It was October. 25, 2020, and Daniel Cormier was in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, speaking to UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who shocked the MMA world last night when he tearfully announced his retirement at the Octagon after meeting Justin Gaethje had defeated.
There was a lot to tell the old friends. Cormier had retired a few months earlier so that he could relate to Nurmagomedov’s feelings. They talked about the future, specifically the future of the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), the gym they train at in San Jose, California. From Cain Velasquez to Luke Rockhold to Cormier and Nurmagomedov – the “Four Kings” as Cormier described them – AKA is proud to be the home of the UFC champions.
But what now?
The answer was obvious. Cormier wrote to Islam Makhachev, the aspiring lightweight who grew up with Nurmagomedov in Dagestan and trained with him at the AKA.
“You are the world champion now,” said Cormier to him. … “You are the next champion. You are the best. You have always been the best.”
On Saturday, Makhachev will try to take the next step in his development when he meets Drew Dober at UFC 259 in Las Vegas. Makhachev will fight for his seventh straight win in the toughest division of the promotion.
Nurmagomedov was never shy about his championship expectations for Makhachev. After Makhachev’s last fight, a unanimous decision over Davi Ramos at UFC 242 in September 2019, Nurmagomedov belted his belt in front of Makhachev at the post-fight press conference and said, “Future champion.” This vision began with his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, who led his son Makhachev and the other fighters into an elite group of mixed martial artists in their gym in Dagestan. Abdulmanap died in 2020 of heart problems complicated by COVID-19, but his vision remains a missionary endeavor.
With UFC President Dana White unwilling to forego the possibility that Nurmagomedov will fight again, the lightweight belt remains with someone who is retired while others battle for the position to fill the eventual void. Dustin Poirier, Conor McGregor, Michael Chandler, Charles Oliveira and Gaethje are expected to be part of some kind of unofficial tournament to crown a new champion.
“Now everyone is talking about Dustin, Conor, Chandler, Justin, Oliveira,” Nurmagomedov told ESPN. “But it will change by the end of the year.
“I don’t think anyone can hit [Makhachev] right now. He will run [the division]. “
MAKHACHEV ARRIVED AT AKA in 2012 with Islam Mamedov who is currently a PFL fighter. Makhachev was labeled “Islam gray” or “Islam black,” while Mamedov was labeled “Islam red,” which was the color of the shirts they wore, Cormier said.
Makhachev soon made a name for himself.
“You could see this kid was a bit like Khabib, with a slightly tighter stand-up,” said Cormier. “Today Chabib will tell you that he will stand and strike with whoever he wants … Islam seemed a little more ready to go.”
While walking back and forth between Dagestan and California, Makhachev dominated the Russian MMA scene before signing with the UFC in 2015. Makhachev flashed Leo Kuntz on his May debut at UFC 187, the same event that Cormier won his first, in the second round from UFC title against Anthony Johnson for the light heavyweight crown.
Makhachev was so impressive that the UFC next put him on a winning streak with Adriano Martins, a dangerous Brazilian striker. Martins caught Makhachev with his right hand and stopped him in the first round at UFC 192 on October 3, 2015.
Makhachev hasn’t lost since then. The only thing that slowed him down was a staph infection, which postponed his fight against former master Rafael dos Anjos last November. It would have been his first major event.
“Of all these people, Islam is the best,” said Cormier, a former Olympic wrestler. “In straight wrestling, he’d beat Khabib.”
That’s quite a statement. Nurmagomedov is shortlisted for the greatest fighters of all time, and that’s not because of his strike. Not only did he win all 29 of his fights, but he lost just two rounds.
AKA trainer Javier Mendez said he saw Nurmagomedov lose training rounds to only one training partner – Makhachev.
“People have to understand that this guy is a machine,” Mendez said of Makhachev. “Other than getting caught with a good shot, I don’t see anyone take this guy and overhaul him in any area. Anything can happen with those little gloves … but I don’t see anyone turn him out. I really put on And I am not joking. “
It won’t be easy to catch Makhachev with another good shot. With at least five fights, he has recorded the fewest significant hits in UFC history. Nurmagomedov is the second among active Lightweights according to UFC Stats.
“We save [our] all of life and we will never be easy, “said Makhachev about his training with Nurmagomedov.” We go hard all the time. That’s why I’ve improved working with Khabib. “
Nurmagomedov and Makhachev have known each other since they were young. You are more than a training partner. They’re like brothers, which is why Nurmagomedov flew to Las Vegas for Makhachev’s fight.
One thing they will never be, however, is adversaries.
“Khabib’s dad was telling me all along that when Khabib retires you will be the next champion,” Makhachev told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto last year. … “I have to do this because dad said to me all the time, ‘You will be champion. You will be the next champion.’
“That’s why I have to train hard and say, ‘inshallah, I’ll be a champion one day,'” he said, using an Arabic expression that means “God willing”.
NURMAGOMEDOV said he withdrew because he promised his mother that the Gaethje fight would be his last after his father’s death. He also said he had nothing more to prove after defeating McGregor, Poirier and Gaethje.
But Nurmagomedov also talked about avoiding Makhachev.
“They knew, as long as Khabib was the champion, Islam would move more slowly to improve the rankings,” said Cormier. “But now, Khabib and I have talked about it, everyone believes that Islam can be the man. Now with Khabib [retired]I believe now [Islam] begins to make its ascent. “
Nurmagomedov said Makhachev will fight three times in 2021, the first time at UFC 259, another time closer to the summer after Ramadan – the Muslim month of prayer that ends on May 12 – and then the last at the end of the year. At that point, Nurmagomedov said Makhachev should be lining up for a title shot in the overcrowded 155-pound pool.
“I really think his era is on the way,” said Nurmagomedov.
Cormier no longer calls Makhachev “Islam black” or even by his first name. Cormier calls Makhachev “Champion”, just as Velasquez approached Cormier at the AKA even before Cormier won the belt.
“We have had title fights outside of the AKA for 10 years,” said Cormier. “How do we go about this? Islam is the guy. We all believe right now that Islam is our next best chance to have someone who is great.”