Going the Distance: Makhachev approaching title shot after UFC Vegas 31 win

By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks contributor

It has been less than a year since Khabib Nurmagomedov — the most dominant UFC lightweight ever — retired after defending his belt for a third and final time against Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (22-3, 5-3 UFC) at UFC 254 in October 2020. And already, another dominant Russian has emerged to fill the space Nurmagomedov once occupied. Islam Makhachev (20-1, 9-1 UFC) is coming off of back-to-back submission victories this year, first against Drew Dober (23-10, 9-6-1 UFC) at UFC 259 in March, and now this weekend against Thiago Moises (15-5, 4-4 UFC) at UFC Vegas 31. 

The similarities between Nurmagomedov and Makhachev do not stop at the fact that they are both Russian, specifically from Dagestan, and have similar styles, using combat sambo backgrounds to apply a pressure and wrestle-heavy approach in the cage. The important similarity is that they are able to do these things at such a high level. Nurmagomedov, who fought 13 times under the UFC banner, never bled once in the octagon. In Makhachev’s 10 UFC fights, he has lost only two rounds. When they score takedowns, their opponents usually do not get back up, saved only by the bell that indicates the end of a round, and the beginning of a new one in which the result usually isn’t much different. 

This was certainly the case Saturday night against Moises, as Makhachev had more than eight minutes of control time across his three takedowns landed, the last of which ended with his arms cinched tightly around the neck of Moises, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Makhachev won every round of the fight, and aside from a brief heel-hook scare, looked great in doing so. Moises landed only 18 strikes over the roughly 18 minutes of the bout, compared to 148 for Makhachev. 

We know Makhachev is a force to be reckoned with, and with each win against progressively more difficult competition, he continues to prove that. What many may not know is that Makhachev, in his UFC career, has absorbed only 0.77 strikes per minute, which makes him the most difficult opponent to hit in the history of the promotion. Makhachev is not only the best wrestler at 155, he appears to be the most defensively sound fighter as well. It is likely that that combination will continue to serve him well in the future.

So, without further ado, here are some fights I’d like to see next for the top lightweights: (Note: rankings used here are as of July 18): 

Charles “do Bronx” Oliveira (C) vs. Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier (No. 1): We know this is the next title fight, with Dana White indicating as much after Poirier’s second straight win over Conor McGregor at UFC 264. Some people, including myself, believe Dustin Poirier is the best lightweight in the world — the “uncrowned king”, if you will. But, since he doesn’t hold the belt, he’s very much the rightful No. 1 contender. Poirier has fought an absurdly high level of competition over the last four years, competing 10 times and losing only once, to the unbeatable Khabib Nurmagomedov. Most of the public thinks Poirier will win this fight and earn the label of undisputed that he has sought for so long, and Vegas agrees, having opened him as a betting favorite in this matchup. While Oliveira has a jiu-jitsu advantage, Poirier checks more boxes: he’s better on the feet, is more durable, has a great gas tank, and gets better as the fight goes along. Perhaps most importantly, he has fought the best of the best for a long time now, while Oliveira has only just begun fighting the division’s elite. Either way, we can sit back and enjoy the show. Whenever this fight happens, it will most certainly end in a finish.

Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (No. 2) vs. “Iron” Michael Chandler (No. 4): Lately, the UFC hasn’t been great to Gaethje. After losing to Nurmagomedov last year, the matchmakers passed him over for an interim title shot, opting to instead go with Chandler, who wasn’t able to capture gold against Oliveira. As of July 18, Gaethje still doesn’t have a fight booked, but I’d love to see him scrap with Michael Chandler. Both men possess one-punch knockout power, with Gaethje having finished 20 of his 22 career wins, and Chandler 17 of his 22 victories. Both men are coming off of losses in a title fight. Best of all, both men will stand and bang in the center of the octagon, knowing they have a huge opportunity to rebuild their stock and get back on track for a future opportunity to fight for the belt.

Beneil “Benny” Dariush (No. 3) vs. Islam Makhachev (No. 9): If I’m being completely honest, I don’t think Dariush is deserving of the number currently next to his name. Yes, he’s on an impressive seven-fight winning streak, four of which have ended in finishes. But if you look at the quality of the opponent, it’s very clear he hasn’t been tested against a truly elite fighter in this division. Enter Islam Makhachev, who is on an impressive eight-fight, four-finish winning streak of his own. To be fair, the same could be said about Makhachev: Who has he fought that is an elite fighter? In this division, he has not had a stiff test yet. While I don’t consider Dariush to be in the top tier of lightweights despite his ranking, he is still a big step up from the rest of Makhachev’s opponents and is in good form of late. I’m interested to see whether Dariush’s excellent ground game can nullify (or at least partially nullify) Makhachev’s wrestling, and if either fighter will have an advantage on the feet. If Makhachev tears through Dariush, as some will expect, then it’s time for a title shot. If Dariush can defend the number next to his name against one of the scariest fighters in MMA, then he and his then-eight-fight winning streak will have also earned a shot at gold. 

Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson (No. 5) vs. “The Notorious” Conor McGregor (No. 7): Both men are past-their-prime fan favorites, sort of insane in their own unique way, not near title contention* and clearly need to take a step down in the competition they’ve faced recently. Ever since his loss to Gaethje, Ferguson has looked more or less awful in the Octagon, while McGregor hasn’t looked much better, albeit against a high-caliber opponent in Poirier. The UFC would have no issue selling any fight involving McGregor, but Ferguson is also such a popular figure that from a business perspective, it almost seems like they have to seize on this opportunity. Yes, a trilogy fight with Nate Diaz looms in the background for McGregor, but that fight can be made at any time. If they wait too long with Ferguson and he continues to lose, his stock will likely fall too far to justify a bout with the Notorious himself. When McGregor heals up, this fight, and all of the lead up to it, is too fun not to make. 

*McGregor could fight for the title because it’s good for business but he’s not remotely in that conversation from an MMA purist’s perspective.

Rafael Dos Anjos (No. 6) vs. Dan “The Hangman” Hooker (No. 8): A lot of people are calling for RDA to fight Makhachev or McGregor, but I don’t really see enough hype around him currently to warrant either of those matchups, even with his history with McGregor. Yes, RDA is a big name — he is the former champ after all — but prior to defeating Paul Felder in November 2020 (a fight which Felder took on six days notice), RDA hasn’t won a fight at lightweight since 2015, and is 5-6 in his last 11 fights since then. I’d like to see him fight Hooker here, who would be a game opponent. Hooker is coming off of two straight losses, so this gives him an opportunity to prove he’s still elite. 

Gregor “The Gift” Gillespie (No. 10) vs. Brad “Quake” Ridell (No. 13): This fight was supposed to occur earlier in the year, but was canceled due to COVID. Since then, both men have fought once, winning each of their respective fights in impressive fashion. For Gillespie, it came in the form of a wrestling match against Carlos Diego Ferreira (No. 12). Gillespie looked hurt early on in that fight, but recovered and utilized his wrestler grittiness to tire out Ferreira and finish him in the second round. On the other hand, Ridell won an extremely entertaining slugfest against Drew Dober (who may have the strongest chin in the division), which earned both men Fight of the Night at a stacked UFC 263 in Arizona. With both fighters prevailing, why not remake this fight? It’s an interesting clash of styles, in which we can expect Ridell to have a big kickboxing advantage and Gillespie to be the better wrestler. 

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