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UFC 280 marks the moment Islam Makhachev has waited for his entire life

Lightweight star reflects on his long journey to Saturday's title shot in Abu Dhabi.
islam-makhachev

For the last several years, as he's worked towards the top of the lightweight division, Islam Makhachev (22-1 MMA, 11-2 UFC) has maintained a playfully dismissive attitude about his rise through the ranks, the adversaries stationed across from him inside the octagon, and what each subsequent victory would mean to him.

As he readies to face Charles Oliveira (33-8 MMA, 21-8 UFC) for the lightweight title this weekend in the main event of UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi, the surging contender chose to drop his guard a little, sharing a little bit more about what it means to be at this point in his career.

"This means a lot, man, because how many years?" Makhachev asked rhetorically, doing the math in his head of how long he's been working towards becoming the best in his chosen craft. "I don't know – seven, eight years old I began in sports, and I've been training all my life.

"I'm very excited for this moment because I've been waiting for this moment all my life."

This kind of openness and honesty is a grand departure for the talented grappler, who enters Saturday's finale on a 10-fight winning streak.

In previous conversations ahead of recent bouts, Makhachev has always been quick to frame each triumph as unsurprising, viewing each victory as pre-destined while offering a sly smirk that always made it clear there was some gamesmanship and competitive fuel behind his answers.

He positioned reaching the top of the 155-pound weight class as the next destination on his journey rather than a goal or a mission he might not complete. His confidence was unwavering.

As the victories mounted and the number next to his name continued to get smaller, he sounded more and more like his long-time training partner and current head coach, Khabib Nurmagomedov, who famously told Michael Johnson mid-fight that he should simply give up because "I need to fight for the title; you know I deserve this."

But now that he's set to challenge for championship gold this weekend, Makhachev has opted to be a little clearer about what this means to him, and why he will absolutely take full advantage of the opportunity before him on Saturday night.

"Right now, we don't have a champion in Dagestan. Very soon I think (Magomed) Ankalaev is gonna fight for the title, but we need some belts here because now, all the kids from Dagestan are watching all UFC fights, and they're waiting for when a belt is coming back home.

"It doesn't matter who is the champion, who has the belt – just October 22, I'm going to be there, and whoever is in front of me, I'm going to beat this guy, take this belt, and go back home.

"I just need this title," he said sincerely. "I just want this belt because I had a long way in this sport, in the UFC."

Makhachev has indeed travelled a long, difficult road to reach his first championship opportunity this weekend.

After pushing his record to 12-0 with a second-round submission win over Leo Kuntz in his promotional debut, he was knocked out less than two minutes into his sophomore showing by Adriano Martins. Since then, the highly regarded competitor has faced a non-stop barrage of tough outs, beating them all, including veterans like Nik Lentz and Gleison Tibau, promising emerging competitors like Arman Tsarukyan, and ranked foes like Drew Dober, Thiago Moises and Dan Hooker.

In some ways, his journey is not dissimilar to the last half of the path Oliveira took to reach the top of the lightweight division, and it's that shared determination and willingness to continue pressing forward at all costs that gives Makhachev respect for the man he'll share the octagon with this weekend.

"He has a hard way to the belt, and I know this guy is going to be ready," he said of Oliveira, whose UFC record stood at 10-8 with one no contest verdict prior to him kicking off the 11-fight winning streak he carries into their main event showdown at Etihad Arena. "I know Charles had a hard road to the championship because he had many losses in the UFC, many injuries, but right now, he's the champion because he did a good job.

"After many times when he had losses, he came back, changed divisions, and he's on a good winning streak.

"This is going to be very good fight for the fans because this guy is tough," he added.

Asked to forecast how he sees Saturday main event playing out, Makhachev was quick to speak about his grueling preparations, crafted and carried out by Nurmagomedov, who has turned his own championship experience into the driving force behind his charge's exhaustive camp.

"You know, this guy has big, big experience in this sport, and now he is my head coach," he said of Nurmagomedov, who has always had high praise for his teammate and protege. "He pushes me right now so much because he knows this is a title fight. We're training so hard right now because he knows a big fight is coming up."

And because of that training, Makhachev is ready for whatever this weekend throws his way.

"You know, these last three months, I've been training so hard," he said. "I began the preparation for this fight three months ago and have been training so hard that it doesn't matter how the fight goes – striking match, wrestling match, grappling match – I'm ready for it all; 25 minutes."

He's also not shy about sharing how he sees Saturday's lightweight title fight playing out, largely because it's the same approach he's taken each and every time he's stepped into the octagon.

"I'm gonna try to take him down, make him tired, bring him to the deep, deep ocean and finish him there."

If that should come to pass, Makhachev is more excited about the future fight opportunities that await him as champion than anything else, envisioning his rise to the top of the division as his chance to finally secure matchups with the established, elite contenders than he feels have been actively avoiding him over the last several years.

"All these fighters from the top 10 avoided me for many years," began Makhachev. "After this fight – after this fight, everything is going to change.

"All my professional career, I called out Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, (Michael) Chandler – everybody – but everybody avoids me. After this fight, everything is going to change."

Except for maybe one thing.

"After this fight, I keep going forward, beat one opponent after another," he added. "I've never chosen opponents in the UFC – whoever they put in front of me, I was fighting, and I'm going to keep doing that."

 This story first published at UFC.com.