Islam Makhachev celebrates his first round knockout against Gleison Tibau in their Lightweight fight during UFC 220

On April 20, the UFC will return to Russia, marking the promotion’s second venture into the country. As with most Fight Night cards, the event is stacked with local talent – Alexey Oleinik will feature in his second UFC main event, Ivan Shtyrkov will make his highly-anticipated promotional debut while Shamil Abdurakhimov and Sultan Aliev, both International Masters of Sport, also feature.

However, it is the co-main event slot that features one of Russia’s most impressive talents as Islam Makhachev faces UFC newcomer Arman Tsarukyan. Since making his UFC debut in 2015, Makhachev is 5-1 in the promotion and currently rides a four-fight win streak, with his last two victories coming by first-round stoppage.

Despite this impressive run, Makhachev is still perhaps best known as the teammate and lifelong friend of current UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. While this is no bad thing, another impressive win on Saturday may catapult Makhachev into the lightweight rankings and move him one step closer to realizing his destiny as Russia’s next great.

Born into combat

Makhachev was born in Makhachkala, the capital city of Dagestan. As countless media outlets have detailed, the Republic of Dagestan has a deep fighting tradition, sculpted through decades of conflict. Following the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 1800s, Dagestani warriors gained a reputation as outstanding and fearsome fighters, and this status only grew in years to come.

This remains true today as Dagestani fighters are omnipresent across the world’s premier mixed martial arts promotions. Fighter’s such as Magomed Magomedkerimov, Marat Gafurov and Shamil Zavurov have all achieved enormous success in PFL, ONE and Road FC respectively. Furthermore, Dagestani athletes have performed impressively on the global stage in other combat sports. At the 2016 Olympics, Dagestani-born athletes obtained eight medals, seven of which were in freestyle wrestling. Makhachev himself believes that this success is because “everybody in Dagestan is very tough, trains very hard and has discipline.”

Like many others in the region, Makhachev’s education in combat sport began from a very young age, initially in both freestyle wrestling and judo. In 2001, Makhachev began training alongside Khabib Nurmagomedov, and under the tutelage of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, in the sport of Combat Sambo which he immediately excelled at. Following his victory at UFC 187, Makhachev told reporters that he felt Combat Sambo allowed fighters to “easily transition to MMA and take a fight on any level.”

MMA beginnings

In recent years, Combat Sambo has gained a reputation as one of the most outstanding bases for MMA. In 2009, Islam Makhachev competed in the Russian Combat Sambo Championship, and at just 17 years old, Makhachev was victorious in the 135lb division, ahead of former UFC flyweight contender Ali Bagautinov. Indeed, Dagestani athletes were triumphant in all but one weight class, with Khabib Nurmagomedov and Marat Magomedov also dominant in their respective divisions.

For Makhachev, this victory offered proof of just how good he was. He explained to reporters in 2017 that “There were many serious professional fighters, and I realized that I did not concede anything to them. And immediately after this tournament, I was offered the first professional fight.”

Makhachev made his professional MMA debut the following year on August 1, just nine days before the beginning of Ramadan, at Tsumada Fighting Championship 4 and was victorious via decision. The Russian would then race to 11-0 in the following years, showcasing a diverse skillset; while a number of his victories came via submission, either by armbar, rear-naked choke or triangle choke, Makhachev also displayed good striking ability and an impressive kicking game.

As Makhachev began to make waves throughout Russia’s regional MMA scene, he continued to collect accomplishments in Combat Sambo. In 2010, Makhachev was victorious in the 150lb division of the Combat Sambo Club World Cup, coincidentally the same year the Khabib Nurmagomedov was runner-up in the 180lb division. Makhachev would also place second in the National Championship in 2010, defeated by Dagestani teammate and former ACB featherweight, Magomed Alkhasov. Makhachev returned to winning form in both 2011 and 2012, leading Dagestan to comprehensive victories in the National Championship.

Islam Makhachev fights Gleison Tibau in their lightweight bout at UFC 220
Islam Makhachev fights Gleison Tibau in their lightweight bout at UFC 220 (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Signing with the UFC

After a run of impressive performances in Russian promotion M-1, which is now a UFC partner-promotion, Islam Makhachev followed Eagles MMA teammates Khabib Nurmagomedov and Zubaira Tukhugov in signing with the UFC.

He credits his teammates as well as his controversial manager Ali Abdelaziz with getting him on the roster of the largest MMA promotion in the world. Makhachev told reporters in 2017 “Of course, Khabib helped me more than the others…Our manager Ali Abdelaziz also threw probes to the UFC management, and I remember that at one of the tournaments we crossed with Lorenzo Fertitta. Lorenzo asked, ‘Is this the guy you constantly tell me about?’ So we met, and literally a few days later they sent me a contract.”

Makhachev would make his promotional debut against fellow debutant Leo Kuntz at UFC 187 and he opened his UFC account in impressive fashion. As soon as the opening bell rung, Makhachev’s power became apparent, clipping Kuntz several times on the feet with counter-combinations and overhands. His work in the clinch was similarly outstanding and his ability to take Kuntz down, primarily through the hip-toss, demonstrated his Sambo skill.

