Many athletes hate being compared to other greats from their same sport but don’t count Islam Makhachev among them.
As he looks to build on a six-fight win streak with a showdown scheduled against Drew Dober at UFC 259, the 29-year-old Dagestani lightweight rarely escapes questions or comments about the similarities he shares with longtime friend and teammate, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Not only have they trained together for a number of years while coming up under the same coaches, Nurmagomedov often touts Makhachev as the future of the division and that’s high praise coming from arguably the greatest 155-pound fighter in the history of the sport.
While he’s certainly forging his own path, Makhachev actually appreciates the comparisons to Nurmagomedov because that means he must be doing something right.
“I like that,” Makhachev said during the UFC 259 media day. “Because Khabib is a very good guy, a champion, that’s why I don’t care about this. That’s why I’m good with it.”
Of course being called “the next Khabib” also comes along with a certain amount of expectation and pressure considering the long list of accomplishments the UFC’s reigning lightweight champion racked up during his career.
In a way that might be setting up Makhachev for failure if he can’t quite live up to the same standards set by Nurmagomedov but he prefers to look at those lofty goals in another way.
“You know this is motivation for me,” Makhachev explained. “Because now people talk about me. A lot of people tell me ‘you’re going to be next, you’re going to be champion,’ that’s why I have to train more. Just training. That’s it.
“[Khabib] showed me all the way. He showed me what I have to do to be there. Now I think a good win streak, I just have to finish next opponent. Maybe one or two fights, I’m going to be the next champion.”
Because Nurmagomedov has either been champion or near the top of the division over the past few years, Makhachev never wanted to put himself into a position where they could possibly come into conflict because there’s no chance a fight would ever happen between them.
Following his last win over Justin Gaethje this past October, Nurmagomedov announced his retirement and while UFC president Dana White has been doing everything possible to encourage him to return for one more fight, all signs seem to point to the undefeated Russian really calling it a career.
That would allow Makhachev to begin making his own ascension up the lightweight ranks where he’s already supremely confident when it comes to matchups against the top fighters in the world with names like Dustin Poirier, Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler.
“I’m very excited,” Makhachev said. “When I will fight with these guys because I just want to check my skills. All my life, I’m training with the champion. That’s why I don’t think they’re going to give me a problem, these guys.”
Before he can get to the best of the best at lightweight, Makhachev first has to get through Dober, who is riding an impressive win streak of his own after demolishing his last three opponents in a row by knockout.
With a chance to shine on one of the biggest pay-per-views of the year, Makhachev knows he needs to make the most of this opportunity and prove in the fight with Dober why all the hype around him is justified.
“You know honestly, I have everything [to] finish him,” Makhachev said about facing Dober. “I have good striking. He has good striking, too. But I have more than him like wrestling skills, grappling skills and everybody knows this. I have everything to finish him.”