Islam Makhachev (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Will the Proteges of Khabib Nurmagomedov Mirror His Success?

The MMA career of Khabib Nurmagomedov came to an end at UFC 254 with a second-round submission win over Justin Gaethje. He finished his career with an unblemished 29-0 record, including a 13-0 mark in the UFC, and defended his UFC lightweight championship three times. In an emotional post-fight speech, Nurmagomedov announced his retirement, explaining that his mother did not want him to continue to fight following the passing of his father and coach Abdulmanap. In one of his many post-fight career endeavors, Nurmagomedov has assumed his father’s role as the head coach of his proteges. This close-knit circle consists of UFC fighters Islam Makhachev, Zubaira Tukhugov, Abubakar Nurmagomedov, Umar Nurmagomedov and Bellator fighter Usman Nurmagomedov.

The Russian regions of Dagestan and Chechnya have produced an endless number of high-level wrestlers for many years, but in the last decade these places have seen a substantial amount of growth in their MMA talent pool, with the aforementioned fighters being at the forefront of this movement. Under the tutelage of Abdulmanap, as well as Javier Mendez and the other coaches at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., this group of fighters have made great progress in their MMA careers.

The man that Khabib has predicted to become the next champion from the Nurmagomedov circle is Makhachev, the current No. 11 lightweight in the UFC’s official rankings. Makhachev is a childhood friend of Khabib and has been fighting in the UFC since 2015. He has a very similar fighting style to the now-retired champ. Makhachev possesses elite combat-sambo grappling combined with fundamentally sound striking. The 29-year-old has a 19-1 record, including an 8-1 UFC mark, and is currently on a seven-fight winning streak. His last fight was his biggest victory to date. He mauled the tough Drew Dober and finished him from an improbable position with an arm-triangle in the third round. The way in which Makhachev systematically broke down Dober with his pressure and control on the ground was reminiscent of Khabib during his career. He displayed his outstanding control of distance by managing to avoid the power of Dober on the feet whilst seamlessly transitioning from striking to initiating takedowns.


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Makhachev presents a tough stylistic match-up for all of the top-10 lightweights in the UFC. However, until he faces one of these elite fighters, it will be difficult to definitively ascertain whether he is good enough to become champion. He is in his prime and, provided he maintains the work ethic and discipline that has helped him get this far, he will have a great chance of fulfilling Khabib’s prediction. His most difficult task at this time might be his inability to find highly ranked opponents, given the high-risk, low-reward nature that a bout against him presents.

Tukhugov has had the most underwhelming UFC career out of all of Khabib’s proteges. He enjoyed a promising start to his time with the promotion, with wins in his first three fights, but his career has fallen into a downward spiral. In February 2018, he received a two-year suspension from the USADA in relation to testing positive for Ostarine (a banned substance) in October 2016. He was due to return in October 2018 against Artem Lobov, but he was pulled from the bout due to his involvement in the infamous post-fight brawl at UFC 229. The featherweight received a one-year suspension for this incident, which was later reduced by 35 days on appeal.

Tukhugov finally made his return to the Octagon against Lerone Murphy in September 2019 at UFC 242. After a back-and-forth contest, the judges scored the fight as a split draw. Tukhugov then picked up his first victory in almost five years when he beat Kevin Aguilar by first-round TKO in February 2020. In his next fight, the 30-year-old suffered a split-decision loss to Hakeem Dawodu. Tukhugov missed weight for this bout and fatigued in the final round, inexplicably backing off and throwing very little output despite the fact that the fight seemed to be even coming into the third round.

Tukhugov’s future in the UFC looks bleak, with only one win in his last four fights and a history of inactivity and indiscretions. He will need to improve his conditioning, make weight, and likely win his next fight if he is to avoid a UFC release at a time when the company is making several cuts to its roster.

Khabib’s cousin Abubakar had an inauspicious beginning to his time in the UFC. He was submitted in quick fashion by David Zawada. Abubakar rebounded from the loss with an impressive performance recently at UFC 260, where he dominated Jared Gooden to secure a unanimous decision. Despite coming from a grappling background, he showed in this fight that he has technically proficient striking in his game. He used an accurate jab to outstrike Gooden and utilized his superior footwork to evade his opponent’s punches in the first two rounds. In the final round, Abubakar chose to take the fight to the ground, where he controlled Gooden while easing to a 30-27 victory on the judges’ scorecards. He will need to rack up more wins against unranked opponents at welterweight before he is ready to take on the top 15 of what is arguably the most stacked division in the UFC.

Umar is another one of Khabib’s cousins. The bantamweight compiled an 11-0 record before signing to the UFC in February 2020. His debut was cancelled three times, first due to the COVID-19 pandemic, second due to Abdulmanap’s passing, and third due to a staph infection. He finally stepped foot in the Octagon in January against Sergey Morozov and impressed while showcasing a very well-rounded game. Umar peppered Morozov with an array of kicks on the feet and expertly landed takedowns to keep his opponent guessing. He hurt Morozov with a head kick almost immediately in the second frame before taking him down and eventually submitting his opponent with a rear-naked choke.

Umar has a Muay Thai striking style and a kick-heavy attack that is noticeably different to the boxing-based striking of Khabib, Makhachev and Tukhugov. At just 25 years of age, Umar is a prodigious talent. While he has a long way to go before he reaches an elite level, the prospect of seeing his dynamic stand-up against slick strikers like Cory Sandhagen and Sean O’Malley is fascinating.

Usman, Umar’s brother, makes his Bellator debut Friday night against Mike Hamel at Bellator 255. Usman holds a perfect 11-0 record and has impressively recorded stoppages in 10 of those fights. He is predominantly a striker. Much like his brother, his kicks are a very potent weapon in his game. Usman, who stands 5-foot-11, is a tall lightweight who likes to make the most of his length by utilizing powerful teep kicks that keep his opponent at range. He also has a solid ground game that he likes to mix into his fights. Usman has three submission victories. His Bellator appearance at the promotion’s first event of 2021 is a big opportunity for Usman to showcase his talents to a whole new audience.

The education that Khabib’s proteges have received from Abdulmanap and Mendez puts them in good stead when they take on higher-caliber opponents in the UFC and Bellator. Technically, all of these fighters seem to be very strong and possess well-rounded skill sets. However, there is an important mental aspect to achieving greatness in MMA that may ultimately decide how far they progress. Khabib has grappling skills that are unmatched in the history of professional MMA, but his mental strength was one of the key attributes that helped him sustain his dominance.

Khabib showed his mental strength throughout his career, most notably against his bitter rival Conor McGregor. He was able to control his emotions during his fight against the Irishman and ultimately won a one-sided contest. Then there was his final fight against Justin Gaethje, where just three months after the death of his father he was able to deliver arguably the best performance of his career.

Khabib’s proteges have access to his support and guidance, but they will have to deal with the expectations that come with being inextricably linked with one of the all-time greats of the sport. Whether they can handle this pressure remains to be seen.