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Islam Makhachev: From a boy who climbed mountains to UFC champion

Islam Makhachev is the new Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) winner after fighting Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira in the Lightweight category on October 22, 2022. The match (UFC 280) took place at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Less than a month after 31st birthday (he was born on September 27, 1991), Makhachev proved once more that he was a world-class fighter. But what do we know about him?

Makhachev is a Russian professional mixed martial artist who used to compete in Sambo fights. Sambo is a Russian-style fighting style that originated in the Red Army, and means “’self-defence without weapons.”

Makhachev is an ethnic Lak, an ethnic group of about 200,000 people who historically live in the Lakskiy and Kulinsky districts of Dagestan. He was born in Dagestan, in the capital city of Makhachkala and grew up in the remote village of Burshi.

Islam Makhachev often trains with and posts photos and videos with another Dagestani, Khabib Nurmagomedov, an undefeated former lightweight UFC champion. Also a mixed martial arts fighter, Nurmagomedov retired from the sport in 2020.

BBC Sport
sums up Makhachev’s latest fight as “Islam Makhachev emulated his coach and mentor Khabib Nurmagomedov as he beat Charles Oliveira to win the lightweight title at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi.”

As UFC fans often compared him with his coach Khabib Nurmagomedov, some even calling him “the next Khabib,” he did not mind that comparison at all. Instead he took it as a compliment. 

“I want to be next Khabib. I want to be like Khabib. Honestly, I want to smash all my opponents like Khabib, too,” Makhachev recently told BT Sports. “I have little bit same [statistics], but I agree. If somebody say, ‘You fight like Khabib’ or ‘You gonna be like Khabib,’ I want to be.”

Like Khabib, Makhachev was trained by Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, a well-known athlete and a former Soviet Army member – who had judo and sambo in his arsenal, on top of wrestling. He became a coach to youth in Dagestan, including his own son Khabib.

Khabib is the first Muslim to win a UFC title. His Dagestani fellow Russian athlete and protege Makhachev has followed in his footsteps and won a UFC title as a young Muslim athlete once more.

Nikhil Chauhan writing for Sportsmanor
notes that Makhachev initially was known for being a friend of Khabib Nurmagomedov, but has since “made a name for himself and is often compared to Nurmagomedov in terms of his ability to dominate his opponents on the ground.”

Makhachev currently trains at San Jose, California’s American Kickboxing Academy alongside Nurmagomedov and Daniel Cormier, both former champions.

According to Chauhan, having moved to a small village from the city affected Makhachev as a young boy. “Local kids thought the city boys were weak. So you would often have to fight,” Islam once recalled.

Living in a village meant that Makhachev had plenty of exercise as he grew up: “This labour, building, digging, gathering, breeding livestock, it’s all physical labour. Hard work is in our DNA. Often running up the mountains, sometimes three times a day, working out using stone. These harsh conditions create real men.”

Makhachev and Nurmagomedov met as children, living next door to each other. Makhachev grew curious about fighting after seeing Nurmagomedov’s father Abdulmanap training Khabib: “I found out Khabib trains with his father. I turned up there to see Khabib and asked if we could also train there, and we started.”

Khabib Nurmagomedov has supported Makhachev throughout his career, be it acting as a translator or becoming Makhachev’s trainer after his own retirement.

“Islam lived next door, and we used to meet at the training. We went to the same school, trained in the same gym. Since childhood, we have known each other, almost 20 years.”

In July 2020, Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, died at the age of 57 due to Covid-19 related complications. Khabib Nurmagomedov retired from fighting soon after, dedicating his last victory to the memory of his father.

Chauhan writes that Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov always had high hopes for Makhachev, telling his son Khabib “When you leave, Islam will arrive.”

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