On April 25, 2015, the Ultimate Fighting Championship announced the signing of a 6'5" 290-pound Russian wrestling icon, Bilyal Makhov. The promotion brought the inexperienced 0-0 fighter onto their roster well aware that it would be nearly two year before they could reap the rewards.
A UFC heavyweight title run would simply have to wait.
Makhov, a three-time World freestyle champion, had his sights set on Olympic gold in 2016. That was his priority, and his lifelong ambition. Countless hours spent in the steamy gyms in Dagestan would culminate in Makhov biting down on his gold medal while his beaming face radiated brightly for his countrymen to celebrate back home.
The 28-year-old was a representative of the North Caucasus. While his potential Olympic medal would add to the overall Russian medal count, Makhov is a product of Kabardino Balkaria & Dagestan.
"I was born in Kabardino Balkaria," Makhov told BloodyElbow through translator Murat Keshtov. "Then I went to boarding school in Dagestan. Basically, I grew up in Dagestan since I was 15 years old. That is where I started my wrestling career. So I have a mixed background. I represent two republics."
Makhov didn't start his wrestling career at just any old school. He stepped into one of Russia's greatest wrestling schools, the Khasavyurt Wrestling Olympic Reserve School, by chance, and that changed his life forever.
"It was specifically the gym that I was involved in that was one of the best teams in Russia. The gym itself was very impressive. It already had two Olympic champions, three World champions, while the rest were all Russian champions. So of course that type of team influenced me."
"In that gym, there was like a cloud of sweat - steam from sweat. The atmosphere of this gym is that from 7am to 9pm there is probably a thousand people training there. It is group after group, one session after the other. It is one of the most famous gyms in the entire world for wrestling."
Makhov felt entirely at home. He was a prodigy of sorts from the very beginning. As an 18-year-old just three years into his freestyle training, Bilyal won the Junior World Championships - one of his proudest achievements. A year later, he claimed his first Russian Championships title and was eligible for the World Cup team. In his first world tournament 2007, Makhov won gold at the 120 kg weight class. He won his Olympic license soon after and knew he destined to achieve much more over the coming years.
The following year (2008), he placed third in the Golden Grand-Prix Ivan Yarygin event but that only fuelled him to claim first place a year later at the 2009 World Championships. Then he did it again in 2010 to become a rare three-time champion in the span of four years. In 2012, he medaled at the London Olympics when he finished in third place at the 120kg weight division.
Makhov posing in front of the statue of Rocky Balboa
In 2015, Makhov attempted to become the first wrestler in over four decades to win gold medals in both freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling at the same World Championships. Based solely on his prior achievements, Makhov was allowed to compete in both styles, even though he had only trained in Greco-Roman for no more than a few short months.
He earned bronze medals in both styles that year and became the first wrestler in 43 years to medal in both freestyle and Greco Roman. It was an interesting experiment but Makhov does not plan to repeat it again. When the time comes to prepare for the Olympics, Makhov will focus solely on his bread and butter: freestyle wrestling.
"A lot of people don't understand this, but Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling are two totally different styles," Makhov explained. "The specifics are different. The rules are different. Everything is different. It is just called wrestling. In Freestyle wrestling, I have 12 years of experience. In Greco Roman, I have only 3-4 months of experience.
"The Olympics is the dream of every wrestler," he added "It is the ambition of every athlete to get the gold medal. In the Olympics, I can't experiment or rely on a bracket like I did at the Worlds. Every small step counts. I have to really focus just to get the gold in the Olympics. Therefore, I have to focus on one style."
Throughout 2016, Makhov's focus will be on his freestyle wrestling training for the Olympics. If everything goes according to plan, he will enter the MMA sphere as an Olympic Gold Medalist. Then, as he so aptly put it, a UFC championship will be on his "to-do list."
While the potential of moving to an entirely new sport as he slowly nears 30 would be a daunting task for most, Makhov believes his natural ability will allow him to make up for lost time at a faster rate than others. He also has faith in the training regimen prepared by coach Murat Keshtov at K Dojo Warrior Tribe, a gym that trains UFC fighters like Albert Tumenov and Alexander Yakovlev.
"The first person I faced in Greco Roman was Lopez, who is a two-time World champion. I lost to him by only one point, even though I only had three-four months of experience. MMA will not be much different. I know it will be difficult but if I put my mind to it, I can succeed. It is all about the heart and the mind. I am confident, not cocky. I believe in myself 100 percent. The rest is a matter of time."
"It won't take me too long to adapt. At the end of the day, this is combat. Whether it is wrestling or MMA, it is combat. I will adapt to it very quickly. However, I will take a very professional approach."
Makhov takes some inspiration from other successful wrestlers who transitioned to MMA, including current UFC light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. He revealed that they are all united by the same "wrestling brotherhood," where your only identification card is your cauliflower ears.
"I met Daniel Cormier many years ago when he used to wrestle. He came to Russia a few times to compete. He was very popular in Russia because he would put a show on. He created a lot of fans in Russia. I never met Cain Velasquez but maybe one day. The point is, I got motivation from those two fighters to compete. We wrestlers have something called a ‘wrestling brotherhood.' It doesn't matter where we come from. It doesn't matter what our nationality is. As long as we have cauliflower ears, we have something that holds together the wrestling ideology. Even if we don't know them personally, we love to see them succeed.
"I am hoping to be the elite of the elite one day and represent the sport of wrestling. One day, I will be there."