To say that UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement came as a surprise would be an understatement. After all, his last bout as things stand was a successful title defence against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in October 2020. Yet the man nicknamed ‘The Eagle’ had made a promise to his mother that he would quit fighting after the death of his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. His father passed away due to complications from contracting Covid-19 and, true to his word, Khabib walked away from the sport. He remains retired but his absence has left the lightweight division in a flux. Arguably the most competitive division in the UFC currently has plenty of contenders but no actual champion.
One of the contenders who will look to get his name in the mix will be Islam Makhachev, someone who was handpicked by Khabib himself as a future champion.
And while the endorsement from an all-time great like Khabib might be seen as added pressure to succeed, Makhachev is taking things in his stride.
“This (Khabib’s words) is a motivation for me. Everybody is talking about me and what I will be doing next and that is why I have to train hard. One day I will be a champion,” the 29-year-old told News18 Sports.
Khabib’s co-sign isn’t merely just a case of lip service either; he will be at UFC 259 in Las Vegas to support the only man who, during their time training together at the American Kickboxing Academy, could defeat him in practice rounds.
Makhachev and Khabib go way back, having known each other since they were teenagers in Dagestan when they were trained in the sport by Khabib’s father Abdulmanap.
Indeed, such was his closeness to the family that the sudden demise of the man who played such a big role in his career hit home hard. “2020 was a hard year for everybody. Everybody lost a lot of people.
“When Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov passed away, this was a hard time not just for me but for all the team because nobody would ever leave him, ever.
“He cared about everybody. Not just in training, but in life.”
The first step towards a future championship shot for Makhachev begins this Saturday when he takes on Drew Dober.
The 32-year-old American has himself been victorious in four out of his last five bouts, with his last win being a second-round knockout against Alexander Hernandez. His two wins prior to that were also knockouts, but in the first round.
However, Makhachev fancies his chances against the veteran fighter. “I’ve not been doing anything special in practice (to prepare for Dober), just training hard.
“I don’t think so much about him, I have to show him what I have. I have fought guys like him before. But I know I have more than him. I will finish him quickly.”
Makhachev might promise to finish Dober quickly, but he’s had to bide his time to get close to being considered a contender for a title shot in UFC.
His start in the promotion – which came in 2015 after he had dominated the MMA scene in Russia – saw him submit Leo Kuntz in the second round in a bout at UFC 187.
He lost his second UFC fight to Adriano Martins via knockout but has not tasted defeat since and would have main evented UFC 254 against Rafael Dos Anjos but for a staph infection that saw the bout called off.
He is now keen to make up for lost time and has only one thing in mind: more fights.
“When I had the staph infection, I just went home and rested a couple of weeks. Then I started training again, because I knew my last fight was like one and a half years ago and I have to fight.
“This year, I have to fight a minimum of three to four times. I have to go fight.”
One fight that won’t be happening at least for the moment would be against Khabib himself. The two men are like brothers outside of the Octagon and what’s more, the current champion seems resolute in his call to give up fighting for good.
However, Makhachev doesn’t rule out the bout happening entirely. “Right now? I don’t think so (the fight between me and Khabib will happen). Maybe after a couple of years.
“But now, he enjoys his life. He’s so big now. Maybe he’s going to play soccer,” Makhachev signs out.
(Watch UFC 259 – Blachowicz vs Adesanya on March 7 2021, LIVE on Sony Ten 2 and Sony Ten 3 channels from 8:30 AM IST)