Khabib Nurmagomedov changed the world.
Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, an accidental falsehood based on my inability to look beyond the mixed martial arts (MMA) bubble I reside in. Even so, if one were to poll some average North Americans, “What’s Dagestan?” I think the post-Khabib world would have a much better chance of getting an answer besides a blank face. “The Eagle” had a real impact, raising the profile of his republic and crafting its reputation in the MMA sphere of influence.
Prior to Khabib, Fedor Emelianenko was the face of Russian dominance in the sport, and perhaps Ukraine’s Igor Vovchanchyn before him — North Americans get confused regarding which eastern European countries/republics/states are which. Regardless, both of those special athletes did their tremendous work on other continents, and as such, never became true household names on this side of the Atlantic.
Khabib differed from that path. He rose through the ranks to capture the undisputed Lightweight title in Madison Square Garden. He headlined one of the best selling pay-per-views (PPV) in UFC history from Las Vegas, Nevada, by smashing one of Europe’s most “Notorious” sports stars.
We can really point to Khabib’s rise as the start of the Russian invasion. Since he laid waste to the Lightweight division, it’s become far more common to see Russian athletes — specifically Dagestani combatants like Zabit Magomedsharipov — venture to different American MMA gyms before returning home to train with their countrymen. The effect is felt beyond Dagestan, as each week, the undercard is more likely to feature a crushing wrestler whose last name ends in “Ov” from Kazakhstan or Moldova.
Because of Khabib and his legacy, those fighters all bear an expectation — even those not from Dagestan who have nothing to do with “The Eagle.” There can be no doubt, however, that Islam Makhachev has the heaviest of pressures on his shoulders to represent his nation and team.
Even before Khabib retired, Makhachev was “the next Khabib.” That’s automatically an unfair expectation — Makhachev would surely like to be judged on his own merits — but also a stigma that nevertheless will continue to stick.
With Makhachev securing his eighth straight Lightweight win opposite Thiago Moises last night (watch highlights), it’s worth closer questioning: what is the exact legacy Makhachev must uphold? To represent Dagestan properly, as Khabib did, must one be an otherworldly grappler? Is it more based in accomplishment than skill, requiring an undefeated title reign? If that’s the case, Makhachev’s hopes of ever fulfilling expectations were shattered at the age of 23 when the highly underrated Adriano Martins shut off his lights.
Khabib and Dagestan’s respective legacies and reputation are, of course, up for debate. To my mind, however, Khabib represented a level of dominance. Throughout his entire career and especially his championship career, Nurmagomedov hardly lost a scramble, let alone a full round. He didn’t get hit all that much, and he caused immense frustration and suffering with his ability to overwhelm experienced opponents. There’s the legacy: absolute mastery over opponents.
Makhachev has lived up to and will likely continue living up to that legacy. Even if he never captures the title, Makhachev’s dominance over his last eight peers is nearly singular. He is seldom hit and rarely bothered by his opponent’s defenses. Inside the Octagon, Makhachev is unrelenting in his complete control. Makhachev makes trained killers look woefully unprepared and undeserving of sharing the cage with him.
Dagestani greatness was on display last night.
For complete UFC Vegas 31: “Makhachev vs. Moises” results and play-by-play, click HERE.