LAS VEGAS — Khabib Nurmagomedov‘s late father, Abdulmanap, had a plan for the end of his son’s career. Abdulmanap wanted Khabib to retire with a 30-0 record, which has become common knowledge in the MMA world, but what is less known is that Abdulmanap’s plan also included Islam Makhachev.
When Nurmagomedov abruptly retired from the sport following a successful title defense in October, which boosted his record to 29-0, it was surprising for a number of reasons. One is that at age 32 he was in the prime of his career. But it was also surprising because of that 30-0 goal of Abdulmanap, who died in July 2020.
According to Nurmagomedov, however, the final number of his victories was not the critical part of Abdulmanap’s plan. The main goal was for Nurmagomedov to retire, vacate his title and see his longtime friend, teammate and fellow-Dagestan native Makhachev become his successor.
“He told me, ‘When you gonna finish, Islam have to come,'” said Nurmagomedov, who retired because he promised his mother he would only have one fight without Abdulmanap in his corner. “‘You finish, Islam have to come at the same time, because there are three years between you guys.
“I told Islam, ‘You a little bit late, brother. You only top 10. You’re supposed to be top 3.’ This guy is late.”
Maybe — but if Makhachev (19-1) is running late, it’s not by much. The 29-year-old is ranked No. 8 by ESPN and No. 9 by the UFC, and Saturday’s Fight Night card will mark his first main event when he takes on Thiago Moises (15-4). A victory would extend his win streak to eight, and almost certainly earn him a top-10 opponent in his next appearance. Makhachev submitted the dangerous Drew Dober in the third round of his last fight on March 6.
“After my last fight, I thought [the UFC] was going to give me a fighter in the top five or top 10, but they told me I’d have to wait until November or maybe December,” Makhachev said. “I have to fight every three, four months. I told them, ‘It doesn’t matter who, just give me opponent.’
“All these guys hide. Nobody wants tough fights. … They know I’m going to take them down, hold them, make them tired. It’s going to be a hard fight for all of them.”
For as popular and mainstream as Nurmagomedov was — and still is — Makhachev has flown mostly under the radar. He has been in the UFC since 2015, and has accumulated a strong following on social media — almost 3 million Instagram followers — but has never appeared on a single UFC event poster as a headliner.
Behind the scenes, however, Makhachev’s team has viewed him as Nurmagomedov’s eventual successor for years. He has trained with Nurmagomedov since they were children in Dagestan. He is a former champion in the Russian martial art Sambo, and was schooled in Abdulmanap’s system.
“I met these guys in 2014,” said Ali Abdelaziz, manager to Nurmagomedov and Makhachev. “I immediately felt it was a different kind of love towards Islam from Abdulmanap, because he listens all the time and he is disciplined. And if you are not disciplined with Abdulmanap, he will smash you. I think Islam is quiet, he’s not a big trash talker, he’s not a showman … but he was born to be a champion.”
For Makhachev and his team, that championship moment could come in the first half of 2022. He will look to impress as a massive betting favorite Saturday, and then plans on calling out former champion Rafael dos Anjos or former interim champion Tony Ferguson.
“Honestly, I think I have two more steps,” Makhachev said. “Dos Anjos and maybe some other guy. Beginning of 2022, they have to give me title fight. A lot of people have told me for a long time I have to be champion. I will just train hard, and one day, I’m going to be champion.”
There was a moment on Sept. 7, 2019, when Nurmagomedov and Makhachev fought on the same night at UFC 242. Makhachev defeated Davi Ramos in a dominant unanimous decision. Nurmagomedov unified his 155-pound championship against then-interim champion Dustin Poirier in the main event.
At the postfight news conference, as Makhachev answered questions from the media, Nurmagomedov placed his championship belt in front of Makhachev and said, “Future champion.” Abdulmanap was in attendance. It was a symbolic move by Nurmagomedov — not an official passing of the belt, but a statement that it was only a matter of time.
“This Saturday, you have to prove yourself,” Nurmagomedov said. “Show the world who is Islam Makhachev. Not only Khabib’s brother. No. He has to be his own. Islam Makhachev. Best in the world. Eight-fight win streak. He beat everyone.
“This guy has to fight for the title not because he is my brother or friend or something like this. [Because] he is very good.”