With the main obstacle now removed (or better yet, retired) from his ascent towards UFC gold, Islam Makhachev wants to rubber-stamp his rise up the rankings by taking on established contenders Rafael dos Anjos and Justin Gaethje.
This month’s win against Drew Dober made it seven on the spin for Russia’s Makhachev and the man hand-picked as the successor to the now fully-retired Khabib Nurmagomedov says that he wants to keep a tight schedule as he inches closer to a UFC title opportunity of his own.
But as Khabib found in his halcyon UFC days, it is also proving to be easier said than done in arranging a fight for the 17-1 former Combat Sambo world champion Makhachev.
He followed up his third-round submission win against Dober by calling for a fight with Nurmagomedov’s rival Tony Ferguson in a fight which would act as a sort of proxy war for the Khabib-Ferguson which continually smoked but never went ablaze.
Ferguson, though, has accepted a fight with Beneil Deriush in his next outing, leaving Makhachev to plot a different course towards title contention and leaving former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos as his chief target.
However, Dos Anjos – who was booked to fight Makhachev at last year’s UFC 254 before withdrawing due to a Covid-19 diagnosis – seems to have cooled on the idea, reportedly telling Makhachev that he will accept a fight only if he gets another opportunity to compete with Khabib afterwards, should he win.
“I don’t know why his opinion changed so quickly,” Makhachev told RT Sport after a recent Eagle Fighting Championship fight card.
“[Dos Anjos] won a fight and started acting differently. He was quiet when we had a fight scheduled. He got taken off the card and I asked for a replacement but the UFC said they’d give me a five-round main event then I quietly got on a plane to the US without my team because I wanted that fight then I got sick and he had a fight and after that he started talking differently.”
Khabib’s exit from the UFC’s lightweight division has left it in a state of flux. Top-ranked Dustin Poirier is set to fight Conor McGregor this summer, while UFC newcomer Michael Chandler will take on Charles Oliveira for the Russian’s now vacant world title.
And with the route to the top of the 155lbs looking to be tighter than ever, Makhachev says that he just wants an opportunity to prove himself.
“I don’t know what’s going on with the UFC matchmaking but I think that’s what will end up happening,” he said. “Most of the top-10 fighters are busy but I’m 90 percent sure they’ll give me a top-10 guy.
“We know that Felder doesn’t want to fight often. He has other things going on with the UFC and isn’t eager to fight anymore. As far as Hooker, I saw that he recently came home. He was quarantined for a long time so I don’t think he’ll want to come back soon. He’ll probably want to rest after getting knocked out, so I think they’ll give me Dos Anjos.”
If that doesn’t come to pass though, Makhachev has a very attractive ‘Plan B’.
“Yes, it’s possible [that I fight Justin Gaethje]. Justin and I know each other but it’s not like we’re friends,” Makhachev said. “It’s possible. He’s free right now. Why not? I’d love to fight him.“