Issue 205

May 2024

In this thought-provoking analysis, E. Spencer Kyte delves into the heated debate over whether Islam Makhachev has surpassed his legendary mentor, Khabib Nurmagomedov.

There haven’t been many instances in sports where we have seen an all-time great pass the baton to their protégé. We all want to see the teacher watch their pupil blaze an impressive trail of their own, reaching a point of potentially rivaling — or maybe even surpassing — the legend they followed.

We’ve seen greats come off the bench and never cede their position — Lou Gehrig and Wally Pip; Tom Brady and Drew Bledsoe — and there have been myriad examples of generational talents following in the footsteps of the icons that came before them. Rarely has there been a direct line of succession like the one between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Islam Makhachev.

Nurmagomedov debuted in the UFC in January 2012, with Makhachev joining him on the roster a little over three years later. While Nurmagomedov marched unbeaten towards the top of the lightweight division, Makhachev was felled in his sophomore trip into the Octagon by Brazilian veteran Adriano Martins, forcing the young Russian standout to regroup.

Although injuries slowed his rise, Nurmagomedov ultimately reached the lightweight summit, claiming the vacant title in a bout with Al Iaquinta at UFC 223 on April 7, 2018, a victory that extended his overall record to 26-0. He would add three consecutive successful title defenses to his resume, submitting Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, and Justin Gaethje to move to 29-0 before unexpectedly announcing his retirement, citing the passing of his father and a promise made to his mother that he would not fight without him as his reason for hanging up his four-ounce gloves.


Roughly a year after his loss to Martins, Makhachev got back in the win column and continued his own push forward in the talent-rich lightweight division. Throughout Nurmagomedov’s ascent, Makhachev was being groomed as his heir apparent — the one to eventually replace his teammate at the top of the lightweight ranks — and heralded as an evolutionary advancement to Nurmagomedov’s base model, a more fluid athlete with better all-around skills.

He was 18-1 and riding a six-fight winning streak when Nurmagomedov shocked the world by calling it a career. In his first year no longer being the understudy, Makhachev validated a great deal of that advanced billing, posting submission wins over Drew Dober, Thiago Moises, and Dan Hooker to climb into title contention. By the end of the following year, with Nurmagomedov having replaced his late father Abdulmanap as the lead voice in Makhachev’s camp, the streaking contender became the new champion, submitting Charles Oliveira midway through the second round of their UFC 280 clash to claim gold.

In his first year on the throne, Makhachev posted consecutive victories over then-featherweight kingpin Alexander Volkanovski, earning a unanimous decision win in an instant classic the first time around before knocking out the Australian, who stepped in to replace Oliveira on short notice, with a head kick just over three minutes into their second meeting.

With Makhachev now readying to begin his second year as champion following a comprehensive title defense against Dustin Poirier in the main event of UFC 302, it feels like there is an interesting question to consider when it comes to the dual Russian standouts:

Has Islam Makhachev surpassed Khabib Nurmagomedov?


Khabib Nurmagomedov

MMA Record: 29-0

UFC Record: 13-0

Successful Title Defenses: 3

Notable Wins: Gaethje, Poirier, McGregor, Iaquinta, Edson Barboza, Rafael dos Anjos

Islam Makhachev

MMA Record:.26-1

UFC Record: 15-1

Successful Title Defenses: 3

Notable Wins: Volkanovski (twice), Oliveira, Hooker, Arman Tsarukyan, Poirier


Any argument for the former champion has to begin with the fact that he navigated the entirety of his MMA career without suffering a defeat, something that is nigh on impossible to do in a sport where there are so many variables at play and myriad ways things could go wrong.

But even just pointing to the zero in his loss column doesn’t quite do Nurmagomedov’s success justice because he didn’t lose many rounds, either. He was as close to an unstoppable force as we’ve seen inside the Octagon, and he went out by earning stoppages in each of his last three appearances, which also happened to be the biggest fights of his career.

Debates like this don’t exclusively hinge on a fighter’s exploits in the cage, though, as things like star power have to be factored in as well, and in that area, Nurmagomedov exceeds his teammate-turned-charge.

Even before reaching the top of the division, Nurmagomedov resonated with audiences due to his playful charisma and his championship-level teammates constantly singing his praises.

