“I will be the UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion within five years.”
It’s a bold statement from a young man sipping a latte in a Manchester coffee shop, but Muhammad Mokaev is determined to become a record-breaker. “Maybe more if I move to another weight class,” he adds. Nobody has ever achieved such a feat in Dana White’s promotion.
The 19-year-old is confident in his ability but has every right to be. He’s yet to be taken down, let alone lose, in 23 amateur fights and meets with Octagon Magazine having discussed a potential UFC contract just a day earlier. It comes as no surprise that he’s likely to join MMA’s elite and it’s a matter of when, not if, for the Russian-born fighter. Some were even surprised he hadn’t put pen-to-paper last year. But Mokaev doesn’t come across as arrogant as he takes a seat in a quiet corner of the bustling Piccadilly Gardens.
With hopes of a UFC debut in 2021, he still had time to focus on the upcoming IMMAF Championships in Oceania that he would fly out to in a week. Despite requiring emergency dental surgery the day before his first fight, Mokaev coolly collected his latest gold medal and stood proudly on the podium with a swollen face. It wouldn’t be farfetched to say the dentist inflicted more pain than his Bahraini opponents could over the two-day event.
His amateur career has been considerably longer than most fighters, but Mokaev sees it as part of his journey to join the very best. He’s a fighter who strives for perfection and hasn’t had an easy route to the upper echelons of MMA. The Dagestan-native grew up during a time of hostility, and his town of Buynaksk — with a population of just 60,000 — suffered from the growing violence throughout the Russian republics. He was only nine years old when hometown attacks killed 70 people.
“Life in Dagestan was very tough,” Mokaev explains. “There’s a lot of problems, especially if you’re religious. You could come out of your house and get robbed. That’s just how it works. There are no jobs, no human rights, and there’s no free speech.”
Combat sports are a huge part of the Dagestani culture, with a particular focus on wrestling. The Punisher could become the 20th current UFC athlete from the region with a population equal to Greater Manchester. But he admits he initially struggled to make his mark in an area labelled the most dangerous place in Europe.
“I did wrestling classes, and then I went to karate, but it was hard because guys were chosen because of the connections they have,” he says. “I had talent, I was always called hardworking, but I was never chosen because I didn’t have the right connections.”
His family moved to England three years after the devastating attacks, and surprisingly, it was here where Mokaev’s MMA journey began. Sent to a wrestling club by his school teacher, he soon won the British Championships and turned to jiu-jitsu looking for his next challenge. Mokaev had to wait six years to receive the legal documents that would allow him to leave the country, and given he couldn’t travel abroad for competitions, he eventually turned to MMA having run out of nearby opponents. However, he credits this period for his determination to be the very best.
“As soon as I received the documents, I was ready to go anywhere for any training camp or competition,” he says. “The wait felt so long. I had started from the very bottom and had to clean mats just for a gym membership. All these things made me humble and even more hungry [for success]. Now I have a car and nice things, and sometimes I’m not hungry. But then I calm myself down and remind myself why I started this. All the struggles make you tougher.”
Taking the amateur stage by storm, Mokaev dominated the North West region before finally being able to compete internationally. His fights took him to Bahrain and Italy to be crowned European and Junior World Champion, and attracted offers from Bellator, Brave CF and Cage Warriors.
They all wanted me, but some have too much of an ego. I would never go to Cage Warriors, never, ever,” admits Mokaev. He recalls a fight against Liam Gittins, who went on to become a Cage Warriors champion, that turned him against signing with the UK’s top promotion.
“I dominated this guy for five rounds at flyweight when I was 17 and he was 21,” he says. “So it shows what level Cage Warriors is at — if I beat this guy, he’d never place top three in the World Championships. And if he went 6–0 in Cage Warriors, who is he beating? I respect the guy, but Cage Warriors just isn’t for me if that’s their best. It’s not just about a good record for me. It’s about hard work.”
Now the pound-for-pound number one amateur fighter in the world, Mokaev has taken inspiration from fellow Eastern Europeans when it comes to longevity. He mentions two of boxing’s finest, Vasyl Lomachenko and Wladimir Klitschko, who had a combined 537 amateur bouts between them. “If you don’t do it as an amateur, how can you expect to do it as a professional?” he remarks.
Mokaev has hopes to join a crowded UFC bantamweight division that’s currently home to 75 fighters. He’d be five years younger than any other athlete, although it could place him in good stead to achieve his goal of becoming the youngest-ever UFC champion. A record set by a 23-year-old Jon Jones over a decade ago, Mokaev could have over 1,000 days to climb to the top following his debut. He’s already determined to face current champion Henry Cejudo, an Olympic gold medallist, who would prove a monumental test.
“Henry has to be ready for the next generation or retire before I get there,” he warns. But before then, he’s already eyed the likes of Sean O’Malley, TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt. He’d also like to fight Demetrius Johnson, who no longer competes in the UFC. “It could be a special fight. One champion versus another,” suggests Mokaev.
