UFC 259 sees Islam Mackhachev return to the octagon for his first fight since September 2019, when he takes on fighting veteran Drew Dober, who has in recent fights found the best form of his near-eight-year UFC career. In a division still reeling from the resignation of its greatest champion, an impressive performance by either Russia’s Makhachev or American Dober could place either fighter in a strong position to bring clarity back to a lightweight landscape still in a state of flux.
The two were first scheduled to compete in April 2016 before a temporary drug suspension pulled Islam Makhachev from the card. The suspension was lifted shortly after, but the careers of both fighters progressed in parallel, and now both are most likely one win away from being propelled into the top ten lightweight fighters in the UFC. In a card that is filled top-to-bottom with unmissable fights, make sure not to overlook a pivotal clash between two fighters just one step removed from the lightweight title conversation.
Islam Makhachev (18-1) is a dominant Dagestani fighter with a foundation in Combat Sambo and has been long been tipped for lightweight glory. He will enter the contest a substantial betting favorite, but his achievements in the UFC have thus far been overshadowed by his lifelong friend and training partner, recently retired lightweight champion Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov. With the elder Russian now ostensibly moving on to greener pastures, Makhachev"s route to UFC gold is now clear of a champion he had promised never to meet in the cage.
Islam Makhachev has trained regularly with California"s American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) gym, a world-leader in producing champions from both the US and Russia in recent years. His long-term association with the gym, and even longer-term association with Khabib himself, has led to Islam being widely considered the heir apparent to “The Eagle"s" legacy by fans and training partners alike. Considering the unprecedented lightweight dominance of his training partner, it speaks volumes to Islam"s abilities that mutual teammates at AKA have claimed his fighting ability is comparable – or even superior, in some cases – to Khabib Nurmagomedov"s.
“If Islam can put together what he does in the training room, in actual competition, nobody will beat him. He"s that good… I"m hoping on Saturday he can really show his true self", AKA team captain Daniel Cormier said on the DC & Helwani show on 1 March.
Despite the regular comparisons to his Dagestani teammate, Islam"s record speaks for itself, and it"s difficult to overstate how impressive he has been in the UFC lightweight division. His dominant 18-1 record (7-1 UFC) typifies what fans have come to expect from the now-legendary skills of Dagestani fighters.
A brief dive into the stats can help quantify this. Islam Makhachev has the highest takedown accuracy of active UFC lightweights, with 68%. Amazingly, his striking defense is even more impressive, at least statistically. At just 0.76 strikes per minute, Islam has by far the lowest strike absorption rate of any UFC fighter on record, across all weight classes, since records began. The second (Pete Spratt) is 1.04 per minute, while the average amongst the top ten is 1.18 strikes per minute.
His UFC 259 opponent, the surging American fighter Drew Dober, will likely be Islam"s toughest test to date. Encouragingly for Islam, who won gold at the 2016 Combat Sambo World Championships, Dober"s last loss came against another grappling specialist in the form of Beneil Dariush in March 2019. Dober demonstrated some vulnerability to the grappling skills of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, who, after surviving Dober’s vicious striking onslaught in the first round, was able to systematically advance to the mount position and secure an impressive triangle-armbar submission finish.
If Islam Makhachev can continue his division-leading takedown defence and striking accuracy, it looks likely to be a long night for the American veteran.
While many may be considering Drew Dober (21-9-0-1) a stepping stone in Islam"s inevitable rise to the top, it would be foolish to overlook the ferocious striker and experienced veteran of the sport. Dober first signed with the UFC in 2013, and his 15 subsequent contests have an average fight time of just 6 minutes and 54 seconds (the second shortest amongst active UFC lightweights). Dober has landed a total of nine knockdowns in his UFC career, averaging 0.84 knockdowns per 15 minutes, more than all of his divisional peers barring Dan Hooker and Nasrat Haqparast.
These statistics pose some potential problems for Islam Makhachev, whose one blemish on an otherwise perfect record came at the hands of a heavy right hook thrown by Brazil"s Adriano Martins. This means that, particularly in the early stages of the fight, Drew Dober is arguably the most dangerous opponent that Islam has faced thus far.
Speaking on the matchup in January 2021, Dober was unphased by the challenge and remained confident in his abilities: "He"s not ranked as high as Diego [his originally scheduled bout], but he"s a tougher fight. A more prestigious fight. The type of fighter he is will best showcase my evolution in the sport… I spent all of 2020 preparing for a jiu-jitsu competitor, Diego, so I"m fully ready for fighting a grappler", Dober told MMACrazy. “In my mind, I"m visualizing a first-round knockout," he predicted.
Drew Dober trains with the well-respected Elevation Fight Team alongside former interim lightweight champion, Justin Gaethje. He is also on the most impressive run of his long career, via a three-fight winning streak which includes finishes of fellow lightweight prospects Alexander Hernandez and Nasrat Haqparast, representing the finest run of his veteran career. In short, while Islam is a deserved favorite heading into the contest, overlooking Drew Dober as a threat – to both Makhachev and in the division more broadly – would be a mistake.
I expect a tenacious performance from Drew Dober, but it’s hard to look past Islam Makhachev"s stats for takedown accuracy and striking defence. To borrow a fighting cliché, it may be a "puncher"s chance" for the American against the Dagestani, who seems destined to enter the title conversation in the coming years.
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