After Khabib Nurmagomedov submitted Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, it meant much more than proving simply he’s the best lightweight in the world.
On Oct. 24, 2020, and in the days and weeks afterward, Nurmagomedov was praised as not only the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world but also as the greatest of all time. But Nurmagomedov, agreeing to a request from his mother, laid his gloves in the center of the ring and retired.
In the same ring on Saturday, nearly two years to the day later, the torch, in Nurmagomedov’s view, was finally passed. Charles Oliveira became the lightweight champion in the interim after Nurmagomedov’s retirement, but Nurmagomedov believed deeply that his long-time friend, Islam Makhachev, was the best lightweight in the world.
Makhachev proved just that on Saturday, submitting Oliveira with an arm triangle and then having the belt placed around his waist not by UFC president Dana White, who normally handles those duties, but instead by Nurmagomedov.
In an interview after the fight with UFC, Nurmagomedov said he approached White in the Octagon before the decision was read. Nurmagomedov laid the belt down after he beat Gaethje and felt in the moment Saturday the need to give it to his lifelong friend.
“That’s why I told Dana I needed to give [Makhachev] the belt because I didn’t lose the belt,” Nurmagomedov told ESPN. “I knew I was the champion, until this today, until Islam became the champion. I came to Dana and said, “Brother, I have to put [it on him]. He said, ‘No problem. Take it.’”
With that ceremonial act, the torch was passed and at least Team Makhachev believed that it cemented him as the best fighter in the world.
Featherweight champion Alex Volkanovski has held that mythical title since Kamaru Usman was shockingly finished at UFC 278 in August by Leon Edwards. The only way to prove who is the best is to fight, and thankfully, it appears we won’t have to wait long to see Makhachev-Volkanovski for the lightweight title.
UFC 284 is scheduled for Feb. 11 at RAC Arena in Perth, Australia. Volkanovski is from Australia and has been desperate to fight at home.
Nurmagomedov said it was his idea for Makhachev to fly to Australia to meet Volkanovski in a battle for No. 1 pound-for-pound status. Makhachev was quickly on board.
In the Octagon afterward, when he was asked what he wanted to do next, he took a little bit of a low blow at Volkanovski.
“I don’t see the short guy,” the 5-foot-10 Makhachev said of the 5-foot-6 Volkanovski. “Bring him here.”
Volkanovski accepted the challenge and said he would love to fight Makhachev in Perth.
The fight may turn out even harder than Volkanovski believed, and he said repeatedly in pre-fight interviews that he believed Makhachev was an elite opponent.
But that wrestling ability he has is only one aspect of his game. Conventional wisdom pre-fight was that Oliveira would have a wide edge on his feet. If Makhachev has only decent striking, he’d be near-impossible to beat given his extraordinary wrestling prowess.
But Makhachev showed far more than decent striking. He dumped Oliveira with an early left hook and he set up the finishing sequence with a crushing right hand.
He timed his shots well, he created openings and his punches were short, crisp and tight. As we’ve seen just in the last couple of months alone, when then-No. 1 Usman and then-No. 2 Oliveira were defeated, the sport is wild and it’s difficult to put together long runs of success because of all the things that can happen.
But a wrestler like Makhachev could be the one guy who can sustain a lengthy run. He won for the 11th consecutive time on Saturday, submitting an elite opponent who himself entered the bout on an 11-fight winning streak. Makhachev hasn’t lost for seven full years, going back to his second UFC fight when he was stopped by Adriano Martins.
He’d improved dramatically since then in all areas of his game. Before the fight, Javier Mendez, one of Makhachev’s coaches, raved about his athletic ability and said in an interview with Submission Radio that no one could compare to him in terms of skills.
It sounded like so much pre-fight hype, but then the fight happened and Oliveira was flat on his back while Makhachev, Nurmagomedov and their friends celebrated.
“Best defense, best striking, best everywhere, the best all-around athlete,” Mendez said of Makhachev. “Way, way back in the day I thought it was Frank Shamrock who was the best well-rounded athlete, and he was in all divisions. But in the lightweight division, for me, the person that’s the best-rounded in every single area is Islam Makhachev.”
It’s hard to argue that point at the moment, particularly with that sharp, crisp striking Makhachev displayed.
The pressure is only going to ramp up, but get familiar with Makhachev. He’s going to be at or near the top for quite a long time, it seems.