MMA is quick to buy the shiny new next big thing. It’s also quick to throw away that same fighter when they pick up a dent or two. For example, Kevin Holland, who topped 2020 fight of the year polls after he went 5-0. Today, Holland is on a two-fight losing streak. He’s not a forgotten man, but he isn’t someone who is constantly being mentioned by MMA fans and pundits. Today, after UFC Vegas 31 is in the books, Islam Makhachev is the shiny treasure on display.
Makhachev has earned his hype. He is on an eight-fight winning streak, he is the protege of former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, a fighter who Makhachev has been compared to. Nurmagomedov’s late father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov coached Makhachev. Khabib and Abdulmanap both spoke openly about Makhachev replacing Nurmagomedov as UFC lightweight champion. Makhachev is ranked No. 5 in the official UFC 155-pound rankings. No fighter in UFC history has absorbed fewer significant strikes than Makhachev, who is the only UFC fighter to get hit less than once per minute (0.77). In short, Makhachev looks the part of a future champion.
Despite his impressive resume, I’m going to pump the brakes on Makhachev.
I have nothing against Makhachev. This has more to do with me. In a vacuum I would go wild over this guy. He’s got a great wrestling game, he doesn’t get hit, he’s coachable, he’s patient, other fighters don’t want to face him. He’s got all the earmarks of the next big thing. So, why am I doing a slow roll? I’ve been burned too many times. And you know what MMA likes to do more than fall in love with a fighter? Tell someone how wrong they were and fill their timeline with memes, gifs and other detritus as a reminder of how stupid they are.
So, what do I want to see? What will make me a genuine believer in Makhachev? First, I want to see him face a fighter ranked in the top-five. Makhachev’s most recent win saw him move from the No. 9 ranking in the official UFC lightweight rankings to No. 5. With a win over Thiago Moises, who was ranked at No. 15, Makhachev jumped over Tony Ferguson, Rafael dos Anjos, Dan Hooker and Conor McGregor. Which is impressive. It also shows that perhaps the rankings panel has already bought into the Makhachev hype.
Another thing I want to see is how Makhachev reacts to an opponent who is going to push him and who is undaunted by his reputation and the hoopla surrounding him. I think any of the top-10 UFC lightweights fall into that category. Of that group, Dan Hooker, who is coming off two losses in a row, seems the most eager to see if Makhachev belongs among the elite of the 155-pound division.
Although unlikely, one last thing I would also love to see is a legit hard-sparring session between Makhachev and Nurmagomedov. Javier Mendez, who works with the two fighters at American Kickboxing Academy, spoke about their sparring.
“I’ve always said, when people ask me about Khabib’s sparring, and I say he’s never lost a sparring session with me in the history of sparring with me, ever, and I say he does lose a round here or there,” said Mendez.
“The one thing that I’ve never said is who. The person is Islam Makhachev. He’s the only person that’s ever won a round against Khabib. Ever. He’s the only one that’s ever done it.
“No one beat Khabib in a round in the nine years he’s been with me. Never. So if Islam is winning a round here or there, how good is Islam?”
I think tape of some of those sessions would answer that exact question.
I want to make one thing clear, I am not saying Makhachev isn’t the next big thing. He looks like he can win UFC gold, but I want to see just a little more from him and frankly, with the way he’s been performing, why would fight fans be against seeing Makhachev against the top of the division?