Shavkat Rakhmonov is a man of few words, which is okay, because his performances inside the Octagon speak volumes.
Since arriving in the UFC in the fall of 2020, the 28-year-old welterweight has earned four consecutive stoppage victories to advance his record to 16-0 overall, with each and every one of those wins coming inside the distance. Most recently, the talented “Nomad” collected a second-round submission win over divisional stalwart Neil Magny, signaling that he is a legitimate Top 10 talent and setting up his showdown with Geoff Neal this weekend at UFC 285.
“Nothing surprising,” said Rakhmonov when asked about his first four appearances inside the Octagon. “I'm training hard every day, and all these wins are simply results of my hard work.
“Neil was definitely one of the most serious opponents I've ever faced in my life,” he continued, reflecting on his summer victory over Magny. “He has been on the top of the division for a long time and fought many big-name opponents before. So the fight against him showed that I can easily compete with top fighters, (which is) something that I was confident about already before.”
Rise Of Shavkat Rakhmonov
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Rise Of Shavkat Rakhmonov
It’s something talent evaluators and those that pay close attention to the sport have been confident in, as well, but it’s one thing to believe a fighter is capable of having tremendous success, and something entirely different to witness them still performing beyond expectations.
Right out of the chute, Rakhmonov proved he was going to be someone to watch in the welterweight ranks, as he choked out veteran Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira in the first round of his promotional debut. But while the victories that followed over Michel Prazeres and Carlston Harris were impressive, storming through Magny in the spring was still a major statement.
“All my hard work resulted in me feeling comfortable in UFC,” said Rakhmonov when asked about getting acclimated to fighting at this level and thriving on the biggest stage in the sport. “I got used to it and feel that I'm the top fighter here.
“Every day I try to improve and add something to my arsenal, and I hope fans can see those improvements in my next fight.”
His outstanding start and overall dominance through the first 16 fights of his career have increased expectations for Rakhmonov, and that makes this weekend’s pairing with Neal even more fascinating.
The 32-year-old Neal began his UFC tenure with four consecutive victories, as well, establishing himself as one of the top up-and-coming names in the division before he spent a year on the sidelines and a portion of the summer in the hospital recovering from a near-death battle with sepsis.
When he returned, the Dana White’s Contender Series graduate dropped a five-round decision to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, halting his winning streak, and then followed it up with a three-round loss to Magny five months later.
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Following his second straight defeat, Neal acknowledged he needed to press pause and get right, ultimately returning in December to edge out Santiago Ponzinibbio on the scorecards to get things moving in the right direction again. Then last summer, “Hands of Steel” became the first fighter in the UFC to finish Vicente Luque, and the only man to stop the durable, dangerous Brazilian with strikes in his career.
It was a reminder to the masses that Neal was once the hot new name racing up the rankings, and Rakhmonov is aware that he has a dangerous task in front of him this weekend if he wants to continue his own ascent.
“Geoff is a really good striker; we'll see how he will approach the fight,” Rakhmonov said of his opponent this weekend. “I'm not gonna say much; the fight will show who's better.
“Winning at such a big event means a lot to me,” he added. “It will be an honor to defeat Geoff Neal in front of so many eyes.”
Although he doesn’t say much, there are little moments here and there when you can see and hear just how confident Rakhmonov is in his abilities, and that he believes he’s poised to continue moving forward until he reaches the top of the welterweight division.
Back in December, Rakhmonov was added as a playable character to the UFC 4 video game, making him the first fighter representing Kazakhstan to appear in the series. When it was announced, the surging welterweight posted a picture of his character and ratings — he’s four-and-a-half stars overall, and in each of the three main categories — on his Instagram and asked his followers what they thought of his rating.
I posed the same question back to him, and his response gave a glimpse into where he things this journey will lead.
“I think it's a good achievement to be first Kazakhstani athlete added to UFC game,” he began. “I'm pretty happy with my rating in the game, but I still believe my real skills in life are better than that.”
There aren’t many five-star fighters in the game, nor are there many in real life, but with the way he’s performed thus far, Rakhmonov certainly has the potential to be one of them, both in the game and inside the Octagon.
But, for now, he’s focused exclusively on this weekend’s matchup with Neal, knowing that a strong showing on Saturday will move him one step closer to reaching his ultimate goal of standing atop the welterweight division.
“Right now I'm focused on Geoff Neal, but after that, I’d like to get an opponent from the Top 5 to secure my spot as a title contender.
“I think there is not much left until a title shot.”