Islam Makhachev faces his first real test when he faces former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos in the main event of UFC Fight Night on November 14 – will he pass this test or will RDA halt the Russian’s rise in his return to the 155lb ranks?
Makhachev suffered an early setback in his UFC career when he was knocked out in less than two minutes by Adriano Martins five years ago, but his response was a strong one. Chris Wade and Nik Lentz were bested over three rounds before the 29-year-old rattled off first-round wins over Gleison Tibau and Kajan Johnson to add to his burgeoning stock. Further decision wins over Arman Tsaryukyan and Davi Ramos followed in 2019 to put Makhachev on the brink of a place in the top 10 of the lightweight division, but like many other fighters his career has been derailed by the events of this year and he has been forced to wait until November for the chance to continue his quest.
The wait ends now though and for Makhachev this could be a ‘make or break’ outing in his career. He is receiving plenty of hype from those in and around the sport, with current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov picking out his longtime friend and training partner as the heir to his throne in the 155lb division, but that chatter will quieten if he is unable to win what is easily the biggest fight of his career. A fight with a former lightweight champion.
Makhachev has reportedly struggled to find willing opponents since arriving in the UFC, but one man who is willing to share the Octagon with the talented Russian is ex-155lb king Rafael dos Anjos. RDA scaled the summit of the division back in March 2015 when he scored a unanimous decision win over Anthony Pettis, but he managed just one successful defence of the crown – a 66-second stoppage of Donald Cerrone – before he was knocked out by Eddie Alvarez in the very first round of their fight. The 36-year-old Brazilian then came up short in his next lightweight outing, dropping a decision to Tony Ferguson, and in response he decided to make the jump to welterweight.
It was a move that paid off early on as he reeled off three consecutive wins, stopping Neil Magny inside a round and beating former champion Robbie Lawler by decision to make a splash in the 170lb ranks, but it has pretty much been all downhill since there. He was dominated in decision defeats to Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman before rebounding with a fourth-round stoppage of Kevin Lee, but his chances of landing a crack at the welterweight crown were pretty much ended as he lost to Leon Edwards in the summer of 2019 and then lost to Michael Chiesa in January of this year. Those defeats have sent RDA back to the lightweight division, but will it be a successful return to the weight class he once reigned over?
My answer is ‘no’. There is always going to be an element of caution in backing a man like Makhachev because he is yet to beat a top-tier opponent, but we can be confident about his chances here because talented and strong wrestlers have been dos Anjos’ kryptonite in his career. The Russian certainly fits into that mould. We are not going to see fireworks, explosive striking and a highlight-reel finish, but what we will see it a methodical and grinding approach from Makhachev that sees him smother and frustrate RDA throughout the contest. It will not be exciting on the eye, but it is an approach that has worked well for Khabib over the years and it is an approach that will work well for his pal here as he finally breaks into the top 10 at 155lbs.