Khabib was right all along, as Islam Makhachev puts on a master class at UFC 280

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By becoming UFC lightweight champion Saturday, Islam Makhachev fulfilled a prophecy.

Maybe it was really just a lifelong friend expressing faith and brotherhood, but when Khabib Nurmagomedov briefly interrupted a Makhachev news conference three years ago, it felt like something far more consequential. Let’s call it a coronation-in-waiting.

Nurmagomedov was still the champion then, having just defended his 155-pound belt that night at UFC 242 with a dominant finish of Dustin Poirier. Makhachev had competed earlier that evening in Abu Dhabi — scene of this weekend’s fight card, too — and also had put on a thrashing performance. Another thrashing performance. After beating up Davi Ramos to run his record to 18-1, Makhachev was sitting at the postfight dais explaining to reporters how he’d gotten it done.

Until Nurmagomedov entered the scene. The champ was carrying his UFC belt, and he placed it on the table in front of Makhachev, then walked off after speaking just two words.

“Future champ.”

Nurmagomedov’s emphasis was on “champ,” but the essential word here was the other one. That’s something Makhachev immediately made clear.

“I already waiting when he retired,” a smiling Makhachev said as he glanced over at the shiny strap. “I want to fight for this belt. This my dream.”

That dream came true Saturday in the main event of UFC 280, when Makhachev upstaged a star-studded fight card lineup with a stunning second-round submission of Charles Oliveira. It was an achievement that somehow became even more meaningful when the coveted belt was wrapped around the new champ’s waist by a beaming Nurmagomedov, who lifted his friend onto his shoulders and paraded him around the Octagon.

Then Makhachev tried to hand Nurmagomedov the belt that he had worn until his sudden retirement two years ago, which fulfilled a promise Khabib had made to his mother following the death of his father, Abdulmanap. Back in their native Dagestan, the elder Nurmagomedov had coached not just his son but also Makhachev, and the new champ wanted to honor his longtime coach with a touching gesture for Khabib, who now serves as his coach and cornerman.

“My belt for my coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov,” Makhachev said. “Many years ago, he told me, ‘Just train hard and you going to be champion.’ And I want to give [Khabib] this belt. His father make me, I know.”

Nurmagomedov would have none of it. “Yours,” he said as he draped the strap back over Makhachev’s shoulder.

This moment and all that led up to it signified the brotherhood between these two fighters. During introductions for the main event, Nurmagomedov appeared more nervous than Makhachev, more nervous than he’d ever looked before one of his own fights. And when his friend finished Oliveira, the UFC’s all-time leader in submissions, with a head-and-arm choke at 3:16 of Round 2, the typically stoic Nurmagomedov raced into the Octagon with an ear-to-ear smile to lift up Makhachev with a bear hug that could have squeezed the life out of a lesser man.

But Makhachev was up to the moment, just as he had been up to everything thrown at him during the fight. From the start, he did not hesitate to attack Oliveira, who was coming off consecutive finishes of Justin Gaethje, Poirier and Michael Chandler. And while the title was vacant going into this fight because Oliveira had been stripped after missing weight before his May bout with Gaethje, pretty much the whole MMA world considered the Brazilian the de facto champ.

And yet this result kind of felt predestined. Was it because of the endorsement of Nurmagomedov, who has never been known for flights of hyperbole? If Khabib said Makhachev was a future champ, many in the sport seemed to believe that it must be true. Khabib had repeatedly shown that he could do it all inside the cage. So why doubt that he could divine the future?

Sure, Makhachev had done his part to show himself worthy of accolades. He has been a dominant force since he entered the UFC in 2015, winning 10 fights in a row going into Saturday. But he certainly did not have the resume to match Oliveira, having never faced anyone on the level of Gaethje, Poirier, Chandler or Tony Ferguson. Yet Makhachev walked into the cage this weekend as a nearly 2-to-1 betting favorite.

And then he showed why.

It’s tempting to label Makhachev as Khabib 2.0, though that’s an oversimplification built on their friendship, shared heritage, wrestling skills and boundless confidence. But Makhachev has a well-rounded skill set that sets him apart from all others in his division. And he also has some extra promotional muscle in his corner.

That was evident during Makhachev’s postfight interview inside the Octagon. After he and Nurmagomedov tried to hand each other the title belt, Nurmagomedov interjected to put his friend’s accomplishment in context and to immediately build on it.

“Last couple of years, I told you guys Islam Makhachev is the best fighter,” Nurmagomedov said. “Not in lightweight — he’s the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter right now, today.”

No. 1 pound-for-pound, already? That is a hallowed spot that, in the ESPN rankings and the eyes of many others, is occupied at the moment by UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, who happened to be sitting cageside at Etihad Arena. Nurmagomedov knew this. He wanted to pick a fight, a massive fight, for his friend.

“Now is our plan: fly all the way to Australia and fight with pound-for-pound king, Volkanovski,” Nurmagomedov said.

“Where the short guy?” Makhachev said. “Where?”

Volkanovski was promptly escorted into the cage and a global superfight was made on the spot.

Make that two brilliant performances in one night for Team Makhachev.

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