Makhachev walks own path into pound-for-pound supremacy and out of Khabib’s shadow


Everything was different this time. Islam Makhachev successfully defended his UFC lightweight championship Saturday night in a performance that did not at all resemble the victory last October that earned him the belt.

On this night, Makhachev mostly stood and traded punches to win his superfight against featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski in the main event of UFC 284. And when Makhachev had his hand raised after earning a unanimous decision, he stood front and center under the bright lights in Perth, Australia, with a group of coaches quietly applauding him from the shadows in the background.

This was not like the evening of his title-winning fight last fall, when Makhachev quickly took grappling ace Charles Oliveira to the canvas and showed off why the Dagestani was being touted as Khabib 2.0, a reference to the top-control wrestling mastery Makhachev shares with his lifelong friend and training partner, the undefeated former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.

As different as Makhachev’s performance was during Saturday’s fight, the aftermath of the fisticuffs also played out in a whole new way. When Makhachev was being interviewed last fall after the Oliveira win, there was Khabib 1.0 standing alongside him, celebrating. It wasn’t a matter of Nurmagomedov trying to steal the spotlight. He was genuinely thrilled for Makhachev, a fighter he had long proclaimed a “future champ.”

The future had arrived for Makhachev that night, and his friend knew there was more to come — if they made it happen. So Nurmagomedov, who since retiring as a fighter had been coaching Makhachev, stepped to the microphone right after that UFC 280 main event and picked a fight. “Now is our plan: Fly all the way to Australia and fight with pound-for-pound king, Volkanovski,” Nurmagomedov said.

And that led to this night.

But UFC 284 had a noticeable absence at RAC Arena in Perth: Nurmagomedov was not in the building. Last month, the former champ announced he was stepping away from coaching.

Makhachev and his team insisted during fight week that Nurmagomedov was still involved in his friend’s preparation. However, there was a different feel to this night. Even just symbolically, having the former champ not in his corner produced a tangible indication of how dissimilar a fighter Makhachev is from his longtime training partner.

Makhachev did not totally abandon his grappling game on Saturday. He attempted nine takedowns and landed four, getting the fight to the canvas in all but the final round. And he used clinches to control stretches of the fight while standing. But the champ made it clear that his wrestling, as smothering as it can be, is just one element of a broader skill set.

Where Nurmagomedov used to use standup fighting as a means to an end — he’d punch his way into position for a takedown — Makhachev showed himself to be comfortable as a standup fighter for extended periods. He was Volkanovski’s equal for five high-level rounds of trading punches and kicks.

“He didn’t respect my wrestling, grappling. Maybe I didn’t respect his striking enough, either,” Volkanovski said afterward. “Fair play to both of us.”

Maybe that’s why they came in as the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 fighters, pound for pound.

That pecking order will no doubt flip in the next rankings, with Makhachev moving to the top. But Volkanovski will not drop more than one spot. And still … No. 1 and No. 2.

This fight, just the seventh champ-vs.-champ superfight in UFC history and a rare meeting of the pound-for-pound Nos. 1 and 2, fully lived up to its lofty billing. Makhachev was somewhat in control for most of the way, but Volkanovski was always in the fight. And when the challenger from Australia took the 155-pound champ to the canvas late in Round 5 and started dropping ground-and-pound, the RAC Arena crowd went wild in hopes that Volkanovski could pull it out. Right up to the final horn, this bout was a classic.

From here, Makhachev will look for his next lightweight challenge, and Volkanovski will head back to featherweight, the division he has ruled since 2019. “Alexander the Great” has been dominant at 145 pounds, with four victories over the finest champs who came before him — three against Max Holloway and one against Jose Aldo. But Volkanovski now has a new challenge ahead of him. In Saturday’s co-main event, Yair Rodriguez won an interim title at 145 pounds and looked like a dynamo, better than he’s ever been.

Volkanovski took notice, and after Saturday’s epic main event superfight, he feels ready for what is ahead.

“You featherweights better f—ing watch out,” he said. “You challenge yourself like this, it only makes you stronger.”

The same can be said for Makhachev, after he got through the toughest fight of his career while showing all lightweight contenders that he’s a multidimensional force to be reckoned with.

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