Islam Makhachev once again showed why he was an overwhelming betting favorite. With former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov coaching in his corner, Makhachev steamrolled over Thiago Moises to win UFC Vegas 31’s replacement main event via fourth-round submission and continue his rise into lightweight contention. What mattered most from UFC Vegas 31? Let’s hit our three biggest takeaways from a violent night.
1. It’s time
It’s nearly here. Can you feel it? The reckoning that’s coming for the lightweight division. It’s inevitable. I’m usually not one for grandiose declarations, but there will be a time when Islam Makhachev is the undisputed king of the lightweight division. That, I’m certain of.
Makhachev was once again brilliant on Saturday night. The 29-year-old Dagestan native dispatched Thiago Moises with the cold, clinical ease expected of a favorite in a showcase fight, and once again painted a very specific portrait of terror that few inside the octagon could produce. There aren’t many who drain the self-belief from foes quite as viscerally as him. Makhachev outstruck Moises by a staggering 148-18 tally and his no-hook rear-naked choke off a back-take in the fourth round was sublime. He may not have the same explosiveness or physical tools as his mentor Khabib Nurmagomedov, but dashes of the same inescapability and preternatural calm are traits he can certainly claim.
After eight UFC wins in a row, it’s obvious now that the early hype was deserved — and that’s impressive considering how Makhachev first entered our lives. Because think about it. From the beginning, it was beaten into our heads how Makhachev would be the heir apparent to Nurmagomedov. Can you imagine the weight of that sort of pressure? To be expected to carry the torch of an all-timer in the single-most competitive division in the sport? Makhachev has lugged it around for years. He and Nurmagomedov grew up together on the streets of Dagestan. Hell, Makhachev once told me that he’s lost count of the numbers of street scuffles they’ve helped each other out of. Suffocating expectations have been the story of his whole career, yet still he’s made it here.
“You can run but you can’t hide,” Makhachev declared post-fight. “I’m coming.”
It’s time. There can be no more lateral steps.
Moises is a fine fighter, but Makhachev is no longer proving anything to anyone by crushing opposition of this level into dust. Glacial matchmaking and bad luck can no longer hold him back, because right now, the UFC rankings in their present state? They’re a lie. Look at the eight lightweights slotted above him: How many of them would you feel comfortable betting your life’s savings to beat Makhachev if they were matched up? Two? Three? I’m not sure I can even get that far.
With the streak he’s on and the level of dominance he’s showed, Makhachev’s next fight needs to be for a No. 1 contender position, or at the very least a gateway into the top five. After initially calling out Rafael dos Anjos, he audibled to a more ambitious proposition on the ESPN post-fight show and targeted Tony Ferguson and Michael Chandler as his preferred opponents. That’s where my head’s at. If it’s up to me, Chandler is the perfect foil. I think Makhachev wins that fight. But most of all, I think Makhachev deserves that fight.
Saturday may have been another wasted chance to find out just how good he really is, but if nothing else, it ensured Makhachev won’t find himself in this same pointless limbo again.
(Also, before we move on, let me quickly point out that Coach Khabib is now 4-0 in the UFC as a cornerman in 2021. He may not win Coach of the Year honors anytime soon, but it’s starting to look like a pretty safe bet that he knows what he’s doing in his new line of work.)
2. Cupcakes are back on the menu
Earlier this week, analyst extraordinaire Dan Tom penned a deep dive worth reading that showed that 57 percent of UFC fighters since 2013 returning from a year-plus layoff were successful in their respective comebacks. When the length of the layoff jumped to 3-5 years, that number soared to a 72 percent success rate. In other words, Dominick Cruz is right when he says ring rust isn’t real — and Miesha Tate backed that up on Saturday night.
Despite missing nearly five years of action, Tate barely skipped a beat. Her third-round stoppage of the retiring Marion Reneau was a strong and decisive way to remind the division of who the former UFC bantamweight champion is. It was also somewhat of a best-case scenario: Tate became the first person to ever finish Reneau and still got plenty of ring time doing it. Indeed, even after such a long hiatus, Tate’s old offensive war chest of wrestling, forward pressure, and inhuman toughness may still be a recipe for success against many of the contenders that populate today’s bantamweight ranks.
Tate said Saturday during her post-fight reflections that the biggest thing she gained in retirement was her purpose — her “why” — which was missing beforehand. Yet in many ways her comeback also comes at an opportune moment for the weight class. MMA has evolved while she was away, sure, but the same names still sit at the top of 135 pounds, and the talent pool below them may actually be less imposing than it was when Tate left in 2016.
This should get interesting quickly because Tate’s history will give her no shortage of options. For example: When Holly Holm called for a rematch five years in the making on Saturday, it was instantly one of those fights you don’t realize how badly you want until it scrolls across your screen. The original Tate vs. Holm at UFC 196 still stands as one of the most exhilarating affairs in UFC history. Tate’s last-second push toward greatness was a moment of pure inspiration that anyone who didn’t experience live will never truly appreciate. If she’s committed to this comeback, which certainly appears to be the case, Tate probably won’t have much to offer Amanda Nunes, but she still very well could be a legitimate top-5 fighter in her division. That’s exciting. No matter how you slice it, 135 pounds is in a better place with a healthy and motivated Miesha Tate in it rather than not.
3. Speaking of inevitable...
Changing of the guard fights in MMA can often be brutal in their cold efficiency, and Saturday night’s lightweight feature between Jeremy Stephens and Mateusz Gamrot was no exception. It’s hard to come away from that 65-second romp believing anything other than two things: Stephens’ time as a UFC contender is likely over, and Gamrot is for real.
Let’s address the latter point first, because Gamrot is slowly starting to look like the same man who owned the featherweight and lightweight divisions in KSW for the better part of four years. After a bumpy start to his octagon career, the Pole has found his groove with back-to-back stoppages of fighters who are perennially tough outs, Scott Holtzman and Stephens. He’s the first man since 2009 to make Stephens tap, and with three post-fight bonuses in his first three UFC appearances, Gamrot seems destined to be a lightweight who matters. I won’t be surprised if he lands in the outer ring of the UFC’s rankings sooner rather than later. Remember: He’s undefeated in MMA when he has a full camp.
As for Stephens, it’s hard not to see the signs for what they are. He’s now lost five of his last six fights and is winless over all six. At age 35, with a UFC career that stretches across 15 years, Stephens’ glory days aren’t coming back. He’s the proud owner of the third-most UFC fights of all-time (34) — and for some historical perspective, the first four men Stephens’ fought in the octagon are all currently retired. The foe he made his UFC debut against all the way back in 2007, Din Thomas, has been retired for eight years and is looking like the salt-and-pepper grandad at the barbecue on the UFC’s broadcasts these days.
Years ago another UFC stalwart, Jim Miller, told me that longevity — more than anything else — is the hardest and most overlooked skill at the highest levels of the fight game.
That’s always stuck with me, because he was right. It’s not a skill most fighters possess. But Stephens has spent the past decade-and-a-half as a hyper-relevant name across two separate divisions. Even if time may have finally caught up with him, that’s still one hell of a feat — and Stephens should be proud to know that he held out for as long as he did.