Donning his signature papakha and telling Michael Johnson he should quit mid-fight because “I must fight for title; you know this” certainly endeared him to fans. It’s never bad when prominent talents like Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold, and Cain Velasquez are always in your corner, speaking about what an incredible talent you are and the heights you will reach.

There was also a sense of inevitability with Nurmagomedov that only became more magnetic as he encountered roadblocks on his way to the top of the division. The standout from Dagestan benefitted from Rafael dos Anjos claiming the lightweight title less than a year after Nurmagomedov manhandled him, and each time a proposed clash with fellow surging contender Tony Ferguson was announced and then fell apart, it added to the mystique and narrative arc of his climb.

It was almost like he was pre-ordained, and we were all just waiting for him to become the champion everyone told us he would become. Then, after several injuries and missed connections, Nurmagomedov continued his march and eventually claimed the title.

By the time he retired, Nurmagomedov was one of the biggest stars in the sport. This undefeated terror had dominated his chief rival McGregor and submitted a pair of dangerous, highly regarded interim champions in Poirier and Gaethje, going out on top with his unblemished record intact.

We were told he was the best in the world, and then he constantly went out and backed it all up, exiting as an unbeaten, invincible force.


For whatever reason, Makhachev getting Nurmagomedov’s sign-off as “the heir to the throne” never seemed to carry as much weight as when guys like Cormier and Rockhold were pumping up Khabib; it’s almost like because we saw him get knocked out once some folks automatically decided he couldn’t possibly reach the same heights as his predecessor.

But this shouldn’t just be a “one guy has lost, the other hasn’t, so the argument is over” type of deal when looking at their wins and losses; there is greater nuance to it than that.

For starters, it’s not like we’re comparing apples to oranges here. Nurmagomedov has zero losses and didn’t lose many rounds. Makhachev has one loss and hasn’t lost a ton of rounds, either. Yes, no losses are better than one loss, but one loss in 26 career fights is pretty good, too.

Secondly, suppose the argument in favor of Nurmagomedov starts with his unblemished record. In that case, Makhachev’s case begins with the strength of schedule, especially his championship win and first two successful title defenses.

Makhachev didn’t claim a vacant title from “the best available option that week” the way Nurmagomedov did in beating Iaquinta, who tagged in for Max Holloway, who had tagged in for Ferguson; he unseated Charles Oliveira, who was in the midst of an 11-fight winning streak where his last five victories came against Kevin Lee, Ferguson, Michael Chandler, Poirier, and Gaethje, with all but Ferguson getting stopped during that stretch.

Heading into that contest at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi, there was plenty of “Is Charles Oliveira the best lightweight ever?” chatter, and Makhachev quickly shut that down.

He didn’t just out-hustle “Do Bronx” and win on the scorecards either — Makhachev hurt him, chased him to the ground, and submitted him in less than two complete rounds, extending his winning streak to 11 in the process.

And then last year, the champion earned back-to-back wins over Volkanovski, the reigning featherweight champ and top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport.

Makhachev won the first fight on the scorecards, but a great deal of the attention afterward was on Volkanovski, who gave him all he could handle and won greater plaudits by being the man who ventured up in weight. That didn’t sit well with the lightweight ruler, who carried that frustration into their short-notice rematch and dropped Volkanovski in three minutes and six ticks to retain his title.

He’s also added a win over Poirier to his ongoing winning streak and collected a third successful title defense to draw level with Nurmagomedov. In that case, it will further bolster his already strong strength of schedule case.

The other part of the argument for Makhachev is that he’s a more complete fighter, facing more complete fighters and having more emphatic performances than Nurmagomedov.

While grappling will always be his go-to, Makhachev is a much more confident and dangerous striker than Nurmagomedov was in his day. Although there was undoubtedly something captivating about watching Khabib break his opponents' will over 15 minutes, Makhachev has already posted more wins and more finishes than his teammate-turned-coach, ramping things up as he’s climbed further up the divisional ladder.

After securing three finishes in his first seven UFC victories, Makhachev has garnered seven finishes over his last eight, including submitting the UFC’s all-time submissions win leader and knocking out the featherweight champ.

