Muhammad Mokaev came into the UFC with some of the higher expectations the flyweight division has seen in recent memory. Part of the intrigue had to do with his sterling 23-0 amateur record, including two IMMAF World Championship titles. Part of it also came from his background. Mokaev was born and raised in Dagestan until he was 12 years old, settling in Wigan with his father, falling in love with wrestling and finding his way to mixed martial arts a short time later.
All that is well and good for stirring up interest in a 21-year-old (he turns 22 on July 30) prospect, but a fighter only gets one debut. With all the expectations on him, Mokaev did the simple task of blitzing Cody Durden with a flying knee and earning a submission win inside of the first minute at his UFC debut in March.
Task: completed. Hype train: fueled. Bandwagon: flooding.
The likes of international soccer icon Wayne Rooney took to social media to congratulate him after the fight, and yet the undefeated Mokaev maintains a steady confidence that portrays a young man not letting early success overwhelm his work ethic.
"I stay in the gym," Mokaev said. "I have a humble life. I stay in the gym, train with the best guys in the world and it's good to understand what level I'm at."
Despite his humble and earnest demeanor, Mokaev is supremely confident as well. With almost 30 amateur and professional fights under his belt without suffering a loss, the self-assuredness is earned.
His extensive amateur experience, particularly in IMMAF competitions, is a big contributing factor. Focusing on a single fight for months is a simplistic task when one competed for several days in a row against the best amateurs in the world.
"It looks easy, but trust me, to make weight every day and fight number one guys from around the world, especially young and hungry guys trying to break your record, I think it's tough," he said.
The American enters the promotion boasting an 11-2 record and riding a four-fight winning streak, and while Mokaev respects part of Johnson's game, he isn't all that impressed on the whole.
"Charles Johnson is a good striker," Mokaev said. "I think a cross country runner, but we're not running. Simple fighter. Nothing special about him. He doesn't have a ground game."
Backing up his words means another impressive performance could be on the way once again in London. He opened a memorable night in The O2 Arena and got the already-rowdy crowd on its feet in less than a minute's worth of work to secure that key debut win.
With Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara-France fighting with an interim belt on the line at UFC 277 on July 30 and presumably a unification bout with Deiveson Figueiredo sometime after that, Mokaev knows he has some time to work to distinguish himself in the ever-growing pack of 125-pound prospects. Naturally, Mokaev feels confident in his chances and already has a timetable in mind for UFC gold.
"I believe I will fight for the belt (next year)," he said. "If I'm active after this, I will."
This story first published at UFC.com.