UFC 259 was a stacked card that featured multiple world champions across 3 weight classes. The championship bouts dominated both pre & post fight media. Yet, there was a sleeper fight on the card which was Islam Makhachev vs. Drew Dober. Out of all the performances, Makhachev saw the steepest rise in his stock. On that night, he exited the cage leaving behind a career-high performance.
The lightweight division is absolutely overflowing with talent. There doesn’t seem to be extreme enough adjectives in the English language to describe the depth of the division. One year ago fans were salivating over the division, it’s exponentially deepened in talent since then. There has never been a point in time where such a list of elite fighters have co-existed in one division. Tony Ferguson, Conor McGregor, Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler, Charles Oliveira, Dan Hooker and the list still goes on.
For the fans, it is a gift where quality match-ups await on the horizon for us to enjoy. For the fighters, it can be both a gift and a curse. Quality of competition is required to bring out the greatness in fighters, which is now abundantly available. On the other hand, it may be difficult for rising talent to break through among the crowd of names. The silent killer among the ranks has been Islam Makhachev, who’s been racking up his own victories in the last 5 years to claw his way into lightweight relevancy. While the crowds have had their eyes glued on the greatness of Khabib, the return of Conor McGregor & debut of Michael Chandler, Makhachev has racked up a respectable 7-fight win streak.
Islam’s UFC career kicked off to a rough start going 1-1 in his first 2 fights. One of those losses was a shock knockout victory to Adriano Martins at UFC 192. He has since gone without a loss racking up wins among the lower ranks of the division. He looked skilled in his last 6 fights, but none had the caliber that would allow his name catch wind among the pundits. Drew Dober was his coming out party.
Dober came into this fight riding a 3-fight KO streak over respectable opponents in the division. Moreover, Dober holds experience over Makhachev having spent time in Bellator MMA and boasting overall 33 bouts in his career. Dober’s training camp, Elevation Fight Team, is also an elite gym that’s produced world championship fighters such as Justin Gaethje. The veteran Dober would bring experience and the mind of a world championship MMA camp behind him.
Islam Makhachev blew him out of the water with absolute domination. The story of the fight was clear, his wrestling was levels above. The influence of Khabib upon Islam was distinctive, and Islam pulled moves that are rooted in a deep understanding of sambo wrestling. Beyond Khabib, American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) further possesses elite level wrestling. Daniel Cormier, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Cain Velasquez, and Luke Rockhold creates a robust environment where iron sharpens iron. The talent spill over is sponged up by the contenders around them, such as Islam.
The X-factor might be his background. It’s possible there’s something in the water in the foothills of Dagestan. Although folklore, there’s a deep sense of grit and iron that is embedded into these fighters. They are built different with an unshakeable will to break their opponents. The lineage of these fighters doesn’t stop with Islam and Khabib. Abubakar Nurmagomedov secured a unanimous decision over Jared Gooden at UFC 260 and Usman Nurmagomedov is expected in the co-main of Bellator 255. Both are armed with similar skillsets.
There’s a strange whisper in the winds that Islam Makhachev might just be the dark horse of the division. He might be the toughest match-up for most. Even better, Islam can carry the narrative that Khabib left behind. The bout with Tony Fergusson that never happened, or the rematch with Conor that he’s been begging for. The lightweight division might just be due for another Dagestani warrior to grab the championship reigns.