He’s not just the lineal successor to Nurmagomedov — he’s the evolutionary advancement, and a case can be made that he’s passed his predecessor in terms of success and performance inside the Octagon.


Debates like this aren’t the kind of thing where you can only present one side, one opinion, and call it a day.

You need to hear from a bunch of people, listen to the competing arguments, and see where people agree and disagree, building a broader sample in hopes of reaching some kind of consensus while understanding that we could end up with two distinct camps entrenched in their positions.

In attempting to answer the question of whether Makhachev has surpassed the excellence and achievements of Nurmagomedov, it was essential to reach out to some sharp minds across different spectrums of this sport — media, fighters, coaches — and get them to weigh in on this conversation. On the eve of Makhachev's fight with Poirier at UFC 302, this is what the industry had to say.


The most difficult intangible when it comes to surpassing Khabib is his undefeated professional record.

Khabib’s strength of schedule has never been the determining factor when it comes to his greatness in the mixed martial arts canon. While the tail end of his resume boasting obvious wins over Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, and Conor McGregor provides him with some elite victories, it is his overall dominance that makes Khabib special.

No losses and only two rounds in the UFC where he was on the wrong side of the majority of judges’ scorecards are his calling card.

Makhachev has had similar dominance and has been a more potent finisher. However, the close fight against Alexander Volkanovski and the loss to Adriano Martins are his liabilities in this debate, and for that reason, I believe that he still has ground to make up before surpassing his mentor.


I don't think Islam has surpassed Khabib just yet. In any good legacy, there not only has to be accomplishments but there has to be a rivalry that he comes out on the better side of, a rivalry that brings the best out of him. Maybe Arman (Tsarukyan) will be that guy; who knows?


I don't think Islam has surpassed Khabib.

To me it's always been the combination the word prizefighting gives you — the sporting side and the show side — and although Islam is clearly one of the best lightweights ever, he's still a little short.

For starters, I would love to see a title defense against a lightweight, which we'll get next. Loved the challenge of the first Volkanovski fight and what they were looking for against an all-time great, but I didn't love the second one. I would've loved to see Tsarukyan up next, but that's not the way things worked out; you needed Islam to fight, and Dustin did his part to get this title shot.

I've been saying for years now that it's so difficult, and you need such a long winning streak to get a title shot in divisions like lightweight and welterweight, that I'd personally rather look at a total win streak as a marker of greatness over just a title defense streak. Islam does have one more total win already than Khabib, but winning this fight would put him over Nurmagomedov with a 14-fight win streak to his teacher’s 13, over Khabib and Tony Ferguson as the all-time consecutive wins leader in lightweight, and just two away from the hallowed 16 straight UFC wins record held by Anderson Silva.

Thinking if he has done more than Khabib Nurmagomedov at this point, I do believe you need to add other factors than just fighting. As great a fighter as he is, I don't think he's quite had the impact on the sport yet, and that might be a short “yet.”

Technique-wise, he is one of the most brilliant fighters we've seen, and in every fight, we've seen an evolution, not only of him but of the sport. The records are within his grasp. Unfortunately, the fan response is not what it was for Khabib, who not only retired as probably close to the top in stardom around the world but also left us thinking he could've gone for so much more. 

But if Islam keeps this up and gets through Dustin Poirier and Arman Tsarukyan, I do think we can have the discussion, and he might come ahead.


In my opinion, Islam Makhachev has not yet surpassed Khabib Nurmagomedov in terms of overall accomplishments and impact in the world of mixed martial arts.

While Islam has shown flashes of brilliance and shares a similar fighting style with his mentor, he has not yet proven himself to be on the same level as Khabib. However, I believe that there may come a time in the near future when Islam could potentially surpass his teammate. I say this with the utmost respect for both athletes.

Additionally, I think that Khabib is the type of mentor and teammate who would want his friend to surpass him. Their incredible relationship is rare and special, and that is why I believe Islam has the potential to exceed Khabib's achievements in the future. With Khabib's guidance and support, Islam has the opportunity to carve out his own legacy in the MMA world and continue the tradition of excellence set by his mentor.


Has Islam Makhachev surpassed Khabib Nurmagomedov?

The answer is dependent on how one interprets the weighting of the following variables: skills in the cage, star power, strength of schedule, cultural relevance, and their larger impact on the sport as a whole. Like all kaleidoscopic problems, each variable will seep into the next via MMA osmosis.