Following on from his recent phone call with Sean Shelby, the UFC’s main man for securing upcoming talent, primetime managers have inundated Mokaev with a host of offers. He’s yet to decide with whom his future lies. The representatives of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor, Jorge Masvidal and Israel Adesanya have all tried to sign the prospect ahead of a potential UFC arrival. The manager of fellow Russian bantamweight Petr Yan has also reached out, but Mokaev wants to “play games” before picking the right personnel. It’s no small decision.
Naturally, he’s drawn several comparisons to Nurmagomedov, who holds the longest active undefeated streak in MMA dating back to 2008. The duo grew up just 100 km away, possess very similar fighting styles, often share training partners, and their fathers have even become good friends. Nurmagomedov has previously trained and offered advice to Mokaev, and unfortunately for fight fans, the latter quickly ruled out ever fighting him in the future. He wants to pave his own way in the UFC.
“I take it as a compliment because Khabib is a good guy and sets an excellent example for the younger generation, but I never liked when people called me ‘Mini Khabib’ or ‘Khabib 2.0’,” he admits. “I want to create my own story. I want to be Muhammad Mokaev, not Khabib Nurmagomedov. He’s a great role model in his own right; he doesn’t promote alcohol, he stays humble, and he supports poor families and kids in Africa. He’s a great fighter, but I want to forge my own path.”
Mokaev is thankful that he can now do so alongside his father, as he faced a troublesome relationship with his family while competing in amateur bouts. “They weren’t always supportive,” he says. Mokaev pauses to sip his drink and gather his thoughts while reflecting on the troublesome times.
“My dad was all about education as he’s a construction engineer. He wanted me to go to college and university, so when I left college I didn’t speak to him for a bit. But the thing is, you have to decide your life for yourself. Your parents can tell you what to do, but it might not be what you want for the rest of your life. That’s why we didn’t speak for a bit. But when I won the World Championships, I came to my father and he was happy. I think that made him proud.”
Mokaev also wants to impress his father with his impact outside of the cage. Having benefited from the discipline of mixed martial arts, he believes others can learn essential life lessons from the sport. Admitting he was troublesome as a child, Mokaev regularly found himself in fights after moving to the UK and struggling with the initial language barriers.
“But since my debut, I’ve never fought outside of the gym,” he explains. “It’s definitely calmed me down. Why should I fight for free when I get paid for it? To be UFC champion, you need to fight in America. And if you commit a crime in the UK, you’re not going to get a visa to travel there. That’s what’s in my head. If I can’t get a visa to America, what’s the point in carrying on? And I want to keep my father proud. I don’t want him to see me on TV in a criminal way; I want him to see me in the Olympics and as UFC champion.”
As part of this ambition, Mokaev has previously called out the government and Prince Harry to do more to support MMA as a way to keep young people off the streets and out of trouble. “Who does knife crime?” Mokaev questions with a stern look. “It’s people who don’t have a good circle around them, and they don’t know what they’re doing. They can stab you and they don’t know why, but they don’t have a fear of what’s going to happen next.
“Maybe they get killed, maybe they get put in prison for the rest of their life, but they don’t care. They have no goals and nothing to look towards in the future. I think sport, especially martial arts, boxing and wrestling, is the best way to help these guys stop. In the gym, they teach you discipline. And when you’ve been taught discipline, you’d never fight somebody outside, let alone stab them.”
The British government currently has minimal impact on MMA. There’s no UK funding at an amateur or professional level, and fighters are required to pay for their travel, entry fees and even GB representative kit. Because of this, fighters rely on sponsorships and can face problems in competing at events to improve their reputation and attract bigger promotions.
“The government should support more as all of these sports aren’t helped enough,” suggests Mokaev. “Even if they paid some of the bills for the gyms so people can pay less for a membership. If someone has been involved in criminal activity before, give them free membership for the rest of their life. You would rather spend this money on their development as a good human rather than in prison where they could become a worse guy. Many people come out of prison and become drug dealers, which just costs the government more money.
“MMA is not the violent sport that some people believe. In the cage, there’s a referee to stop the fight. On the streets, there is nobody. People don’t consider this.”
Mokaev is now training full-time ahead of a potential transition into the UFC. He trains twice a day, in the morning and at night, and even has the occasional afternoon session. Fighters need a careful balance between technical and physical training, and Mokaev believes he’s found his perfect routine to improve his fitness for the cage.
“Running is easy. My coach sends me running for recovery to calm my heart rate down. I can run for one, two hours; it doesn’t matter. I used to run for three hours before I started to train smart. Running is all about mentality for me, but it’s important. If you can run for 30 minutes at a high tempo, and then you’re in the cage for nine minutes, or even 25 minutes for a UFC title, it’s not that big a challenge. But it means I can keep working on my groundwork.”
It’s those five five-minute rounds that are always in the thoughts of Mokaev while he pounds at the pads or grapples on the mats. He’s determined to earn his way there and doesn’t want to take any shortcuts. But he’s desperate to reach the very top. “I don’t just want to win fights; I want to make history.”