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Islam Makhachev of Russia reacts after his victory over Thiago Moises of Brazil in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on July 17, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
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Just A Matter Of When For Islam Makhachev

Islam Makhachev doesn’t speak in wishful, hopeful terms. Instead, he uses declarative statements, as if the future has already been written and all he needs to do is continue moving forward down the path to his destiny.

Because they’re offered in a soft, measured tone rather than shouted with moxie and panache, they don’t reverberate as loudly as the “here’s what’s going to happen” addresses of some of his contemporaries, but he believes them with just as much conviction; perhaps even more.

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“I think if I finish my opponent, people have to understand where my levels are, how I’m better than all the fighters from my division,” he says from a hotel room in Abu Dhabi, where this weekend, the fifth-ranked lightweight squares off with Dan Hooker in a highly anticipated clash in the 155-pound weight class.

He’s reflecting on his victory over Thiago Moises in July — a fourth-round submission finish; his second consecutive stoppage win after a pair of hard-fought decisions, and the exact type of performance he said he would have when we spoke prior to that contest.

“I have to finish this guy because I have to show my skills,” he told me a couple of days before stepping into the Octagon with Moises and extending his winning streak to eight. “I have to show people that I am on a different level.”

Just as he did in his bout with Drew Dober earlier in the year, the quiet, but confident Makhachev made his point loud and clear, dominating every grappling exchange with the talented Brazilian before finally securing the finish midway through the fourth round.

“I respect Thiago Moises, my last opponent, but I think people understand now,” says Makhachev, smiling from his hotel room as we speak over Zoom. “He’s a good grappler, a black belt in jiu jitsu, but my grappling level, my grappling game is on a different level.”

Makhachev and his team have known that for quite some time, long viewing the 30-year-old standout, whose record stands at 20-1 overall, as the one to follow in the footsteps of Khabib Nurmagomedov, his long-time friend and teammate and the former UFC lightweight champion, who announced his retirement one year ago Sunday following a second-round submission win over Justin Gaethje.

CALGARY, AB - JULY 28: (R-L) Islam Makhachev of Russia secures an arm bar submission against Kajan Johnson of Canada in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Scotiabank Saddledome on July 28, 2018 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

CALGARY, AB - JULY 28: (R-L) Islam Makhachev of Russia secures an arm bar submission against Kajan Johnson of Canada in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Scotiabank Saddledome on July 28, 2018 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
 

Makhachev secures an arm bar submission against Kajan Johnson of Canada in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Scotiabank Saddledome on July 28, 2018 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

After a few years of wondering whether it was just teammates and coaches hyping up one of their guys, Makhachev’s dominant showings over his last two appearances have convinced more than a few people that the talk of his world-class skills and championship potential was much more than just a bunch of folks saying nice things about one of their own.

This weekend, the streaking lightweight has the opportunity to convert any remaining doubters into believers when he steps in with Hooker, the game and dangerous New Zealander who happily tagged in for Rafael Dos Anjos when the former lightweight champ was forced out of the contest with an injury.

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“I’m just very happy that they found somebody for me because I have been training for a couple months for this fight,” says Makhachev when asked of the shift in opponents. “After my last fight, I have a couple weeks to rest, but then I just keep working.

“Hooker is a tough opponent — he’s a high-level striker, but I don’t care about his striking; I don’t worry about his skills,” he adds with a slight smirk. “I have to do the same things: take them down, make them tired, and finish them; the same things, always.

“I’m going to try to finish all of my opponents.”

 Islam Makhachev of Russia celebrates his victory over Davi Ramos of Brazil in their lightweight bout during UFC 242 at The Arena on September 7, 2019 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

 Islam Makhachev of Russia celebrates his victory over Davi Ramos of Brazil in their lightweight bout during UFC 242 at The Arena on September 7, 2019 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Islam Makhachev of Russia celebrates his victory over Davi Ramos of Brazil in their lightweight bout during UFC 242 at The Arena on September 7, 2019 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Finishing Hooker is a difficult task, something only two athletes — Michael Chandler and Edson Barboza — have accomplished inside the Octagon during the City Kickboxing representative’s 17 UFC appearances to date.

But in the last couple of days, Hooker has began lobbying to potentially give Makhachev more time to complete his mission, suggesting the UFC make the main card matchup a five-round affair.

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“Let’s go!” Makhachev says quickly and excitedly when asked about the possibility. “If he can make it, let’s make this. I’m not Dana White. I’m not Sean Shelby. Who can make this? I’m going to be very happy if someone makes this fight five rounds.

“Honestly, I don’t think he wants five rounds,” continues Makhachev, sounding a little like his long-time training partner Nurmagomedov, who often questioned his opponents’ intentions and desires before meeting them inside the Octagon. “He fought with Dustin Poirier, five rounds. What happened in Rounds four and five? He almost died there.”

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)
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)

He smiles before re-affirming that he’s ready and willing to tack another two rounds onto this weekend’s contest, and engage in more five-round fights, in general.

“Not just with him,” he says. “With any opponent, because very soon, I have to fight for the title, five rounds, and I have to be ready. This is good experience.”

There it is again.

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Another declarative statement, one that sounds incredibly similar to what Nurmagomedov told Michael Johnson mid-fight at UFC 205 as he pummeled away at the helpless contender. It’s not that either of them want to fight for the title soon or believe they should fight for the title soon — it’s that they have to fight for the title.

In Johnson’s case, he needed to give up in a more expedient fashion, while for Makhachev, it’s simply about accruing more familiarity with five-round fights because that’s what he’s inevitably going to be scheduled for when he fights for the title.

“I’m just waiting for this moment because I’ve been working very hard,” he says of the championship opportunity that is bound to come if he continues performing the way he has of late. “For the last 10 years, I’ve been working very hard.

“My goal is the title, so give me Oliveira or Poirier; whoever loses or whoever wins; it doesn’t matter,” he adds. “I want a big fight.”

Most fighters in his position would call for an immediate championship opportunity, but not Makhachev.

He doesn’t need to.

It’s going to happen; it’s just a matter of when.

And he’s known that all along.

 

Don’t miss the ESPN+ special presentation of UFC 267: Blachowicz vs Teixeira on Saturday October 30th, 2021. Please note special broadcast times — prelims begin at 10:30am ET/7:30am PT, with the two-title fight main card starting at 2pm ET/11am PT.

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