Let’s take them one by one.

Skills: Nurmagomedov is largely considered responsible for introducing the MMA world to the Dagestani style of MMA grappling. For large portions of his career, there was no impetus on Nurmagomedov to spend copious amounts of time working on his hands. 

Makhachev, on the other hand, has come from the same grappling lineage, displaying elite efficacy, but he is much more of an elite fighter in all facets of MMA than Nurmagomedov, as shown in his two fights against pound-for-pound great Alexander Volkanovski. 10-9 Makhachev

Star Power: Makhachev does not come close to the star power of Nurmagomedov. Though his star was already beginning to shine bright, his rivalry with Conor McGregor elevated Nurmagomedov to new heights. Couple with his undefeated record, impenetrable grappling, and the relationship and bond between himself and his father, Nurmagomedov easily out-paces Makhachev here. 10-9 Nurmagomedov, 19-19 through Round 2

Strength of Schedule: I think Makhachev wins this comfortably on the two fights with Volkanovski alone, as he was considered the greatest fighter in the world at the time. Nurmagomedov didn’t share the Octagon with someone of that ilk during his career, let alone a champion like Charles Oliveira.

At the apex of his career, Nurmagomedov fought McGregor after two years away from the Octagon, Dustin Poirier, who has failed to reach the absolute top of the 155-pound weight class, and Justin Gaethje, who, prior to their meeting, had delivered one performance where he looked like a complete, championship-level fighter, and not the human reincarnation of the Tasmanian Devil. 10-9 Makhachev, 29-28 Makhachev

Cultural Relevance: this one is a little unfair, as Nurmagomedov’s cultural relevance was in part due to the colossus that was his father, Abdulmanap. He adopted his values and the weight of the Nurmagomedov name with grace and humility, carving his own lane after his father’s passing by retiring while on top and taking up the role his father left behind.

Admittedly, this category is slightly unfair to Makhachev, as it is not his fault that Nurmagomedov had such an influential and respected man for a father. Still, that relationship and Nurmagomedov carrying on his father’s wake certainly weighs heavily on how highly regarded he is within the culture. 10-9 Nurmagomedov, 38-38 heading into the final round.

Larger Impact on MMA: the argument for Nurmagomedov are the wider exposure to the Dagestan grappling approach and his continuing influence as a coach. While Makhachev undoubtedly stands on the shoulders of giants, he is modern MMA.

He’s the blueprint — the standard and the expectation of what modern mixed martial arts can and should be. He does not embody one style of fighting; he embodies MMA as its own entity, with no tangible transitions between fighting positions.

Additionally, the impact of his two fights with Volkanovski has yet to be fully felt, but they instantly began reverberating throughout the sport last year, which won him the round and the fight. 10-9 Makhachev, 48-47 Makhachev

In my opinion, yes, Islam Makhachev has surpassed Khabib Nurmagomedov.


I would say yes. I was really impressed when he kimura’ed Dan Hooker; he ran right through him. He ran right through Oliveira, too — that was really shocking — and then he knocked out Volkanovski.

I feel like every time he performs, you know he’s so good, and then he surpasses that next level. You expect him to win, but then he does even better, so I would say, “Yeah.” He’s scary-good; I don’t know who can beat him. They’re gonna have to wait until he gets old until they get that win.

I feel like everyone is always comparing him to Khabib, he’s always been “Khabib’s guy,” one of his main training partners, but I feel like you can definitely see him coming into his own. He’s already put on great performances, and I feel like if he didn’t have Khabib connected to him, people would really see how good he is.


I would say not at the moment, but they’re neck-and-neck.

The luster of the Volkanovski win might be a little diminished only because of the weight class difference and Volkanovski’s last loss. That loss is not Islam’s fault — he had nothing to do with that — but it takes a little bit away from the “on paper” (case). I don’t think he has the statement win; the Conor win that Khabib has, and that’s my (sticking point).

I think skill-for-skill, Islam is better, and the reason I say that is I’ve had it drilled into me by (his manager) Ali Abdelazziz for a number of years. He’s always been like, “They think Khabib is good, wait until you see Islam.”

