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Islam Makhachev targets Rafael dos Anjos or Justin Gaethje as surging UFC contender aims to step from Khabib's shadow (VIDEO)

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. 
Also on rt.com UFC 259: Dominant Makhachev calls out Tony Ferguson after defeating Dober to extend winning streak to SEVEN in a row
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.

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Ready to rise: Islam Makhachev deserves top-five UFC shot as he steps out of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s shadow

As UFC boss Dana White continues to pine for his retired superstar Khabib Nurmagomedov, he may well have a tailor-made replacement for the Russian standout already under contract in his teammate, Islam Makhachev.

Makhachev enhanced his already sterling reputation with a third-round submission of dangerous power puncher Drew Dober in Las Vegas last weekend in a fight which served warning to the UFC’s lightweight elite that, while Nurmagomedov may well have ridden into the sunset, there is another oppressive Russian grappler ready to take his place.

29-year-old Dagestani Makhachev has long been prophesied as a future lightweight standout. He grew up with Nurmagomedov, spending countless hours on the mats with the future UFC champion under the tutelage of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, honing his skills to world-level. 

After an 11-fight unbeaten start to his mixed martial arts career, Makhachev inked a deal with the UFC to make his debut for the organization in early summer 2015, when he would vanquish Leo Kuntz by second-round submission.
Also on rt.com UFC 259: Dominant Makhachev calls out Tony Ferguson after defeating Dober to extend winning streak to SEVEN in a row
Makhachev’s second UFC fight was a different story. Paired with experienced Brazilian fighter Adriano Martins in Texas, he would taste defeat for the first and only time in his UFC tenure to date when he was defeated by a first-round TKO after Martins connected on the onrushing Makhachev with a powerful right hand.

Defeat, though, is an unfamiliar feeling to many of those who came from Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov’s stable of fighters – and it is something Makhachev hasn’t experienced since.

Saturday’s submission of Dober was Makhachev’s seventh straight win in the talent-rich 155lbs division and has risen him to 11th in the UFC’s official lightweight rankings, surely setting him up for an increased test in his next outing.

Speaking to the media following his win on Saturday, Makhachev suggested that he could take Nurmagomedov’s role in a proxy-feud with Nurmagomedov’s longtime rival Tony Ferguson.

My dream fight is Tony because we have some deal with him over a couple of years,” he admitted. “Now he still pressures Khabib.

“I don’t understand this guy. I want to just help him retire. He’s old. His mind is a little bit crazy. That’s why I just want to help him.”

Makhachev’s ranking just outside the division’s top ten may prove to be more of a burden than an opportunity. If you cast your mind back several years before Nurmagomedov’s own unstoppable march to the UFC crown, the Russian’s impressive record coupled with his (at the time) unknown name meant that he became one of the most-avoided fighters at 155lbs.

Those factors remain largely outside of Makhchev’s control and, as he repeated to the assembled media in Las Vegas, comparisons to Nurmagomedov will only lead to him trainer harder to emulate the success of his friend and training partner.

You know this is motivation for me,” Makhachev said. “Because now people talk about me. A lot of people tell me, ‘you’re going to be next, you’re going to be champion.’ That’s why I have to train more. Just training. That’s it.

[Nurmagomedov] showed me all the way. He showed me what I have to do to be there. Now I think of a good win streak, I just have to finish my next opponent. Maybe in one or two fights, I’m going to be the next champion.”
Also on rt.com ‘How about September?’ Dana White reveals Khabib’s response after latest efforts to coax UFC champ back to octagon
A showdown with Ferguson would be a tantalizing bout and would bring some sense of closure to the doomed series of fight bookings between Ferguson and Khabib. But it remains a distinct possibility that the sometimes-difficult Ferguson might not be amenable to fighting the 11th-ranked fighter of his division.

And therein lies the potential next narrative to extend out in his MMA career. 

While his obvious talent demands that Makhachev has earned his opportunity to take on the UFC’s lightweight elite, don’t be too surprised if a lack of enthusiasm from potential opponents makes him join Nurmagomedov in taking the scenic route to UFC gold.
Also on rt.com Khabib Nurmagomedov’s cousin Abubakar aims to avenge UFC debut defeat this month after ‘Hollywood’ jibe at Sterling over Yan fight

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