UFC Fight Night: Islam Makhachev a legit threat in lightweight division; Inside Miesha Tate's triumphant return

·Combat columnist
·6-min read

LAS VEGAS — Islam Makhachev did nothing on Saturday to make the job of UFC matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard any easier.

Thiago Moises, who entered his fight Saturday at Apex against Makhachev ranked 14th in the crowded lightweight division, was the highest-ranked fighter Makhachev faced in 10 UFC fights.

It wasn’t because anyone in the UFC hierarchy was trying to give him an easy time.

It was because none of the elites of the division wanted any part of him given how dominant his wrestling and grappling have been.

He treated Moises, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, like a white belt. Once the bout turned to mostly grappling, Moises never had a chance.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 17:  In this handout photo provided by UFC, (L-R) Islam Makhachev of Russia punches Thiago Moises of Brazil in their lightweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on July 17, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Islam Makhachev of Russia punches Thiago Moises of Brazil in their lightweight bout during UFC Fight Night at the APEX on July 17, 2021, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Makhachev, the -700 favorite at BetMGM, submitted Moises in the fourth with a rear naked choke, further establishing himself as the successor to his longtime friend and retired lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov as the best grappler in the division — and perhaps the sport.

His striking, while still needing a lot of work, is improving. But his grappling is so incredible that it’s more than adequate.

But he noted that his striking is better than he’s shown, but he is getting a lot of pressure to use his wrestling.

“I think I have good striking but these guys in my corner, they’re always pressuring me, ‘Hey, take this guy down,’ ” Makhachev said. “That’s why I can’t show all my skills in striking.”

The skills he has are plenty, and there was nothing other than getting taken down once by Moises that were a problem for him. The takedown was incidental, but he knows he’s going to hear about it for a long time.

He trains with several elite wrestlers and suspects that takedown by Moises will be a topic of conversation when they see each other.

“My wrestling brothers, who will compete in the Olympic Games, I always wrestle these guys, they’re going to be upset with me,” he said, grinning.

But there is really nothing to be upset about. He did what coach Javier Mendez and Nurmagomedov said he’d do. He looked very much like a threat to the elite lightweights at what is perhaps the UFC’s most talented division.

He called out Rafael dos Anjos in the cage, and said at the post-fight news conference that he’d like to face Tony Ferguson given how many times Nurmagomedov and Ferguson were supposed to fight.

UFC president Dana White said he believed third-ranked Beneil Dariush should be Makhachev’s next fight.

“We’re at a point with this guy now, they’re all going to have to fight him,” White said. “I think the fight to make now is Dariush. I like Dariush. I like RDA. I like any of those guys up there.”

Most of the top guys seemingly have better striking than Makhachev. No. 2 Justin Gaethje and No. 4 Michael Chandler are both wrestlers, but they’re super aggressive with their strikes and would force Makhachev to walk through fire to get into close range.

Makhachev sneered when their names in particular were mentioned.

“You know why those guys strike so much?” he said. “Because they don’t have wrestling skills. They don’t have grappling skills. … I have wrestling more than anyone in the division. I have grappling more than anyone in the division.”

No one would argue that, but the challenge is doing it against someone who is well-rounded and has refined striking. That’s what will really test Makhachev’s position.

“He’s going to have to go out there and do what Khabib used to do,” White told Yahoo Sports. “Khabib would stand and strike if he had to. He’d take it to the ground when he wanted to and he basically did whatever he wanted to do out there. Islam’s going to have to do the same.

“Those guys, the way that they fight, all the striking is to set up the big takedown, or whatever. The question is: Does he have the grappling to take everyone down in that division? That’s what remains to be seen.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 17: Miesha Tate reacts after her victory over Marion Reneau in their bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on July 17, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Miesha Tate celebrates her victory over Marion Reneau in their bantamweight bout during UFC Fight Night at the APEX on July 17, 2021, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Tate wins for first time in five years

Miesha Tate woke up on Saturday morning and did the same things she’s been doing for the last several years. She cooked breakfast. She played with her daughter. She nursed her infant son.

She was fighting for the first time since Nov. 12, 2016, when she retired after a dispiriting loss to Raquel Pennington at Madison Square Garden.

She said after making changes in her personal life, she got the itch to fight again. She returned on Saturday and stopped Marion Reneau in the third round, looking very much like the woman who had stopped Holly Holm to win the UFC women’s bantamweight title.

And Tate, the -150 favorite at BetMGM, did it by not changing a thing in the way she goes about her life. Much has changed in her personal life since last she fought, notably her engagement and the birth of her children. She wanted to do what felt normal and right and not act differently because she had a fight.

“Everything has changed and nothing has changed,” said Tate, whose victory was her first since she choked Holm unconscious at UFC 196 on March 6, 2016, to win the belt. “Everything has changed from five years ago. But my life is so good right now that I didn’t want to change anything today. I wanted it to be just like the days that came before it, because all those days were great. Making breakfast, hanging out with my baby, nursing my son ... God, it was a beautiful day.”

She said she was inspired by former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, who returned several times after significant injuries.

It was a remarkable performance that White admitted he wasn’t sure she’d be able to pull off when he was driving to Apex.

“Huge win for Miesha and what she was able to do was so impressive,” White said. “It was very hard to do. Let me tell you what: I got up this morning and I was looking at her [fiancé’s] Instagram. She was up with the baby. She was cooking breakfast. And I was like, ‘S***. I don’t know if in fighting, doing that and fighting [on the same day] works.’ But what do I know? Look what she did tonight. Very impressive.”

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