Has he surpassed him? No, but I think he’s right there, and I think he will surpass him. I would like to see that signature win. To me, it’s a win over Leon Edwards, a dominant win over Arman Tsarukyan. These guys are at the top of their game right now.

So, I think they’re neck-and-neck, but I think skill-for-skill, we will be talking about Islam Makhachev being better than Khabib once his story is over.


Has Islam Makhachev surpassed his mentor in the pantheon? He hasn’t, not yet. But the conversation is fast becoming more competitive than your knee-jerk may think.

Khabib Nurmagomedov is the unquestioned greatest lightweight of all time. As we sit here today, that has not changed. He is also the single most dominant fighter in MMA history. With only rare exceptions, Nurmagomedov conquered many of the greatest talents to ever populate the sport’s most talent-rich division with an ease that defied actuality. He won fights without being hurt, without being cut, without shedding a single drop of his own blood. A T-1000 given flesh, he didn’t just break the MMA meta; he shattered it into six million tiny pieces, then told you all about it while he was doing it. In all likelihood, there will never be another fighter quite like him again.

But dominance alone does not make a legacy, and that is where the door is left open for Makhachev. Nurmagomedov walked away at the peak of his powers with plenty more left to give. In total, he only competed 13 times in his UFC career and only against seven opponents who really mattered from a historical perspective. Makhachev’s current win streak is already at 13, and he’s already nearing Nurmagomedov’s mark in regards to strength of schedule. That time matters. That longevity matters. The most difficult thing to do in MMA is not to jump weight classes in search of multi-division glory but to sit upon a throne and defend a title over and over again without fail, without falter, through good nights and bad, past the inevitable banana peel slips, and still arise atop the heap every time out. It's why we revere Demetrious Johnson tenfold more than Henry Cejudo.

The all-time record for consecutive UFC lightweight title defenses is a mere three. If Dagestani dominance once again dispatches Dustin Poirier with ease at UFC 302 (Ed's note: he did, and we asked this question a week before the fight), Makhachev moves into a four-way tie with Nurmagomedov, Benson Henderson, and B.J. Penn for that mark.

After that? Makhachev is the same age today (32) that Nurmagomedov was when he rode off into the sunset. Another few title defenses over the current crop of lightweight killers, pushing a once impossible record into the stratosphere, and there's a very real world where we're talking about Makhachev as the lightweight GOAT by the time this reign is done.


While there isn’t a consensus amongst the experts — six say no, two say yes — the truth is that they’re all basically saying the same thing: it’s incredibly close already, and if Makhachev continues on the way he’s been fighting, it won’t be long until he has surpassed his teammate and mentor.

Personally, I’m in the camp that the current lightweight champ has surpassed Nurmagomedov, largely based on his strength of schedule.

While Khabib’s fight with Conor McGregor was a massive grudge match against the most well-known fighter on the planet, it was a bout against a fighter returning from a two-year hiatus and one that was never going to be able to deal with the aggressive wrestling onslaught Nurmagomedov was going to bring his way.

For whatever reason, Makhachev’s win over Oliveira has become a bit of an afterthought already — a footnote in his story — when it should stand as a monumental achievement.

The Brazilian had won 11 consecutive fights, silenced all his doubters, and answered whatever lingering questions about his willingness and ability to battle through adversity. Poirier and Gaethje avoided going to the ground with him at all costs, giving him time to recover after stinging him rather than risking being on the canvas with the UFC’s all-time submissions leader.

Makhachev stayed on the ground with him, with Oliveira pulled guard in the opening minute of the fight, tossing him to the ground after they worked back to their feet and winning the first round mainly from the top position. Then, in the second, Makhachev hurt Oliveira and immediately followed him to the canvas, locking onto a deep arm triangle choke and drawing out the tap almost immediately.

While Volkanovski deserved a ton of credit for his performance in the first meeting between the two, Makhachev won the fight without question or debate and punctuated things in the rematch. Yes, it was on short notice, but you still took out the featherweight champion in just over three minutes.

And now that he was able to dispatch Poirier, a perennial lightweight contender, and position himself for even bigger fights going forward.

If he hasn’t gotten by Nurmagomedov yet, he's very easily level, and there is a strong likelihood that he will in the next year or two.