Neil Magny has been designated a welterweight gatekeeper for a long while. That tag first got put on the 34-year-old somewhere between December 2016 and December 2017, when he faced three former UFC title holders Johny Hendricks, Rafael dos Anjos and Carlos Condit in succession. Magny won two of those three contests — Hendricks and Condit — and is 8-3 since those victories.
On Saturday, Magny’s assignment is to see if Shavkat Rakhmonov deserves the hype he’s accumulated in three UFC fights. The bout serves as the co-main event of UFC Vegas 57.
First, I want to clear up any confusion on the term “gatekeeper.” For some, that word has negative connotations. It shouldn’t. Not everyone gets a shot to be a champion, especially in a sport where politics, fighting style and fan popularity play an oversized role in which fighters get the opportunity to fight for a title. Being a gatekeeper doesn’t mean a fighter is bad or even average — quite the opposite. The tag conveys an ability to compete at a high level, just not the very highest level. A fighter can have a long and productive career as a gatekeeper. Magny, who is the No. 10 fighter in the official UFC welterweight rankings, has been with the UFC since February 2013. The 27-year-old Rakhmonov didn’t make his professional MMA debut until October 2014. In 34 professional fights, Magny has lost two in a row once and outside of those back-to-back losses, he’s never tasted defeat twice in the same year.
This fight is the first big test of Rakhmonov’s UFC career.
Rakhmonov made his UFC debut in October 2020. He had celebrated his 26th birthday the day before the fight. He faced Alex Oliveira in that matchup. Rakhmonov, a former M-1 welterweight champ, was 12-0 and -130 favorite over “Cowboy” Oliveira.
The fight went well for Rakhmonov. He stood toe-to-toe with Oliveira in the striking department, but what stood out about his UFC debut was his fight IQ and situational awareness.
Rakhmonov and Oliveira were engaged in a lengthy battle in the clinch against the fence when Oliveira decided the time was right for him to drop levels and go for a double leg takedown. The time was not right. The space Oliveira created when changing his position allowed Rakhmonov to snake his arms into position for a guillotine choke and once he was sure he had the technique locked up, he dropped into guard and got the tap. It was an impressive finish for the young fighter.
Rakhmonov’s next matchup was a June 26 scrap with another veteran Brazilian, Michel Prazeres. The fight was another strong performance from Rakhmonov. As UFC commentator Paul Felder said, “He’s got weapons everywhere,” in admiring Rakhmonov’s striking, ground and pound and submission skills. The second round finish from Rakhmonov marked the first stoppage setback of Prazeres’ 30-fight pro career.
For his third UFC outing, the UFC booked Rakhmonov opposite Carlston Harris. Harris was on a run of five stoppage wins before he stepped in as a +205 underdog against Rakhmonov, who was the -255 favorite.
Rakhmonov was composed throughout this fight. He never overextended himself or put himself in a bad position and when he found an opening to end the fight, he capitalized. Following the knockout win, Felder, said of Rakhmonov, “You’re looking at a contender, right there.”
Rakhmonov’s most recent win moved his record to 15-0. He earned each of those victories via a finish and all but one of those stoppages have come before the start of the third stanza.
Magny appreciates the skills of his opponent, but with a record of 26-8 and nearly 10 years under the UFC banner, the Brooklyn-born fighter is by no means in awe of his much-hyped opponent.
“Literally every last one of us in the UFC was undefeated at one point or another, then you went out there and faced an absolute beast and was like, ‘Oh damn, there’s different levels to this,’” Magny said during media day for UFC Vegas 57. “I look at Shavkat and I think the exact same thing. The guy is talented. He is 15-0. … But at the same time, he hasn’t fought a seasoned vet like me yet. He hasn’t fought the guys that I’ve fought yet. So I’m going to go out there and show him that there’s some levels to this game. That’s my goal.”
As for Rakhmonov, he told the NY Post he believes he will be the UFC champ in 2023 or 2024. This matchup will reveal if that is a realistic goal or wishful thinking for the No. 15 ranked UFC welterweight.
Magny has been a problem for a long time in the 170-pound division. He’s not great at any one thing, but he is the definition of a well-rounded mixed martial artist who won’t shy away from competing in any situation. He’ll bring a level of confidence, character, composure and high-level skills into this fight that Rakhmonov has yet to face in the UFC. Further, he is by far the biggest opponent Rakhmonov has faced, as Magny has a height and reach advantage over his foe.
Win or lose, Rakhmonov will benefit from this fight because Magny is the type of adversary who can expose small — or large — inefficiencies in an opponent. This fight wil give Rakhmonov and his team an excellent idea of where he stands in the division and what he needs to work on to take his game to the next level.