Khabib Nurmagomedov will be a big part of Saturday’s UFC main event when he corners his longtime training partner Islam Makhachev against Thiago Moises. And for the former UFC lightweight champion, the relationship extends far beyond simple friendship.
Before Nurmagomedov’s father Abdulmanap passed away due to COVID-related complications last year, he told Nurmagomedov that once he walked away from MMA, Nurmagomedov’s next focus would have to be to ensure that Makhachev reached the same heights as UFC champion. That’s a promise Nurmagomedov has taken seriously since his retirement in October 2020, and as Makhachev approaches his 30th birthday and first UFC main event, Nurmagomedov knows a pivotal crossroads awaits on Saturday.
“[My father] told me, I remember, ‘When you’re going to finish [your career], Islam has to come [next]. It has to be at the same time, because you guys are three years [of age] different between you guys,’” Nurmagomedov told ESPN ahead of UFC on ESPN 26.
“I told Islam, ‘You’re a little bit late, brother. You’re only top 10, top 9. At this time, you’re supposed to be in top 3.’ But this guy’s late, but this Saturday he has to prove himself and show the world who is Islam Makhachev, not only Khabib’s sparring partner or Khabib’s brother. No, he has to be Islam Makhachev, best in the world. Like, ‘Eight [fight] win streak. He beat everyone and this guy has to fight for the title.’ Not because he’s my brother or friend or something like this. And this Saturday he’s going to show it.”
Makhachev (19-1) is currently the No. 7 ranked lightweight in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings. A native of Dagestan, he rides a seven-fight win streak into Saturday’s headlining bout with Moises, capped by a recent third-round submission of Drew Dober. And in the eyes of Nurmagomedov, who also serves as one of Makhachev’s coaches, the time is now if Makhachev is going to make a run to the UFC lightweight belt — and Nurmagomedov likes Makhachev’s chances against either of the top two fighters in the division right now.
“He’s going to become 30 years old in October. This is the perfect time to show the world who’s the best,” Nurmagomedov said. “When I was 30 years [old], I became UFC lightweight champion.
“When you’re 30 years [old], I think your mental and physical prime become on the same level — 30, 31, 32, this is the perfect age. And right now, Islam at this age, he has a very good win streak — mentally, physically, his boxing, kicking, his grappling, everything, I think he’s a little bit of a step ahead from all these guys. Like, I truly believe he can finish Dustin Poirier. Maybe Dustin is going to be upset, but I truly believe he can finish Dustin Poirier. He can maul Charles Oliveira. I don’t think Charles can play with him like this, all jiu-jitsu, guard, I don’t think. I truly believe it. We just need time. We just need time and no accidents.”
With the series between Poirier and Conor McGregor finally settled, at least in the short term, the lightweight division is expected to get moving again soon. Poirier’s next fight will likely come in late 2021 against the current UFC lightweight champion, Oliveira. After that, it’s anyone’s best guess who will emerge as the next contender to challenge for the belt.
And in that regard, Nurmagomedov is calling his shot.
“I think next year Islam will fight for the title,” he predicted. “I don’t want to underestimate Thiago Moises. I really believe Thiago Moises is much better than his last fight with Drew Dober. My opinion, as a fighter, he’s better than Drew Dober and he’s tougher than him. On the ground it’s not easy to finish Thiago Moises. But I think next year [Makhachev] will fight [for the title], and he can be champion for, minimum, two or three years.”