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TGIFighting: The Next Khabib? Islam Makhachev Targets Lightweight Division

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJuly 16, 2021

Islam Makhachev (top) handles Drew Dober
Islam Makhachev (top) handles Drew DoberChris Unger/Getty Images

Welcome back to TGIFighting, where we talk to top fighters, preview the weekend's combat sports action and make crotchety observations about the MMA news of the day. Ready? Let's go!

     

B/R Exclusive: The Next Khabib? Islam Makhachev Has Sights on Lightweight Division 

Islam Makhachev isn't quite sure how many rounds he's sparred with Khabib Nurmadomedov, but he's got a rough estimate. 

"More than a thousand."

Simply put, Makhachev (19-1) is the latest monster to emerge from Russia's Dagestan region. The 29-year-old has long been favorably compared with teammate and mentor Nurmagomedov (29-0), who happens to be every normal person's pick for the best lightweight in MMA history.

With Nurmagomedov now retired, it's Makhachev's time to shine. This Saturday marks his coming-out party as he appears in his first UFC main event, where he'll take on heavy underdog Thiago Moises (15-4) in the culminating bout of UFC on ESPN 26.

"This is a big step in my career because it's a main event, five rounds," the soft-spoken Makhachev told me in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. "All the attention is gonna be on me, and I can show my skills. Moises beat some top guys. He has good striking, good jiu-jitsu. But I am going to show my skills."

If it bothers him to live in Nurmagomedov's shadow, he doesn't let on. It doesn't come as a surprise that they both have similar, grappling-oriented styles that involve sadistically breaking down an opponent's will to fight. Of his 19 wins, 11 have come by stoppage, with eight by submission.

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Although Nurmagomedov's standup was a little more polished, Makhachev says it doesn't make much difference because, well, people can't seem to stop his ground game.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 06: Islam Makhachev reacts after his submission victory over Drew Dober in their lightweight fight during the UFC 259 event at UFC APEX on March 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

"It's normal, because all my life I'm training with him," he said. "We both like to pressure our opponents. We have the same style. ... My striking is good, but I have wrestling, I know. I have wrestling more than everybody. So I just choose the easy way, you know?"  

The similarities are further explained by the fact that both men trained under Nurmagomedov's father, Abdulmanap, who died last year because of complications related to COVID-19.  

"I think about him all the time," Makhachev said. "He always said I was going to be champion." 

It's not an abstraction or empty motivational sloganeering. Accordingly, Makhachev has a concrete blueprint. He's sharply aware of his place in the division and on the official UFC lightweight rankings, and he has an ambitious but realistic plan to get to the top of this crowded weight class—assuming he can take care of business.

"Now I am No. 9, but I think maybe after this fight I am gonna be like eight, seven," he said. "After that I think two more fights, and then in 2022 I fight for the title."

Makhachev is watching the top of the division closely, including last weekend's calamitous main event at UFC 264 between Conor McGregor (22-6) and Dustin Poirier (28-6, 1 NC), which ended with a doctor's stoppage TKO after McGregor broke his leg under decidely odd circumstances.

Nurmagomedov, who defeated McGregor in 2018 and Poirier in 2019, has been lobbing verbal grenades at McGregor ever since (more on that below). Makhachev doesn't join in exactly, but he doesn't object, either.

"Honestly, I don't like Conor too much," he continued. "Because he is a bad person, you know? It was very bad, what he said before the fight, about [Poirier's] family, about Poirier, about the fight."

If everything goes according to plan, and Makhachev proves equal to the hype, he may well get a shot at McGregor down the road. It all starts Saturday with the biggest fight of Makhachev's career.

     

Conor's "Behind the Music" Nadir Continues

If you're too young to remember Behind the Music, the VH1 docudrama's formula was pretty simple: band is really good, band gets famous, fame goes to their heads, they spin out of control, redemption story ensues.

Guess what segment we're on with the Conor McGregor episode.

