATING IN THE SHADOWS
For the first several years of his UFC career, the 30-year-old Makhachev was viewed as a quality talent who benefited from his long-time friendship and association with Nurmagomedov.
Everyone affiliated with that group of fighters sung his praises and pushed him as a potential dark horse in the division, but that’s just what teammates do, right? Even as Makhachev rebounded from his UFC 192 loss to Adriano Martins by rattling off two, three, four straight victories over a cast of divisional stalwarts, it was hard to determine where he fit in the lightweight hierarchy.
He was clearly skilled and especially menacing on the canvas, but he was always in Nurmagomedov’s shadow and had a difficult time securing the kind of fights that would provide real clarity about his place in the division.
That’s the tell everyone should have caught onto, like when Mike McDermott figured out Teddy KGB’s thing with the Oreos in Rounders.
When competitors looking to climb the divisional ladder, cement their place in the rankings, or bounce back from a key defeat has little to no interest in fighting you, it’s usually because they know the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
And fighting Makhachev was never worth it for anyone in the Top 15.
As an unranked fighter that had never faced or beaten top tier talent, the upside to facing and beating Makhachev was less than the downside of losing to Nurmagomedov’s dangerous, but somewhat unheralded training partne.
The top names steered clear. That left Makhachev to face a veteran like Kajan Johnson, a promotional newcomer like Arman Tsarukyan, and Brazilian jiu jitsu ace Davi Ramos.
He defeated them all to push his winning streak to six, earning the last of those victories the night Nurmagomedov submitted Poirier to successfully defend his title for the penultimate time.
A year later, Nurmagomedov retired, and a lane opened for Makhachev.
MAKING A STATEMENT
Entering 2021 on a six-fight winning streak, Makhachev kicked off his year in a bout against Drew Dober, an experienced Midwest veteran who entered on a three-fight winning streak, having earned consecutive Performance of the Night bonuses for his stoppage victories over lightweight hopefuls Nasrat Haqparast and Alexander Hernandez the previous year.
Makhachev dominated the first two rounds with his grappling before locking up an arm-triangle choke a little more than 90 seconds into the third round and forcing Dober to tap.
That performance — and the fact that Nurmagomedov was in his corner, serving as his head coach, and not positioned atop the division — transformed Makhachev from the guy insiders and competitors knew was dangerous to a bona fide dark horse contender in the lightweight division.
Four months later, he received his first main event assignment, and handled it with ease.
Paired off with Brazilian grappler Thiago Moises, Makhachev again showed he was the superior talent on the canvas, controlling the bout with his wrestling ability before ultimately locking up a rear-naked choke midway through the fourth round.
With his winning streak at eight and his stock skyrocketing, Makhachev was booked against former champion Rafael Dos Anjos. They were originally scheduled to face off in October 2020 at UFC 254, but Dos Anjos was scratched after testing positive for COVID-19. Rescheduled for a couple weeks down the line, Makhachev was then forced from the bout due to a staph infection.
The third time wouldn’t be the charm either, as a month before the Dos Anjos would again be forced to withdraw from the contest a month before the fight. He was replaced by Dan Hooker, a Top 10 fixture from New Zealand who had earned a unanimous decision win a week earlier at UFC 266.
Viewed as a dangerous test despite Hooker being a late replacement, Makhachev made it look easy, taking Hooker down less than a minute into the fight, methodically working his way into position to secure a kimura, a double wrist-lock submission where you torque your opponent’s arm behind their back, put a tremendous amount of strain on their shoulder.
Less than halfway through the opening round, Makhachev had secured his third submission finish of the year and pushed his winning streak to nine, leaving little doubt that he was one of the top threats in the lightweight ranks.
NEXT IN LINE
Makhachev was originally scheduled to face Beneil Dariush this weekend in a pairing many viewed as a title eliminator.
Late last week, Dariush was forced out of the contest with an injury and replaced by Green, a slick 35-year-old veteran who picked up a unanimous decision win over February 14 at UFC 271 in Houston and has experienced a bit of a resurgence during the pandemic.
While not the clash of top contenders the fight with Dariush was positioned to be, Saturday’s bout against Green is another solid test for the streaking contender, and if he pushes his winning streak into double digits with another impressive finish, the only thing that makes sense for Makhachev next is a championship opportunity.
Oliveira is penciled in to defend his title against Gaethje at UFC 272 on May 7, and as long as he’s victorious this weekend, Makhachev should face the winner before the year is out.
And right now — before he’s faced Green and before that title fight has happened — he’s favored to beat either potential titleholder, and rightfully so.
What folks have come to learn, especially over this last year, is what his teammates and training partners and everyone around Makhachev have known all along — he’s an absolute force inside the Octagon.
Everything he does works off of his insane grappling and utter dominance on the canvas, but he’s also smoother on the feet than his long-time friend turned head coach was during his exemplary career.
Makhachev’s timing is outstanding, his conditioning is through the roof, and he is completely unflappable, operating with the kind of quiet, but rock-solid confidence that comes with knowing you’ve put in the work and having battled one of the best fighters in the history of the sport on a daily basis for years on end.
He has been building to this point for years, working as Nurmagomedov’s understudy —watching him, learning from him, taking pieces of his game and making them his own — and now that his time in the spotlight has come, Makhachev is making the absolute most of it and shows no signs of slowing down.
Saturday’s fight with Green will likely be another statement effort for the streaking contender, putting Makhachev in position to challenge for the title later this year, regardless of who holds the belt. And while Oliveira and Gaethje are each considerable talents with immense skills and presenting numerous threats, it’s not hard to envision Makhachev beating either one of them, and doing it rather handily.
He’s established himself as a contender, and proven himself to be a dominant force inside the Octagon.
He could well be the best lightweight in the world, and as blasphemous as this may sound to some, might even be better than Nurmagomedov was during his stellar, unbeaten career.
Makhachev is the real deal, and the future king of the UFC lightweight division.