Those within the American Kickboxing Academy camp have high expectations for Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight Islam Makhachev.
Makhachev will return to action for the first time since September 2019 when he squares off against Drew Dober on the massive UFC 259 card in Las Vegas card Saturday. The event, if all remains intact, features a trio of championship fights at the top of the bill.
Former two-division champion Daniel Cormier and lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov both believe Makhachev will be in a similar position before too long.
"For 10 straight years, we've had title fights out of AKA," Cormier told ESPN. "How do we continue that? Islam is the guy. We all believe right now Islam is our next best chance to have someone great."
Makhachev has been victorious in 18 of 19 professional outings and is currently on a six-fight winning streak within the Las Vegas-based promotion. He’s had multiple matchups fall through since outpointing Davi Ramos at UFC 242, but Dober, who’s won six of his last seven in the Octagon, provides an opportunity to make a statement. The UFC lightweight division is crowded at the top, and right now, Dustin Poirier, Conor McGregor, Michael Chandler, Justin Gaethje and Charles Oliveira lead the pecking order.
Nurmagomedov foresees that perception changing in the coming months.
"Now, everybody talks about Dustin, Conor, Chandler, Justin, Oliveira," Nurmagomedov said. "But by the end of the year, it's gonna be changed.
"I don't think anyone can beat [Makhachev] right now. He will run [the division]."
Although Nurmagomedov announced his retirement following a win over Gaethje at UFC 254 last October, the promotion has not yet vacated the 155-pound belt. Despite multiple meetings with UFC boss Dana White, Nurmagomedov seems comfortable with his decision and unlikely to make a comeback. That opens the door for Makhachev to pursue his own championship aspirations at 155 pounds in earnest.
"You knew as long as Khabib was the champion, Islam was going to take a slower approach to moving up the rankings," Cormier said. "But now, Khabib and I talked about it, everybody believes that Islam can be the man. Now, with Khabib [retired], I believe now [Islam] starts to make his ascent."
In UFC competition, Nurmagomedov is regarded as one of the most dominant wrestlers at any weight class. According to Cormier, he wasn’t the top dog at AKA in that area.
"Straight wrestling, among all of those guys, Islam is the best one," Cormier said. "In straight wrestling, I think he would beat Khabib."
Due to the hype surrounding it, UFC 259 is the type of card where a prospect can make the leap to stardom. Makhachev already has made believers of his talented teammates. Now it’s time to make an impact on a larger audience.
"I really believe his era is on the way," Nurmagomedov said.