Islam Makhachev (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Can Islam Makhachev Make the Most of His Headlining Spot?

Islam Makhachev takes on Thiago Moises in the main event of this Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card. It marks Makhachev’s first UFC main event and a chance for him to make the biggest statement of his career. The original main event for this card was scheduled to be Max Holloway against Yair Rodriguez. This bout fell through due to an injury sustained by the former featherweight champion, and subsequently, Makhachev’s fight was promoted to the headlining slot.

Following his outstanding third-round submission win over Drew Dober at UFC 259, it was expected that Makhachev would get a high-profile opponent in his next outing. In what has become a familiar tale for him in his time in the UFC, this did not come to fruition. Makhachev’s fans expressed their disappointment on social media when it was announced that he would be facing the 14th-ranked Moises

The 29-year-old’s struggles in finding a highly ranked opponent in the lightweight division have been well documented. His former teammate at the American Kickboxing Academy gym, Daniel Cormier, has been chief among those who have voiced their frustration over this issue. The reason why top-10 fighters have been reluctant to fight Makhachev is attributed to the ‘high risk and low reward’ that a contest against him presents. The Russian has dominated inside the Octagon, winning eight of his nine fights and is widely regarded as a future champion. However, unlike his mentor and childhood friend Khabib Nurmagomedov, he does not have a significant following in the U.S and is only ranked ninth.


Makhachev does not speak English fluently and this inhibits him from increasing his profile in the U.S. It prevents him from engaging in conversations with fighters to set up fights. He also lacks the charisma that helped make Nurmagomedov one of the biggest stars in MMA. Nurmagomedov infamously called out Conor McGregor at UFC 205 and by doing so, generated interest in the media and raised his profile considerably. In Makhachev’s current situation, his lack of presence on the microphone makes it fairly easy for fighters ranked above him to point to his low profile as a reason not fight him. It also prevents him from engaging in the type of trash talk that has become increasingly necessary for fighters to land the opponents they want.

Makhachev’s rise up the MMA world has come through a style that bears a striking resemblance to that of Nurmagomedov’s. He has a relentless, high-pressure grappling style that revolves around him taking his opponents down and controlling them for prolonged periods, before eventually submitting them. However, there are subtle differences between the way Makhachev and Nurmagomedov approach fights. Makhachev is measured on the feet and while this makes him less of a threat in this aspect of the game, it does help him evade strikes. It has played a part in him absorbing the fewest number of strikes per minute of any UFC fighter in history with a minimum of five bouts in the promotion.

Makhachev has overcome difficult stylistic match-ups in his UFC run. He was matched up with veteran wrestler Gleison Tibau in his fifth UFC contest. Tibau arguably gave Nurmagomedov the most difficult fight in his UFC career, stuffing all 13 of his takedown attempts and landing one of his own. Some observers believed that he should have been awarded the victory on the judges’ scorecards. Makhachev made light work of the Brazilian, knocking him out in just 57 seconds of the first round. It was a breakout display for him, albeit against an older, more weathered version of Tibau than the man Nurmagomedov had faced more than five years prior.

One of the most impressive displays of Makhachev’s career came against Arman Tsarukyan in April 2019 in his home country of Russia. Makhachev was favored heading into the bout and it was expected that his grappling would prove to be too much for his opponent to handle. To the surprise of many fans and maybe even Makhachev and his team, Tsarukyan employed an aggressive, grappling-heavy game plan of his own. Makhachev was pushed to the limit of his capabilities in a bout where several prolonged wrestling exchanges took place. Ultimately, his quality shone through in the latter stages of the fight as Tsarukyan was unable to sustain the fast pace that he had first set. The Dagestan native secured the victory by unanimous decision in a contest that would win the ‘Fight of the Night’ award.

This Saturday, Makhachev faces another fighter who will provide a stern test of his credentials in Thiago Moises. After losing two of this first three fights in the UFC, Moises rallied by going on a three-fight winning streak. He possesses a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and six of his career wins have come by submission. With this grappling pedigree, the Brazilian does not fear takedowns in the way that many of Makhachev’s previous opponents have. This may deter Makhachev from employing his usual wrestling strategy and force him to stand for large sections of the fight. This could be a blessing in disguise for the 29-year-old and serve as ideal preparation before he faces the elite competitors at lightweight. To replicate Nurmagomedov’s feats in the Octagon, Makhachev must prove that he is comfortable standing with big power punchers.

Makhachev does not have the aura of invincibility that ‘The Eagle’ had, as Makhachev has already suffered a knockout loss against Adriano Martins. While Nurmagomedov did impose his will on fighters with his wrestling, he did display solid striking in order to get the respect of opponents. His knockdown of Conor McGregor was a testament to the well-rounded nature of his MMA game. Makhachev must learn from this before taking on the likes of Charles Oliveira, Dustin Poirier, Beneil Dariush, Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler, who all possess one-punch knockout power. Makhachev’s loss to Martins has seemingly made him more cautious on the feet but he has to be more assertive in this department in order to keep opponents guessing.

This weekend’s UFC main event offers a chance for Makhachev to deliver a performance that puts the entire lightweight division on notice. He did not get the high-profile opponent that he was looking for, but he can move himself up the rankings and get one step closer to title contention with an impressive victory. This main event serves as the platform he needs to get the best in the division to acknowledge his presence and take a fight with him. For a man who has struggled to get recognition for so long, Makhachev’s time to break through to a larger audience is here.