After suffering perhaps the most ironic broken leg in the history of that particular injury, McGregor now faces at least six months on the shelf as UFC 264 opponent Dustin Poirier moves on with a TKO by doctor's stoppage and eyes a megawatt dance later this year or early next with lightweight champ Charles Oliveira (31-8, 1 NC).

John Locher/Associated Press

Meanwhile, the MMA world is nowhere near finished piling on McGregor, be it for the loss or the incessant trash talk that sometimes gets a little too personal. And Team McGregor is not done firing back—far from it. Let's take a little walk back over the last week, shall we? It's a veritable cavalcade of haterade. 

- Tuesday: Former UFC bantamweight champ and current broadcaster Dominick Cruz wondered how McGregor can grow if he can't accept defeat. 

- Sunday, Monday and Tuesday: Nurmagomedov absolutely hammered the former double champ. He called McGregor "evil," and told ESPN's Brett Okamoto the Irishman is both a "bag of s--t" and "finished." He also said Poirier would beat him 100 times out of 100. This is what we in journalism circles refer to as cold-blooded. But after McGregor's sore loserdom, it's hard to argue he didn't put this target on his own back.

- Tuesday: WWE legend Kurt Angle added some levity to the proceedings, saying McGregor's gruesome leg break was nary a big deal.

- Tuesday: Speaking to W2W (h/t Fox Sports), McGregor coach John Kavanagh questioned broadcaster Joe Rogan's decision to interview McGregor in the cage, even as medical personnel were attempting to stabilize the leg.

McGregor (left) and Poirier
McGregor (left) and PoirierChris Unger/Getty Images

- Wednesday: YouTuber Jake Paul entered the fray, calling McGregor a "piece of s--t" when speaking to TMZ and adding McGregor has "lost the sauce" in an interview with Real 92.3 LA's Big Boy's Neighborhood (h/t Hypebeast).

Dang.

If McGregor's career arc unfolds true to cliche, this is the part where he looks inward, realizes it's up to him and him alone, mends his fences and faults, recovers that lost spark and rises like a phoenix from the ashes to smite all his doubters. That's the happy version, anyway.

       

Tyron Woodley vs Jake Paul Fight Date Announced 

Are you a diehard MMA fan looking for hardcore MMA news? This is your section. Just kidding, this is where we talk about YouTube celebrities.

If you're looking for a veneer of seriousness, consider the side bet these two created, whereby the loser gets "I Love [Winner's Name]" tattooed on their body. Presumably, they meant the permanent kind. No word on font.

I can't see Woodley doing this, even if he loses. Someone review the contract carefully so he can't wriggle out through a loophole. 

     

Congrats to Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy (15-4) has scrapped and clawed her way to the top of the women's flyweight division. Her style isn't always pretty, but "Lucky" Lauren is tough as nails and knows how to grind out wins. 

Lauren Murphy
Lauren MurphyIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

She's on a five-fight win streak, which paid off this week when the UFC announced that the 37-year-old fan favorite will tangle with seemingly unbeatable champion Valentina Shevchenko (21-3), who is rapidly running out of challengers in the division. 

Will Murphy give her a solid knock? In all candor, it seems unlikely given the well-rounded game and pure firepower Valentina brings to the table. But just by virtue of getting here after 11 fights and seven years in the UFC, Murphy has already won. 

      

Stone Cold Lead Pipe Lock of the Week

Record to date: 14-4

Makhachev is a massive -850 favorite to handle Moises, per DraftKings. That's too big to be fun, even for this conservative betting space. Let's instead look elsewhere on the main card, where fast-rising Mateusz Gamrot (18-1, 1 NC) is a -210 favorite to defeat Jeremy Stephens (28-18, 1 NC). Stephens is the bigger name, but he's winless in his last five contests.

Gamrot is 1-1 but made good on his potential in his last bout, where he knocked out a solid opponent in Scott Holtzman (14-5) in the second round. Gamrot doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. That changes after Saturday. Lock it in.

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