Preview: UFC on ESPN 26 ‘Makhachev vs. Moises’

Makhachev vs. Moises

By Tom Feely Jul 16, 2021

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to the APEX for an event with, all things considered, a surprisingly strong main card. Rising lightweight talent Islam Makhachev has earned his first UFC main event, and he's already in position to defend his standing against another top prospect in Thiago Moises. The co-main may be even more intriguing, however, as Miesha Tate makes a surprising return nearly five years after her sudden retirement against Marion Reneau. Jeremy Stephens figures to bring the action opposite Mateusz Gamrot, and the main card opener between Gabriel Benitez and Billy Quarantillo figures to be guaranteed entertainment. Add in Rodolfo Vieira's attempted rebound from an embarrassing loss to take on Dustin Stoltzfus, and this is a solid slate from top to bottom.


Islam Makhachev (19-1) vs. Thiago Moises (15-4)
Odds: Makhachev (-600), Moises (+450)

Khabib Nurmagomedov's unexpected retirement hurt whatever promotional aspirations the UFC had in Russia, but Makhachev is leading the charge to be the country's next champion. A longtime friend and training partner of Nurmagomedov, Makhachev came into the UFC with a rightful amount of hype: Makhachev's not the elite-level athlete that the former champion was, but he's a technically proficient fighter who can obviously rely on a crushing wrestling game whenever things start to turn south. After a debut win over Leo Kuntz in 2015, Makhachev got the usual UFC treatment of getting thrown immediately into the fire, as he suffered a shockingly quick knockout loss to Adriano Martins in his sophomore Octagon bout. But that defeat is now extremely far back in the rearview mirror, and it's taken what could be considered a frustratingly long time for Makhachev to get moved back up the lightweight ladder. Makhachev's now riding a seven-fight win streak, but the first half of those bouts -- at the very least -- mostly just saw him tread water in winnable fights that didn't do much to raise his profile; even the likely best win of the bunch against Arman Tsarukyan came as Tsarukyan was a top prospect making his UFC debut; 2020 saw the UFC finally give Makhachev a ranked opponent, but bouts against Alexander Hernandez and Rafael dos Anjos wound up falling through due to the pandemic and various injuries. Thus far, 2021 has seen Makhachev handle Drew Dober without much issue in a fight that served as a big step up in competition, but was also another stylistic layup. That leads to Makhachev's first main event here, which should at least help his profile going forward; though in terms of opposition, he's in an all-risk and no-reward position against surging talent in Moises.

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It's easy to forget that Moises is only 26 years old; he's spent nearly a decade as a professional fighter, and he's long had the type of well-rounded and unspectacular game that marks him as a much older fighter. After a quick win on the Brazilian edition of Dana White’s Contender Series back in 2018, Moises had a rough start to his UFC career; his bouts tended to hinge on having a wrestling or grappling advantage, which made for a tough debut against Beneil Dariush and rough going against the underrated Damir Ismagulov. But since the pandemic, Moises has managed to turn things around and is now riding three straight victories. Michael Johnson did Michael Johnson things, falling victim to a second-round ankle lock, and Moises showed off both effective wrestling and counter-striking over the course of his bouts with Bobby Green and Hernandez. Makhachev's obviously a tough ask, but this also serves as a huge opportunity for Moises to essentially steal the Russian's hype and mark himself as a potential future contender.

Moises could certainly win this, but it's basically up to him to create a finish since Makhachev should control the balance of the fight. Moises doesn't figure to be able to impose his wrestling, and while he's done a better job in recent fights of pressing the issue when it comes to his striking, his default state is still mostly based on backing up and trying to counter his opponents with power. That's just going to allow Makhachev to dictate the terms of everything here, and this could look something like Makhachev's win over Davi Ramos, at least early on; when faced with an opponent with grappling chops, Makhachev usually chooses to take his time and slowly break down his opponent on the feet before getting things going with his wrestling. Moises does have the skill to lend this fight some intrigue for as long as it lasts, however, if nothing else, he's the more proven five-round fighter thanks to his time as a regional champion, while Makhachev's cardio past 15 minutes is a complete question mark. Add in Moises' striking power and submission skill, and this figures to be a win where Makhachev constantly has to work rather than any sort of blowout. But everything to this point suggests Makhachev is capable of putting that successful effort in. The pick is Makhachev via clear decision.

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