Halfway through the second round, Makhachev was able to take his opponent’s back and with remarkable ease, sunk in a rear-naked choke to finish the fight. Makhachev told reporters that before the fight, Khabib Nurmagomedov said to him that “All the opponents [in the UFC] are going to be the same, it’s nothing special,” and such an outstanding performance showed this clearly.

Martins and Meldonium

Makhachev next entered the octagon at UFC 192, facing former Jungle Fight lightweight champion Adriano Martins. Martins had most recently defeated Rustam Khabilov, another Dagestani fighter, via split decision and while the Brazilian had an accomplished jiu-jitsu career, he also possessed fierce knockout power.

Makhachev began the fight well, controlling the center of the octagon and landing several wild overhands. However, roughly two minutes into the fight Martins landed a wicked counter-right hand that immediately sent Makhachev to the canvas and forced the stoppage. Makhachev became Martins’ thirteenth knockout victim and lost his undefeated record. In a 2017 interview, Makhachev suggested he learned a huge amount from that loss, most notably that “A single blow can decide the fate of a fight…Now I act in a cage a little more carefully, I think more.”

Makhachev looked to take these lessons into a bout against Drew Dober six months later at UFC on Fox 19. However, after the weigh-ins, it was announced that Makhachev had tested positive for meldonium in an out-of-competition drug test. The substance is rarely seen in MMA, however numerous Russian judokas, athletes and, most notably, tennis great Maria Sharapova have tested positive for it.

However, several weeks later, it was announced that given the “extremely low meldonium concentration…combined with the athlete’s explanation of use,” to combat a heart condition called ventricular arrhythmia, Makhachev would not face a period of ineligibility.

Islam Makhachev punches Gleison Tibau in the first round of their lightweight fight during UFC 220
Islam Makhachev punches Gleison Tibau in the first round of their lightweight fight during UFC 220 (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Back on track

Since experiencing the first significant setbacks in his career, Islam Makhachev has looked impressive. He made his return at UFC Fight Night 94, facing American wrestler Chris Wade. While the fight was not completely plain sailing for the Russian, with all three judges scoring the first round for Wade, Makhachev’s prowess showed in the later rounds, and he was able to walk out victorious via unanimous decision, despite putting in perhaps the most lackluster performance in his career.

In his next three fights, Makhachev displayed the full depth of his talents. He began with a dominant victory over UFC veteran Nik Lentz. Makhachev controlled Lentz throughout and utilized his Sambo skill to consistently achieve top position against the accomplished grappler, scoring two 10-8 rounds in the process.

He then faced Gleison Tibau, a former foe of Khabib Nurmagomedov and arguably the man who gave ‘The Eagle’ his greatest test to date. While Tibau was a shadow of his former self, Makhachev’s performance was still utterly dominant, finishing the Brazilian in under a minute. Makhachev looked completely assured in the opening moments, feinting with his right hand constantly, before delivering a spectacular left overhand that knocked Tibau unconscious and forced an almost immediate stoppage from Dan Miragliotta.

Most recently, Makhachev faced Kajan Johnson who was on a four-fight win streak at UFC on Fox 30. While in the previous two fights, Makhachev showcased strong wrestling and powerful striking respectively, against Johnson he demonstrated his impressive submission game against a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Makhachev stalked Johnson for the opening few minutes before dragging him to the canvas with a double-leg takedown. He then moved with ease into top mount and with 30 seconds remaining in the first round, transitioned into an armbar that forced the American fighter to tap.

What does the future hold?

The UFC’s lightweight division is generally considered the promotion’s most competitive; however a win this weekend may set Makhachev up for a bout with his first ranked opponent. He has been vocal in the past about his desire to fight Kevin Lee, telling reporters in 2018 “Kevin Lee talked a lot of trash about Russian fighters, so why not? I want to beat him”, but with Lee slated to fight Rafael dos Anjos at welterweight, he may have to wait slightly longer to face ‘The Motown Phenom.’

Makhachev certainly has the skill to compete with a number of the UFC’s top lightweight’s, combining outstanding wrestling with ever-improving striking. Indeed, Makhachev has said in the past his favorite fighter is Frankie Edgar, known for his well-roundedness, and it seems clear that the Russian is cut from a similar cloth.

Should he defeat Tsarukyan, which will be a tough task given the Armenian’s outstanding kickboxing ability, then bouts against Alexander Hernandez or Beneil Dariush may lay in wait. Either of these fights would undoubtedly be Makhachev’s most challenging fight yet; however if he is to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming a UFC champion, then he must take the toughest battles in the toughest division.

The future looks bright for Islam Makhachev and given that he is surrounded by MMA’s top fighter’s in both his training teams, Eagles MMA and American Kickboxing Academy, he will only get better. For now, one question remains – can Makhachev follow the path set by his teammate Khabib Nurmagomedov and become Russia’s next champion, or is he just not destined for the same greatness?

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